Only two movies out of the gate, Jeff Nichols is making his mark.
The 32-year-old Little Rock native slayed festival goers with critically acclaimed his 2007 domestic drama “Shotgun Stories” and reteamed with that film’s star, Michael Shannon, to deliver “Take Shelter,” an apocalyptic thriller that premiered at Sundance 2011, landed a home at Sony Pictures Classics and won the Critics Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. [It comes out this Friday, September 30 in limited release.]
His next film, western coming-of-age tale “Mud,” will be his biggest yet. Now in production, it stars Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon.
We caught up with Nichols to discuss the genesis of “Take Shelter” and what we can expect from “Mud.”
Two films that played Cannes this year, “Take Shelter” and Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia,” both deal with how humans react to an end-of-world scenario. Both you and Lars chose to approach the potentially epic stories at a micro level. Am I right in guessing this was a personal film for you, despite what transpires?
Yeah, they all are. You’re dealing with issues that are in your everyday life. That’s what I want to write about. It’s the only way I know to write something that has a remote chance of connecting to the audience on an emotional level. I just have to feel it.
I learned it on my first film, which is this movie about revenge and the concept of one of my brothers getting hurt. It was such a palpable thing for me that I just clung to it through the writing. I think it translated and I took that into “Take Shelter.” There was this fear of loss and this anxiety of the world around me not hanging together. It was something I could wake up to, tasting in the morning. I think it’s a really powerful tool to have something that clear, a feeling that clear.
Where did that feeling stem from, for you?
I was moving from my 20s into my 30s. I had just gotten married and my first film had done all right. I finally had something to lose. The anxiety grew out of that. Not to mention, shit was going crazy: Bush was in the White House, the economy was collapsing, there were wars everywhere, towns were getting destroyed by storms. It was just like, what’s going on? It felt like the world at large was losing its grasp of keeping everything together. That was just in the air. It sill is.
Did you have Michael Shannon in mind for the lead [Curtis], given that you two worked together on “Shotgun Stories”?
I didn’t, actually. This was a really personal character for me. Even those these themes I talk about in “Shotgun Stories” were really personal, the characters weren’t me. My family’s nothing like that. For this, I imagined myself as Curtis. In this film, the beginning of the problem is the beginning of the film. There’s family history there that starts to weave its way in.
You could really take this journey from the get-go with Curtis. Really pragmatic things, like the way he breaks down a budget to build down a storm shelter, it’s the way I approach problems. So I hadn’t imagined Michael in it, but when the film started to become a reality it was like, well, Michael is the best actor in the world and I have his phone number. I should call him.
I talked to him on the phone once when I was thinking about him for the role. He was talking to his daughter who’s really young. Just the sound of his voice changed and it was kind of fascinating. I knew if I could get that on screen, it wouldn’t be like anything anybody’s seen of Michael before.
The film works so well because of the dynamic between him and Jessica Chastain who plays his supportive wife. How did you find her?
I didn’t know who she was. My executive producer Sarah Green works for [Terrence] Malick and she just told me she was great. Before I flew out to LA to meet her, Sarah arranged a meeting with Malick, who I had never met before. We had about a 10-minute meeting. He had nothing but amazing things to say about her.
So after hearing that from him, an idol of mine, I was like, all right, I don’t even have to meet her. If she says yes, let’s go! But then I flew out to LA and met her and she was wonderful. She was exactly as Malick said: She’s natural in every instance and also so beautiful, but she can fit into a real world. That’s what so hard with really pretty actresses. Jessica is able to move between those worlds. It’s really an exception.
You see her in Vogue and she’s a stone-cold movie star. I saw her in Cannes and I was like, wow. But then you put her in Ohio and she fits great. She reminded me of those housewives from great 1980s films that I love like “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” She felt like that to me.
Speaking of Malick, you’ve been compared in the press to the director…
Yeah [laughs]. People have said it.
Would you say he’s a big influence in your work?
A lot by “Badlands” for sure. It’s funny, the comparisons to Malick are a little strange. Our approaches are totally different. I don’t use any voiceover, my films are heavily scripted. He’s really broken through to a new style of filmmaking that’s uniquely his. That being said, I thought a lot about it in Cannes because that’s where the comparisons started to come up. If I were to even venture a guess, it would be that we both think a lot about nature, not to mention honesty. I don’t know Malick at all, but just judging him from his films, nature is intertwined with everything that he does. I can get on board with that, especially with this film. Environment, nature… they are the religion.
Another director indebted to nature (well, in his earlier work) is David Gordon Green (“All the Real Girls”), who you went to school with. What do you make of the success story coming out of the North Carolina School of the Arts where you two graduated from, along with Aaron Katz (“Cold Weather”)?
To each individual’s credit, it was just a unique time when a lot of smart people showed up at the same place at the same time. It doesn’t happen that often. I think a lot of that credit needs to be given to David. He’s the most giving filmmaker I know. A lot of independent filmmakers are really catty. If you’re David’s friend and he likes you, then he wants to see you succeed. He’s extremely generous in that regard. I have to think to that David was the first one to kick down that door and he kicked it down and then held it open for all of us to walk in. If you take him out of that equation, you have to wonder. A lot of it’s about, call this guy, don’t call this guy.
In addition, he showed us that it’s all possible. It’s a heady thing to wrap your mind around.
Have you been surprised by his career trajectory following “Pineapple Express,” going on to “Your Highness” and the upcoming comedy “The Sitter”?
No. He was always funny and weird. And I think “George Washington” is hilarious in parts. David moving into that didn’t surprise me at all. His success in it didn’t surprise me. What’s going to be more interesting is what’s coming from David. More is coming and it’s going to be really interesting when he starts making dramas again. It’s going to be exciting to see.
What can you tell me about your next “Mud”?
We start shooting in two weeks. I’m in the thick of it. “Mud” is the story I wanted to tell for the last decade. I started developing it in school. “Shotgun Stories” and “Take Shelter”… I was willing to make those with no money and no time. With “Mud,” I just wanted to protect it until I could have the resources. It’s a real tricky movie. We got water, we got kids, we got animals, we got gun fights, we got dirt bike scenes. It’s not the one where you can say, “All right, we didn’t get $5 million to make it, let’s do it for $650,000.” You just couldn’t do it that way. In that regard, it’s the culmination of everything I’ve been working towards.
I don’t know if this bodes well for it or not, but it’s just the one that I really want to see get made. I’m in love with this idea and I’m really nervous. I really want to get it right.
About budgets, I know you’re working with your largest yet on “Mud,” but I was blown away when I learned how little it took you to make “Take Shelter.” How did you manage to pull off the look of the film? The special effects are seamless.
Well, the budget doesn’t really reflect the cost and no independent film really does, because you got people working just as hard as the people getting paid work. The real cost is always more than just the money you shell out.
The effects house came on board before any financiers and it was wholehearted charity. I still to this day don’t really know why. They love the film and they’re excited by it. I had to get that component in place because I didn’t know how to do that. I knew how to make a cheap film. With them in place, the rest was like “Shotgun Stories.”
Since college I’ve been building this team. David said it out of the gate with “George Washington”: “Independent film shouldn’t be an excuse to make shitty-looking films.” I love “Lawrence of Arabia,” big sweeping films. I want my films to feel that way, to be on a big canvas.
So for starters, I always shoot on film and I always shoot on 2:35 aspect ratio. It’s just when you’re flipping through the TV at night and you come across a John Carpenter film in 2:35, you feel like you’re watching a movie.
I think it’s all about the approach. The approach from the beginning is we’re trying to make an epic film. The fact that we have limited resources, that shouldn’t change the approach.