Jeff Nichols is the kind of down-to-earth, sharp-but-unpretentious filmmaker Austinites love to claim as our own, even if he grew up on the wrong side of the Texas border (in Arkansas, where he shot his impressive 2008 debut "Shotgun Stories").
He's so courteous that when I interview him about going to Sundance with his second feature, "Take Shelter," I can hear genuine apology in his voice when, after already speaking for more time than I'd been told we would have, he asks if it would be all right for him to call me back later. He'd love to stay on the line, but he's expecting "maybe one of the most important phone calls of my life" in a couple of minutes.
That's a lot of courtesy for someone who was still working on his film's sound mix and fretting a bit about the way it would be seen in its first festival screening on Monday. Though he shot "Shelter," a supernatural-tinged film about anxiety and familial commitment, on film (you get the feeling he wouldn't even consider video), considerations involving visual effects have forced him to screen it on HD video for the tastemakers, critics and studio execs attending Sundance, which started Thursday.
There, per festival policy, "anything that screens on HDCam, they don't adjust anything for it — color, framing, nothing — so our frame will have black bars at the top and bottom, which totally kills me." It'll be a bit like watching a widescreen movie on an old-fashioned tube TV.
That's a letdown after Nichols' great festival experiences showing film prints of "Shotgun Stories."
"They'd play one film, and when 'Shotgun Stories' would start, the curtains would go back, and all of a sudden you felt like you were watching a movie twice as big. It kills me it won't be like that for our first screening. But hey, at least we got the movie done."
No small feat, as he recalls.
"We had the same amount of time to shoot this as we did 'Shotgun Stories,' but the script was 30 pages longer — and I had, like, rain machines, and digital effects, and 42 locations. It was nuts," Nichols said.
"Because we had interiors, there was more lighting. It's been a much bigger challenge to lock into that kind of naturalism that I really prefer — because we have lit scenes, you know — there's an entire sequence at the end that's underground, lit by a single Coleman gas camping lantern."
Expectations are high for "Shelter," which reunites Nichols with leading man Michael Shannon, the towering, intense actor whose stock rose shortly after "Stories," with an Oscar-nominated performance in "Revolutionary Road." (More recently, Shannon played a G-man on HBO's "Boardwalk Empire.") "Shelter" is screening in the festival's prestigious competition for the Grand Jury Prize.
How did a shoestring-budgeted filmmaker end up with such a hot property in his first two films?
"I had seen some videotapes that a professor of mine had," Nichols says. They were made at a Sundance acting lab, and upon seeing the performances, Nichols says, "I went, 'This is the guy I want to work with for the rest of my life.'"
He wrote "Shotgun Stories" specifically for Shannon, in fact, before even meeting him. "I called him up and said, 'You don't know who I am, but I wrote a movie for you.'u2009"
Their experience together was productive enough that the actor remained loyal, even when shooting of "Take Shelter" was threatened by outside attention. "Mike had been offered a role in a really big studio film," Nichols recalls, "but it was going to begin during our last week of filming. They were asking if we could let him go early. But we had such a tight schedule, we couldn't do that and make the movie. It would have tanked us.
"We got a lot of pressure from his people, saying 'This is a big payday for Mike, and you should really let him go.' I called Mike and said, 'Mike, I get it, you need to go, you've got a family now, you need to go do this.' And he's like, 'Are you kidding, Nichols? I'm doing your movie.' And that's who Mike is. He's the guy who will do your movie if he says he will."
Shannon's growing reputation might have made for behind-the-scenes stress, but it couldn't have hurt the film's commercial prospects, which were even better during our conversation than I realized. Nichols couldn't tell me at the time, but that important phone call he took was about a possible offer to buy distribution rights to the film.
Days later, the official announcement was made: None other than Sony Pictures Classics (home of little movies like "Howards End" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") will bring "Take Shelter" to theaters in North America and beyond. That should ease any lingering Sundance stress a bit.
Also of Austin interest at Sundance
Austin favorites David and Nathan Zellner and director David Lowery will be screening shorts at the Sundance Film Festival. In "Sasquatch Birth Journal 2," the Zellner brothers take a comical peek at the mysteries of nature. With "Pioneer," Lowery explores an epic bedtime story told by a father.