PARK CITY, Utah Coming to Sundance with the rights to your indie film already sold (to Sony's "Classics" branch, no less) has to be a pretty privileged experience, like taking a victory lap after years of struggle.
But Jeff Nichols, Austin-based writer/director of the new "Take Shelter," appears calm in the face of achieving every Sundance-bound filmmaker's dream. I caught up to him immediately after the movie's first public screening, at a reception on Main Street where folks were lined up to congratulate the filmmaker (and, sure, to knock back a few free drinks). There, while clearly quite pleased, Nichols was as collected as he had been the last time I bumped into him, at the Hole in the Wall.
Nichols felt good about showing "Shelter" at Eccles, the mammoth Park City venue where the highest-profile movies tend to get booked. It's not the largest screen his work has ever shown on (that would be a theater at the Berlin film fest, where "Shotgun Stories" played), but it was big enough to quash any worries about the compromise of projecting his celluloid-shot movie on high-def video.
There was little excitement during the post-screening Q&A: Aside from a rambling question about the nature of anxiety (the movie's theme), Nichols reports that "everyone was kind of quiet" after the credits rolled, which seemed appropriate given the movie's tone. He was eager to hear what people thought of the film once they had some time to digest it, though.
Surprisingly, this is the first time the filmmaker has had to wait to hear what important people think about "Shelter." As he revealed at the reception, Sony Pictures Classics bought it sight-unseen.
"They were like, 'No, we don't need to see it,'" Nichols says. Even with this year's Oscar nominations yet to be announced, it seems Sony already had an eye on next year's prize, believing "Shelter" star Michael Shannon should be in the running.
"I think Michael Barker (co-president of the company) had just seen Mike's play ("Mistakes Were Made," currently running in New York)," he says, "and they decided they want to build a campaign around him. They had called and said 'We want to talk to Jeff,' and after we had a conversation they put in the offer for the film."
As thrilling as that is, isn't it underwhelming, after all this work, to have someone buy your movie without even seeing it? Was it tempting to hold out until it had played in public?
"Absolutely," he says, admitting the impulse to say "let's go play craps."
"If it had been a different company offering the same amount of money — or even more — things would have been different," Nichols says. "But this is Sony Pictures Classics, and there are some things you don't worry about with them."
For instance, the company isn't the kind of distributor to send out coming-attraction trailers that make "Take Shelter" look like a cheap horror flick, as others might do in an effort to sell tickets.
At any rate, the company likes what it has bought. "They said it exceeded their expectations," Nichols reports.
That seemed to be true for others in the room, with the possible exception of "Shelter" cinematographer Adam Stone.
After introducing him as "one of the great cinematographers" working these days, Nichols jokingly scooted me away when Stone started nit-picking his own work, fretting about things he might have done better.