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Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: 'Take Shelter' Reflects Director's Fears for the Future

Michael Shannon stars as a anxiety-stricken father and husband in Jeff Nichols' powerful new drama Take Shelter, opening Friday at the Embarcadero.

When Jeff Nichols began writing Take Shelter, his prize-winning selection at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the young, recently married director was enjoying a banner year. It was the summer of 2008, just weeks after his movie debut, Shotgun Stories, opened to wide critical acclaim, and he was content with his career and his family.
 
But something was amiss. “Anxiety is born out of having something to lose,” he says, reflecting on the uncertainty that permeates Shelter, his searing family drama, opening Friday, about a father tortured by visions of an apocalyptic storm. “I had a nagging feeling that the world was heading for harder times.”
 
Thus inspired, Nichols invested his misgivings in Curtis LaForche, the working-class provider, played by Michael Shannon, who obsessively prepares for the oncoming tempest by fortifying an underground bunker to protect his wife and child. In the movie, the storm serves as both a real physical threat and a metaphor for common concerns about America and life in general.
 
Nichols, 32, describes Shelter as his search for an answer to those fears, but readily admits there’s no quick fix on the horizon. “If Curtis makes any mistake, it’s his initial failure to share his anxieties with his wife,” he says. “The solution, at least in his world, comes when he lays that stuff on the table. It’s not a cure, necessarily, but it makes things easier.”
 
If that makes the movie sound like a personal exploration, it didn’t start out that way. Nichols admits that, for practical reasons, he needed something he could use to cut a marketable trailer – in this case, dark clouds ominously blotting out the sun, teeming downpours and jagged bursts of lightning. He envisioned a mainstream thriller, slyly infused with “indie elements,” which he defines as an emotional slow burn.
 
It was when he started creating characters, adults who make choices and face real consequences, that marriage became the heart of the story. He still needed his special effects, and he needed human faces – Jessica Chastain, who came on the recommendation of Tree of Life director Terrence Malick, and Shannon, an early Best Actor favorite who gave him the unpredictability he needed to make Curtis a wild card, despite his obvious devotion to family.
 
However the movie is received, Nichols is confident he has stayed true to the vision he hopes will become the hallmark of his career. “I don’t want to make hopeless films,” he says. “Sure, I could just sit around, watch FOX News and write about all the bad things in the world. It’s impossible not to internalize that stuff.

“I know full well how this movie ends, and that some people will interpret it as bleak. That’s fine, but that’s not where I’m coming from. There is hope, and I see the movie as an expression of that.”

Take Shelter opens Friday at the Embarcadero Center Cinema and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. For tickets and showtimes, click here.