Michael Shannon is Curtis LaForche, a caring family man and reliable construction worker, who slowly loses touch with reality as he deals with the panic that arises from a series of terrifying dreams in writer-director Jeff Nichols’s remarkable second feature Take Shelter. The film is a thrilling, genre-twisting and masterfully crafted drama, sensitively tackling what could have been lurid material in other hands, and it seems that Shannon and Nichols in their second collaboration since Shotgun Stories (2007) have only grown closer as a formidable director/actor team. What really makes this film, however, is its subtle ambiguity. Curtis’s dreams are either forebodings of an apocalyptic storm coming in, or the first symptoms of the same life-destroying paranoid schizophrenia his mother has suffered since he was a kid. In a standout performance, and supported by an equally convincing Jessica Chastain as the caring wife who is desperate to understand what is happening to her husband, Shannon portrays Curtis’s inner struggle with powerful conviction. For his part, Nichols manages not only to convey a sense of the dizzying confusion and nerve-racking tension that drive Curtis to desperate action but to build up to a climax that, depending on interpretation, is as devastating as it is peaceful.
Pamela Jahn took part in a round table interview at the London Film Festival in October 2011 where Michael Shannon talked about what drew him to the project, the difference between anxiety and mental illness, and the key to being an imaginative actor.
Q: Can you tell us a little more about what attracted you to the part in Take Shelter?
MS: I worked with Jeff [Nichols] on Shotgun Stories, which was his first movie, and I really think he is unique. I can’t think of any other young director in America today who is as focused as he is and who has as distinctive a vision as he has. He showed me the script and I could relate to the material because I was having similar experiences to Curtis in that it is a story about a young father who is having anxieties about trying to protect his family and, at that point, I was starting a family myself. Obviously it wasn’t to the extent that Curtis has in the movie – I didn’t have any dreams about storms. But anybody who starts a family would have some empathy for what Curtis is going through. Other things were similar as well in that Curtis’s father had just passed away and my father had just passed away. So there was some synchronicity between what Curtis was going through and some experiences I was having in my own life, and that’s what drew me to it.
Do you know whether Nichols wrote the part with you in mind?
No, he absolutely did not have me in mind. Jeff wrote this story regardless of anything. It was a very personal story for him. He was writing about some things he was going through himself. It just happened that we were both having similar experiences. It’s funny because he didn’t intend to do a very topical movie, in the way that there are a lot of other films about people sensing an apocalypse, or the end of the world, that deal with it more directly. For Jeff, the genesis of it was all very personal.
How much research did you do for your role? Did you delve into personality disorder and mental illness?
No. I didn’t think about mental illness at all. To me this isn’t a film about mental illness. I mean mental illness is on the spectrum of possibilities because I think in our culture we’re all very aware of it and we’ve been instructed to be on the lookout for it. But I don’t ultimately think that this is what Curtis is experiencing. I have heard Jeff saying that the whole storyline is not necessarily a red herring because that would be manipulative, but that it is just not what the film is about. I don’t think anxiety is a mental illness. Anxiety is healthy. I think that people who don’t have any anxiety about anything are strange. I also didn’t want to know more about what Curtis was going through than Curtis did, because I think what’s happening to him is a mystery to him as much as to everyone around him. Part of the journey of the film is him trying to figure out what’s happening there, and I simply didn’t want to be ahead of him.
The film becomes even more interesting on second viewing when you have the ending in mind. Where you always very aware of the ending throughout the process of shooting?
I was very aware of the ending. It was actually one of the first things that Jeff thought of when writing the script. It wasn’t something that he tagged on at the end of the process, it was one of the original thoughts that he had for making this film. But personally I think the ending is a bit tricky. I think there is a big shift in tone in the movie, it alternates between a super-realistic, blue-collar, gritty everyday Americana slice of life and a very poetic and lyrical element. I think this works because it’s a film about dreams and the dreams are establishing a duality of consciousness, your waking life and your dream life. And the end of the film, to me, is not necessarily meant to be taken literally, and it’s not necessarily there to say that Curtis was right or Curtis was wrong. This is not the point of it, because the fact of the matter is that the world is in the process of destruction. That’s not open for discussion, at least not in the way I look at it. Who could argue against that? It’s more about how you deal with it. And the important thing about the end is that the family is together. That’s the difference between the beginning and the end of the movie. In the beginning of the film, you’re seeing a man standing in his car park looking up at the sky all by himself, and in the end he is standing there with his family, he is not by himself anymore.
In a weird, twisted way it almost seems like a happy ending.
Yes, I mean, that’s the way Jeff describes it. I can’t debate it in the same way that he can because it’s ultimately his vision. I only have my own interpretation of it, but he always said he sees it as a hopeful ending.
You and Nichols seem to make a very good team. You seem to trust and respect each other very much. Did you have any influence on the development of the film at any point while shooting it, or did you totally trust Nichols in what he was doing and wanted to achieve with the film?
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 is very rigorous in his writing style and with himself. So, it wasn’t like he was asking, ‘So Mike, what do you want to do with this here’ or ‘What do you think should happen there?’ He had it all pretty well thought out, and I think the reason we are good together is because I can tell where he is going with something. It’s kind of an unspoken understanding that we have. And I really trust Jeff visually now that I’ve worked with him twice. Each time I see the film I am really impressed with the way it looks. Jeff is actually very old-fashioned, for example, he insists on shooting on film. He shot his first film 35mm anamorphic, his entire budget was just for film stock, so he basically had to get everything else for free.
So there wasn’t much of a rehearsal period before the shoot this time either?
No, because I had just finished working on the first season of Boardwalk Empire on a Friday, and on the Monday I was shooting Take Shelter. We shot just outside of Cleveland, Ohio, and I met Jessica [Chastain] for the first time in my life on the Saturday, so we had one day to hang out and get to know each other and then Monday morning we were shooting. So I was really lucky that it was someone as brilliant as Jessica, because if there had been any trepidation on the part of the woman playing Samantha, if there had been any fear there, I don’t know if we would have been able to pull it off. But Jessica just leaps into things, she’s fearless, so it really made a huge difference.
How would you describe your approach to acting?
It’s very instinctual. I don’t like to talk too much about something before I do it because I think it takes 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 and not off camera. The first time I worked with Jeff on Shotgun Stories, Jeff and I showed up and then the cast showed up and Jeff was confiding in me because, at that time, I had the most credits. A lot of the other people where immature and non-professional actors, or not even actors at all. So Jeff said to me, ‘What shall we do, shall we rehearse?’, and 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. And the more you are trying to talk about it and make sure everybody understands everything the less likely it is that something spontaneous is going to happen’. So, that’s kind of my approach. I have a very fertile imagination. When I read things, I have a vision that comes to me, that’s just my imagination. It’s very childlike though, it’s not super-sophisticated. Children can do this, you give them the story and they can figure it out for themselves. And I think the struggle is, more than anything, to hold on to this ability and not lose it. Not to get sullied by the business of it all.