Take Shelter, helmed by Jeff Nichols, a rising star among young directors, is an unsettling story about how humdrum reality can suddenly become psychologically, existentially and physically unmoored. Combining elements of the horror story and a tale about a looming apocalyptic storm, the $5-million indie film stars two of today’s busiest and most compelling actors, Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain. A Sony Pictures Classics film, Take Shelter hit theaters at the end of September.
Shannon, who starred in Nichol’s debut feature, Shotgun Stories, which was nominated for a 2008 Independent Spirits Award, plays a solid hard-working family man who is afflicted by a series of terrifying dreams. Unsure whether he is becoming mentally unglued or being warned about an impending tornado that threatens to destroy his life and that of his loved ones, he takes action by building a costly storm shelter that undermines his finances and costs him his job.
The handsome-looking film is tautly directed by Nichols, assisted by a disparate and talented crew.
Adam Stone, the film’s DP, had also been Nichols’ cinematographer on his debut feature, Shotgun Stories. “I was blown away by Adam’s ability to function on set with no money and no resources and to come away with really beautiful, striking images,” said the director. “He has an uncanny eye.”
Nichols and Stone first became acquainted at film school. Both are graduates of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, Filmmaking School, as is the film’s sound designer, Will Files. The Winston-Salem institution has in recent years been a breeding ground for many successful young filmmakers. Top of the list is David Gordon Green, the director of comedy smash hit Pineapple Express, and one of the producers on Nichols’ first film. Stone first worked as second-unit DP on Pineapple Express and two other Green features.
Nichols was wary of making the dream sequences in Take Shelter look too gimmicky. “Adam and I set rules for ourselves,” he noted. “These dream sequences cannot and should not be set apart from anything else in the film. We need to sneak into these things in the way we shoot them, the way we light them. I didn’t want them to look separate from the rest of the film. Adam was instrumental in helping pull that off.”
Minimal point-lighting heightens the impact of the penultimate scene in the film where the family huddles in the storm shelter that the main character has built for protection as a fierce tornado passes over. “Adam’s gaffer was this phenomenal guy, Michael Roy, who suggested using a Coleman gas lantern carried by Michael Shannon as the only source of light, so when he takes it away from his face, there’s no light,” observed Nichols. “The last thing you want to do is shoot the climactic scenes on the film and find out later we didn’t get anything. With our budget and schedule so tight, there was no margin for error. But Michael and Adam had the guts, skill and knowledge to pull it off perfectly.”
Some of the camera-work in Take Shelter takes cues from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, based on a Stephen King novel about a family trapped in a haunted hotel. Stone referenced the slow creeping camera movement that catches the main character, portrayed by Jack Nicholson, as he gets progressively crazier. “At that time the camera becomes the point of view of the supernatural force that surrounds the hotel,” noted Nichols. “I was inspired by that idea and wanted every scene where the camera is closing in to have that movement represent the supernatural force that goes beyond the edges of the frame.”
The hectic four-week shoot took place in a small town outside Cleveland. Most of the settings are real locations, dressed by production designer Chad Keith. “One of my rules is ‘Go to the place, shoot at the place,’” said the director. “I think it’s the job of narrative films, to be as close to documentary as possible. People have to feel real, look real, dress real – it affects everything.” What Keith did “was to take ordinary stuff and make it aesthetically pleasing, but just as important, make it look honest.” The only set was the storm shelter which was put up in a local warehouse.
The same “keep it real” principal applied to the costumes by Karen Malecki, whose credits include assistant costume designer on The Squid and the Whale. “We were able to get lots of brands to work with us and donate clothes,” said Nichols. The characters are on a distinct rung of the socio-economic ladder. “They’re middle class, not dirty grimy white trash,” he noted. “Karen was able to bring it all together in a harmony of natural looks. For Mike Shannon, the clothes he wore and how he looked were really important in helping him build his character.”
For Parke Gregg, a friend of Nichols, Take Shelter was the first feature he had ever cut. “I knew he had limited experience in terms of cutting, but he has remarkable taste,” said the director. “He’s the guy I’d show stuff to, and ask for his opinion, so I thought, let’s just have him edit. He just got things very quickly and did a beautiful job. He knew my first film and he knew the films I like, all that was in place, so there was no learning curve.”
Gregg also works at Stuck On On, a finishing house based in Austin, Texas. So he also wound up doing the film’s color correction in the digital intermediate, which effectively contrasts the film’s generally warm color scheme with the apocalyptic tornado-on-the-horizon skies.
These vistas were digitally enhanced by Hydraulx, a well-known Los Angeles VFX boutique, which did all the film’s special effects including ominous flocks of flying birds and an especially neat sequence where all the furniture in the home’s living room is suddenly floating above the floor. Hydraulx, known for contributing to films including The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, is owned by brothers Greg and Colin Strause who are also executive producers on Take Shelter.
Nichols said he’s “pretty hands on” during the editing stage. I need someone who doesn’t have that much personal ego invested. Parke really let me collaborate and get my nose in. Sometimes I can’t just sit back behind an editor’s shoulders. I have to put my fingers on it and not a lot of editors would be up for that. But working with my friend, it was never an issue.”
Files, the sound editor and another former film school colleague, is employed at Skywalker Sound, part of George Lucas’ postproduction empire in Northern California. That’s where he did the mixing and sound design for the edgy film. “He cut us an amazing deal,” said the director. “He also understood from the beginning everything I was talking about – naturalism, honesty. We didn’t ADR (loop or dialogue dub) one line in the film. Will did a great job in balancing the supernatural element with something believable and real – so we could sneak into these dreams without feeling they were false or out of some other kind of movie.”
“And when you combine that with our score by David Wingo, they perfectly played off each other,” he added. “David gave me a lot of drones and tones. Sometimes you wouldn’t know where the design stopped and the score started. Although the two were never in the same room, Will and David were always on the same page.”
Nichols is presently shooting his latest film, Mud, in Arkansas. With a plot resembling elements of American classic Huckleberry Finn, the film stars Reese Witherspoon, Matthew McConaughey, Sam Shepard, and once more, Michael Shannon, who can these days be seen on HBO hit series, Boardwalk Empire.