Jeff Nichols Reflects on ‘Take Shelter’

Take Shelter
By  · Published on December 11th, 2015

With only three feature films under his belt, writer-director Jeff Nichols has already established himself as a storyteller with an identifiable voice. The filmmaker behind Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud has grown with each film, exploring repressed emotions, the past colliding with the present, and fatherhood. Next year he’ll once again depict fatherhood, in his sci-fi drama, Midnight Special.

“Our next one, Midnight Special, is again revisiting that theme [of living in an out of control world],” Michael Shannon told us a few months back. “It’s a big thing becoming a father, and it’s beautiful to see a filmmaker readily exploring that, and not in a cutesy way like, ‘Gee, isn’t it great being a dad?’ He explores it in a real lyrical and spiritual way.”

Shannon played the father, Curtis, in Take Shelter, in which the pressures and fear of fatherhood are both emotional and haunting. The character has visions of a storm coming, and while everyone around him assumes he’s crazy, his family stands by him. Take Shelter is both bleak and optimistic, and we were lucky enough to revisit the film with director Jeff Nichols.

Here’s what he had to say:

I imagine you were quite satisfied with the film’s response.

Absolutely. You make these things and never truly know how they’re going to do. Maybe someone does, but I don’t do test screenings and test audiences and all that stuff. You just to make them as personal as you can, and make them resonate with you as much as you can. Hopefully somebody else will agree with you or see something you saw in it. If you’re lucky enough to have that happen, then something else happens, which is: people see even more in it [Laughs]. They bring their point-of-view to it, so it kind of multiples the effect of it. There’s your intention, but then they’re bringing some of their own.

Why don’t you do test screenings?

These are very small films I’ve been making. They’re truly independent films, for whatever the term means now. There’s no one around forcing me to get test results back from a screening with an audience. I usually pick, like, 15 people ‐ and hopefully some are friends, some are random. I try not to choose filmmakers, because they just judge films differently. That’s not as valuable to me. When you’re in the right stage of the edit, what I’m really looking for is clarity. Your movie is going to be what your movie is going to be. You can’t make up a totally different movie out of it, like, following a totally different character around. Sometimes you get comments like that, but you have to disregard them.

What you’re really looking for is: Does this make sense? Does this character’s action seem truncated or supported? To be specific about Take Shelter, does he start building the shelter too soon? I tried really hard to make a movie about a normal guy, who starts having this extreme pressure applied to him, and he reacts to it. I didn’t want to make a movie about a guy who starts off crazy. I remember in the script stage thinking, Have I given him enough reason to go in his backyard and think about this shelter? It’s funny, actually, how much you can getaway with. Audiences don’t need too much, but I do. I arguably give too much. That’s the kind of thing I’m looking for in a test screening.

It’s all about clarity ‐ for story points, character, and lots of things. People are usually pretty good about that. You get that when you ask people questions, and you usually don’t get that when you ask people whether they liked the movie. It takes people being alone in front of the computer at three in the morning to write opinions about movies, apparently.

[Laughs] Exactly how I do it.

[Laughs] Yeah and eating jello, thinking, I could do this film better!

[Laughs] I’m guessing you’re not a fan of the Internet?

[Laughs] No. Well, I’ve been, for the most part, really well reviewed by it. That’s a scary thing, because you can’t enjoy the good reviews too much, otherwise the bad reviews get taken too badly. It’s weird seeing people take something of yours and watch it ‐ and this has been mine since the idea sparked, I wrote it, and cut it together ‐ and it becomes theirs. It’s an interesting experience, where people take ownership of it, in their love or hate for it. They have every right to build it up however much they want. It’s weird.

Right. It’s like, Ridley Scott always said Deckard’s a replicant, but just because he said that doesn’t mean you have to look at it that way.

Exactly! I have the same feeling about the ending of Take Shelter. Why does anyone give a shit what I think? It doesn’t matter. If I really wanted it to be clear I would’ve made it specific. At least give me that much credit ‐ to know I could tell you specifically. I chose not to, because I wanted to activate your mind for two seconds.

You question how literal what you’re seeing is in the final shot, but it’s quite clear that the family has come together by the end.

Absolutely. If you were a test audience, I would ask you about that. I wouldn’t ask you, “Do you think the end of the world is happening?” What I would ask is: Do you think they’re together at the end? Do you think they’re seeing the same thing? Whether or not that’s real, I don’t care about that. That’s the fun part. The part I needed to make sure hit was when these two people look at each other is ‐ you’re right there with them. There’s a shared understanding or a reaffirmation of commitment.

Have you heard a lot of interpretations regarding the ending?

There’s only a few ways to go with it, so nothing too outside of the realm of possibility. All you have is: it’s real, he’s crazy, she’s crazy, or a shared psychosis. That’s about it. There’s not too many other ways to run with it. Somebody told me it’s an allegory for Jesus, but I feel like everything is an allegory for Jesus. I don’t know. That one missed me.

What about Noah?

Yeah, Noah is the idea. If you look at Curtis as a contemporary Noah, it’s actually pretty dark. It’s a dark interpretation of Noah, because he’s not ringing a bell, trying to warn people. There’s actually a deleted scene ‐ which, to this day, I wish was still in the film, but I took it out for lots of reasons ‐ where he’s back at the counselor, and she asks, “If you really believe this storm is coming, why don’t you try to warn people?” He says, “Well, you know, I’ll take care of my family, but beyond that, they’ll just have to take it up with someone else.” It gets in to this brief conversation about God.

A modern day Noah might not even try. Other than saving the ones he really cares about, he’s not trying to get his neighbors on the boat, much less animals on the boat, two-by-two. Curtis is just trying to protect his family, and if you look at it that way, it’s a selfish endeavor. [Laughs] I don’t really look at it that way, but you could.

[Laughs] Even though he’s not religious, he’s surrounded by Churchgoers, and yet nobody believes him.

Right, right. Isn’t that always the case, though? It’s like, yeah, there’s a reason why Jim Jones isn’t Jesus. I got this in Shotgun Stories, as well, a little bit about the hypocrisy of people. In that film, the father who passes away had this second part to his life, where he sobered up, cleaned up, became a religious man, and loved by his community and new family, but he never took care of this this past part of his life. You know, you hear this pastor saying these nice things about this man who, from the main brothers’ perspective, just all sounds hypocritical. It just seems appropriate.

Why did you cut the scene with Curtis saying he’s only interested in saving his family?

It was similar to something happen that happened in Shotgun Stories, except it happened in the script phase. There’s this whole question of how Michael Shannon’s character got shot, and in earlier drafts, I had it explained ‐ and it was always terrible. You felt like you were reading this thing that tracks along honestly and truthfully, but then you get to this one scene, where you go, “Why is this guy saying this right now? Why is he explaining it? This doesn’t make sense.” It just sounded like exposition and movie-talk. When I took it out, the story and the movie got more interesting. It was a lesson I tried to learn, which is: sometimes it’s just better to leave things to the audience.

The scene in Take Shelter — and it was three-quarters of the way into a movie that, arguably, needed to speedup, anyway ‐ was a recap with Curtis, like, “For those of you who haven’t been watching, this is exactly how I feel about things.” The moment the editor and I took it out we took the answers out of Curtis’ mouth and put the answers into peoples’ minds. They started thinking more about his relationship with what’s happening and how Curtis feels.

The counselor brings up the disconnect between him coming to see her and him taking these proactive measures to try and diagnose himself and executing this storm shelter ‐ and that’s a very split mind at work. How can you invest so much into that and invest so much into this? The two don’t matchup. That’s what that scene gets at.

It’s a really big question in the movie: Where is this guy going to land? Is the needle going to fall this way or that way? I thought, in the script stage, it was important to hear him address that. What I found was more interesting, in editing, was to leave it as a question mark, all the way throughout the movie.

When you shot that scene, did it feel pivotal?

Oh yeah. I write these very stoic, blue-collar men, and they don’t talk or share their feelings. They’re not good at it. I was telling Mike I was very excited about that scene. It’s a great scene, and Mike is amazing in it. I was very excited about it, because there’s a reason in the film to press one of my stoic characters to speak about their personal philosophies. The character has a personal philosophy you hope gets revealed throughout the film, but when it’s annunciated and said out loud, it sounds really cool. We were definitely on set saying, “This is going to be one of the best things in the film.” We went for weeks going, “You can’t take that out,” but finally we cut from him leaving his boss’ office to the storm shelter lowering in the ground ‐ and it was good [Laughs]. It just shot the movie forward, in a time when we really needed to. The pros outweighed the cons.

Does writing such internal characters make the writing process more difficult?

I really enjoy it. I think if I’m good at anything, I’m good at setting up this rule for myself: people can’t say what they wouldn’t say. They can’t explain things, so don’t write dialogue to explain things. Write dialogue that supports the situation and the characters, as you find them. If two guys are sitting and talking, if you’re going to have them talk about the weather, have them talk about the weather, not how mean their father was to them when they were kids. I gotta build this construct of these rules, and it’s actually really fun. It’s a checks and balances for yourself as a writer, like, “Oh, is that fair play?”

And you’ll never let yourself cheat there?

[Laughs] Well… it is what it is, and that’s the cool thing ‐ it’s different in any instance. Like, that deleted scene in Take Shelter, there was a reason for it. The guy is at a counselor, to express himself, so that’s why it was fair game. The movie is about the fact he won’t say it to his wife. It all just depends on the situation. As a writer, you let what you write dictate your dialogue. I find it good.

One of the few scenes Curtis lets it all out is when he freaks out in front of everyone. Was that a tough scene to write?

You know, that one was pretty effortless, from a writing standpoint, at least. The whole movie was building to it. You want this guy to blow off some steam. Luckily, it happens. It’s interesting how it came together in the edit, because that was all about the daughter watching her father. When I wrote it, that’s how I felt. Curtis doesn’t know it, but that moment at the end where he turns, stops and looks at his family for the first time, he feels regret and all these things for blowing up in front of his wife and kid. That was just a real tangible moment I could keep in my mind, and it wasn’t hard to write.

It was fun to write. Well, I don’t know about fun, but it was satisfying to write. Then you’re on set with Michael Shannon, and it was extremely satisfying to see him execute it. We just kind of sat back and watched him go. In the editing room, the discovery was what his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), was doing. We tried a couple of edits where you would cut to his wife watching him, and it never quite had the impact of when you saved her for the end of the scene. You don’t know what she’s doing or feeling until the end, and you kind of just want the camera to stay on Mike, anyway, in this scene. Then you get this shot revealing what she’s been doing this whole scene, and then you get this moment of support.

The scene that was much harder to write was the final scene down in the shelter. I knew what I wanted to happen. I remember I wrote around it for a while, just left it off and even wrote the ending first. I just remember thinking, Oh, I’m gonna have to write this one of these days… This is going to sound cheesy, but I don’t write to music because it influences too much; it influences the writing maybe when it shouldn’t. Sometimes you’ll write while listening to a piece of music and think it’s great, but then you’ll go back and read it, without the music and go, “This sucks.”

For this scene, I mad an exception to the rule and put some headphones on. I put on the main theme of The Thin Red Line soundtrack and just spit that scene out. It was literally almost a fever thing, typing and typing and typing. I tried not to look at it again. I’m sure it wasn’t that dramatic, but that’s how it felt. It was almost like childbirth or something ‐ and not that I would know anything about that. Well, it was kind of like when Will Ferrell debates in Old School. That’s what it felt like.

[Laughs] I read you met with Terrence Malick. Did you mention that to him?

Oh no. No, no, no. In fact, the meeting was very brief. We’re talking, like, 10 minutes. I brought a copy of Shotgun Stories to give him, and for total selfish reasons. I mean, who doesn’t want their idol to watch their film? He’s such a gentle, nice man. He turned over the DVD and went, “Oh, look at this. This looks very interesting,” and that’s when I realized what they wrote on the back of the DVD. I think the line was: “in the vein of Terrence Malick.” I just thought, “I am a loser… I am a loser.” It was pretty brief.

[Laughs] What were some other discoveries you made on Take Shelter?

At each phase you want the movie to be more than what you thought it could be. It’s so refreshing when you find that, and that’s what’s amazing about working with people like Mike and Jessica, because that’s what they do for you. They always give you more than what you wrote. That’s not to say they improv’d or ad-libbed, because we don’t do that too much on my stuff, but it’s in the pauses, the exchanges, and everything else. You just find stuff and go, “That’s an amazing look.” Great actors give you gifts like that.

Making movies is really hard. It’s a very complex process, with many, many variables. They’re all practical, so it’s not like voodoo where magic happens. You wake up in the morning and go, “Where is the sun at? Oh, is it raining? Okay. Well, this scene doesn’t take place in the rain.” You’re constantly dealing with very practical, real world situations, while trying to bring something to life you’ve been working on for years. You’re also trying to bring it to life through different people: your DP, gaffer, sound guy, actors, the production designer, and all these people. There are a million variables.

Inevitably, you’re going to get stuff back that doesn’t play the way you wrote it. You have to take it for what it is and see what it is, and you have to create from there. It’s real cool, because some of the stuff you execute is spot on. The end scene in Take Shelter, for whatever it’s worth, was identical to how I had it in my head, down to the sliding glass doors behind her head. It rarely works out that way. What’s interesting is, you take a scene like that that was executed how I had it in my head, and then you combine it with the dog attack scene… from a director’s standpoint, it was kind of poorly-executed on my part. I think it’s a really effective scene now, but we had to take what was there and massage it. We worked on that a lot, from sound design to music to effects to everything else. If you looked at it as just a directing example, I probably would’ve gotten a D- on the day.

Midnight Special opens in theaters March 18th, 2016.

Related Topics: ,

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.