In the late first decade of the 21st century, Jeff Nichols made himself a dark horse darling of the independent film world with a pair of small, haunting films that drew nearly universal critical accl...
Wrote and directed the drama feature "Take Shelter," starring Michael Shannon as a family man with apocalyptic visions
Feature acting debut in "Come Early Morning" opposite Ashley Judd, Jeffrey Donovan and Tim Blake Nelson
Writing and directorial debut, "Shotgun Stories" starring Michael Shannon and Douglas Ligon as feuding half-brothers; also produced
In the late first decade of the 21st century, Jeff Nichols made himself a dark horse darling of the independent film world with a pair of small, haunting films that drew nearly universal critical acclaim. An Arkansas native, Nichols became one of a cadre of young creative types to emerge from the North Carolina School of the Arts' film program, among them his friend, Hollywood wunderkind Robert Gordon Green. Green helped produce Nichols' first feature, the Southern Gothic revenge tale "Shotgun Stories" (2007), which began a string of collaborations with actor Michael Shannon. The film garnered some buzz on the indie festival circuit, setting the stage for an even more auspicious greeting for his sophomore project, the apocalyptically-tinged "Take Shelter" (2011), which stunned the film world by garnering laurels at the Cannes Film Festival on the way to a raft of indie accolades. Wielding an underplayed aesthetic pallet often compared to directorial legend Terrence Malick, Nichols made it onto Hollywood's radar as a hot commodity amongst a new generation of visual storytellers.<p>Nichols was born Dec. 7, 1978, in Little Rock, AR where his family ran the local retail institution Nichols Furniture Company. He grew up in an artistic household that included his aspiring musician brother Ben, who began playing in bands by age 14, while Nichols gravitated toward the cinematic arts. As early as the sixth grade, he found inspiration at a local theater's screening of a remastered print of David Lean's epic "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962), which would plant the seed of an aesthetic deference to natural settings as man's context. That sense would be compounded when he attended the University of North Carolina's School of the Arts, then becoming a hotbed of new film talent. It was there he first saw the work of reclusive American New Wave impresario Terrence Malick. Nichols' classmates included David Gordon Green, who would make waves in the independent film realm with his debut feature "George Washington" (2000) and eventually land Hollywood money for a string of offbeat comedies such as "Pineapple Express" (2008), "Your Highness" (2011) and "The Sitter" (2011). Actor Danny McBride, who starred in multiple Green projects, and prolific cinematographer Tim Orr, who shot Green's films also attended.<p>Graduating in 2001, Nichols resettled in Austin, TX, where he began working on a script about a modern-day family feud while also working as production manager on a documentary about legendary self-destructive songwriter Townes Van Zandt. By 2004, Nichols returned to Arkansas to shoot his feud tale, "Shotgun Stories," with a mere $250,000 in funding. The production headquartered out of Nichols Furniture, with Nichols' mother taking on catering chores for much of the production, which shot in small towns in Southeastern Arkansas. Up-and-coming actor Michael Shannon took the lead as the downtrodden, seething Son, one of three white-trash brothers who initiates a violent feud with their father's sons from a second family he had started after abandoning his first. Green produced, with brother Ben Nichols, now frontman of Memphis roots-rock band Lucero, providing the score, but Nichols found distribution difficult to come by. In 2006, he took a small supporting part in another Arkansas project, "Come Early Morning," directed and written by actress Joey Lauren Adams and shot by Orr. In 2007, "Shotgun" scored some awards from a number of movie festivals, where the visually lyrical film, weaving in rural Arkansas landscapes, drew nearly universal positive notices, buzz among audiences and inevitable comparisons to Malick. <I>The New York Times</I> called it a "here-and-now American potboiler and a stripped-down parable that can be appreciated by any culture." "Shotgun Stories" received a nomination for the John Cassavetes Award for films made for under $500,000 at the 2008 Independent Spirit Awards.<p>As the U.S. economy teetered in 2007, the newly married Nichols transferred his own anxieties into a new script, weaving his rural bent with a genre story, the tale of a simple man whose dreams of a looming apocalypse threaten to drive his ostensibly stable family apart. He brought Shannon back for the lead, with Jessica Chastain playing his beleaguered wife, and Malick associate Sarah Green onboard as executive producer. It premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, taking a nomination for Grand Jury Prize, but more importantly secured distribution with Sony Pictures Classics. Building buzz again on the festival circuit, Nichols made an even bigger splash when "Take Shelter" was accepted for screening at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and came away with the Critics Week Grand Prize and the SACD Award for Best Screenwriting. Hollywood struck while the iron was hot, with L.A. production company Everest Entertainment signing on to produce Nichols' next script, "Mud."<p><i>By Matthew Grimm</i>