A large percentage of the film rests heavily on the shoulders of Michael Shannon in this central role of Curtis and Shannon turns in a truly remarkable and powerful performance.
Myself and four other journalists were lucky enough to speak to him about the film at a roundtable junket last month and you can find the fruits of that interview below.
What attracted you to take the part in Take Shelter?
I worked with Jeff [Nichols] on Shotgun Stories, his first movie, and I just really think he’s unique. I can’t really think of any other director, young director in America today, who is as focused as he is, has as distinctive of a vision as he does. He showed me this script and I could relate to the material because I was having similar experiences. It’s a story about a young father who is having anxieties about trying to protect his family and I was starting a family myself. I’d recently had a daughter and I was having some similar anxieties, obviously not to the extent that Curtis is in the movie. I wasn’t having dreams about storms but I think anyone who starts a family has empathy for what Curtis is going through in the movie, wanting to protect your family. And some other things were similar, Curtis’ father had just passed away and my father had just passed away. So there was some synchronicity I suppose between what Curtis was going through and some of the experiences I was having in my own life. So that’s kind of what drew me to it.
Do you know if he wrote it with you in mind?
No, he absolutely did not. It was a very personal movie for him, he was basically just writing about some things that he was going through. It just happened that we were both having similar experiences at the same time. But he didn’t say ‘I want to write another movie for you’, he just wrote it because it was what he was going through at the time. It’s funny, it wound up being a very topical movie and there’s a lot of other films about the apocalypse or the end of the world and whatnot but for Jeff the genesis of it was very personal.
What kind of research did you do? Did you talk to schizophrenic people?
No, I didn’t think about mental illness at all. To me this isn’t a movie about mental illness. I mean mental illness is a possibility, it’s on the spectrum of possibilities. Because I do think in this culture, in this modern era, we’ve all become acutely aware of it and we’ve been instructed to be on the lookout for it but I don’t ultimately think that is what Curtis is experiencing. I’ve even heard so much as Jeff say that the whole storyline with the mother [she suffers from schizophrenia] is, not so much a red herring because that would be manipulative, but it’s just not what the film is about. It’s not about mental illness. I don’t think anxiety is a mental illness, I think anxiety is healthy. People who don’t have any anxiety about anything are strange. Also, I didn’t want to know more about what Curtis was going through than Curtis did. Because I don’t think Curtis knows very much about what’s happening to him, it’s a mystery. That’s part of the journey of the film, him trying to figure out what’s happening to him. I didn’t want to be ahead of him.
How do you think it plays watching the film a second time knowing the ending? Were you aware of the ending from the beginning?
I was, I was very aware of the ending. The ending was actually one of the first things Jeff thought of. It wasn’t something that he kind of tacked on at the end, no pun intended. It wasn’t like at the end of the process, ‘oh, what if we ended it this way’. It was one of the original thoughts he had about making the film. But I think the ending is a bit tricky. I think there’s a big shift in tone in the movie. I think it alternates between a very super-realistic blue-collar kind of gritty Americana everyday slice of life whatever but I also think there’s a very poetic and lyrical element to it. For me personally I think that is alright because it’s a film about dreams so the dreams themselves are in and of themselves establishing a duality of consciousness, your waking life and your dream life. The end of the film, to me, is not necessarily meant to be taken literally and it’s not necessarily saying Curtis was right or Curtis was wrong. It’s not necessarily the point of it because the fact of the matter is that the world is in the process of destructing. It is. That’s not open to discussion. I mean the way I look at it. I mean who could argue against that. It’s more about how you deal with it. The important thing about the end is that the family is together. That’s the difference between the beginning of the movie and the end of the movie. At the beginning of the movie you are seeing a man standing in his car park looking up at the sky by himself and at the end he’s not by himself anymore.
Do you see it as a kind of happy ending then?
Yeah, I mean that’s the way Jeff describes it. And I can’t necessarily debate that with the fortitude that he can because it’s ultimately his vision, it’s not my vision. I only have my own interpretation. He’s always said it’s a hopeful ending.
Did you have any influence on the development of the film while shooting it?
Not really, Jeff is very thorough when he writes. When Jeff shows up he knows what he wants to do and you can’t really surprise him with a question because he’s considered every angle. He’s very rigorous in his writing style and with himself. So it wasn’t like I showed up and he was like, ‘So what do you want to do with this Mike? What do you think should happen here?’ He had it all pretty well thought out. I think the reason we’re pretty good together is because I can always tell where he’s going with something. There’s a kind of unspoken understanding we have.
Sometimes actors play a big role in for example choosing costumes, or even in terms of the blocking of scenes. Was it blocked around you guys having rehearsed a scene in that space or were you guys given blocking?
I mean blocking’s a different issue. I mean Jeff always wants to know what feels right or what feels natural but he does have compositions in his mind, pictures in his mind. And he collaborates with this DP, Adam Stone, I think very well. They work together very well, because he’s an extremely visual filmmaker. And he’s making those decisions about costumes and whatnot. At the end of the day I don’t really mind what I’m wearing, I could show up and he could be like ‘put this bunny suit on’ and I’d be like ‘okay, if that’s what floats your boat I’ll do it’. I’m more focused on the activity of the scene. I really trust Jeff visually, now I’ve worked with him twice. Every time I see the film I’m very impressed with the way it looks and I’m always very impressed with Adam’s work, the DP. Jeff is old-fashioned, he insists on shooting with film. He shot his first film 35mm anamorphic, his entire budget was just film stock. He basically got everything else for free. He’s very devoted to the old school style of filmmaking.
How was it working with Jessica and what are the qualities that make her so in demand these days?
I think it’s a pretty time-tested formula, if you’re a good person people want to have you around. That’s where it starts y’know. She’s a very considerate, humane person. She has a very big heart. You always see her in films with children and I think there’s a reason for that, I think she’s very nurturing and she’s much more concerned with the child than she is with herself. Always making sure that they’re happy and comfortable, that they know what’s going on. She’s not a diva. Somebody asked me earlier if with all these films coming out, do you think it’s going to go to her head and I can’t imagine someone being less like that than she is. I don’t think anything will ever go to her head because she’s a very grounded person. She’s into the craft of acting, she’s classically trained. It’s not a fluke, it’s not an accident. She actually really challenged Jeff a lot, a lot more than I ever do. Asking a lot of questions. It was fun to see Jeff squirm a bit because he was used to me just showing up and saying, ‘what do you want me to know?’, ‘oh, okay’ and I just do it. It’s not necessarily that that way is better or that Jessica’s way is better, it’s just different. But Jessica never asks a stupid question. Every question she asked was always very provocative and interesting.
Does that approach that you just mentioned apply just in your collaborations with Jeff or is that your general approach with acting? How would you describe your approach, your craft?
I don’t know, it’s very instinctual. I don’t like to talk to much about something before I do it because I feel like it saps the spontaneity out of it. For me the most important thing is to make sure that whatever is exciting or interesting about a scene happens in front of the camera not off-camera. That’s why the first time I worked with Jeff on Shotgun Stories, we showed up, the cast showed up and Jeff was kind of confiding in me because, let’s put it this way, at the time I had the most credits. A lot of the other people were amateur or non-professional actors or not even actors at all. So Jeff said should we research, what should we do. I said, don’t do anything because probably the most exciting things these people are going to do will be the first time they do it. The more you try and talk to them about it, make sure everyone understands everything the less likely something spontaneous is going to happen. That’s my approach. I have a very fertile imagination when I read things, I have a vision that comes to me in my imagination. It’s very childlike to me. It’s not super sophisticated.
Was there much of a rehearsal period before making Take Shelter?
No, because I came right from just finishing Boardwalk [Empire]. I finished Boardwalk on a Friday, the first season, and on Monday I was shooting Take Shelter. We shot just outside Cleveland, Ohio and I met Jessica for the first time in my life on that Saturday. So we had like one day to hang out and get to know eachother and Monday morning we were shooting. I was really lucky that it was Jessica, because if there was any trepidation on the part of the woman playing Samantha, if there was any fear there, I don’t know if we would have been able to pull it off. Jessica just leaps into things, she’s just fearless with herself. It really made a huge difference.
And the children, was it as easy to work with them straight off?
Yeah, Tova is sweet. She’s actually deaf and Jeff deliberated that for a long time. He was like, maybe it would be easier to cast a girl who could hear because it would be easier to communicate with her or whatever. But ultimately there’s no way he could have cast someone better than Tova because she’s deaf but it doesn’t mean she’s not intelligent. She really understood what’s happening. Every scene that she’s in she didn’t really need much of an explanation, she read the script and like I was saying earlier, it’s very childlike. Children can do this. You give them the story and what happens and they can figure it out themselves. I think the struggle more than anything is to try and hold onto that without losing it. Not to get sullied by the business of it all.
Take Shelter is released in UK cinemas on the 25th of November.