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Actor Michael Shannon has been a familiar face in movies for
years now, beginning with his breakout turn reprising his stage role as a
mentally damaged man in William Friedkin’s BUG. In the past year, he’s gained
further attention on the hit HBO series BOARDWALK EMPIRE, which just began its
second season, and for taking on the role of villainous General Zod in the
Superman reboot MAN OF STEEL. And starting this weekend, audiences will be able
to see him in a role that has won him his highest praise yet: the supremely
troubled Curtis LaForche in writer/director Jeff Nichols’ psychological drama/thriller TAKE
SHELTER. Shannon spoke to Fango about this mesmerizing turn, and his genre work
past and future.
TAKE SHELTER, going into platform release from Sony Pictures
Classics, sees suburban family man Curtis suffering apocalyptic visions of
storms and other threatening natural phenomena. Certain that these are portents
of actual disaster to come, he goes off the deep end trying to protect his wife
Samantha (Jessica Chastain) and daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). Watching his
breakdown is deeply disturbing, and yet thanks to Shannon, he never loses
connection with his humanity—or with the audience.
FANGORIA: Curtis is a character who very easily could have
turned unsympathetic at a certain point, and yet you’re emotionally engaged
with him throughout. Was that something you were conscious of—keeping him
empathetic through the whole story?
MICHAEL SHANNON: I guess, although I think that’s a credit
to Jeff, in the way that it’s written. One of the keys is that Curtis is never
unaware of how potentially misguided he is, you know? I mean, he doesn’t rule
out the possibility that he might just be crazy. He’s very careful, even though
he does some very outlandish things. Considering what he’s going through, he’s
almost being kind of rational—trying to rationally deal with an irrational
situation. That’s part of why, for me anyway, he remains sympathetic, because
he doesn’t completely surrender to his delusion. He keeps trying to work it
out, and he’s so devoted to his family, too. It’s not just about him, it’s
about the people around him. He doesn’t ever lose sight of them.
FANG: You made the film on a fairly low budget and tight
schedule. Were there any difficulties because of that?
SHANNON: It’s really hard making a film that way, or any
time you’re working on a low budget. You run out of time, you run out of money,
you run out of everything. One of the things I admire about Jeff is that he really
keeps his composure. He doesn’t succumb to the pressure. I’ve never seen
anybody stay so calm and so focused in that situation. I mean, I’m not saying
that all the directors I’ve worked with in low-budget situations threw their
hands up in the air and started freaking out, but sometimes there’s a little
uncertainty that creeps in; maybe they’re not sure they got what they had
hoped, or they’re making sacrifices along the way. But Jeff doesn’t do that.
Jeff knows what he wants and he gets it, with very little resources, and
considering how young he is, it’s pretty astonishing. I can only imagine what
he would do if he had a lot of money.
FANG: Were there any scenes you weren’t able to do because
of budget or timing? Any particularly important moments you just weren’t able
SHANNON: We shot everything that was in the script. Usually
it was more an issue of coverage—we may have wanted five angles on a scene but
only get two, or something like that. But when I saw the movie at Sundance, I
didn’t feel like there were any lapses due to our budget. There wasn’t any
scene where it felt like, “Ugh, I wish we could have done that again.”
Actually, Jeff shot a lot more than he needed—which wasn’t the case with
SHOTGUN STORIES, our first film together. With that movie, he needed every
frame he shot just to get it across the finish line. But with this, he actually
was able to sculpt it quite a bit in postproduction, and when it comes out on
DVD, maybe you’ll see some extra footage.
FANG: Was there anything about TAKE SHELTER that surprised
you when you saw the final product?
SHANNON: Hmm, that’s interesting. I guess what surprised me
was that I had quite an emotional response to it, which was odd considering
that I had been there every day and knew what was going to happen. Nothing was
a surprise, but it just goes to show that editing is a very powerful component
of filmmaking. It’s just a whole other layer that brings it to a whole other
FANG: You’re now stepping into the biggest film you’ve done
so far, MAN OF STEEL. How are you approaching the character of General Zod?
SHANNON: I went back to the source material, the original comics. There are so many of them
to look at, and Zod is a huge part of the Superman literary
culture. I didn’t realize that—there’s hundreds of issues that he’s in. So I
just went back and tried to read all those, get my history. I also thought
about reading [Sun Tzu’s] THE ART OF WAR or something, getting a general mindset.
It’s such a strange thing to play a general; I’ve never been in the military,
and I’ve always been curious about how their minds work. They know so much,
having been in the military such a long time. I’m sure it’s not easy to become
a general on Krypton!
FANG: Did you look at Terence Stamp’s portrayal of the
character in the previous films?
SHANNON: Well, I certainly remember him from when I was a
kid. He made a huge impression on me. Those three villains really scared me
when I saw the movie. And I watched some clips on YouTube, but I’m trying to do
something different, because if I just imitated him, it would be kind of
FANG: How has it been working with director Zack Snyder so
SHANNON: He’s wonderful, just a real friendly person, always
very upbeat and full of ideas. I can’t imagine how many people he’s got in his
ear, you know? But he stays very even-keeled throughout.
FANG: Getting back to TAKE SHELTER, it seems that one of
your past characters who’s closest to Curtis is Peter in William
Friedkin’s BUG. Can you see any kind of through-line between the two roles?
I can. The more overt comparison would be the grappling with these visions of
destruction—one of them with the storms and other one with the bugs. I also see
a connection because in both instances they’re not just trying to protect
themselves, but they’re trying to protect people they love, but in order to
share their problems with those people, they have to risk losing the love
they’re trying to save in the first place. They’re both stories, I feel, about
intimacy as much as anything. I know Jeff feels the same way; he wants people
to see that as much as TAKE SHELTER may be about the state of the world, it’s
also about a relationship, a marriage. BUG is very much about the relationship
between Peter and Agnes, these two people who are very damaged and trying to
protect each other or save each other.
FANG: BUG is especially intimate, since pretty much all of
it takes place in one motel room. Did that make it an especially intense
experience to shoot it?
SHANNON: Yeah, it was intense experience, no doubt about it.
It was a set that they built in a high-school gymnasium in Metairie, Louisiana.
We shoot it right before Hurricane Katrina; we left New Orleans, and about a
week later, the hurricane hit. I guess Metairie was particularly battered; I
don’t know if that high school got flooded, but it was very intense. But while
we were there, there were no signs that that was on the horizon at all. It was
just a typical gymnasium. The first day we were rehearsing, the wrestling team
was practicing there. They were running up and down the risers, and Billy said,
“Well, they won’t do that while we’re shooting.” I was like, “Oh, that’s
good”—we’d be hard-pressed to explain the noise of the wrestling team running
up and down the stairs in the background!
FANG: How was Friedkin to work with in general?
SHANNON: He was really kind. There are legendary stories
about how he can be difficult to work for, but he was very passionate about
making the film, and he really stuck his neck out to get me in it, so I was
always very appreciative. I mean, I’m sure the financiers would have loved to
get someone with a little more stature in the role, but he always insisted that
I do it. He really believed in me, and he was very supportive and just let me
do my thing. I mean, I had done the play before, so I knew what the story was.
FANG: You also went down South to do a great little horror
film called DEAD BIRDS a number of years back.
SHANNON: Yeah, that was intense. Civil War wool uniforms in
Alabama in the summertime—crazy. Yeah, that was a lot of fun. I never really
knew whether people saw it or not. It wasn’t a huge blockbuster, but I guess
people see it on DVD and so forth.
FANG: It does have quite a following, and you had a great
cast around you.
SHANNON: Yeah, it was a lot of fun. We shot that opening
sequence with the bank robbery in the little town they built for BIG FISH, the
Tim Burton film. They built this town and just left it there, and then we got
to film our robbery there. And I almost fell off my horse, because we were
riding away right into this huge light, because the sun was going down and they
were trying to light it. The horses were riding toward it and horses aren’t
naturally inclined to want to do that, so mine kind of pulled a 180 and I
almost came off the damn thing. But it was exciting. I love working with Mark
Boone Jr. He’s a hoot. On the DVD, I think there’s a little footage of us
goofing around. Everybody was really nice—Henry Thomas, Patrick Fugit, Nicki
Aycox, Isaiah Washington. There were some nights where things got a little
kooky; I guess working on any horror film, people get a little freaked out
FANG: Did any actual scary stuff go on in the house you shot
SHANNON: Not really, because there were always so many
people in the house, you know? It was not a place I would have wanted to be
alone in, but there were always crew and cast there. I was never really alone
in any of the rooms.
FANG: Before that, you worked with John Waters on CECIL B.
DEMENTED? What was that experience like?
SHANNON: He creates a real fun atmosphere, you know? You
never have to sit there and think about your traumatic past on a John Waters
set. You just show up and have a good time. More than anything, it was probably
the most fun I’ve ever had on a movie. Just showing up to work every day, we
got to do something fun—running around, kidnapping Melanie Griffith, wearing
those costumes. The look of the film was very distinctive, those fun tattoos
and all that. And being with people who went on to do a lot of other
things—Maggie Gyllenhaal, Adrian Grenier and people like that. It’s interesting
to have that memory of working with them back when we were all just kids.
FANG: Are you a horror fan yourself, and would you be
interested in doing a straight horror film again at some point?
SHANNON: I’m actually pretty much a scaredy-cat. I can’t
really watch horror movies without scaring the crap out of myself. Like, I
didn’t go see PARANORMAL ACTIVITY or any of those. I have a very hypersensitive
imagination. I guess maybe it’s why I’m an actor. I kind of like my horror
mixed with something else. I like the psychological component more than just
the visceral component, you know what I mean?
Read more comments from Shannon on TAKE SHELTER in Fango
#307, now on sale.
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