Schizophrenia In The Movies: Take Shelter

by Christina Bruni Patient Expert

Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon and actress Jessica Chastain carry the film Take Shelter out now in theaters across America. Check the film's Web site at the end of this article for the dates and times. The movie was the winner of the Critics Week Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Take Shelter follows the husband and wife as Curtis (played by Shannon) descends into the hell of schizophrenia. In the film, Curtis's mother had the same fate when she turned 30. At once, he knows something is wrong and checks out books on mental illness out of the public library; he visits his primary care doctor who refers him to a psychiatrist in Columbus.

Alas, Curtis opts to go to a low-budget local clinic where a parade of social workers regurgitate his issues interchangeably. No amount of talk therapy alone will cure schizophrenia though, and his condition worsens.

Take Shelter is all too real yet it isn't heartbreaking. I was able to interview writer/director Jeff Nichols about his inspiration for the film. It deserves everyone's attention. I would urge anyone, not just those of us diagnosed with SZ and our family members, to watch the film.
Shannon's portrayal is eerily accurate.

1.You got it. Were you motivated to write the story from an experience you had with someone who had schizophrenia, or did it spring totally from your imagination?

It was all from imagination. I knew I wanted a man to have visions, and I felt the best way to have him question their validity would be to confuse the instrument he uses to judge them; his mind. So it began as a way to make the visions more complex, but quickly became a defining characteristic for Curtis and his back story.

2. You gave us a ray of hope. Everyone whether he has a diagnosis or not, takes shelter in a way that is relevant to them. Can you talk about the storm shelter and the image of the storms?

The first image I had for this film was of a man standing over an open storm shelter. I have no idea where this image came from, but it sparked everything. The storms developed with the film. We did lots of research into storm cells, and the storms in the film are all created from real storm cell images. The biggest point here is that the threat is nature. Like mental illness, we have no direct control over how/when they strike. It was an appropriate antagonist.

3. So often schizophrenia comes on in response to stress. In the film, Curtis's young daughter was deaf and needed a cochlear implant. Did you insert that subplot for a reason? It was convincing.

Yes. I wanted the film to reflect several middle class hardships and insurance tied to your job seemed to be the most stressful thing many people deal with. Also, the film has a lot to do with communication, mostly between Curtis and Samantha, but it felt right to have a communication issue between these parents and their child.

4. I want to comment on Chastain's character. She was a strong woman who was willing to stand by her man. It impressed me how she was always cooking and bringing food to the table, a typical nurturer.

The breakfast/meal scenes came as the result of daily routine. The film is so much about going to sleep and waking up that breakfast and dinner became good markers of routine. Also, the family dinner table is a common symbol of the family unit.

5. The action of the story takes place in the heartland of America-you get the sense that these are ordinary people: they attend church, the father works on a construction crew, the mother sews and sells her handiwork at craft fairs to make money to vacation in Myrtle Beach. It shows that schizophrenia can happen to anyone.

Of course, Curtis doesn't find himself in this situation because of his socio-economic status. This could happen to anyone.

6. From having written about schizophrenia in such a perceptive, realistic way, could you tell our community members your take on the illness and what that takeaway might be for the viewer?

The potential takeaway for one of your members could be the same as anyone else, which is that we all encounter fear and hardship, and imagining that fear/anxiety is the issue. Maybe, just maybe, the ability to share that fear with the people closest to you can help. Strength in others.

8. I saw the film at the Angelika Film Center in Manhattan, a kind of indie film venue where I've been seeing movies since the 1990s. Where can other people in America view the film? Is it expected to have a wider distribution?

My hope is that it stays a good while in many cities. Sony Pictures Classics has a good plan for this, and I'm just sitting back and watching them do what they're great at.

NOTE: the Take Shelter Web site lists the currently playing and upcoming release dates and theaters, to find a theater near you, also connect at the Take Shelter Facebook page

Christina Bruni
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Christina Bruni

Christina Bruni wrote about schizophrenia for HealthCentral as a Patient Expert. She is a mental health activist and freelance journalist.