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Nichols has anxieties, but he channels them well

Charles Ealy

Jeff Nichols has a creative way of channeling his anxieties.

When he started writing "Take Shelter" in 2008, he says, he was in his first year of marriage, and his career was going well. "But I had a feeling that harder times were to come," he says. "I had a lot of anxiety."

So does Curtis — the main character in "Take Shelter" — who has visions of an impending apocalypse and seeks to protect his wife and child by obsessively building a storm shelter in his backyard.

Nichols, of course, started building a screenplay, not a shelter, and transferred his anxieties to the character of Curtis.

"I was really writing a film about marriage," says Nichols, 32. "And I was wondering: 'How do you make this work?' ... So many marriages fail, and I finally had things in my life that I didn't want to lose. ... And it seemed to me that the best way to keep a marriage going was to share your fears."

Nichols decided to make Curtis reluctant to share his fears, at least initially, and in doing so, threaten everything he holds dear.

"That's the Achilles' heel of the Curtis character," Nichols says.

But Nichols wanted to blend the family drama with the thriller genre, so he ramped up the tension in "Take Shelter" by giving Curtis a very real, scary antagonist — nature.

Nichols wryly notes that he's familiar with nature's fury. "I grew up in a place where there were storm sirens," Nichols says of his Arkansas roots. "You had to get in the bathtub."

But Nichols also conjured other images that he thought were more imaginary than real — rain that feels like oil when it hits Curtis' skin, and birds that fall dead in front of Curtis and his child.

As he was writing the script, Nichols says, he didn't realize how close his imagination was mirroring the future.

When he was filming "Take Shelter" in 2010, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, and some residents were pointing to puddles of oil and saying that it was falling from the sky.

"I was in my hotel room after a day of filming," Nichols says, "and I turned on the TV, and there was Larry King talking to (oilman) T. Boone Pickens. And King leaned in and asked, 'T. Boone, can it really rain oil?' "

Later that year, on New Year's Eve 2011, thousands of dead black birds started falling from the sky near Beebe, Ark.

"It was like my script was borne out of nature," Nichols says.

When shooting the nature scenes, Nichols needed help with the special effects, which are rare in low-budget, independent films and not a part of Nichols' skill set.

But he had a couple of fans who had seen his 2008 debut feature, "Shotgun Stories." They were Greg and Colin Strause, the owners of a boutique special effects house in Los Angeles.

"They came on board as executive producers and did the special effects for 'Take Shelter' for pennies on the dollar," Nichols says. And those special effects have created plenty of memorable images, as Austin audiences will discover today when "Take Shelter" opens.

At the Cannes Film Festival in May, the movie won the Grand Prize of the 50th annual Critics' Week, a prestigious sidebar to the festival. And Nichols won the SACD Screenwriting Award at the same event.

Before heading back to Austin, Nichols was beaming about his Cannes experience. "These two awards are the highlight of my career to date," he said. "It was an honor to be included in Critics' Week with these films and a thrill to be singled out among them."

Not bad for a guy with anxieties.

cealy@statesman.com; 445-3931