Jeff Nichols remembers the precise moment he fell for Michael Shannon.
Nichols was still a student at the North Carolina School of the Arts. A professor, Gary Hawkins, was showing clips of his own work in progress from the Sundance Filmmakers Lab. On the screen Nichols saw a tall, brooding man with cavernous eyes. Then he heard the man's voice, an unaffected Kentucky drawl that sounded like hard-lived life.
Nichols approached his prof. "That fellow in your scenes, do you know how to get ahold of him?"
"Well, I guess I do," the prof replied.
"Good. I wrote a script. I want him to read it."
That was in 1999. That script became Nichols' debut feature, Shotgun Stories. Nichols and Shannon have now collaborated on four features, including Take Shelter, Mud, and the sci-fi thriller Midnight Special, opening Friday.
They've learned each other's quirks and strengths. Nichols, an Arkansas native, writes parts with Shannon in mind. Shannon keeps reading them, and keeps saying yes.
Film history is full of prolific actor/director collaborations. Among the most celebrated: Toshiro Mifune and Akira Kurosawa. John Wayne and John Ford. Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. These are directors who know exactly what they want, and actors who come to rely on meaty roles that drill down to an essential part of their identities.
Shannon, of course, stays busy in between Nichols films. He was General Zod in the Superman movie Man of Steel, and he received an Oscar nomination for playing a mentally ill man in Revolutionary Road.
But when Nichols comes calling, Shannon always picks up the phone.
"It takes Jeff a while to make a movie, but I'm always excited to return to Jeff to get back to working on one of his projects," Shannon said at the SXSW Film Festival. "I can't think of a lot of people that write with the amount of sophistication that Jeff does. He has a lot of respect for cinema and he has a lot of respect for his audience."
Nichols, meanwhile, says Shannon's onscreen presence actually makes screenwriting easier. Nichols, still just 37, is a minimalist of sorts, whose scripts often create a sense of mystery just off the screen. As Shannon says, he respects the intelligence of his audience. When Nichols writes a Shannon part, the filmmaker says, he has the luxury of writing (or not writing) in between the lines, knowing that Shannon's face, voice and posture can do the rest.
"The sad reality is that some actors are more interesting to look at than others," Nichols said after a recent Midnight Special preview screening in Dallas. "With Mike you can see the wheels moving, the gears turning in his head behind his eyeballs. That attracts us to him. It makes us ask: 'Man, what's going on back there?'"
The last shot of Midnight Special provides a perfect example. Nichols stars as Roy, the father of an 11-year-old boy with special powers. The government sees the kid as a weapon. A church in San Angelo sees him as the Messiah. Roy just sees him as his kid, and the film's final, wordless image captures Shannon in close-up, leaving him, and us, to reflect on what we've seen transpire.
For his part, Shannon, 41, appreciates knowing what he'll get on a Nichols set. No nonsense. Just tell the story, be the part and take care of the details. The rest will take care of itself.
"From the time I met him he felt like a kindred spirit to me," Shannon says. "I felt comfortable around him. I appreciated how different it was from other sets I had been on. I don't like manipulating the audience or being flamboyant in the approach to what I do. I like a real straightforward approach and I think Jeff does too."