Take Shelter was one of the first big buys of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, with Sony Classics picking it up before it even had its Park City premiere. It also won the critics prize at Cannes. It is fresh and original yet it begins with one of the most overused devices in film and literature: a dark and stormy sky. Then it takes you on a psychological roller coaster that is anything but hackneyed. It's a thoughtful and powerful look at how we deal with things we can't control.
It's the story of family man, Curtis, a hard working, blue collar husband and father with a lot on his mind. Although he and his wife Samantha have a beautiful young daughter and are very much in love, Curtis becomes plagued by terrifying dreams of an encroaching apocalyptic storm. He chooses to keep it to himself and channels his anxiety into building a storm shelter in his backyard. His single minded approach to preparedness for some unknown disaster causes him to lose his job, his place in the community and even threatens his marriage. The disaster his dreams portend may be of the natural kind or it may be a sign of his fraying mental state. Which is more of a threat?
Director Jeff Nichols agreed to speak with me about the ingenious use of the threat of disaster as antagonist. Since I watched the film with a particular interest in the politics of disaster preparedness, Nichols got something other than the typical interview questions he's gotten at junkets, but he was clearly up for the challenge. (Maybe even prepared?)
CS: In the press kit I received, you say, "I had a nagging feeling that the world at large was heading for harder times" -- where did you get the idea for a film about the effect of disaster preparedness on a man, his family and his community?
JN : When I write, I write from some kind of universal feeling or emotion and with this one I picked anxiety because it's a feeling everyone can relate to right now, but that feeling in and of itself didn't suffice in terms of being thematic thread and as I was writing I was in first year of marriage and, separately, had been asking what it means to married, to start a family and I realized that marriage and this family was actually going to be the cause of all this anxiety because it's an effect not a cause and I needed a cause for this feeling and it seems the loss of stability, the loss of family, and a relationship and all else seemed to be the highest stakes for this man.
CS: His best friend compliments him on having a "good life" and say it is the highest compliment he can give another man.
JN: Right. So from the beginning [we] position him as a man that has a nice life. It's not that he's wealthy but he has made good decisions and good choices, and from his friend's position, it is an enviable life.
CS: So how did you chose natural disaster to embody all that Curtis fears?
JN: Film is a visual medium and it seems appropriate as a visual metaphor. Also I also think storms are beautiful, I think nature is beautifully devastating at times, and the reason to chose nature as antagonist is that it is impartial and that is [what is] scariest. It's not a bad corporation sending waste into a river -- you can't put your finger on anything that specific. That, to me, is what causes the most fear: there's no way to fix it or prevent it. It's not malicious but it's still devastating. Plus I grew up in Arkansas and the threat of severe weather always existed. As a kid there was always this knowledge in the background [that] you might have to run into your bathtub and make it through something very severe. Plus, summer thunderstorms are one of my favorite things in the world -- you sit outside, you feel all the changes in the temperature, all this anticipation. That's in the film as well; there are moments when Curtis is in awe of these things and it's a feeling that I relate to.
CS: What are the parallels between preparing for a disaster and a mental breakdown? The actions Curtis takes to shore up against the impending storm end up stressing all of his personal relationships.
JN: I certainly don't think that anyone who prepares for disaster is mentally challenged -- that's not the intention at all. To be honest, the film grew from an image: I was standing in the backyard one day and I pictured someone at the doorway of a storm shelter and I wasn't sure if he was out or in, so I started to build a story out from that. I thought about a man very pragmatically preparing for something cataclysmic. Sometimes the most fun of horror movies [is] when the characters go into the sporting goods store and start getting prepared, you know? That was an interesting -- somewhat macabre thing -- to sort out in my head. It seemed like an interesting action or reaction to these dreams.
CS: How would you like this film to be received?
JN: There are a couple of things to chew on. The first thing I want people to take away is some notion about commitment and marriage because that's what I feel like is the emotional core and then stepping out from that you can talk about the fact that we all have fear in our lives and at some point we have to figure out a way to process that fear and deal with it because otherwise we shut down. The problems will keep coming -- that's what it means to be human; to have fear in our lives and learn to deal with it and the answer to dealing with your own fear is to turn to the person standing next to you and hope that they can understand your fear and stand by you.
CS: Does this mean you see fear as a weakness?
JN: I see it as a debilitating thing that you have to find a way to cope with. The only mistake Curtis really makes in the film is not losing his job or taking out a bank loan [without telling his wife]; it's not sharing these fears with her sooner -- not leaning on her sooner. That's where a lot of the tension is derived from -- him keeping it to himself. The takeaway is that there are others in our lives that can help us if you let them help. There are no answers, there is just support...
CS: Did working on this inspire you to get prepared for any upcoming disasters?
No one's ever asked me that before. In Texas right now we're having one of the worst droughts in history and these giant fires are burning around Austin where I live, so all I've been worried this summer is water. But honestly I haven't done anything specifically to prepare for anything more pragmatic than that I've got to get these credit cards paid off. I've got a 14-month-old son now and I've got to get my shit together.
CS: So you didn't find any comfort in shoring up the way Curtis did by buying canned goods, building his shelter, those kinds of things?
JN: Does that just misplace energy or is it a real solution? It doesn't mean don't be prepared because if it happens [you are] gone anyways. That's not the answer. But you shouldn't go so far with it that you don't want to step outside your house. Balance in all things. There's always going to be something around the corner. It seems easy to wrap your mind around but I never applied that thinking to cataclysmic disaster or to some of the greatest anxieties in my life.
CS: I can tell you don't usually get questions like these.
JN: I appreciate it.
Take Shelter is in theaters now.