By Ali Moosavi.
I found this character tragic and moving. He had such a traumatic event happen to him and he couldn’t get free of it…. I think that’s something people can identify with….”–Michael Shannon
There is a long tradition of movies about a woman or a man psychologically breaking down after living in a what is perceived to be a haunted property. The pinnacle of these movies are Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Abandoned is a respectable low-budget entry in this genre. It concerns a family (Emma Roberts, John Gallagher Jr. & a baby boy) moving into a house which has been vacant for many years since a multi-murder happened there. Their neighbour is a quiet, mysterious guy played by Michael Shannon. The woman starts having real-looking and sounding hallucinations about those murders.
Michael Shannon is one of the highest regarded of our contemporary actors, both by fellow actors and audiences. He is truly a chameleon easily morphing into any new role that comes along. There is no sign of any ego to him; he takes on any role that appeals to him, whether it’s in a mega-budget comic book movie like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) or a low budget picture like the new horror film, Abandoned (2022) and is one of a very select and small group of actors who elevate every film by their performance. Shannon has twice been nominated for an Academy Award and won numerous other prizes and accolades. He started as a stage actor and performs with the famous Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Michael Shannon tends to do repeat work with those directors with whom he has developed a good working relationship, such as Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, 2007; Take Shelter, 2011; Mud, 2012; Midnight Special, 2016; Loving, 2016) and Ramin Bahrani (99 Homes, 2014; Fahrenheit 451, 2018). Perhaps his most unusual role was as Elvis Presley in Elvis & Nixon (2016). Some of his other memorable performances are in Nocturnal Animals (2016), The Shape of Water (2017) and Knives Out (2019).
I talked with Michael Shannon about his latest film, Abandoned, and his career on screen and stage.
It seems to me you’re one of the least typecast of the actors of your high standing. Is that something you work at you just get offered very different types of robes?
Oh gee, well I don’t know, I think it didn’t used to be that way. I’ve heard some people say in the past that I’ve known for a certain kind of thing but I like variety. I like to tell different stories and play as many characters as I can. I don’t know if I’m going to run out of room and find myself repeating at some point and playing the type of roles that I have done before but I think it just comes from a deep desire on my part to just understand as much about humanity and people as I possibly can.
It also seems to me that the size of the role and the size of the budget of the movie are secondary to the role that you play. For example, your new film Abandoned is a low-budget movie and you have a supporting role in it, while at the same time you’ve been in many high-budget films and played many lead roles.
Oh well, it’s different for every role. I found this story [Abandoned] very compelling. I found this character tragic and moving. He had such a traumatic event happen to him and he couldn’t get free of it. He couldn’t move beyond it and I think that’s something people can identify with and a lot of people experience it in their life; having a hard time moving beyond a difficult thing that happened to them during their childhood. Obviously not as extreme as it is in this movie, but that kind of impact. I guess in the horror genre you take things and make them very extreme in order to illustrate the truth about things that everybody can relate to or have experienced.
According to the Abandoned’s director you joined the movie at the last minute when they had already almost completed shooting. How did you prepare for the role in such a short time?
Yes that’s true. You know, it went so fast and I was only on the set a couple of days. It’s really just about reading the script as thoroughly as possible and trying to create that history is in your imagination and try to picture what it was like for this little boy to go through what he went through. But yes, a lot of it is just about using your imagination.
Your roots are in theater, how does the acting in theatre help you in acting in movies?
That’s a great question. I think because I’ve done so much theater, I’ve got very used to memorizing quite a lot of lines. Sometimes I think it’s funny on a film set to hear somebody freaking out because they had like a four page scene and they say, oh all these lines? I can’t memorize all that! And for me I can memorize a scene like that fairly quickly because I’m used to memorizing an entire play! They say memory is like a muscle, the more you use it the stronger it gets, so that’s helpful. A lot of people talk about how when you’re on camera it’s like being in a giant theatre because it’s so much more intimate but oddly enough I find acting in theatre and in films fairly similar. I don’t think too much about the size of my role, to me it seems secondary. I feel like if you’re grounded in the truth of the character that you can pretty much do the same thing on stage or on film. What people can notice is when you’re not dealing with the truth.
How much stage work are you doing these days?
I haven’t done a play in three years because of COVID. I’m hoping to do a play in the fall here in New York City. I really missed it and it’s the longest I’ve ever gone without doing a play and it’s really kind of upsetting me so on hopefully this fall I will be back on the stage in New York.
In the horror genre you take things and make them very extreme in order to illustrate the truth.”–Michael Shannon
You’ve done a couple of movies with a fellow countryman of mine, Ramin Bahrani. How did you find working with him?
I love Ramin. I think he’s so intelligent and I love the stories he tells. I love his sense of moral compassion, the way he’s not afraid to ask uncomfortable questions and I feel that he makes movies for the right reason. He’s a very kind person, very easy to work and very reasonable. Actually, I just saw him the other night and we went to see a play together here in New York.
What was your first reaction when you were asked to play Elvis Presley?
[laughs] Terror! Yes, I was scared! It didn’t really make sense to me as there were probably other people that resembled him more than I did but actually it turned out to be one of the favorite things that I have ever done. I really wounded up loving doing that movie so much and it really gave me a profound appreciation for Elvis that I didn’t have before. I hadn’t really thought a lot about Elvis to be honest and he is a fascinating person. I mean that story of meeting Nixon was crazy but I thought it was a really great way to tell a story about a character you know rather than a biopic where we try and tell the whole life story. So just putting the focus on this one incident that happened was a very smart way to illuminate certain things about Elvis that I didn’t know about.
You’ve also done five movies with Jeff Nichols. You must have a really good working relationship with him.
Oh yes, Jeff is like a brother to me. I think he’s finally going to be making a film this fall. It’s been a long break for him. I know it’s been hard for him and he misses it a great deal. He was just tangled up in some studio situations that didn’t pan out for him, but he’s thinking of a making a big movie about motorcycles, so we’ll be doing that in the fall, I think.
What can we look forward to see you in future?
Well. I’m in Bullet Train that’s coming out in August [with Brad Pitt and Sandra Bullock] and then I did a David O. Russell movie that I believe is going to be called Amsterdam [with Christian Bale, Anya Taylor-Joy, Margot Robbie, Rami Malek, Chris Rock, Taylor Swift, Mike Myers and Robert De Niro] and that should be coming out in the fall and I played another famous musician George Jones in a TV series called George and Tammy [with Jessica Chastain] that also should be coming in fall.
Interview with the film’s director, Spencer Squire:
Movies about a haunted house have always been popular. In Abandoned you’ve focused more on the psychological elements of the story rather than ghosts.
Yes, I really tried to make it more about what was happening within the house and within the characters rather than the haunting of the house because as you said we’ve seen so many different iterations of the haunted house story that it’s become so predictable for us as audience members because we know a couple will move into a house, they might have a child, and then ghosts start appearing. I just thought well we’ve seen that before but what I saw with this one was a chance to explore some very serious mental health issues starting with the mother, who is struggling with her postpartum issues but also the depression that her husband is struggling with and then you have this neighbor character who is struggling with his own PTSD issues from his childhood experiences. So I tried to center the film more on those struggles and those journeys as you have these three characters stuck in the middle of nowhere trying to work through their mental health concerns and then the ghost nature of the story became just a means by which we are experiencing their mental health journeys. So it was important to me that the ghosts weren’t actual ghosts but something that the mother was seeing in her mind and that’s why it was important that the ghosts in this film look very real. When I got the initial version of the script the ghosts were supposed to look very kind of ghostly and transparent and looked like they had been dead for quite a while and it was important to me that they looked like people that could still be alive and walking with us today because they aren’t really ghosts in this film, they are hallucinations and images that are appearing in the mother’s mind.
In these movies there’s a fine line between creating a relatively believable reality and horror fantasy.
Yes it is tricky because you have to either go one way or the other with these films. You either really have to lean into the fact that these are ghosts and they’re terrifying and they really scare us or you go the other direction where the really terrifying thing is that this woman is seeing things that aren’t there and so it becomes less about jump scares and how scary the ghosts are and more about how terrifying it is you can’t trust your own sense of reality. That was the intention for the movie from the get go because as you said we’ve seen the ghost movies hundreds of times but with this film there was a lot of push and pull in terms of what the film was going to be about because as a first time filmmaker you are not given, surprise surprise! complete autonomy over your project. There are many other cooks in the kitchen and in this particular case those other cooks wanted to push it more into a ghost story that you’ve seen many times before whereas me and all the cast wanted to tell this story that was more about a mental health crisis and about the terrifying reality of seeing things that are there in your mind and so ultimately the movie kind of landed in a middle ground. I still think the movie feels right and like how it was intended to feel.
You mostly refrain from the traditional jump scares and focused on ordinary household objects like a ribbon and a child’s pacifier, to create tension.
I appreciate you noticing that which was something that I added to the story once I got the initial script because I thought there was something very disturbing about finding relics from the house and from whatever happened in the house and the mother character incorporating these things into her own life. To me that felt far more disturbing than as you say a jump scare. We also do have a few of those jump scares because that was part of the package in terms of making the movie but I was far more interested in the moment where as you say she finds the ribbon and makes the choice to put it into her hair and it became a part of her character in the rest of the movie. Those kind of more psychological choices were what drew me to the telling of the story.
In these types of movies two of the critical elements are the sound effects and the music. Here you have the recurring noise of the children who were the previous occupants and the music coming out of the music box is quite eerie.
Yes sound is so important for these kinds of movies especially when you have a character alone in a house for so much of the movie. It’s going to end up being a lot of what you hear and not necessarily what’s spoken from the mouth. The music from the music box was an original composition from my composer Michelle Osis who is a brilliant composer. That music that wasn’t actually the music from the real music box that we used. She composed this piece of music that was inspired by Chopin and it sounded so classical but yet so very creepy and the second she sent it to me I said this is right. It had this kind of romantic nature to it but it also felt so disturbingly beautiful. Also my sound designer and I worked very hard to create that kind of sense of where am I hearing that noise from. There’s a lot of little almost Easter eggs in the sound design where there are barely perceptible sounds a lot of the times that like you might only be able to hear if you’re in a theatre with the full sound system. So we really sought to create this destabilizing environment with the sound design.
How did Michael Shannon become involved with this project?
Michael is somebody that believes in new voices and in people that want to do something specific with a project. So when I spoke to him about the project and I explained what I’ve been talking to you about in terms of making this a real exploration of people’s mental health states, it was something that he responded to.
Was Michael Shannon attached the project from beginning or did it come at a later stage?
Michael actually came in at the 11th and ¾ hour! We’d already been shooting and we hadn’t cast the role yet. We had been talking to Michael but he was stuck on another production that went over schedule so we weren’t sure whether he was going to be able to show up or not and we kept on pushing back his scenes and finally we got to the last week of the shoot and we weren’t sure if he was going to wrap on his project and we did not have a backup choice because in my mind it could only be Michael Shannon and the producer shared the same sentiment. Finally everything aligned and Michael got on a plane and came right from his other project to do our project. He literally wrapped one night and was on our set the next day in order to support the project because that’s the kind of actor he is.
The baby gives a great performance! How did he get those looks from him?
I’m giving my editor credit for that because the thing about a baby is that you set the camera up and you try and keep the baby in front of the camera and then you roll and capture whatever they may or may not give you. It was a principle of mine when we started off with this project that we never purposely elicited reactions from a baby. I thought that felt very uncomfortable and inappropriate so it was important to me that we captured whatever the baby was naturally doing. I didn’t want to give the baby a bottle and take it away in order to get him to cry. That’s something that didn’t feel comfortable to me to do. So we just let the camera roll and inevitably if you let the camera roll long enough you will get everything you need: the baby will cry and then the baby will stop crying. The wonderful thing about babies is that they go through emotions fairly quickly so they can be crying one second and then they can be doing something completely different the next.
You’re also an actor yourself, did you at any time consider taking the main lead in this movie?
Never! No way! Not for my first feature. I wasn’t interested in both acting and directing in my first feature film. With this level of cast it was quite enough to bite off, although in the short film that I did before this that got me this gig I did act and direct. But for a feature length film I really wanted to sit back and just be in the director’s chair because I think it was important that my focus was solely there. Also when you’re working on this kind of budget, I wasn’t just directing and was wearing a lot of other hats because there’s just not enough money to pay more people. So on a lower budget film like this you might also be your own AD or at times the second AD and make the schedule for the next day while you’re also trying to do your shot list. So I think there were enough hats to wear without adding the stress of the acting as well.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).