‘Salt and Fire': Michael Shannon on Working with Werner Herzog

From writer/director Werner Herzog, the dramatic thriller Salt and Fire is about a mysterious hostage-taking that involves a scientist, the head of a large company, and an ecological disaster in South America. Deliberately stranded with two blind boys in an area of gigantic salt flats, Laura (Veronica Ferres) must asses what Matt Riley’s (Michael Shannon) true intentions are, so that they can unite to avoid a disaster.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Michael Shannon talked about why he never passes up the opportunity to work with Werner Herzog, why he felt this environmental story was important to tell, getting to work on salt flats and stay in a hotel made out of salt in Bolivia, and how he viewed this character. He also talked about playing George Westinghouse opposite Benedict Cumberbatch’s Thomas Edison in The Current War, directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, playing Hilary Swank’s brother in What They Had, not believing Guillermo del Toro when he said that he’d seen every one of his films, and why he wanted to sign on for the Waco mini-series.

Collider: What was the draw of this for you? Was it Werner Herzog or was it the script?

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MICHAEL SHANNON: It started with Werner. This is our third movie together. To say that Werner is a unique individual is a massive understatement. And who knows how much longer we’ll be able to enjoy his company, so I always take advantage. I hope it’s a long time, but you never know, so I take advantage of the opportunity to spend time with him. But I also liked the story in the movie a lot, as it pertains to the environment and what we’re doing to the world, and how we’re destroying the world. There’s never enough movies about that, and I think we should be reminded of that, as often as possible.

This is a movie that certainly gets you to think about environmental ramifications and the dangers of that.

SHANNON: Yeah, and the landscapes in the film are so stunning. Werner always goes to such interesting places. He’s like the best tour guide. He’s taken me places I would have never seen otherwise.

What was it like to actually get to go to Bolivia and shoot on the Uyuni Salt Flats?

SHANNON: It’s very peaceful. It was nice to get away from all of the chaos here. I was able to take my little brother with me, and I think he felt the same way. He loved being there. It’s very serene out there. You have to be careful about the elements and make sure you don’t get sunburned, or things like that. Other than that, it’s very peaceful.

You’ve said that you even stayed in a hotel that’s made out of salt, that claimed to be “The Premier Salt Hotel in the World.” How does that even work, and what is that like?

SHANNON: I don’t know. Not everything there is made out of salt. There’s wood and furniture, and things like that. But the ceilings were made out of these huge stalactites of salt, dripping from the ceiling. It reminded me of Werner’s film about the caves. It was a very nice hotel and very comfortable. I don’t know if I would ever go there again, but I would highly recommend it. I should go back for a vacation, someday. 

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This is a very interesting character because Laura might see Matt Riley as the villain of this story, but he also seems like he’s just a desperate man who needs someone to fully understand what’s going on. How did you view him?

SHANNON: I feel like the story of the movie is like a fable. In a way, it feels like a character in a story, and the way in which the screenplay is written accentuates that. It’s not meant to seem like a totally normal, everyday, hum-drum person. There’s certainly a style to it. It’s a theme that I’ve dealt with in a few films that I’ve worked on, where it’s hard, nowadays, to take care of yourself and make a living without screwing someone else over. There are so many people who make their fortunes of the misfortunes of others. I don’t know if it’s because the world is too damn crowded, or what, but it’s something that I’ve been noticing for awhile and I feel like it’s definitely something that this character is struggling with.

How was it to work with a mask, with most of your face covered, except for your eyes and mouth? Did you find that very helpful, or was it claustrophobic? 

SHANNON: At the end of the day, I don’t really enjoy wearing something like that. It’s a little confining. It wasn’t something I was used to. I don’t wear that in my personal life. It’s a bit strange, but it’s what Werner wanted, so I did it.

You’ve worked with Werner Herzog a few times and you’ve worked with Jeff Nichols probably more than anybody else, in your career. Do you like to keep returning to a director, when you find somebody that you’re on the same page with?

SHANNON: Oh, definitely, yeah. I respect them and I respect their visions. I think they have something to say, and I think they have a very unique way of saying it. I feel like I can be of service to them because I can understand what they’re going for. Honestly, it’s more about them wanting to keep working with me than anything. They could say, “Oh, that Shannon is terrible. He ruined my movie and I don’t want to work with him again” But they don’t, and that’s good for me.

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You recently did The Current War, as George Westinghouse opposite Benedict Cumberbatch’s Thomas Edison. What did you find most interesting about Westinghouse and the relationship between those two men?

SHANNON: Well, they didn’t have much of a relationship. Westinghouse really revered and respected Edison and wanted to be friends with him, but Edison kept him at arm’s length. And then, when the whole current thing happened, it got kind of adversarial. But all the way until the end, Westinghouse never intended to make an enemy out of Thomas Edison. Even with the alternating current that he wanted to use, he still wanted to partner with Edison on a variety of things. But, there was only room enough for Thomas Edison in Edison’s world.

Alfonso Gomez-Rejon is a director with such an interesting visual eye. How did you find working with him?

SHANNON: It was exciting. He and his great D.P., Chung-hoon Chung, are a good combination. Alfonso has so much enthusiasm and love for what he’s doing that it’s contagious. I went into the project kind of tired from working on a few other jobs before that. I was feeling a bit burnt out, but his enthusiasm, every day, really reinvigorated me, I feel like.

You also recently did The Shape of Water with Guillermo del Toro, and actors often talk about expecting to meet with him for 30 minutes, but that it ends up being three hours. Did you find your experience with him to be the same?

SHANNON: Yeah. What can you say about Guillermo? He’s a force of nature. He told me he’d seen every movie I’d ever done, and I thought to myself, “Surely, he must be exaggerating.” But then, he’d start talking about movies that no one else that I know has seen, and referencing them very specifically. I thought, “He’s really not kidding. He’s seen every frickin’ movie I’ve ever made. That’s crazy!”

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Do you know what you’re going to shoot next, or are you currently working on something now?

SHANNON: I’m starting a job this week (this interview was conducted on March 21st), called What They Had. It’s a family drama, and Hilary Swank and I are playing brother and sister. Blythe Danner and Robert Forster are playing our parents. We start shooting that on Thursday (March 23rd).

What attracted you to that project?

SHANNON: Well, it’s a beautiful script. The woman who wrote it, Elizabeth Chomko, this is her first feature. I met with her and it’s a deeply personal story for her, and I was very compelled to be a part of it. I like making real personal stuff like that. It’s the same reason I did the Bart Freundlich movie Wolves. That was a real personal thing for him. I’m kind of a sucker for that.

Have you already shot Waco, with Taylor Kitsch, or is that something next on the line-up for you?

SHANNON: Yeah, I have the Waco mini-series. I’m playing this FBI guy, Gary Noesner, who’s one of the best negotiators the FBI has ever had. I was interested in it because I remember when it happened and I remember thinking, “Oh, boy, that’s just a bunch of crazy people. Thank god, they handled it!” But, it’s actually a lot more complicated than that. It’s about all the many ways the government can go astray. So, that’s what I’ll be doing next, afterwards.

Salt and Fire is in theaters on April 7th and on VOD and iTunes now.

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