CHAMPAIGN — When writer-director Jeff Nichols was first thinking of making "Take Shelter," he walked into his backyard in Austin, Texas, where he noticed concrete at the bottom of his clothesline poles. From there he thought of a storm shelter. Then into his mind popped the image of a man standing over a shelter, its doors open.
"I didn't know whether he was going in or out and whether there were people inside," he said.
Nichols started with that vision as he began writing "Take Shelter," then wove aspects of his life into the story. He will appear on the Virginia Theatre stage the movie is shown at 8:30 p.m. Saturday as part of the 14th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival. The screening is sold out.
Nichols, a 33-year-old from Little Rock, Ark., has made just three feature films but is poised on the brink of mainstream success. He just received news that his third movie, "Mud," will be shown in the main competition at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.
Ebertfest director Nate Kohn called Nichols an astonishing filmmaker.
"He's so young, but he's making motion pictures that deal with large themes, important films," he said. "He's really a cosmopolitan filmmaker from the middle of America, which is good."
Nichols brought his first feature, "Shotgun Stories" (2007), to the 2008 Ebertfest. Like "Take Shelter," it starred Michael Shannon, who will be live on the Virginia stage on Saturday night alongside Nichols and Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics.
That company made a blind offer for "Take Shelter" a week before it was to be screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Nichols believes there are three reasons Sony Pictures was willing to buy the film without seeing it first: Shannon, himself, and Sarah Green, who executive produced and has worked with director Terrence Malick.
Some critics compare Nichols to Malick. Nichols, who idolizes the elusive film director, doesn't get it.
For one thing, Nichols doesn't use voiceovers in his movies; Malick does. While Malick now takes an impressionistic approach to filmmaking, Nichols takes a narrative one, aiming for naturalistic and honest.
"It's pretty presumptuous to compare yourself to Malick. The only reason I answer the question is because people ask it," Nichols said. "I think we both focus on nature. That's where it might come from: We both have a way of showing nature in our films."
Special effects evoke nature in "Take Shelter." In it, Shannon portrays Curtis LaForche, who lives in a small Ohio town with his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain, who starred with Brad Pitt in Malick's "Tree of Life") and their 6-year-old daughter, Hannah, who's deaf.
Plagued by apocalyptic visions, Curtis questions whether to build a storm shelter to save his family from a storm — or from himself.
Nichols' first film also was an intense family drama. Set in southeast Arkansas, "Shotgun Stories" follows the feud that erupts between two sets of half-brothers after the death of their father.
Nichols set his third movie, "Mud," in southeast Arkansas as well. In the coming-of-age story, two 14-year-old boys discover a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey) on an island in the Mississippi River.
"Mud" has a bigger budget than Nichols' first two movies but still no studio backing. As producer, though, Everest Entertainment gave Nichols money to work with.
"Which is great; we really needed it," he said. "It's going to be interesting. 'Mud' was a much more difficult movie to make. Just practically speaking, it was a lot harder to pull off."