Summer 2017

The Art of Temperance

Director Jeff Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone eschew conspicuous camera movement for stately objectivity


Director Jeff Nichols and DP Adam Stone (Photo: Ben Rothstein/Warner Bros.)

During Hollywood's golden era, crews were often under contract to the studios, where they worked as a unit on film after film, developing efficiency and camaraderie. (Also, perhaps, insularity and an aversion to new techniques.) Today, that structure has been replaced by informal networks, with crews coalescing around projects in a more ad hoc manner.

Director-writer Jeff Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone belong to a successful group of filmmakers that has grown together in the old way, developing an overall approach over the course of five successful and one-of-a-kind feature films: Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special and Loving. Validation has come from Cannes, the Independent Spirit Awards, and in the case of Loving, the Academy.

Friendship is at the heart of their collaboration. Nichols and Stone met in the late 1990s at the University of North Carolina School for the Arts, where Stone had worked on a David Gordon Green picture, George Washington, that was widely admired in indie circles. Today, Nichols' studio contract specifies that Stone will be onboard. In a recent conversation with DGA Quarterly, they recalled the evolution of their partnership.

(Top) Shotgun Stories; (Bottom) Take Shelter (Photos: Everett)

DGA: What initially drew you together?

NICHOLS: We were living in a time in the late '90s in college when many independent films just didn't look very good. People were shooting 16mm film or video, and I'm not knocking it, but cinematography was not what people were going for in many cases. Shooting an independent film with little or no money, and shooting it on film, in anamorphic, was a crazy notion. It was so removed from the prevalent trajectory—write a script, try to get it to an agent, get notes about your three-act structure, and hope to get lucky with an actor or financing. That wasn't what we were thinking at all. What they pulled off on George Washington was amazing to me: an elegant, stately film filled with beauty, made with a little bit of money and friends.

DGA: How does that bond continue to influence your work today?

STONE: I think we still have the same aesthetic. We still like the same films, we share music and still photography. As we are traveling around location scouting, he's thinking about how the shots will build the scene. I've never met another director [who] has the scenes and shots and the flow so well constructed in his head. On the scout, Jeff will say where things should be and where we need a line of sight, etc. That lays the groundwork for figuring out the production design, the lighting and how the camera will move.
NICHOLS: I've never been one to adhere to typical structural elements in a screenplay, partly because I was allowed to form as a filmmaker inside this group and with these films as inspiration. You can't underestimate the importance of those years. How many people in the early 2000s, before video was available, had a friend who could shoot anamorphic film? I didn't have to appease a producer, or be introduced to a cinematographer. I write scripts that never feel disconnected from that approach and this group of people. Even though I'm alone in a room writing, it's like I'm writing for our team, which will then go out and execute it. Along with [actor and frequent collaborator] Michael Shannon, and my producers, Sarah Green and Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Stone is the first one to look at the scripts.

DGA: How does the division of labor break down on your collaborations?

NICHOLS: The three of us [including production designer Chad Keith] constitute the brain trust, and we have a collective conversation if something needs to be changed, and about how that is going to change things all the way down the line. Both of these guys are really great about character, and how a potential change in the geography of a scene affects the character's intent. I always start by thinking about point of view, and we have that conversation a lot on the set. Stone is more experienced than me because I only work on my films. I have learned that it's Stone's job to continually show me awesome stuff and have great ideas, but it's my job to know why we are doing it.

DGA: What is consistent about your visual design from project to project?

STONE: Drilling through all the stuff we've done, from Loving all the way back to Shotgun Stories, the question is always: What succinctly tells the story? For the most part, we don't do camera movement that will take the audience out of it. It's always been kind of stately and objective, sometimes to a fault.
NICHOLS: It's funny because we didn't start from a place where we went crazy and then learn to reduce. We started extraordinarily reduced and it slowly started to build. Part of that was the budgets. But movement in Loving is so damn specific. We've gotten onto the same page. We know how I'm going to direct these scenes. We know we want to find real locations that reflect the layouts, and we usually don't have the money to completely rebuild places.

DGA: Mud seems like an excellent example of the reality of a physical environment woven into the fabric with the story and characters.

STONE: On Mud, when we were talking about going out to an island, many of the producers said, "Why don't you guys just shoot that off the banks of the river?" It was a crazy production—we would come from the middle of nowhere, early in the morning, and arrive in the middle of nowhere. Then we would take a fleet of pontoon boats, anything we could find on the Mississippi, to get Matthew McConaughey and the kids out to this island, as well as all our camera equipment and some lights and grip equipment. With setup, we basically cut four hours out of the day just to go back-and-forth. But the island was real and magical.
NICHOLS: Even the dirt was different, literally. Half the year it was underwater, so it's silt, and the vegetation is different. It just felt different—that's the only way to say it.
STONE: We always talk about what we don't want. We don't want to play dress up. We don't want to shoehorn a location on the crew, on the actors or on Jeff. But once you find that perfect location, all the pieces fall into place. It was ridiculous to go to that island. We could have easily shot it off the banks of a river somewhere. But it just wouldn't have that magical authenticity that you feel throughout the film.

(Top) Mud; (Middle) Midnight Special; (Bottom) Loving. (Photos: (Top to Bottom) Everett; Photofest; Ben Rothstein/Focus Features)

DGA: How does your directing style dovetail with the design of the imagery?

NICHOLS: The word that comes to mind to describe my approach to directing is temperance. You don't move the camera without a good reason, and similarly, you don't allow yourself to make something up if you can find the real thing—even if the real thing is a little bit harder to do. The idea is that we need to try to make this thing—this thing that is 100% fake—as organic as we can.

DGA: How does your friendship affect the tone and process on the set?

NICHOLS: You want the film set to be comfortable, but we've never had a real jokey set. Usually it's because we are running out of time and we all have to focus to get something that is very serious. On Take Shelter, every day we were doing a scene where Michael Shannon had to do something very serious. "Today you are going to fear for the death of your son, again." And there is a level of focus and respect that the crew has to operate with in that situation. On set, Stone is actually very quiet and very diligent, and this is probably partly because both of us have been brought up working with Michael, who is a very focused guy.
STONE: Michael might have given us our temperance from the beginning. We always wanted to respect him. Jeff and I can just read one another without wondering too much. There's a whole nomenclature. We just literally like look at one another and know something's not working. We do try to keep the actors out of that. If we have a problem on the set, we keep it to ourselves and to our keys. It's very departmentalized, and each department is respectful of the others.

DGA: How has your relationship evolved?

NICHOLS: I'm realizing more and more that when it works for both of us, it works better. I'm hard on Stone, and usually if it's something to make the actors' lives better—taking the silk down that blocks their eyeline—we usually go with the actors. The same way we've grown together in terms of understanding camera movement, we've also grown together in terms of understanding light, with the aid of [gaffer] Michael Roy. We've always thought in those terms, but hopefully we've gotten better at it. It's a conversation that is always evolving.
STONE: While Jeff is writing, we all go off and do our own things: commercials, other projects, other films. Then we come back with kind of a greater nut of knowledge gained from those projects and try to reapply it to Jeff's paradigm. It's like a reconvening of the minds each time we have a shoot. I think it keeps us going and keeps everything fresh, but it also puts us one step forward on a new project, and brings a new skill set.


Our new series involves a three-way conversation between the interviewer and a director and his or her frequent collaborator—whether it be a cinematographer, composer, editor, costume designer or production designer—about their creative alchemy and the process by which they bring out the best in each other’s artistry.

More from this issue
Check out the latest DGA Quarterly, featuring our cover story on directors' thoughts on the state of TV comedy, as well as interviews with Michelle MacLaren, Christopher Nolan, Edgar Wright, Reed Morano, Thomas Schlamme and the Duffer brothers weighing in on their work -- past and present -- and much, much more.