Family dudes: Jeff Nichols' "Shotgun Stories" opens in the Bay Area this week. (Photo courtesy International Film Circuit, Inc.)

Jeff Nichols on "Shotgun Stories"

Eve O'Neill March 31, 2008

With “Shotgun Stories,” first-time writer/director Jeff Nichols managed to build, for less than half a million dollars, a relatable story and characters with substance seen rarely in mainstream film—and the film is now on quite a roll, fresh off grand jury prize wins at both the Seattle and Austin Film Festivals, Roger Ebert’s “great discovery” at the Chicago Film Festival, and nominated for a Cassavetes Award at the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards. I was particularly interested in the film’s success, as six of the principal cast and crew members of “Shotgun Stories” either teach at or graduated from the same small art college in North Carolina as me. When Nichols was visiting San Francisco for the film’s opening night appearance at SF Indiefest many many weeks back, he offered us with some insight into the creation and production of the film, which opens in SF this Friday. [ editor’s note: This article first appeared in in a slightly different form during SF Indiefest.]

SF360: Do you know what spawned the idea? When? Book, movie, song, old journal entry, a mood you were in?

Jeff Nichols: The ideas for ‘Shotgun Stories’ collected in my head for about a year before I sat down to write the script. The first image I had was of a man with a shotgun wound healed over on his back. I was reading a lot of Larry Brown at the time. His novel, ‘Joe,’ has a scene of a man performing home surgery to remove recent shotgun pellets from his neck. It’s a great scene, and it definitely influenced my idea. The biggest, single moment of inspiration came while listening to a Drive By Truckers song called ‘Decoration Day.’ It follows a more classic, typical feud scenario, but it made me wonder what a present day version of a feud might look like in rural Arkansas. The fact that I come from a family of brothers, that the world was/is feeling like an extremely volatile place, and that I wanted to make a film that portrayed Southeast Arkansas in an honest way all combined to create this story.

SF360: Was there ever a moment when you thought that the project might fall through? Conversely, was there a moment that brought the whole thing together in a way you hadn’t anticipated?

Nichols: Several moments actually. When we began the film, we only had enough money to get through the initial production. At each step of the way, I had to go out and put more cash together to move forward. About a year after principle photography had wrapped, I needed to go back to shoot some missing b-roll for the film. I was broke, and I definitely got the feeling that this film may never be finished and may just sit on my computer forever. Of course by that time, so many people had invested themselves in our film that in reality there was no way I couldn’t finish. So although there were dark moments, the question wasn’t really ‘if’ I’d finish the film but ‘when.’

There were also several moments when the film became more than I could’ve hoped for. The first was when Michael Shannon agreed to play Son. Another major moment was after I had a cut of the film, my friends David Green and Lisa Muskat saw and liked the film and said they’d be willing to come on board as producers. That really initiated the second life of this project. They were the catalyst that got the film finished and out in the world.

SF360: Michael Shannon is an incredibly intense presence in this movie. How much of his character did you work on with him? What part of Son did he bring to the table?

Nichols: It’s not that I really sat and worked with Mike on his character. I wrote the part, and Mike understood the part perfectly. I had actually written the role with him in mind. I had never met or spoken to him at that time, but I had been paying attention to his performances and knew he was the guy I wanted. A professor of mine in college, Gary Hawkins, had worked with Mike at the Sundance Labs. He showed me a videotape of Mike’s work there, and I knew I wanted to write a part for him. That must’ve been in 2000 or so. I didn’t begin writing the script until 2004. So I feel like there was a lot of Mike in the part before he even knew it existed. That said, Mike is an extremely intelligent guy. When he showed up he knew the script as well as I did, if not better. To the production, he brought a focus and professionalism that really upped the ante. To the character, he brought intensity. That’s just Mike. It’s in his voice, his face, his posture. These are all tools that Mike has tremendous command over. We were riding home from set together one day, and I mentioned the strength of his voice. Mike looked at me and said, ‘You know I’ve had to work on this. This didn’t just happen.’ I think Mike is one of those actors that makes his performances seem effortless. So much so that you have to remind yourself he’s acting.

SF360: Your characters seem to exist in a world separate from modern ideas of law and justice; right or wrong they act to protect honor above all else. What do you make of this time in which we live?

Nichols: I’ll admit to romanticizing the idea of the blue collar Southern man to a degree. I like the idea of nobility separated from class. Yeats focused on this a lot in his writing about the Irish. However, I also think the emotions the characters act upon are pretty universal. The desire for revenge is an emotion that we’ve all experienced at some level. So in that regard, I think these characters are very relevant to the times we live in. The idea of an eye for an eye is alive and well in the world today. I think humans act as a result of basic emotions. I think good stories examine these emotions. Also, these characters have a history with one another. Their anger, if not their actions, is validated by that history.

SF360: Any advice for a first time director trying to get a production off the ground?

Nichols: Write a project you can shoot, put as much cash together as you can find, and go make something. The key is to just go make something. I think a lot of people wait around for help, but there is no help coming. Set a start date and get the ball rolling. People respond to positive action.