While it should be left to history to determine if writer/director Jeff Nichols debut feature Shotgun Stories will be considered a classic or not, it is definitely at play in the same fields used by other writers, examining the complex hatred that exists between two sets of half-brothers in a small Arkansas town.
“I liked the idea of working with universal themes,” Nichols states in a recent phone interview. “Shakespeare would take an emotion and anchor a story on it. The movie’s action is set off before the movie even starts. In that way, the characters are very star-crossed.”
Son Hayes (Michael Shannon) and his two brothers, Boy (Douglas Ligon) and Kid (Barlow Jacobs), have grown up from poverty, doing their best to earn a living. When they were children, their alcoholic and abusive father abandoned them to an angry and bitter mother. Although their father eventually sobered up, he remarried and started a second family, who harbor no good-will to Son and his brothers. Although uninvited to their father’s funeral, Son, Boy and Kid still go, exchanging words and then blows with their half-brothers. The funeral is just the start of an escalating feud between the two families that they may not be able to escape from.
“The way things are going in the country and the world, revenge seemed an appropriate topic,” Nichols says, further elaborating on Shotgun Stories theme. “‘An eye for an eye’ thinking is very prevalent now.”
It was a theme that film festival audiences immediately connected with, sometimes in surprising ways.
“The first question I got after the screening was ‘Is this an allegory for Bush’s political policies?’” Nichols states of Shotgun Stories’ debut at the Berlin Film Festival. “It was interesting to watch the film through the perspective of a foreign audience. They appreciate a filmmaker examining what it means to be violent and what it means to be a man in America.”
“I was flabbergasted,” Shannon admits. “I’ve read a lot of screenplays over the years and this was one of the best I had ever read. The writing was really mature. It reads as if it were written by someone much older than Jeff.”
Shannon was so impressed that he committed to the film almost immediately. “I called [Jeff] up and said, ‘I’ll do this whenever you want. I don’t even care about the money. As long as I have a place to sleep, I’ll come down and do it.’”
Shannon’s quick acceptance to work on the project came as a relief to Nichols.
“I had written the part for him,” he says, adding that he was inspired to tailor the part of Son to Shannon based on a videotape the actor doing some workshop readings at the Sundance labs of another script that never was produced. “Luckily he read the script and saw something in the film he liked.”
Setting the film’s stage are long, wide views of the Arkansas countryside, vistas that aren’t normally seen in film, but which Nichols says are inspired by the camera work in David Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia.
“To me, the horizon lines are so flat and vast, it seemed an appropriate way to go,” he states, drawing a parallel between the flat expanses of the Midwest state and Lean’s desert-set opus. “While on the one hand we are an indie film, on the other hand the film is an epic with its epic emotions.”
While filming outside of the traditional Hollywood locations can lead to more complicated production, Nichols found shooting in rural Arkansas to run smoothly.
“The communities opened up to us like a flower blossom,” he states. “It was the greatest gift for a film production. And it was not because they were small town folk enamored with Hollywood, because it was really just me and eight buddies with our gear in a pickup truck. They were just generous.”
Nichols says that he got his biggest compliments from the owner of one of the film’s locations after a local screening.
“He said to me, ‘You got it Jeff. You got it. These are the people we work with.’” Nichols reports. “That meant a lot to me.”