Shotgun Stories

Monday, March 24th, 2008 | All Things, Film

Tonight: Shotgun Stories, the criticallyadmired debut feature by writer-director Jeff Nichols. The film is a take on a classic feud story, pitting two sets of half brothers against each other over the languid backdrop of rural Arkansas. Years of resentments erupt following a confrontation at their father’s funeral, setting off an escalating series of vengeful acts that can leave no winner. (Nichols is said to have been inspired by the current political climate.)

Michael Shannon stars as Son Hayes, who along with younger brothers Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs), shares the hard memories of being abandoned as children by a violent drunk of a dad, who reforms and remarries, eventually becoming a loving father to four more sons. The older Hayes boys are formed of a certain Southern stereotype, which until the eye-opening trip last summer, I would have assumed to be some a kind of gross exaggeration: one lives in a pup tent pitched in his brother’s yard; the other, literally, in a van down by the river. The intensity of the young men’s bitterness burns deep, sharpened by their lives of constant struggle, all sparingly presented with minimal dialogue and improbably beautiful landscapes. (Credit to Adam Stone for the cinematography.)

A laid-back Shannon was tonight’s guest, fresh off a Public Theater rehearsal for Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Little Flower of East Orange, in which he plays Ellyn Burstyn’s junkie son; The Times called Shannon’s performance “undeniably commanding, if at times exhausting.

Shannon and Siegel

Shannon and Siegel

That seems to be a recurring theme throughout the little of Shannon’s oeuvre I’ve seen; I still recall his creepy, but memorable turn as a devout ex-marine in Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center.

The part of the seminar I most enjoy is hearing the backstory of how these independent films get made. In this case: Arkansas-native Nichols, while a student at the North Carolina School of the Arts, had watched some scenes Shannon filmed with his professor Gary Hawkins at the Sundance Labs. Nichols was so taken with the brooding actor that he wrote an entire screenplay with Shannon in mind, eventually contacting him through Hawkins about starring in his film. And in a turn of events sure to frustrate aspiring screenwriters everywhere, Shannon read Nichols’s script, was likewise impressed with the student’s work, and agreed. Just like that.

The way Shannon described it this evening, the entire shoot was a labor of love. Nichols’s whole family was involved in aspects of the film’s production: his parents and assorted family friends hosted much of the cast and crew in their homes, his mother was put on craft services duty, cooking dinner for 30 every night. Nichols’s brother wrote the film’s music while his father was a driver on set and an all-important funder. (David Gordon Green, director of All the Real Girls, the 2003 romance starring Zooey Deschanel, has official producing credit.)

Shannon was an engaging, if not particularly chatty, presence… slightly less scary in person than on screen. He did more than once say he wished that Nichols could have been at Town Hall tonight himself to explain the film better. Nichols, however, was unavailable, due to attending his own wedding the day before. Good excuse.

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