In a year in which the threat of apocalypse hangs over movies as disparate as Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" and Jon Shenk's documentary "The Island President," Jeff Nichols' "Take Shelter" presents the indie face of impending doom. A quiet, unsettling drama about a family man who isn't sure if the vivid apocalyptic dreams he's having are premonitions of catastrophe or signs of insanity, the Sony Pictures Classics release is both haunting and haunted, with a monumental and anguished performance by Michael Shannon at its center.
"Take Shelter," which opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles, won both the Grand Jury Prize at January's Sundance Film Festival and the Critics Week Grand Prize at Cannes. Shannon co-stars with Jessica Chastain, and he's nearly as ubiquitous as she is these days.
In addition to a sizeable role in the HBO series "Boardwalk Empire," which just launched its second season, the 37-year-old, stage-trained actor has four more movies heading for release, and is currently playing General Zod in Zack Snyder's Superman reboot, "Man of Steel."
When I talked to Jessica Chastain a couple of months ago, she said you had no time and no money to make "Take Shelter."
Yeah. It was a speeding bullet. We had four weeks to shoot the film. The good thing is that Jeff is incredibly prepared. When he writes the script, he is very strenuous and very diligent in making sure that he's telling the story he wants to tell in the way he wants to tell it. And as he's writing, he's visualizing how he wants to shoot it. So by the time he shows up on set he doesn't need a lot of time to monkey around.
But is there time if you want to talk about doing something differently?
Yeah. I mean, we're pretty simpatico most of the time. It was actually more interesting to see him work with Jessica. She's very intelligent, and every day, every scene we did, she would have a question that would make Jeff pause and consider something from a new angle. I think it was very healthy for Jeff to have Jessica in this movie.
It's very hard to not have panic set in on low-budget film sets. It's usually a panicked scenario – people are running around, and you don’t have time for the scene you're shooting, let alone the scene you're supposed to shoot next. But Jeff is very good at not freaking out. And he'll extricate us from that energy and go sit somewhere quiet for 10 minutes and go sort things out.
Is the movie we see onscreen close to what you read in the script?
Yes. It's very, very, very close. It's not 100 percent, and there's one scene that Jeff and I quibbled about a little bit. It's not in the movie, but I made him promise to put it on the DVD. The first therapist that I go to see, played by Lisa Gay Hamilton, I have a second meeting with her where I actually go into pretty elaborate detail about my philosophy and my spirituality.
I thought it was a beautifully written scene, but Jeff thought it was too revealing. He will go to his grave before he'll explain anything to anybody.
As an actor, do you need to have your own explanation for what the character is doing?
I felt like I had that. When I read it, I understood it right away. This is maybe because I have a theater background, but to me the film is very poetic. It's not necessarily a mystery about "Is Curtis sane or insane?" or "Is it really happening or not happening?"
For me, his dreams are a metaphor for something that I feel like anybody can relate to. There can't be a lot of people on planet Earth right now who feel like things are going great. Everybody is feeling powerless, and feeling like everything's so fragile that it could all fall apart at any second. How do you deal with that feeling?
And to me, this film is a poem about that. I wasn’t sitting around when we were shooting wondering if there was really a storm coming. I was thinking, how do I still take care of my family knowing that the world is such an incredibly fragile, dangerous place?
The other side of that question, though, is that the character is also wondering is the real danger to his family is coming from the outside world, or from inside himself.
Right. Right. You know, I just started a family myself recently, I had a daughter. And you just don’t want to damage that. The child comes out and it's perfect. And you feel like, no matter what I do, I'm going to screw this up. I can read ten books and do yoga every morning, but I'm still going to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing.
That's the process of life: we all come out and we endure so much, and then it's over. And as a parent, you want to protect your child from that as long as humanly possible. But you also have your own issues, and sometimes that's the most frightening part.
Without giving away the ending, viewers do get some sort of answer in terms of whether things are real or in Curtis's imagination. Was it important to you to have some kind of answer, or was that irrelevant?
You know, the movie could end a number of different ways. And in a way, there are a couple of false endings in the movie. But the way the movie ends is very important to Jeff. This is what I'll say: when you talk to Jeff, he'll say that the entire movie is about the look between Curtis and Samantha [Chastain] at the end of the movie. It all boils down to that.
And without revealing too much, I think his hope is that someone watching the movie would understand that. Not everybody's going to. I've already heard a lot of people who are more focused on asking, "Is that real?" And to him, that doesn't even matter. What's important is the relationship.
That's a real challenge for an actor: "My entire movie boils down to how the two of you are going to look at each other right now. Action!"
[laughs] Shooting that scene was very intense, I'm not going to lie. Jessica was actually the one who was under a lot more pressure than I was, because Jeff told her that on the first day, when they were talking about her doing the movie.
I'll give you a little dirt: We shot my coverage in the morning on the beach, we had lunch, and I went up to Jeff at lunch and said, "Jeff, I didn't get it. You gotta let me do it again." He said, "What are you talking about, Mike?" I said, "It wasn't good enough. It just wasn’t good enough. The sun was in my eyes, it was bugging me. Please, please let me go back and do it again." He said, "Well, we've got all this other stuff to do…" I said, "Just give me two takes, man, I promise I'll get it right."
So after lunch we went back and did it again. To this day he still hasn’t told me which one he used, whether he used the one in the morning or after lunch.
What do you think when you watch it? Did he use one of the takes from after lunch?
I don’t know. The funny thing is, most actors are like, "I can't watch myself, it's too freaky, I get uncomfortable." But as soon as its wrapped and it's in Jeff's hands, I'm totally at peace with it. When I watch it, it's not about me.
At the end of the day, film is motion pictures. It's 45 percent cinematography, 45 percent editing and 10 percent everything else. That's the way I look at it. It's just funny to me that so much focus is put on acting.
But you must get satisfaction from the craft.
Oh, I do. I love being on the set. I love the collaboration. When it's going well, there's nothing more beautiful than seeing this group of people come together. It's like a war without the violence. It's a campaign: You have your sergeant, and your lieutenant and your grunts, and everybody's unified, and everybody knows how to do something different. There's something very beautiful about it to me.
Everybody talks about how many movies Jessica has coming out this year – but you’ve got a crowded slate, too.
Well, this week is pretty crazy. I had "Machine Gun Preacher," "Boardwalk Empire" and "Take Shelter" in a week. That's pretty nice.
Did your Supporting Actor nomination for "Revolutionary Road" have a big impact on your career?
You know, I would have to say it did. Although it was very subtle. It wasn’t anything I was conscious of at the time, but I haven't stopped working since then.
Right when it happened, I had already signed on to "Boardwalk" (right), so that was seven months taken care of right off the bat. And I went straight from "Boardwalk" to "Take Shelter," straight from "Take Shelter" to "Machine Gun Preacher," straight from there to "Premium Rush." I did this little movie called "Return" that was at Toronto. Did a couple of days on [Terrence] Malick's firm, the Ben Affleck thing he's doing. Did a play Off Broadway in New York. Went back to "Boardwalk."
And now you've got a Superman movie, "Man of Steel," which caused this interview to be rescheduled a couple of times.
Yeah, yeah. My schedule's been crazy. It's a huge movie, and there's a lot of preparation to do. We're struggling to find time to prepare for this ginormous sequence. When we're actually shooting it, everybody really needs to know what they're doing, or else it'll take forever. So there's been some back and forth about that.
So yeah, it's kind of a crazy time.