Moving film took writer-director home – and audience with him

CHAMPAIGN – Chaz Ebert said Friday at Roger Ebert's Film Festival at the Virginia Theatre that she had promised earlier in the week not to cry over her husband's absence from the event.

"It's allowed to cry over the movies," she said after Jeff Nichols's "Shotgun Stories" was screened.

"That movie was so beautiful it made me sob," she said.

"Shotgun Stories" is a laconic, elegiac and nearly Shakespearean tale of three rural Arkansas brothers whose alcoholic father deserts them early in life, leaving them with a hateful mother who teaches her sons, named Son, Boy and Kid, to hate their father, who remarries, goes straight and has another family of sons.

The movie, Nichols' first, lets that back story unfold through action and not expository dialogue. Early in the movie, which opened the Friday session of the five-day Ebertfest, Son's mother comes to his home to tell him their father has died.

Son and his two younger brothers go the graveyard service. Son's father's second wife reluctantly allows him to say a few words over his father's coffin. He essentially announces that his father was not a good man and spits on his coffin, setting up a feud between the brothers and their half-brothers that builds suspense and results in fatal consequences before a truce is reached.

Nichols, a 29-year-old native of Little Rock, Ark., who now lives in Austin, Texas, shot the film in three small towns near his hometown. The flat landscape and Arkansas River nearly become additional characters in the movie.

Festival director Nate Kohn, who along with festival blogger Lisa Rosman joined Nichols for the onstage discussion after the screening, said "Shotgun Stories" is evocative of place.

"This is a story about place. You went home to make this film," Kohn said to Nichols.

Nichols said he decided to write "Shotgun Stories" and set it in rural Arkansas because he knows the place and the voice of the characters who live there. More practically, the graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts said he knew he would get financial and other support from friends and family. His crew slept at his parents' home.

The story is not based on his own experiences, though.

"I don't have half-brothers. My parents love me. My mom is beautiful and sweet, nothing like Natalie Canerday," who played Nicole, the mother of Son, Kid and Boy.

However, Nichols has two older brothers, and he drew on his love for them. "It was easy for me to tap into how I would feel if something happened to my brothers," he said.

Nichols shot the film entirely in daylight, mainly because he could not afford lighting equipment to shoot at night. He had to let his film editor go because he couldn't afford him. The editor believed that "Shotgun Stories" would have made a good short film.

Nichols ended up editing the film himself, making 620 cuts. A year later, he returned to the locations and took landscape shots, cutting them into the movie. The editor he had originally hired saw the movie with the landscapes intact and told Nichols the movie now made sense and helped establish why the characters are so terse.

"I think these people are born out of this place," Nichols said. "These blue-collar guys don't share their emotions. If they did, maybe they wouldn't get into these situations."

He also slowed the sound and for a score, turned to his older brother, Ben Nichols, a member of a Southern punk-rock band based in Memphis, to write the music. Ben Nichols wrote a beautiful score that doesn't overwhelm or detract from the characters or story.

"The music helps out a lot because contemporary film scores bug me," Nichols said. "They tell you totally what to think. You don't have to pay attention. When it's sad, they let you know."

Nichols has said he also wanted "Shotgun Stories" to accurately portray the South and the people who live there.

"I don't think these people are stupid. You might," he said of his characters. "I think they're eccentric and unique and quirky. I think filmmakers use characters from the South as a way to make jokes."

"Part of the beauty of the film is that you don't look down on them," Kohn said.

Following "Shotgun Stories" was the silent film, "Underworld," the first movie by director Josef von Sternberg. The film ushered in gangster films in which the gangster is the protagonist, not just a villain.

"Much credit for helping to define that genre goes to the great Ben Hecht, whose original screenplay received 'Underworld's' only Oscar in the first year those awards were given," film scholar Kristen Thompson wrote in the "Underworld" review in the Ebertfest program.

In her introduction of the film at the festival, Thompson said "Underworld" was released in 1927, the same year as "The Jazz Singer," which was the first talkie. She said "Underworld" is not a crude film but rather a masterpiece, with complete control of framing.

At Ebertfest, "Underworld" was accompanied by the three-man Cambridge, Mass.-based Alloy Orchestra. It performed its original score for the 80-minute film on an assemblage of percussion "junk" objects as well as electronic synthesizers.

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