Interview: Jeff Nichols, film director

Jeff Nichols’s new film has an end-of-times feel to it, but is really about the survival of marriage

SITTING in a beachside marquee in Cannes, smartly dressed in a blue suit and surprisingly sharp for someone who claims he hasn’t slept for 48 hours, Jeff Nichols doesn’t come over as someone who is eaten up with anxiety. Which may just be a testament to the cathartic and therapeutic power of art. Because, as he tells it, his apocalyptic second feature, Take Shelter, came out of a moment when he worried that the new life he was embarking on, as a newlywed and as a filmmaker, might come crashing down around him.

His self-financed 2007 debut feature, Shotgun Stories – about three brothers caught up in a deadly feud – had attracted enough critical kudos to convince the practical-minded Nichols, who is from Arkansas, that he might actually be able to make a career in movies. However, by the time he started writing Take Shelter, in 2008, America and the world had gone into a financial tailspin, and fear had begun to strangle his hopes.

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On a general level, there was the feeling that “between economic disaster, environmental disaster, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the whole ship was going down.” While on a more specific level, “I thought I was about to see it all evaporate because nobody was going to make movies any more because we were all going to have to farm our own potatoes in order to survive.”

Then there was the effect of his heightened profile in the movie world. “I was 24 when I was making Shotgun Stories and nobody was paying attention to me, so I could utterly fail and no-one would know. But now I felt the pressure to succeed in my career and my marriage. So there was this other anxiety, this personal anxiety, that attached to it.” He pauses a beat. “It all was just a giant ball of anxiety.”

Out of this came the story of Curtis, a married Ordinary Joe played brilliantly by Michael Shannon, who is trapped in his own private hell of apocalyptic visions. Has he inherited his mother’s mental illness, or is the end really nigh?

It doesn’t matter, says Nichols. The film’s real subject isn’t insanity or prophecy, but marriage and the things that can tear it apart. “I was in my first year of marriage when I was writing Take Shelter, and I was just thinking, ‘I have just given these vows to this person who I love, and who I still love, very, very much: how do these things fall apart? Why do more marriages fail than work? What does it take to make something like this work?’ The best answer I could come up with was communication, or lack of communication.”

So while the film’s haunting images of terrifying tornados and flocks of dead birds falling from the sky give Take Shelter an end-of-times feel in tune with the zeitgeist, ultimately what it’s really about, says Nichols, is “how having fears that you don’t share with your spouse can eat out the foundation of your marriage.”

He laughs. “I would argue that had Curtis said from the beginning something like, ‘Honey, I’m having these dreams about this storm. I’m terrified I might be going insane. Can we talk about this?’ then we could have done with this movie in 20 minutes. Which maybe some people would prefer.”

Part of the pleasure of Take Shelter is watching Shannon – one of modern cinema’s best portrayers of the unhinged – trying to keep himself together. Nichols worked with him on Shotgun Stories, writing the part of Son Hayes for him. This time Nichols based his character on himself, informed by how he thought he might respond in Curtis’s position.

“I don’t have mental illness in my family but I’m a very pragmatic guy and I wanted to write a very pragmatic character. So he methodically starts to address his problems. He goes to a counsellor, he does his research, and he really tries to find a linear path through a non-linear problem. And that’s me. That’s what film-making is.”

Like the character, Nichols also seems pretty down-to-earth. Not that this is how all critics have responded to Shannon’s performance.

Although he’s “playing a normal man dealing with extraordinary things”, people, laughs Nichols, “then write how intense Mike Shannon is and how crazy he is. We both sat there and went, ‘Shit, we were just trying to have Mike act normal.’ But I suppose Mike is not a normal guy. Mike doesn’t do normal. And when he does, I find it fascinating, because there’s just always something going on in his face.”

Shannon’s mesmerising performance has set the Twitterverse alight with calls for him to be nominated for an Oscar, while Take Shelter – a modest project that makes a big impact on viewers – could itself be in the running for a nod. In fact, interest in the project was intense from the start. And despite Nichols’s fears about his future, the film was picked up by Sony Picture Classics in America before even screening at Sundance earlier this year, and Cannes honoured it with two awards.

Nichols is now hard at work on his third feature, Mud, starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey, with Shannon, who is busy filming his role as General Zod in Man of Steel, in a small supporting role. Set along the Mississippi River, “it’s kind of like if Sam Peckinpah directed a short story by Mark Twain,” he has said.

Personally, I can’t wait.

• Take Shelter is released 25 November