A Conversation With Jeff Nichols

'Mud' director oozes with Southern charm

Jeff Nichols
Jeff Nichols
Photo by John Anderson

Arkansas native-turned-Austinite Jeff Nichols knew without a shadow of a doubt he wanted to be a filmmaker. While growing up in Little Rock, his father would take him to the movies instead of on fishing trips.

In an Austin Film Festival panel moderated by screenwriter Christopher Boone, Nichols spoke about the path his career's taken since then, discussed his close relationship with actor Michael Shannon, and gave the audience a few delectable crumbs of his next feature, Midnight Special due out in 2014.

Easily the most definitive trademark of a Nichols film is the appearance of Shannon. "Whenever I am writing about a character and I vision how that character is supposed to say a line, Michael just makes it so much better," Nichols said. "It's never like that with other actors." The pair share a sibling-esque relationship, where making fun of each other is mandatory.

The charismatic Nichols also delved into the nitty gritty of his filmography: Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud, the latter a contender for the Palme d'Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

His script for Mud ran around 160 pages, while standard script runs about 100 pages. "I poured everything I had into it, every single detail was written out, even aspects that seem insignificant, like the way a rope swings," Nichols said. At one point, he had the room booming with laughter when he mentioned he even tried changing the margins of the screenplay to fool producers that the script was shorter.

His next project, Midnight Special, is a complete 180. While all of Nichols' films so far have had carefully penned moments that define the film, Midnight Special is a film with no time for carefully planned elements. With a script that runs 92 pages, Nichols describes it as a "chase" film.

One of the sweeter moments of the panel occurred when Nichols was asked about Jessica Chastain's character traits in Take Shelter. He said he really wanted to have a female character that was strong, as well as dynamic, "I drew inspiration from my wife," Nichols said, smiling.

Nichols is very much an indie auteur and storytelling maven, and he punctuated the talk with an acknowledgment of just that: "I will never direct a movie like Spider Man, but that's OK."

It's OK with us too, Jeff!

The Austin Film Festival runs through Oct. 31. See our complete coverage at austinchronicle.com/austin-film-festival.

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