The first movie to sell out in the 14th annual Ebertfest, which ended today, was writer-director Jeff Nichols’s "Take Shelter," a Hitchcock-style psychological family drama starring Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain.
Shown Saturday night during Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, the movie didn’t disappoint the full house at the Virginia Theatre.. Neither did Nichols and Shannon, who both appeared on stage before and after the screening.
Though the movie is intense and suspenseful throughout, Nichols and Shannon joked often.
The two, who don't seem to take themselves too seriously, received a warm welcome from festival-goers as well as Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which had purchased the independent film for distribution. (Sony Pictures also bought two other 2012 Ebertfest films: "Higher Ground" and the Oscar-winning "A Separation.")
Barker called the 33-year-old Nichols "a very genuine article and one of our great American filmmakers."
Turning to Shannon, Barker said many people in the film industry believe he had given in "Take Shelter" the finest performance of a leading male actor in 2011.
Handing Shannon her husband’s "Golden Thumb award," a trophy of Ebert’s cast thumb, emcee Chaz Ebert said, "This is really a special award that Michael alluded to and that you should have gotten in 2011." The laconic, 37-year-old actor appeared embarrassed, looking down at the stage.
Though he was not Oscar-nominated for "Take Shelter," Shannon was for best supporting actor in "Revolutionary Road" (2008). He also appears on the stage and TV screen, most recently as a regular on the acclaimed HBO series "Boardwalk Empire."
In "Take Shelter," Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a construction worker who begins to have apocalyptic dreams and visions that make him fear for himself, his wife (Jessica Chastain) and their 6-year-old deaf daughter (Tova Stewart). Obsessed, he extensively renovates the tornado shelter in their backyard and takes other actions that anger and unsettle his wife. At the same time he fears his family history of mental illness.
The movie ends on a strong yet ambiguous note.
"Jeff, will you tell us how we should interpret the end of this movie?" Barker said as he began the post-screening discussion.
"I wrote it purposely to be ambiguous and would like it to remain that way," Nichols said.
The writer-director, who was newly married when he began writing "Shelter" in 2008, said for him the movie is at heart about marriage, commitment and communication.
He said his only concern about the ending — which he had in mind as he began writing the screenplay — was to get it right and to have the couple played by Shannon and Chastain be "on the same page at the end, without talking to each other, and seeing the same thing."
When writing the screenplay, Nichols also was influenced by the world at large — deep-water oil well explosions, the hike in gas prices, the recession, wars. Not to mention a seeming increase in severe weather.
Nichols and Shannon spent only 24 days shooting "Take Shelter," mainly in Ohio. Nichols quickly edited as well. He finished shooting in July and the "picture was locked by Christmas" of that year.
Nichols generally shoots scenes in just a few takes. But for one set during a community dinner at a small-town Lions Club, Nichols did six takes. That was of Shannon’s character over-turning a table after fighting with a former co-worker.
As he focused his cameras on extras and other actors, Nichols didn’t tell them what Shannon would do. In one of the takes, after he explosively flipped the table and walked out of the room, all the extras and other actors became very quiet, Nichols said.
"I yelled cut and the whole room started applauding. It was like dinner theater," the director joked.
Shannon said he didn’t rehearse much for "Take Shelter." Often his character emotes not with words but with facial expressions and body language.
"When I read it I felt I understood it," said the actor, who felt the same anxiety as did Nichols over the world as well as family responsibilities.
For the psychology of Curtis, Shannon was partly inspired by people with mental illness who lived in halfway houses in Evanston, where he spent his teen years. He often encountered them in coffee houses and on the street.
"I guess I have to give Evanston some of the credit," the actor said.
Besides Shannon, there was another strong character in the movie — the special effects. For them, Nichols turned to brothers Greg and Colin Strause (self-titled as the Strause Brothers), founders of Hydraulx, a special effects company.
It has created special effects for many Hollywood movies, among them the iceberg scenes in "Titanic."
Nichols said he paid the Strause brothers $100,000 for their work in "Take Shelter"; the director estimated they did $2 million to $4 million worth of labor for the movie.
"They were amazing and I think they were really proud of the film," he said.
Nichols shot "Take Shelter" on 35mm film; it was the only 35mm film projected at 2012 Ebertfest. The 12 others were digitally projected. The opening film, "Joe Versus the Volcano," was shot on 35mm and then digitally remastered.