Brothers in Arms
Jeff Nichols' Southern Gothic family saga, 'Shotgun Stories'
It's not Hatfield and McCoy, but rather Hayes vs. Hayes in Austin-based writer-director Jeff Nichols' acclaimed debut feature, a lean, angular tale of revenge served hot as the summer in Arkansas. Shot in anamorphic 35mm and starring veteran stage actor Michael Shannon (Bug, 8 Mile) in one of his biggest and best film performances to date as the complexly wounded Son Hayes, Shotgun Stories plays out an intimate feud against a broad canvas of lonely back roads and disused cotton fields as two sets of half-brothers – poor and abandoned vs. wealthy, Christian, and loved – are brought together following the death of their father. Following a funeral that goes about as badly as one could imagine, the wry, melancholy tone gives way to increasing alarm as emotional and physical violence escalates toward seemingly inevitable tragedy.
The making of the film was no less a family affair than the story, though happily a much more pleasant one. Peopled with a cast of nonprofessional friends and acquaintances who fell in perfectly with experienced actors like Shannon, it was pulled together by a tight-knit crew of friends from the film school at North Carolina School of the Arts and scored by Nichols' brother, Ben, and his band, Lucero. Born and raised in Arkansas, following his graduation from film school, the director returned home briefly but eventually made his way to Austin, where he worked on Margaret Brown's Be Here to Love Me and also met his roommate, then girlfriend, now wife. But Arkansas pulled at him, and a story began to unfold. Speaking with the Chronicle just shy of the film's July 1 DVD release, Nichols told us about how he had to make a movie that would feel like home.
Austin Chronicle: Seems like there's a really close circle of emerging filmmakers coming out of North Carolina School of the Arts, between you, David Gordon Green [George Washington], Craig Zobel [Great World of Sound], and cinematographer Adam Stone, among others.
Jeff Nichols: I had never really made films before except with home movie cameras and stuff. I'd really been writing short stories and focusing on literature and English. But I also had a love for movies, and I thought I could put them together. So I went to North Carolina School of the Arts ... which is more of a trade school than academic, more an approach of learning the skills to make a movie. And I met some great, great people there, and I discovered that I really enjoyed doing that, really enjoyed the process, which was different from anything else I'd done in my life.
You become friends with the people you're around and working with. I think part of it is the curriculum at the school. We all get to make movies together, and it really gives you confidence in your crew. You don't have to go someplace to find a good group of people, and after you're out it's like, "Well, Craig Zobel is off making his movie, and you've just gotta go work on it." ... That had already been established by George Washington. David Green was a few years ahead of me, but he was making George Washington one summer while I was still in school. So that made it seem more realistic.
I gave him the script, and he liked it and felt that maybe he could help out by coming on as a producer. He helped with us and with Craig's film. And he was really good about knocking down that door. So I don't underestimate his influence at all.
AC: Did you ever have that moment thinking you'd found your essential collaborators?
JN: Well, I don't know that there was ever a moment exactly, but how many guys do you know that you'd be willing to risk all your savings, all your parents' retirement money on to shoot 35-millimeter anamorphic? Luckily, I knew [cinematographer] Adam Stone. I knew he was worth that risk. And we were shooting blind, shooting without dailies. But I'd seen his work before and was going, "This is amazing." That's the great thing about being with David and Craig. We'll just sit around together going, "This guy's a great DP, or he's a great sound guy, or that's a great gaffer." It makes us all little line producers. But Adam Stone shot my movie and shot Great World of Sound, and they're really different-looking films, both beautiful in really different ways.
AC: And how did you get hooked up with Michael Shannon?
JN: Well, I'd written the part specifically for him but didn't know him. A professor of mine, Gary Hawkins, was at the Sundance Lab with him. And he came back with these tapes from scenes they'd shot at the lab. He said, "You gotta look at this actor," and of course I'd never seen him before in anything, but I was just blown away. And so when I sat down to write Son Hayes, I was writing for him. And then I saw him in some stuff. When it came time to cast, I called Mike Shannon, and I said I know Gary Hawkins, and I told him I wrote a script for him. I think he was out at some cafe getting lunch at the time, so he just said, sure, he'd read it. And he's told me since that he was just planning to throw it in the garbage. But then he really liked it and came down to do it entirely on the basis of the script. He did ask to see some short films of mine from college, and I said, well, maybe not, because they're so different. So it was a real leap of faith on his part. I think he called Gary Hawkins about me. And he said, "He's pretty good." But he told him: "Maybe you come down, and you lose three weeks, and nobody ever sees it because it's bad, and nothing happens. But maybe, just maybe, it's The Last Picture Show."
Well, obviously, I think we're somewhere in between [laughs]. But he showed up totally into it and bringing so much. Most of the cast were friends of mine, and I'd written their parts for them, but they just saw him and what he put into it and went, "Yeah, this is it." I'm gonna look back on it and see it as a learning curve that Mike Shannon helped me with. Not a lot of actors you could work with ... could bring so much to your first feature.
AC: How did you develop this story?
JN: It kind of collected over a year. I'd been reading a lot of Larry Brown [author of Dirty Work] at the time. While I was working on the Townes Van Zandt movie [Be Here to Love Me], it started to come to me in these pieces, and then I just knew the title. There was a point when I knew it was about a guy with a shotgun wound in his back, but I didn't know why. I was also listening a lot to Decoration Day [by Drive-by Truckers]. I guess I was just listening to it at the right time, and it started mixing with these images in my head. And I thought I could sort of update the kind of story that it told. I had this idea to have someone spit on a coffin at a funeral – you know, that seemed like an interesting way to start – and then figured out that these two groups of people at the funeral could be related, half-brothers. So then I just had all these other ideas that I had that I put into it.
For me, the goal is to make a film that feels honest and realistic. It's stylized, but I still work to make it reflect a place in an honest way. It could easily be a "hicksploitation" kind of thing; it could be cheesy. But the whole idea is to see if you can really get the audience to tie in with these people, following a natural progression of violence and their natural reactions to the situation. Everything is motivated by grief and sadness to get to this desire for revenge. It's not just pretty violence. It comes from a lot of things that are important to these people.
AC: You mention the risk of hicksploitation, and definitely the story fits into the Southern Gothic tradition. For you, what comes from that tradition that makes it powerful, or equally, what do you feel should be avoided?
JN: Just growing up in this area of Arkansas and around these people, I have a great deal of respect for them. You know, I worked at the fish farm that's in the movie. It's a lyrical culture and a beautiful culture. And I wanted to show that, but I didn't want that stuff to be the butt of a joke. I was also reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy and Harry Crews too, and their stuff didn't work like that. You know, it definitely wasn't Hee Haw. These people were not a joke. And that's a world I saw, and so I thought that's the kind of storyteller I want to be. That's the kind of accent and style I wanted to work in and transport that into film. There are the things, too, you don't want to fall into, obviously, where everybody's line dancing and wearing pearl-snap shirts. You don't want to focus on the wrong things. You want to stay on the things that people do, how they act, what drives them to act. I never thought these people were stupid or foolish. And it's funny, because in some of the stuff I've read about the film, the writers think of them as these fools. I think if these people lived in New Jersey, they'd be eccentric. But in Arkansas, they're foolish. I was just wanting to use this landscape and look at these people to get into emotions that are universal.
AC: Well, it is tricky with a family-feud story.
JN: Narrative structure is something that really interests me. And I looked at the typical revenge narrative in films, and the typical thing is that the main character's buddy gets killed in the first 15 minutes, and the rest of the movie is tracking down the bad guy and then having revenge on him, and so everybody's happy to spend their 8 bucks. But I thought, what if we didn't do that? What if we pushed that inciting incident really far back in the film, really explore a character and who he would want to be, what he's doing, and then understand the void that he would leave. But usually it's the hero tying the red bandana around his head and going off to kick ass. That's definitely not how I see it; for me personally, well, I wouldn't know how to shoot somebody. And maybe that's a new way to look at it. Another take on all this stuff about American masculinity in relation to violence. I guess it was a retooling of this narrative structure. It's not slow if you're investing your time in it. But if you give me 45 minutes, I'll give you something to care about. Some movies you watch for two hours and don't feel anything. And you're supposed to.
On the other hand, it can be real easy, if you watch an episode of Law & Order, and in 15 minutes they get you going. What's that thing they say? Like anyone can throw a puppy on a highway and have the audience go, "That's scary." But that's not earned. I was going for an earned reaction from the audience.
AC: So, especially working on such a low budget, how did you decide to shoot on 35-millimeter anamorphic?
JN: It seemed a really good way to capture this place, and because I'd seen David do it on George Washington, I knew how to get the camera and knew how that would be done. I used David's film as a model. That's the practical answer, but the creative answer is that it fit this landscape and that it would be right for making the film move with these people and this place. I'd have a camera that wouldn't be able to move that much and would capture action in wide shot. It's something I actually stumbled into, but I realized it's great for a film with a few characters. I realized I could put half the cast in one shot, stack them up and fit them in, and then go to a reverse, and there's everybody else. There's allegedly a pan-and-scan version for TV delivery, and they asked me if I wanted to supervise, and I was like: "No way. I don't even want to know." But it's something to figure out. The problem is [the camera was] 150 pounds, and we didn't have a director's viewfinder, so I'd look through the camera once it's in place and have to say, "Oh shit, Adam, you're gonna have to move it." And so part of it is you plan it, and part of it is you make it make sense. If all we'd had was a video camera, I'd have written a different film.
AC: So, are you writing anything right now?
JN: I'm writing a couple of scripts that take place in a very similar landscape. But it's really a weird thing – you just start to absorb the places you are. It took me awhile, but it was sort of inevitable that eventually a story in Austin would start to take shape for me. You hear this term regional filmmaking, and I understand why it's defined the way that it is. But I really think that all stories should be regional. They should be honest and coming from a real place. If I make a movie in Chicago, it should look and feel like that. You want the same thing in Austin. Everybody is going to Louisiana for tax incentives, but how many movies really take place in Louisiana? I think you should be accountable to the people in the place where you shoot. I knew with Shotgun Stories I would be judged by people in Arkansas for how I represented the place, and I think I should be judged for that. I should be accountable, and I think that makes the movie better. A story that could just be shot anywhere, that could take place anywhere, that's kind of boring.