Jeff Nichols was two years behind writer-director David Gordon Green at the North Carolina School of the Arts. After Green made his auspicious feature debut in 2000 with the poetic George Washington, Nichols took particular notice of his professional advice.
"He told me, 'Go make a movie. The only way (the industry will) care is if you make something,'" Nichols says. The Austin, Texas-based 28-year-old delivered by writing, directing and producing Shotgun Stories, an accomplished revenge drama that screened in the Forum section of last month's Berlin International Film Festival to rapturous praise from critics.
Beautifully shot in widescreen 35mm by Adam Stone, Nichols' debut is set in his home town of Little Rock, Arkansas. Expertly drawing on the landscape for tone and texture, the movie is steeped in the rhythms of Southern culture and has an Old Testament severity, recording a terrifying blood feud between rival factions of half-brothers. Michael Shannon (World Trade Center) stars as a taciturn outsider who sets the stark plot in motion.
At college, Nichols worked on several documentaries about Southern writers made by his mentor, the North Carolina school's Gary Hawkins, including a portrait of Larry Brown, author of Big Bad Love. "The way Brown deals with anti-heroes in the South had a definite impact on me," says Nichols, whose film sharply delineates class and social distinctions.
The movie also presents an unsentimental, almost awkward examination of violence and retribution. The spare staging, Nichols explains, supports the idea that "violence is not something we should take pleasure from".
Though Green was the inspiration, Nichols made the move that got the low-budget feature going. He mandated a September 2004 start before he had completed the script and was even prepared to shoot on less-expensive super-16mm stock to meet the deadline.
The involvement of Shannon enabled Nichols to raise extra production funds from family, friends and private-equity investors. The movie was made for less than $1m.
"When you work low budget, there are so many reasons to push off the start of a film. But I realised that if I didn't have the structure, the work environment, I was never going to get it done," Nichols says.
While he writes his next script - titled Mud, the story of a man lost in the Mississippi River - Nichols is ready to launch his first feature. "We just made our first small sale (through Paris-based Coach 14), somewhere in Central America," he reports towards the end of his trip to Berlin to support the film. Soon that territory should have plenty of company.
Synopsis: A blood feud erupts between two sets of half-brothers following the death of their father.
Cast: Michael Shannon, Douglas Ligon, Barlow Jacobs, Natalie Canerday, Glenda Pannell, Lynnsee Provence.
US sales: CAA
Int'l sales: Coach 14.