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Q&A with Jeff Nichols

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Jeff Nichols
  • Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols is on a roll, albeit one that's taken a while to gain momentum. The Little Rock native spent much of his 20s working to produce his debut feature film, "Shotgun Stories." Upon release in 2007, it did well on the festival circuit, drew praise from Roger Ebert and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award. But it took him three years to secure financing for his second film, "Take Shelter." It promises to be worth the wait. After debuting at Sundance earlier this year, it won the grand prize at Critics' Week at the Cannes film festival in France.

I recently caught up with Nichols on the phone at his home in Austin, Texas, to talk about what his recent success means for his career, how he scored the same special effects company that did "Avatar," how marriage and fatherhood figured into the screenplay for "Take Shelter" and about his plans to shoot his third film in Arkansas.

"Take Shelter" won't see limited release until October, but in these summer movie doldrums, we need a promising film to anticipate.

You've made two acclaimed indie films. What does that mean in terms of juice?

It remains to be seen is the honest answer. Obviously, since Sundance I've started to get phone calls and more requests. It's a little weird because I have a team in place —meaning a manager, an agent and a lawyer — that's all in LA. So I'm somewhat buffered from the direct response.

There's a lot more energy and a lot more momentum. How true that is and how I can apply that is what remains to be seen.

But the big thing after Cannes is that maybe, just maybe I now have the opportunity to really make the films that I want to make. Not just films that I think are cool or projects that come my way that I think, "Yeah, I'll do that." But actually films that I write and direct and films that I consider to be my projects. There are so few filmmakers that get that opportunity.

But that's what you've done on you're first two films.

I mean just to continue to do it. It's one thing to do it with no money with not many people paying attention. It's another for your budgets to continue to increase — not that I need huge budgets. To make this a living and make it a true profession, where I'm not asking everyone to work for free and do me favors, which has happened with the last two films in order to get them to exist. By default now, the level of production I work at has to increase. In order to bear the weight of all that, it's certainly a question about whether or not I get to keep doing my own thing.

But that's easier said than done. And you've got offers coming your way that make you say, "Wow, I could buy a house for that" or "Man, I could just take care of things for a while." And it's not just about movies, sometimes it's "Man, that's a big studio film." And all that interests me.

But after Cannes I've got a chance to possibly be able to do my own stuff for at least a little bit longer at an increased level.

That's just a select group of filmmakers, guys like the Coen brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson, who get to do what I'm talking about. I'm not saying I'm at that level or in that zone, but there's a glimmer of possibility.

So what you have to decide now is whether you're going to follow that path or you’re going do more of the David Gordon Green model, where you make some indies and you make some kind of big movies that are cool or have the potential to be cool?

Or more so, am I going to go the studio route or am I going to go the indie route? It’s more complex than that. It's more like, I'm in a position where people actually ask me to do things. I get to decide. A lot of people don't get to decide. They're chasing work. But I'm lucky enough that I haven’t had to that. A lot of that has to do with the fact that I'm a writer/director.

The position I'm in now is not just studio route or indie route, it's what do I really want to be working on? This stuff is all consuming. It does change your life. It changes how you raise your kid and your family. So what do I want to spend my time on? Before I was so focused on getting there. Now, it's like I've got a few more options than last year, so let's see what I can do.

Let's talk about Cannes. You were the only American film in Critics' Week.

Critics' Week is cool. It's just for first and second features, and it's judged by a panel of international filmmakers and critics, and there are only seven films. So it's really focused. And you look at the filmmakers that have come out of Critics' Week — Pedro Almodovar, John Sayles, Guillermo del Toro. All these filmmakers had films in Critics' Week, and to win? I don't know how to process that. You never know how people are going to receive your film. I still think the jury's out on "Take Shelter." It's for some people and not for others (laughs).

It is a progression forward in how it operates with the audience from "Shotgun Stories." But they're both tricky films. They're not easily digestible, three-act structured.

What's your paragraph pitch of "Take Shelter"?

It's about a working-class guy who begins having dreams about supernatural storms, and he's not sure if they're premonitions about something to come or symptoms of a mental illness that's been in his family for a long time.

This idea came from general anxiety that you saw around the country and the world and your own anxiety about getting married and becoming a new dad?

Yeah. That was the thematic impetus. You try to find some universal theme to start off. And I kind of hold that in the back of my mind. So far it's worked because it kind of creeps into everything you're doing. With this film, anxiety was the initial thought, kind of like revenge was the initial thought in "Shotgun Stories." But as I started to write I realized that anxiety isn't an actual theme. It's not enough. It's an effect, not a cause, so it's not a full story. It's just an element. That's when marriage became this important story element and became an important thematic element by default. So you've got a lot going on in the movie. You have social anxieties and personal anxieties and you have this meditation on what marriage means, about ideas like commitment and communication.

They're all intertwined. But I distinctly remember in the process of writing, thinking "Oh, this movie's about marriage and not anxiety."

It's funny that you could confuse the two.

(Laughs) My wife keeps saying, "Man you got to watch what you say." Because that's not what I really mean. What I mean is, I was in my first year of marriage and I was thinking about why some marriages work and most marriages don't and the best answer that I could come up with is that people quit communicating, they quit sharing their fears with each other and that leaves people to separate physically and emotionally, not just legally.

In this movie, it was kind of a test of how far people are willing to go for each other and why that's important. When you say it, it sounds cheesy. Themes are always tricky to talk about.

Universal themes can sometimes be confused for cliches only because they're true.

They're true and they're simplified. There's a reason it takes two hours to explain this stuff.

Can you talk about how you used special effects in "Take Shelter"?

It helped that we had Hydraulx, a gazillion-dollar effects company out in LA, onboard as executive producers. The Strause brothers, Greg and Colin, run the company. For some reason, they saw "Shotgun Stories" and they really liked it and read the script for "Take Shelter."

The coolest anecdote was how we made the clouds. On bigger budget films like Roland Emmerich films, they 3D model all the clouds. They make them from scratch. The reason for that is so that you can spin them around, you can move them as slow or fast as you want. You have total control.

We didn't have the budget for that. So what we did was find really high resolution stills from storm chasers in the United States of these incredible looking storm cells and imported those, broke them into layers and then did some light and added 2D movement. You're far more constrained, but we didn't need to move them much. The cool thing was that we were sitting in front of a computer looking at real clouds. Instead of sitting in front of a computer looking at fake clouds, asking how can we make these fake clouds real, we were looking at real clouds saying how far can we push this. It was really a good lesson to learn and one I'll take forward if I do more CGI stuff in the future.

It seems like you almost couldn't have made the movie without Hydraulx involvement?

Absolutely not. I had the component in place before I had the financing. We didn't know the details, exactly how much we were going to pay them or whatever. But they were such cool guys, who said, "Nah, we'll figure that out. Just know that we're in." So I was able to take that to the financier in Ohio and say, "I got Mike Shannon, I got Jessica Chastain and I got Hydraulx." And that was enough to get the ball rolling.

You caught Mike Shannon in "Shotgun Stories" before he sort of blew up, before "Boardwalk Empire" and the Oscar nomination. Now you've got Jessica Chastain before "Tree of Life" and all sorts of other things she has coming up. Did you just get lucky?

Yes. But you have a sense when you're talking about an actor. You have a sense that, Oh, yeah, this person is going to be really good. Not just in your movie. I'm not a rocket scientist. You look at Mike Shannon's early films and you can't take your eyes off him. So that wasn't hard.

But with Jessica, it was luck because I hadn't seen anything she'd been in. Because Sarah Green was our executive producer — she produces for Terrence Malick — I got a 10 minute meeting with Malick and he said, "This is one of the greatest actresses I've ever worked with." After I heard that, I flew out to LA and we hit it off. Even then I didn't have knowledge of what she was going to bring to the table.

But I'm not kidding, she goes toe to toe with Mike Shannon. And it's 100 percent necessary. You watch this movie with a lesser actress in that role and it doesn't work. She is the backbone of the story and ultimately the movie.

So "MUD" is definitely your next project?

It's whole-heartedly the next thing I'm doing. When we start shooting is up in the air, and there are some details I can't talk about. Though some are just blatant: The river's flooded.

Hopefully it'll shoot this year. It's tricky because I can't shoot it in the winter. It's not a year-long script. We'll see. I have conversations about it every day.

Is Captain Kirk going to be in it?

We don't know. We're in talks with Chris Pine, but nothing is set.

You don't know where you're going to shoot it?

The location scouts started in Louisiana, but Christopher Crane has been killing himself to get this project in Arkansas. Arkansas is stepping up to the plate in a major way. Everything we wanted out of Arkansas, Arkansas is doing. They are rescuing this project out of the grasp of Louisiana.

We still don't know where we're going to shoot. I wrote it for around DeWitt, but they don't have any islands down there. Apparently, all the islands are further south in Arkansas City, and I haven't been there.

If this for either business or environmental reasons, could you make something else? Are you prepared to be idle?

I don't know. It's a tough question. It's full steam ahead. Right now, I'm thinking we're making this movie. But I've got plenty to do.

You have plenty to do that you can make money on?

Not just making money. I have scripts to write. It's part of the earlier conversation.

I feel like now more than ever, I've got to figure out how to make this a career and a lifestyle, which includes filling up the well. Mark Twain said creativity is like a well and you empty it into a project and you've got to wait for it to fill back up. Right now, I need some time to write some screenplays.

There's no wasted time. It's just whether or not it's on set or not. Cause when you're on set when you're in production that's all you do. Or that's all I do. I don't see how people multi-task.

Still, I don't imagine that you have hovercraft-money.

Carte blance? No.

So if "MUD" doesn't happen, will you have to take something on just to pay the pills?

Luckily, just before Christmas I sold a pitch for a screenplay. I've got that and some other stuff going on.

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