Half-Brother Against Half-Brother

Jeff Nichols on 'Shotgun Stories'

Jeff Nichols
Jeff Nichols (Photo by Todd V. Wolfson)

When Arkansas inevitably gangs up with mean old Louisiana and New Mexico to start taking even more commercial film production away from poor, defenseless Texas, remember the name Jeff Nichols. In 2004, just two years after he moved to Austin upon graduation from the North Carolina School of the Arts, he left to make his first film in the small towns surrounding the big one where he was born and raised: Little Rock. Now he's 28, back here living with his fiancée in French Place, and watching his debut travel festivals from Berlin to Tribeca to Sydney to Austin as it readies for a likely spring 2008 release.

"My father owns a furniture store in Little Rock, and we officed out of the back of that. We used one of his moving trucks as our camera van," Nichols says. "My mom did all of the catering. A lot of the crew stayed at my folks' house, and we got a rental house donated for free. Feature filmmaking is a rarity there – there's just no infrastructure – so a lot of people were just excited to be involved. Towns just opened up to us. Practically, it offered up a lot of bonuses and a lot of ways to keep as much money on the screen as possible.

"But creatively, I always knew the first film I made, this is what I wanted it to look like. This is the landscape that I wanted to tell a story in. Arkansas was always going to be a part of it. The story came later."

Shotgun Stories' is a familiar one: revenge gone awry, Greek tragedy by way of Southern gothic. It opens with buckshot-scarred Son Hayes (Michael Shannon in a depth-defying performance) waking up to find his wife and child have left him – like his literary influence Larry Brown, the subject of a documentary he worked on with college friend David Gordon Green, Nichols the screenwriter "likes trouble on page one" – and soon after receiving word from his estranged mother that his estranged father is dead.

A sad, slow-burning version of hell breaks loose when Son – with younger brothers Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs) in tow – crashes Dad's funeral to deliver a condemnation of the man who "ran out on us, that left us behind to be raised by a hateful woman ... made like we were never born" and to literally spit on his grave. The other Hayes brothers – Dad's second chance at a family after he found Jesus and quit drinking – know a different deceased and vow to bring Son et al. around to their way of thinking. By force.

"Going to other festivals, you come out of the gate with a title like Shotgun Stories, and everybody expects a pretty violent, masculine movie," Nichols says, noting that Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow) signing on as producer "framed the project as a Southern art film and helped soften that blow.

"I always knew that if people would just give me a half-hour, which a lot of people don't give you, I could connect them to these characters in an emotional way that they would actually feel something by the end of the film," he says. "Let's start with the bad guys and then start to figure out why they're not so bad. And then why the good guys aren't so good. ... I ran with that idea of revenge as an emotion and the question of how conflicts resolve themselves, especially ones that are validated on each side by anger and fear and bloodshed."

Rarely is such conflict so warmly shot (in this case, by Adam Stone) and elegantly scored (Ben Nichols and Lucero). A 35mm, mostly daylit mix of startling landscapes, pressure-cooker interiors, and packed-tight exteriors, Shotgun Stories is a sight to behold. It's better-looking than most indies, but it also ended up with a bigger budget: upward of $250,000. Still, Nichols says, his vision was in place long before investors were.

"I designed the film to be film-friendly," he says. "The shot selection and the way the film looks, all of that comes out of this place and this region and these people and these characters. The goal for me in making a fiction film is to bring it in to as much reality as possible, so you start to believe and you start to trust. Part of that is representing where the characters come from. Where they come from is big and wide open."

Friday, Oct. 12, 10:15pm, and Tuesday, Oct. 16, 9:15pm, Bullock IMAX

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