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'Take Shelter' Director Digs Deep

17 Feb, 2012 By: Erik Gruenwedel

'Take Shelter'

In psychological drama Take Shelter, director Jeff Nichols says one of his favorite scenes involves actress Lisa Gay Hamilton as a mental health counselor dealing with the lead character Curtis’ (Michael Shannon) growing paranoia that he is losing his mind.

Curtis is an unassuming everyman living with his wife (Jessica Chastain, Oscar-nominee for The Help) and young daughter in rural Ohio who begins having visions and nightmares that an impending doom greater than a tornado is approaching.

Surprisingly, the scene was eliminated — by Nichols — from the final cut and now can be found in the bonus material included in the Blu-ray Disc and DVD edition of the film, currently available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

“It’s a pretty big scene from the writing stage to the directing and editing stage, but it’s one of situations where [cutting it] helps the overall pace of the film,” Nichols said.

The director said Shannon (who is a longtime friend of Nichols) did an amazing job in the deleted scene conveying Curtis’ character and belief system. There always is a fine line determining what gets cut from a movie — a process that, if done correctly, illuminates the remaining scenes in a much clearer light, Nichols said.

“Sometimes you have to kill a few darlings to raise the overall feeling of the film,” he said. “That’s what you ultimately hope for in a film: clarity.”

Nichols said those decisions are done by him and a few associates. He doesn’t believe in test screenings.

“Luckily, I get final cut; I’ve had it on my last two films (Shotgun Stories and pending 2013 release Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon and Shannon),” he said. “That’s rare for a young filmmaker like myself.”

Nichols said having final say on a movie — versus a studio — is empowering but also includes an accountability that cannot be underestimated. The same goes for casting lead characters — a process that surprisingly didn’t include Shannon.

“Mike is my friend, and he was in my first film (Shotgun Stories), and we were buddies,” Nichols said. “When I wrote this, I didn’t have anyone in mind for it. Because this was a really personal story for me (Nichols had just gotten married and had a lot of anxiety about the world at large), I put a lot of myself in the pages of the character, which is actually a really stupid thing to do.”

Nichols said Curtis is pragmatic about his situation, including the steps he takes dealing with his mood swings. The director said he sent the script to Shannon as a friend. Shannon immediately got back to him and said it was something he’d like to do.

The director couldn’t see the connection at first.

“I said ‘Mike, you’re really not an everyman, you’re the most unique guy I know,’” Nichols said.

But in subsequent conversations over the phone, Nichols noted Shannon’s rapport with his young daughter and how his friend’s demeanor and voice changed.

“Knowing that [Curtis] had a young daughter, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really interesting. This is a Mike Shannon I haven’t heard from before.’”

And neither had film critics and film festivals, who nominated the actor multiple times for his role in Take Shelter.

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