Michael Shannon on audiences needing 'guts' to see 'Take Shelter' and 'Boardwalk Empire's' season finale
How did an Oscar nominee shoe-in at Sundance become a borderline contender?
As you'd expect for the first week of December, it's pretty chilly in Vancouver, B.C. these days. But, Michael Shannon, who is north of the border shooting Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel," took a few minutes on Thursday to warm up and chat about his acclaimed performance in "Take Shelter."
Ever since Jeff Nichols' drama debuted at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival last January, many pundits expected Shannon's work as an everyday man who is suffering from increasingly apocalyptic visions to be a leading contender in the best actor Oscar race. "Shelter" continued to gain acclaim in the months following Sundance winning the prestigious Critic's Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in May and screening at the Toronto Film Festival. And yet, when "Take Shelter" debuted in limited release in September, the results were nothing but disappointing. This was partially because both Shannon and his co-star, Jessica Chastain, were too busy shooting other films to do a ton of promotion, but also, unfortunately, a lack of enthusiasm from a very busy Sony Classics. Even with stellar reviews (an 88 on Metacritic and a 92% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes), there picture has only grossed $1.5 million in limited release. This disappointing result effectively killed the buzz on "Shelter" and many have questioned whether Shannon's work will be recognized among a crowded field of best actors contenders, many of whose films have just debuted. In fact, you could argue "Shelter" should have arrived in November or even the beginning of December to play the awards season/box office game properly, but Classics decided to give those slots to the less favorably received "A Dangerous Method" and "Carnage." However, a bright light shined upon the film late last month when it landed five Independent Spirit Awards nominations (tied with "The Artist" for the most per film) including a best actor honor for Shannon. There is actually now hope that "Shelter's" Oscar fate could turn around.
The former best supporting actor Oscar nominee for "Revolutionary Road," a role which subsequently put him on the map after years of stellar work, says neither he nor Nichols are disappointed at all by how "Shelter" has fared in theaters.
Shannon says, "I mean, it takes a bit of guts to go see our film. It's not an easy ride, y'know? I think there are other films that are also very good that are maybe a little easier to swallow, y'know? You take a film like 'The Artist,' which is also a very fine film and I guess at the end of the day, a bit more fun to watch. Our film raises some fairly serious questions and based on the synopsis of it, I could see people not being up for that kind of subject matter."
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"I'd worked with him on his first film, 'Shotgun Stories,' and for my money he is one of the most talented young directors out there," Shannon says. "He has a very distinctive, unique vision and I just wanted to be involved with whatever he was working on. I think it's an incredibly timely story about these fragile times we leave in and how people are supposed to cope that there seems to be some sort of impending doom on the horizon."
As Curtis, Shannon seems to have the weight of the world on his shoulders as his visions and paranoid delusions (or are they?) become more and more intense. Production was less than a year and a half ago, but Shannon doesn't remember much except that it all went by quickly and he was exhausted at the end of every day. In regards to how he prepares for a character like Curtis, Shannon notes, "I'm not necessarily worried about trying to manufacture emotions or sustain some sort of emotional state. It's much more about the practicalities of this character trying to deal with his situation He's a very practical man in a very surreal and unusual situation. He's not an overly emotional man by nature. No, I didn't really have chains around my neck or anything. I just did the job."
Chastain, who remarkably has had her first five films released all within this calendar year, received a ton of kudos for her performances in "The Tree of Life" and "The Help," but you could easily argue her best work so far is as Curtis' increasingly confused and frustrated wife Samantha in "Shelter." It's a testament to both actors' talent when you discover that they were able to manufacture such genuine chemistry on screen after being introduced to each other the day before filming began.
"That has a lot to do with Jessica and who she is," Shannon says. "She's a very open, warmhearted person. She's very available. She doesn't throw up a lot of boundaries at least. And, you know, the situation necessitated that we be pretty quick to dive into it. So, I think Jeff just got lucky. He didn't know who to cast in that role for a long time. He couldn't really think of anyone. And he wasn't overly familiar with Jessica either. Sarah Greene, one of our producers, she produced 'The Tree of Life' and she recommended Jessica because of that and it was just a smart call."
One aspect of "Shelter" that this writer always expected would help the film generate strong word of mouth was the film's "surprise" ending. Instead, according to Shannon, a lot of people have expressed frustration with the picture's climax.
"I'm not exactly sure why," Shannon admits. "Somehow, they feel it's not the way they wanted the film to end. Unfortunately, I think the ending is susceptible to being misread quite a bit. Basically, it's a matter of what point of view you look at the film. The ending is very poetic. It's not meant to be taken literally. The story of the film to me isn't whether Curtis is right or wrong because ultimately there is an end coming. I mean, I think it would be hard to imagine there isn't. It something that seems fairly logical. At least an end to this way of life as we know it. It's not sustainable forever. I see that in the newspaper every other day."
But thematically, Shannon adds, that's why it works. He notes, "It's just more a matter of the family being together. Something that Curtis has struggled with by himself. Finally, he's sharing that experience with the rest of his family and he's not so alone."
With "Boardwalk Empire" ending its second season Sunday night, I ended our quick chat with one last spoiler-free question before Shannon headed back to the "Man of Steel" set to battle Superman as the nefarious General Zod. Will fans be surprised where Van Alden is at the end of the season two finale or are there other surprises down the road?
Shannon pauses for a moment and then begins, "Well, yes that certainly is a tough question to answer without giving anything away. I think, as with anything, you can see based on what Van Alden's been through so far he's not a quitter. But, it is very mysterious. There are a lot of things he has lost over the course of the season. His wife and his job and his position in Atlantic City are no longer available to him. But, he's not a suicide case. And he's a tough guy. He's bound to figure something out, I suppose."
And hopefully Academy voters are bound to figure out Shannon should be a best actor nominee this year too.
"Take Shelter" is still playing in select theaters across the country.
For year round entertainment commentary and awards season news follow @HitFixGregory on Twitter.
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