Clear As 'Mud'
Writer/director Jeff Nichols dishes the dirt on his third feature
Jeff Nichols makes films that are very personal and precise yet universally identifiable. These films have furrows that are deep, rich, and fecund.
Rooted in distinctly American soil, his first indie feature, Shotgun Stories (2007) – which, for many of us, provided our first sustained exposure to the actor Michael Shannon – is by Nichols' own admission aesthetically defined by its vast, open fields. In 2011, apocalyptic thriller Take Shelter glued us to our seats with its images of muck pouring down from the sky and the riveting performances of Shannon and a then-largely-unknown actor named Jessica Chastain that emphasize a deep-seated anxiety about loss. Nichols' eagerly anticipated third film, Mud, stars Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, and Tye Sheridan (one of the kids from Terrence Malick's Tree of Life) and returns to those American roots and earnest emotional reflections.
Truly one of the most interesting writer/directors to have emerged in the last decade, Austin-based Nichols sat down with us in a local coffee shop during South by Southwest to talk about his secret weapons, luck, and Mud.
Austin Chronicle: You've made three really extraordinary features. What kind of deal have you made with the movie gods for these films to have turned out so well and to be so well-received?
Jeff Nichols: I know, I've had a really good run. It's all downhill from here. I've been really lucky, honestly. Shotgun Stories was made in a vacuum. Nobody was paying attention; nobody cared, which is how it's supposed to be. That seems like the most miraculous thing just because it got done, it got finished, and it wasn't a total, total disaster. But that's everybody's first indie story. With Take Shelter though ... it's not like people were beating down my door after Shotgun Stories. I think the climate had changed for independent cinema in the United States. Companies were shuttering, and it was harder to find money. Looking back, I was really fortunate to find money that didn't come with too many strings attached. I got to do what I wanted. I got final cut and got to make the movie I wanted to make. I remember around that time, Shotgun Stories had just enough attention that I got a horror script here and there. And I was so broke at the time and just wanted to make movies so I was like, "Yeah, I would do that." And it would have happened because I needed work. So I think part of it is just luck that things like that didn't work out and that I was able to make it through that young period where you'll really do anything. Mud came so quickly after that. I had Sarah Green on board. And the momentum of Take Shelter certainly helped Mud but it didn't create Mud; it didn't create the opportunity for Mud. That was kind of already starting to happen. Now I can kind of lift my head up from these three films and say, "Wow, I got to make the films I wanted to make in an industry that isn't conducive to that. And I got to make them at the levels I wanted to make them." I lucked out. Because it could have been different. It easily could have been different. Now I'm in this position where a kind of second round of opportunity is coming my way and it's not a sequel to some horror movie. It's bigger opportunities, but I've learned to be protective of my writing and my directing. I don't know if that will last. I don't know if I can afford for that to last or how long I can afford for that to last, but I'm going to try. It's a very tough needle to thread. You can count on two hands the directors that get to write and direct their own stuff and make a true-blue career out of it. So right now, I'm aiming for that.
I think most people go out to those studios and that system with their hat in their hand, asking for things and needing things and wanting somebody to say: "Yeah, you're good. Here, I'll let you do this." And I fortunately never had to do that. Even if I go work in that system, keeping the ability to say: "Oh you rewrote the script behind my back. That's OK, I don't need to do that. I'll just go home." I think that's a powerful tool.
AC: You're smart to recognize that early on. You also have two secret ingredients. ... One you picked up in the first film, which is Michael Shannon, and the second is your producer on Mud, Sarah Green. Both are really instrumental. Had you known Shannon before making Shotgun Stories?
JN: No, but I wrote Shotgun Stories for him, and got Mike's number and called him up and said: "You don't know me – I'm a kid from Arkansas – but I wrote a movie for you." He told me with hindsight he was fully intending to throw that script in the trash, but he read [it] and he liked it. And Mike, to this day, if he responds to the material, he'll work with you. It's really all about the material for Mike. He's an interesting guy as a rule, and he has an interesting career as a result of that. Michael Shannon is the best actor in the world.
And Sarah kind of came to me in a dream, it feels like. One day I just got this call from my agency, and they said: "We've set up a meeting for you over in West Lake with Sarah Green, this producer. She works with Terrence Malick." In fact, the guy who set it up isn't part of CAA [Creative Artists Agency] anymore; he's a producer on my next film with Sarah. At that time, I had only made Shotgun Stories, but Sarah watched it and had the scripts for Take Shelter and Mud in front of her. I remember being kind of nervous. I didn't know who I was going to meet, I didn't know it was Sarah Green and all of the beautiful things that make up Sarah Green, which I'll explain in a second. A lot of these what I consider industry producers that I've met – and I've met a lot of them – they have their own point of view and their own attitude and ego and everything else. So I had kind of learned to go in strong and say, "This is what I'm going to do." Sarah asked me at some point in the meeting, "Why do you want to do this?" She didn't mean it flip or anything, but I was like, "Look, this is why I want to do this," and I remember getting a little aggressive answering these questions. Little did I know that Sarah's whole mission in life is, as she enunciated to me: "Here's how I approach producing. I find people that I respect and whose work I want to support, and then I support it." I think a lot of producers might tell you that that's what they do, but that's not what they do. What they do is they want to make their own movie and they look at the director and the writer as tools to somehow craft their own legend and their own artistry. Sarah adds so much to a film in terms of influence and in terms of guidance, but it's from such a beautiful place because it's not a mandate; it's never a mandate. She'll tell you exactly what she thinks. But if you say, "I believe in this, I'm going to do it this way," then she'll do everything she can to support that, even if she doesn't necessarily agree with it. Luckily we haven't had that battle. But she's just a very rare person and that's clear when you look at her credits – John Sayles, David Mamet, Terrence Malick, Frida, Girlfight. She's extraordinary, so I just count myself lucky. I can't tell you why I got picked – because I feel like I got picked by Mike and I got picked by Sarah.
If I'm going to set aside my aw-shucks humbleness routine for a second, I would say I worked my ass off on these scripts. It's what I've devoted my life to doing. Directing is something that I'm still figuring out and trying to do, but these scripts are very important to me, and I spent a lot of time on them. So, if you're really asking the question of why, I would have to think it's because I put my time into the writing and I really stayed up late. That's where I put the hours in.
AC: Were you a writer before you decided to go into film?
JN: No. I was one of these crazy kids in high school when film schools were popping up all over the place, and I thought, "My god, that sounds cool. I want to make movies." I had no concept of what that meant. Much less did I have any concept of who I was as a person or storyteller or anything. I wasn't as well-read as I should have been. It wasn't until I got to the North Carolina School of the Arts that I discovered writing and also met a professor and filmmaker named Gary Hawkins who had a huge influence on me. I found the writers Larry Brown and Harry Crews the same year that I found Badlands, and it was a massive creative awakening where you find your wheelhouse kind of all in one year. You don't fully understand it or fully realize that's what's happening. In the same year, I got to see The Hustler on the big screen. I just want my stuff to live where this writing lives, and where these films live. So I really became a writer.
After NCSA, I was kind of spinning and I didn't know what to do. I moved down to Austin, and that's when I was like "OK, it's time to make a movie." And I started crafting Shotgun Stories, and sat down and wrote it. And then sat down and wrote Take Shelter in the same summer. I really don't like to write things that I'm not going to make. I got an HBO pilot that I sold off a pitch, and I spent six months writing that thing, and it's good – it may be one of the best things I've ever written – and it's never going to get made because they passed on it. That eats at me at night. It was a good thing to learn. I don't want anyone to pay me to do this stuff because I don't want them to own what I'm doing since then they can decide not to do it. Which always seemed absurd to me. Why would you pay someone to do something you don't want to do? But apparently they do it a lot out there.
AC: One of the things that intrigues me is that you always seem to latch on to something I don't see commonly with other filmmakers, and that's that you have a thematic that's personal to you that is driving the film: revenge in Shotgun Stories, anxiety in Take Shelter, heartbreak in Mud. Where does that clarity come from? Other filmmakers find their themes as afterthoughts or regard it as the critics' role to define the themes.
JN: Isn't it the worst to go to one of these festivals and a filmmaker can't talk about their film? It just bothers the hell out of me. Especially at that level. It's one thing for Malick if he doesn't want to talk about his films. Fine. I get it. You have my permission not to talk about your films. But especially a younger filmmaker, if you don't understand what you've done and you aren't trying to analyze it and trying to figure out what you've done, I don't have respect for that. Not everybody is a natural speaker in public, and that might be a big part of it, but still, you should know what your film is.
I stumbled backward into that really after Shotgun Stories. You make your first film, and it just kind of vomits out of you. It's just this thing that has to happen, and you can't control it and you can't stop it. It has all the great things and bad things and mistakes, but it is what it is. It's a beautiful thing. I love first films. But then I really started to look at it and figure out OK, what did I do there, why did people like certain things about it, why did they dislike other things about it. I remember saying this even before Shotgun Stories came out though: I know it's slow, but if you pay attention and you give me 45 minutes – which is a lot of time to ask for – but I promise if you give me 45 minutes, you'll feel something when this character dies. You can watch a lot of movies that are a lot longer than 45 minutes and not feel anything. And I just believed it. I said, "I think if I build it this way, this will hurt people when this character is lost. They will feel the sense of loss for this character." And as I look back on that film, I just realized that was all about me being afraid of something happening to one of my brothers. And that was just a very clear thing. It doesn't have to be mystical or some strange rocket science. I didn't want to lose one of my brothers, and I wrote about that fear in Shotgun Stories and it was palpable to me. And it didn't result from plot. A lot of people waste a lot of time on plot. They put it first and foremost in their laundry list of things to do that day in writing. Plot comes secondary to me. This feeling comes first, to be honest. As I've developed as a writer, I've put it first. I put it first on Take Shelter and I put it first on Mud. It's almost like a pressure point in the body. I can point to the scene where, if I've done my job, that's where you're going to feel, and if you don't, I haven't done it correctly. I'm not trying to manipulate my characters to get them to a certain place or anything like that; I'm trying to orchestrate everything so that emotional feeling connects to the audience. You go see so many movies and they're fine, and that's it. And you just walk away. But then there are those movies you walk out of and whether you think it's a great movie or not you can't shake it. That's where I want to try and be. And I don't want it to be alchemy. I don't want it to be something I don't understand. I want to understand it, and I want to do it every single time if I can. The best way I can do that is to find a palpable emotion: losing one of my brothers, losing my wife and my security, that first heartbreak.
This next one I just wrote, it's about the idea of having to say goodbye to my son. I have a 2½-year-old now, and I'm truly falling in love with him. It took a while, but it happens. And the thought of him looking up at me and saying, "I have to go away," I can't handle that. So I wrote a movie about it. And then everything else is fun, you know. Everything else is the wrapping: genre and plot. That's the fun stuff. But without the other, it's like, what are we doing? Why are we asking people to sit and watch this stuff? Especially now with CGI, you can do anything you want.
AC: You wrote Shotgun Stories with Shannon in mind for it. I think I've also heard you say you wrote Mud with McConaughey in mind – and at a time before he had this big career renaissance. That takes a lot of chutzpah.
JN: I know. I keep hearing about it. And I've been thinking about Matthew in this role for a decade. In a roundtable yesterday [during SXSW], I kind of went off and said: "I just want everybody to know for the record, I had this idea in 1999. And I spoke to his agent in 2006 about this."
Sometimes you can just see these things. I'm so glad people are responding to him in the part because I wrote it for his voice. Being on set and hearing him say the first line was like music. I had been waiting so long to hear that voice say that line. Same with Sam Shepard. Wrote that part [in Mud] for Sam Shepard. You're right, it's partly chutzpah. But I've got nothing to lose. I'm sitting in an office the size of a closet over in Austin and nobody knows who I am anyway, so I might as well try. The official answer is that you need somebody like Matthew because he's innately likable, as was Paul Newman and when you put them in more complex roles. ... It's interesting, and that's what you want. Mike Shannon does the opposite from Matthew. Mike Shannon is scary. So I do the exact opposite with Mike. I put him in roles where he plays a totally sincere, well-meaning character. But that's a narrative gift that Mike gives you because you never know where's he at. You don't know what he's going to do because he's capable of doing anything. What a great gift that was for Take Shelter. He always left you off-balance.
AC: How did you ever get to Austin?
JN: I graduated from college, I didn't want to go to New York or L.A., so I went home to Little Rock. I was working in this pizza place, living with my parents, and that got kind of dark. So my brother was in Austin, about to start his second year of law school, and I heard it was a cool place to live. We shared an apartment together, and I very quickly fell in with Margaret Brown and working on this documentary about Townes Van Zandt [Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt]. That was really a great gift because it filled in a lot of my knowledge gaps from college and allowed me to go back with confidence to Arkansas and produce Shotgun Stories myself. Because nobody was waiting to show up to produce that for me. That introduced me to my wife as well. That movie had a lot to do with my life.
AC: There was such a collection of notable people at your school at that time – David Gordon Green, Jody Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Zobel, Tim Orr, to name a few. Is every graduating group like that out of North Carolina?
JN: I hope so. I think David kicked down the door for a lot of us. And he held it open for us in a lot of ways and dragged some people through it. I don't underestimate the real value of that. We all could have been talented, we all could have been working, but it took somebody ... like David to lead the way. He made George Washington, which was the movie that needed to be made at that time, which nobody can deny was worthy of the attention it got. Also, the school had something to do with it. It was like a trade school. I think they had only graduated one class by the time I got there, so they didn't know what they were doing, which was good. I looked at David and George Washington, not as a creative model because I make different kinds of movies than that, but as a business model. It's exactly what I did. Craig Zobel is there and Jody Hill with Danny McBride and all of those things. And Paul Schneider came out of it. Those are the guys whose names you might recognize. But behind that, there's the whole set. My cinematographer Adam Stone, Tim Orr, who is David's cinematographer, both came out of that program. Then we have editors, we have sound people. The guy that the post sound on the last two of my films is this prodigy guy that we went to school with that went out to Skywalker Sound as an intern, and now is one of their top guys, one of their top sound mixers. There are all these other layers of people that all connected to NCSA. Part of it's the school, part of it's that moment in time, and part of it is David.
AC: Your work also has a strong sense of region or sense of place.
JN: It goes beyond just writing what you know. It's a little more all-encompassing than that – a sense of nature as a huge part of life rather than just the plot stuff that happens. That river defined everything aesthetically for me in Mud. The same way that all those flat fields defined everything aesthetically for Shotgun Stories – even if I wasn't in full control of my craft at that point. It happened kind of naturally where these characters are stagnant and still, and the camera's not moving, and those fields aren't going anywhere. And it's oppressive, even though it's wide open.
My next film is dedicated to light, and I'm nervous about it. In every one of my movies, I've tried to tackle something technically that I feel like I haven't mastery of. Take Shelter is the kind of movie you make before you have a kid and you're worried about what kind of father you're going to be and the family you're going to have. Midnight Special [Nichols' next film] is the movie you write after you have the kid. And you'll just have to see it to see that.
Mud opens in Austin Friday, April 26. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.