HEAT VISION

Michael Shannon on 'The Quarry' and His Longtime Collaborations With Shea Whigham and Jeff Nichols

The actor notes of the indie vs. studio world: "A studio movie is more like a triple-bank shot in pool; this indie film stuff is a straight shot. It tends to feel a little more cathartic."
Michael Shannon   |   Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic
The actor notes of the indie vs. studio world: "A studio movie is more like a triple-bank shot in pool; this indie film stuff is a straight shot. It tends to feel a little more cathartic."

Michael Shannon and his longtime friend/collaborator Shea Whigham have been credited on the same project seven different times since 2000. Every couple years, the pair likes to explore a new project together, whether it’s big or small. On their latest independent film, The Quarry, Shannon plays Chief Moore, a small-town policeman who’s rather suspicious of Whigham’s traveling preacher character. Shannon and Whigham’s familiarity and shorthand is evident on the screen, as they add authenticity to every single scene they share in this slow-burn thriller.

For Shannon, he tends to feel more satisfaction from his independent works like The Quarry than his major studio films with infinite resources.

"Yeah, you certainly feel more ownership. When you’re in a big studio picture, there are so many people involved — people that you’ll never even lay eyes on,” the actor tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It goes through so many filters, so many edits and versions, so many notes. … A studio movie is more like a triple-bank shot in pool; this indie film stuff is a straight shot. It tends to feel a little more cathartic.”

If you’re a fan of Shannon, then you’re likely a fan of his longtime collaboration with filmmaker Jeff Nichols. The duo have worked together half-a-dozen times now, including on 2016’s Midnight Special, 2014’s Mud and 2011’s Take Shelter. Unfortunately, their latest collaboration on Fox’s Alien Nation recently suffered a setback as a result of the Disney-Fox merger.

“[Jeff Nichols is] really itching and scratching to make a film. He put a lot of time into this one particular project [Alien Nation] that he’d been writing for Fox, and then the Disney merger happened. Disney kinda said, ‘No, thanks,’” Shannon explains. “So, we’re trying to pick up the pieces there. … It might mutate into something else. It’s still kind of kicking around out there, but it might be something different.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Shannon also discusses a tip he picked up from Christopher Walken on Kangaroo Jack, the latest happenings with Nichols and his preparation for emotional scenes.

You and Whigham have been credited on the same project seven times now. While I assume there was a plan to work together on The Quarry, has it mostly been happenstance that you’ve ended up on so many projects together?

You know, it’s been a mixed bag. Sometimes, it’s not random, and sometimes it is. With Take Shelter, I really wanted him to play my friend in that, and Jeff [Nichols] did, too. We just went to him and said, “This would be so great if you would do this.” But, with something like Boardwalk Empire, that was random. When I signed on, I don’t believe I knew that he was involved, and even when I did know he was involved, our characters really didn’t have anything to do with each other until later in the show. That was a lot of fun that we wound up crossing paths. So, yeah, it’s a mixture. I was interested in The Quarry for a while, but what really sealed the deal for me was the fact that Shea was gonna play “The Man.” I couldn’t think of a better person to do it, and that’s what really made it exciting to me.

Do you know each other’s instincts so well at this point that you can just go for it without any rehearsal?

Let me put it this way, we don’t really come up with a lot of preconceived ideas about what something should be, but we like to show up and find it. We like to do a lot of takes if we’re in a situation where we can. We always kind of ask for another one — not necessarily because we think we’ll do it “better or worse” — but just because it’s so exciting to see all the possibilities and variations. You just notice different things during different takes. Everything is changing, constantly, and you might pick up a new impulse that wasn’t there the time before.

Your character, Chief Moore, has a feeling about Whigham’s character almost immediately. Do you have a similar intuition when it comes to reading people?

Wow, that is an interesting question. I think we all assume that maybe we do, but one thing I’ve learned over the years is that you’ve gotta be careful with that. People are not always what they seem, and you certainly don’t want to be too judgmental — particularly in this business. Everybody tends to have a couple of screws loose. I’ve alternated between thinking that I was good at that and thinking that I really don’t know as much about people as I think I do. Every time you feel any sense of certainty about anything, the universe has a way of reminding you of how little you actually know — hence the coronavirus! (Laughs.)

Compared to your major studio successes, do you feel more satisfaction or fulfillment when you make a good indie like The Quarry since you did it without the resources and amenities of the major studio system?

Yeah, you certainly feel more ownership. When you’re in a big studio picture, there are so many people involved — people that you’ll never even lay eyes on. It goes through so many filters, so many edits and versions, so many notes. … A studio movie is more like a triple-bank shot in pool; this indie film stuff is a straight shot. It tends to feel a little more cathartic.

You produced this film, something you’ve been doing more of the last few years. What do you like most about that role/responsibility?

A producer is a mysterious term. It encompasses so many varieties. It’s kind of like saying, “Well, I’m a human being.” There’s a lot of different producers. I would really defer a lot of the credit for this film to Kristin [Mann] and Laura [D. Smith]. The amount of work they did was ungodly. The amount of stress they were under to get this done is something I don’t think I could honestly endure. They should really get the lion’s share of the credit. It is interesting because I never thought when I started out that I would be a producer someday. I was just trying to get a day or two or week on a show, and now, here I am. It’s a way of saying, “Here’s what I think is important and maybe worth your consideration.” It’s like my vote in a way of what I contribute to the culture.

It’s often said that comedy is more difficult than drama. Since you’re adept at both, something Knives Out and The Night Before prove, do you agree that comedy is the more difficult of the two?

I always try and integrate them, really. If you look at The Quarry, Chief Moore has a sense of humor, you know?

Yeah, he’s quietly funny, especially his line in response to the verse that Whigham’s character reads at the burial.

Yeah, he’s not George Carlin or anything, but he’s got his own deal going. It’s kind of how he endures his life. Not a lot of exciting things happen to Chief Moore. He’s just making sure nobody gets out of line in this little town. That really doesn’t take much effort. He’s got a couple little hooligans to worry about, and of course, the foreign contingent. But, anyway, the point being, he uses his humor to make his life bearable. I always look at comedy and drama as part of the same ring, as opposed to a line with one on one end and one on the other. Honestly, a lot of the comedy that I like to watch isn’t necessarily straight-up comedy. The funniest movie, for me, is Being There. That movie just cracks me up, but it’s also got a darker underpinning.

People tend to highlight the scenes where your characters lose their tempers, but I’m curious as to how you handle those days on set. Do you go out of your way to expend as little energy as possible in between takes and setups?

(Laughs.) Yeah, it’s just a weird thing. I’m not a method guy; I’m not walking around in character all the time. But, the moments when the camera is rolling, I’m trying to forget that everybody else is there and just be in the situation. So, people are always trying to figure out my inscrutable nature. Am I being standoffish or whatnot? But I’m really just trying to stay in a zone where, when I need to block everything out, I can — to just focus on the other person or the event. But yeah, energy is a big thing. I’ve hit a point now where my favorite thing to do between setups is just lie down. Now, when I started out, that would’ve been unimaginable. I was so jacked up to go to work. I remember when I was doing Kangaroo Jack, that’s what Christopher Walken did between every setup. He had a room with a sofa in it, and he just went and lay down. I remember thinking how weird that was, but now, I totally get it. When you’re not working, just go lie down and relax.

A few years ago, you told Adam Driver that you weren’t entirely comfortable with on-camera work. Has that changed since then?

I don’t know. It’s different — different days, different environments. Some days, you can really sink into it, and like I said, you kinda gotta forget what’s happening and block it out. Some days, I’m better at that than others. Some days, you’re trying to shoot an exterior on a city street, and there are a lot of distractions; the lockup is not so good. So, you know you’re probably only going to get one or two takes. That’s just awkward. How can I relax when the environment is so stressful? But, when you have a nice scene in a quiet place, where you can just sit and really get into it, then it’s easier to forget that you’re making a movie.

I’m curious about the lasting influence that your former directors and co-stars have on you. When you’re working your way through a scene and you’re reminded of past work, do those voices ever resurface in your mind on new projects?

Huh, that’s interesting. Yeah, sometimes, people say things that stick with you. A lot of the directors that I’ve worked with don’t feel so much like bosses, really. The lion’s share of them seem to be more interested in what you’re going to do than in trying to tell you what to do. They say, “The reason you’re here is because I know that you’re gonna do something, and I’m gonna be able to use it. I can try and sit here and tell you what to do, but I’m pretty sure if I did that, it wouldn’t be as interesting.” Now, every once in a while, someone says, “No, no, no — you’re just way off. This isn’t what I had in mind at all,” but it’s pretty rare to be honest. In terms of advice, mantras, mottos and all that, I don’t tend to collect those, really.

I love everything you’ve done with Jeff Nichols. Obviously, the industry is on pause right now, but have you guys been cooking up anything lately?

We’ve been talking a lot. Jeff has had a bit of a dry patch and not by his own preference. He’s really itching and scratching to make a film. He put a lot of time into this one particular project [Alien Nation] that he’d been writing for Fox, and then the Disney merger happened. Disney kinda said, “No, thanks.” So, we’re trying to pick up the pieces there, but he’s writing other scripts. He’s really anxious to make another picture, I can tell you that. I’m not exactly sure when or what it will be, but as soon as we can and as soon as this baffling situation allows us to do something, we will.

Since I grew up watching Alien Nation, I was pretty disappointed to hear that Disney shelved it, especially since it sounds like you were going to be involved.

Well, it might mutate into something else. I don’t know how much I should say about it, but all I’ll say is that it’s not necessarily entirely gone. It’s still kind of kicking around out there, but it might be something different.

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The Quarry will be available Friday on digital HD and VOD.

  • Brian Davids
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