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Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | “Take Shelter” Director Jeff Nichols

Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "Take Shelter" Director Jeff Nichols

Following his acclaimed debut, “Shotgun Stories,” writer/director Jeff Nichols reteams with actor Michael Shannon to create a haunting tale that will creep under your skin and expose your darkest fears.

Curtis LaForche lives in a small town in Ohio with his wife, Samantha, and daughter, Hannah, a six-year-old deaf girl. When Curtis begins to have terrifying dreams, he keeps the visions to himself, channeling his anxiety into obsessively building a storm shelter in his backyard. His seemingly inexplicable behavior concerns and confounds those closest to him, but the resulting strain on his marriage and tension within his community can’t compare with Curtis’s privately held fear of what his dreams may truly signify.

“Take Shelter” features fully realized characters crumbling under the weight of real-life problems. Using tone and atmosphere to chilling effect, Nichols crafts a powerful psychological thriller that is a disturbing tale for our times. [Description of the Sundance Institute]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

“Take Shelter”
U.S. Dramatic Competition
Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenwriter: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Michael Shannon, Jessica Chastain, Shea Whigham, Katy Mixon, Kathy Baker
Executive Producer: Sarah Green, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Greg Strause, Colin Strause, Richard Rothfeld, Chris Perot, Christos Konstantakopoulos
Producer: Tyler Davidson, Sophia Lin
Cinematographer: Adam Stone
Editor: Parke Gregg
Production Designer: Chad Keith

Responses courtesy of “Take Shelter” director Jeff Nichols.

A Little Rock start.

Breckenridge Village.  This was, and still is, the movie theater near my home in Little Rock.  It was the place I learned to love movies.

Something to lose

I had the image of a man standing over an old storm shelter in his backyard.  That, combined with a free-floating anxiety that the world was heading for a rough patch, was the creative impulse to begin fleshing out this story.  However, it wasn’t until I began writing the script that I realized I wasn’t simply making a film about anxiety, but I was actually making a film about marriage and commitment.  I realized anxiety is born out of having something to lose.

A new visual style

My first film, “Shotgun Stories,” was very much about locked off shots.  The tension was derived from a certain stillness.  This film is about a storm rolling in.  As a result, the shots are all about a gradual, unstoppable force slowly pressing in on our main character.

Time constraints

“Take Shelter” deals with storms.  We shot in Northern Ohio, which I had zero experience with.  The thing I learned to love was lake effect weather.  We shot during the summer and storms would roll in a few times a day.  They’d last about thirty minutes and be gone.  It made for wonderful cloud patterns and wind you could almost cue on action.

I think films work best when they make some kind of emotional connection with the audience.  You can really tell when a film reaches out and causes you to have an emotional response.  My biggest hope is that the film does this for people.

“Encounters,” “Safe” and “Shining”

There were three films that we continually referred to while making “Take Shelter.”  The first was “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” I love the look and feel of this film, and the Dreyfuss character’s unraveling modulates perfectly.  My production designer even tried to match our character’s bedroom set to what was seen in the Dreyfuss home.  Spielberg really captures middle class America well, and he manages to keep this portrayal truthful while also making it interesting. 

The second film we spoke about was “Safe.”  It writes the book on tension wrought through restraint.  Haynes also has an interesting editing structure for this film.  It seems like scenes always begin in close up and finish in wide shots.  It highlights environment and space, but it also adds an odd tension to things; not knowing exactly where you are until the scene has played out is unsettling. 

The third film, and probably the one that had the biggest impact on my shot conception, was “The Shining.”  That film is about a supernatural force that is relentlessly closing in on the main character.  As a result, the camera is always slowly pushing in.  It’s like the walls are closing in.  I unabashedly lifted this idea.  It’s a great example of camera movement supporting character.

A future on the Mississippi River

I’ve written a script called MUD, which I plan to shoot next year with Sarah Green and Aaron Ryder producing.  It takes place on the Mississippi River.

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