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Revenge, Revised

With his new feature Shotgun Stories (TFF ’07), first-time director Jeff Nichols offers a fresh twist on the classic revenge narrative.
Shotgun StoriesRevenge has a mythical place in America—it’s a matter of honor, of family, of preserving your name when someone has done you wrong. It’s a familiar, deeply masculine trope in film that was perfected in the Western, from Once Upon a Time in America to Unforgiven. Jeff Nichols’ debut film, Shotgun Stories, takes the narrative energy of the Western to the fish farms, cotton fields, and “empty-ass towns” of Arkansas, injecting the elemental drama of guns at high noon into an acrimonious dispute between two sets of half-brothers.


In doing so, Stories, turns the classic idea of revenge on its head, offering a languid look at the working-class Hayes brothers, led by Michael Shannon (Bug) as Son, whose actions at his father’s funeral set off a tragic chain of events. Nichols films his characters in gorgeous 35 mm, framing the characters in wide, empty Arkansas landscapes, and adding tension through the low, droning soundtrack done by Ben Nichols (the director’s brother) and his southern rock band Lucero. Stories is at once hypnotizing and visceral, mythical and mundane, falling within the Southern realist tradition of films by Terrence Malick, and more recently David Gordon Green, who produced.


Nichols was two years behind Green at the North Carolina School of the Arts, and he credits Green with assisting Stories’ post-production funding and festival notices, including a premiere at Tribeca in 2007. Nichols was just 25 when he shot Stories, working closely with a set of collaborators from Carolina, including Adam Stone, the cinematographer. He’s the latest in a string of high-caliber filmmakers to emerge from the program, including Green, Craig Zobel (Great World of Sound), and Jody Hill (the Will Ferrell-endorsed The Foot Fist Way). Their work is all distinctly Southern, strangely funny, and a direct result of the school’s emphasis on going out and making films. “If there’s a club, I’m glad to be in it,” Nichols says.


He called from Austin, Texas, where he was about to get married, to talk about the years of work that went into Stories, and the difficulties of getting another film, an adaptation of Brad Land’s frat-boy hazing memoir Goat, off the ground.


One thing I was curious about, Michael Shannon and his weird head?


It's enormous, isn't it? I had never met him in person before, but you couldn't miss him coming down the escalator at the airport. But there's something interesting that happens when you put him on film. It kind of evens itself out. 


He’s a fantastic actor with an interesting face that’s handsome from some corners and Willem Dafoe from others.


My fiancée’s maid of honor actually thinks he's totally hot and I'm just baffled by it.


You cast him in 2004, when he was doing more theater and before Bug raised his profile. What attracted you to him?
A professor of mine at college named Gary Hawkins, who's also a good friend and mentor of David’s, was in the Sundance Lab when I was in college. He had come back with some videotapes of Mike Shannon working in the Actors’ Lab, and was like, “Nichols, you need to look at this guy, he’s like the characters that you like to write,” which he was, exactly, and I kind of just put him in the back of my head, thinking, “I’m going to write a part for that guy one day.”


When I conceptualized Stories, I conceptualized it with him in mind to play the lead part. When it came time to cast, I just called Hawkins and asked for Shannon’s number. I called him up on his cell phone, he was just sitting outside of some cafe in Chicago and I said, “You don't know who I am, but I wrote a screenplay for you. You should read it.” I didn't have to bother going through agents or anything. It would’ve never gotten to him had I done that.


Luckily, he liked the script, because he really had nothing invested in me—we didn’t know each other. He just responded to the script. I do think he called Hawkins, like “Who is this kid from Arkansas?” And luckily, I think Hawkins was like, “Well, he's smart, and you can go down there and it’ll either be a waste of three weeks and the movie will suck and nobody will ever see it or maybe, just maybe, he can pull off, like The Last Picture Show or something.” And I don’t think we did either, but maybe somewhere in between.

How is scriptwriting for you?


Painful. But I love it, I love doing it. I have an agent now, as a result of Shotgun Stories, who says I write at a glacial pace. I don't think it's a good thing.


I'm just fascinated by narrative structure, and I’m fascinated by the ways that characters develop along with plot points and how those things fit into one another. I’m not really a student of three-act structure. I’m just fascinated to see when things happen. I think Stories is a fair example of that, if it’s a kind of re-examination of the revenge structure in film. It doesn’t really follow the rule of law when it comes to Western revenge films. [Basically, I was] pushing that inciting incident as far back into the film as possible and seeing if the audience was willing to sit around for character development, which was a risk.


People make comparisons between David's work and my work, but that's the thing that I see as the biggest difference. It’s easy to say they're both well-shot, kind of slow, dramatic Southern films that relish their Southern setting, which is totally true. But in terms of directing style, and narrative style, I think they're pretty different, actually.


Was there anything that surprised you about making Shotgun Stories?


Doug Ligand's performance [as Boy Hayes, the brother of Shannon’s character] amazes me to this day. Because he's a really funny guy—he's insane, he's kind of a friend, not really an actor. And he works so well for that part. His father had passed away two weeks before we had started filming. He told me and I was like, “Ah, fuck, that’s terrible.” If my father had passed away, anytime, it would've taken me out of everything. Selfishly I was like, “That’s it, I’m not going to have my other main actor.” But he said, “No, this is important, it’s something I want to do,” and I don't underestimate the power of him dealing with that amount of grief. In fact, on set I was like, “Wow, he's not doing that much,” and then I went to the editing room and I was like, “Holy shit.” I think he actually holds his own with Mike, which surprised the hell out of me. Not because Doug's not talented—Mike's just so talented, and such a force to be reckoned with.


Have you ever been in a fight like the one in the film?


I've witnessed more fights than I've been in. The majority of fights that I’ve witnessed or mildly experienced, they're all quick and awkward. Rarely do you see a clean punch. Movie fights boil down to wrestling. [In real life,] they're just really awkward, fast, and stupid, not fun to watch. They're especially awkward if grownups do it—in Stories’ case it’s in front of their kid, and it’s just gross.


What other sorts of things do you learn growing up in Arkansas?


I grew up in Little Rock. I was a suburb kid, whose grandparents lived in a town like England, Arkansas [the rural town where Stories was filmed]. I was able to dip into that world and then come out of it, which is why I love it so much.


There were definitely specific things, though. It was just driving around and seeing those landscapes. My dad's second cousin owned a fish farm, and I spent summers working on that. Especially when I was a kid, even before I had the notion to be a filmmaker, I remember there was something special about the place.


What does a fish farm smell like?


It smells like fish. You get some wicked smells every once in awhile, though. And snakes, man, there are snakes everywhere! You pull these nets, and the fish are beating against your legs, and you’re up to your chest in water. Once, I saw a fish swim right up to this guy, and he grabbed it by the tail and snapped it like a bullwhip, and its head popped right off.


I wrote this in the script and had a friend read it and say, “How are you going to film this?” The closest we came to something that absurd is the shot where this guy’s holding at giant turtle in his hand, he’s looking at it, showing it to Mike Shannon, like, “Yeah, look at that big turtle,” and then he just throws it way up in the air, out of the way. For us, it's like, “Wow that's a huge awesome turtle,” and he’s like “No, they’re thrown away every day.”


So you’re working on Goat now?


Well I was. I'm not really working on it right now. We were supposed to go shooting next month but the funding fell through. Everyone's scared to make a good movie. I wrote the script over the summer. I want it so badly to be my next film. I don’t know if it will be. If you had asked me that question three months ago I would’ve said definitely. I'm really pleased with the script, and I'm not saying that to gloat—it's not me, it's this great material. I really want it to be made.


Are there other things on the pipeline?


There's stuff I'm writing at my glacial pace. I've been writing a movie for three years now called Mud, about a guy on an island in the Mississippi River. He’s hiding out there. I’ve got three other scripts I’m working on. It's interesting trying to figure out what you can make with the place I'm at with my career right now.


And you’re sitting in your car in a parking lot right now? What are you doing next?


I'm sitting in my car outside the place where we're getting married, and I'm about to give them the biggest check I've ever written in my life. It's kind of making me physically nauseous. I could've made another movie. Although getting married is more important.


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