An Early Film Role for BUG Star Michael Shannon
by Jim Healy
In his memoir, The Friedkin Connection, Oscar-winning film director William Friedkin heaps praise on the leading man of his 2006 creepfest, Bug. Before he turned Tracy Letts's play into a movie, Friedkin had seen Shannon play the deeply paranoid, cocaine-fueled Peter in an off-Broadway production. Though he faced pressure to cast only big-name stars in the film version, Friedkin did everything he could to retain Shannon as Peter, a role originated by Shannon in a 1996 London stage production: "I've never known an actor more focused, dedicated, or capable of reaching the outer ranges of human behavior." You can see Bug, projected from a 35mm print, on Friday, October 3 at 7 p.m. in the Cinematheque's regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall.
Though the intense and always memorable Shannon had been in several films (like Pearl Harbor and Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) and television shows before Bug made its premiere at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, Friedkin's film led to his being cast in many more high-profile projects, including an Oscar-nominated turn in Sam Mendes' Revolutionary Road and leading roles in other films directed by auteurs such as Werner Herzog, Jeff Nichols, David Koepp, and Ramin Bahrani. Many will recognize him as General Zod from 2013's summer Superman blockbuster, Man of Steel and as Nelson van Alden on HBO's Boardwalk Empire.
Michael Shannon has been an acquaintance of mine since the mid-1990s when he was a Chicago theater actor. I met him through my actor-screenwriter brother Pat, who later appeared with Shannon in author David Hauptschein's almost unbearably tense play The Persecution of Arnold Petch. Produced by A Red Orchid Theater, a Chicago troupe which Shannon co-founded, Arnold Petch was a dry run for Peter in Bug: the title character is a paranoiac living in a squalid studio apartment who later resorts to violence against his "persecutors".
After they both appeared in Pearl Harbor, Pat embarked on directing his first short film, Mullitt (2001), and he approached Michael to play the duplicitous roommate/best friend of Earl Lippy, the main character played by Pat. In another echo of Bug, Shannon's character is a frantic user of drugs (in Mullit's case, the trendy crack) and a highly volatile young man. I was around for about 75% of the filming of Mullitt, and, like Friedkin, I was impressed by Michael's intensity and devotion and preparedness. Always quiet and observant off-camera, he turned on a volcano of emotions as soon as the film was rolling and I was truly in awe of his abilitiles while I witnessed him destroying a chair in a crack-addled frenzy, covering his otherwise naked body in cottage cheese, and breaking down at the moment his dreams of riches (and more crack) evaporate.
You can see Mullitt, in its entirety, here:
That's yours truly as the mouth-breathing nerd flunky (the other flunky is Harmony and Me writer-director Bob Byington). If Michael Shannon's final monologue seems familiar, that's because the same words are spoken by Luis Guzman's character when he similarly betrays Al Pacino at the end of Brian De Palma's Carlito's Way (1993). Many years later, in David Koepp's Premium Rush (2012), Shannon's unforgettable villain refers to several characters as "Papi". Reliable sources tell me this was Shannon's improvisation - a nod, I'd like to believe, to Mullitt. Coincidentally, the screenplay for Carlito's Way was written by David Koepp, but Guzman's lines about "Sometime it bes' that way" are themselves lifted, with credit, from one of the Edwin Torres novels on which De Palma's film is based.