“At any one time I have five or six stories going around in my head”, writer and director Jeff Nichols says, while moulding some imaginary thing between his hands like a potter at a wheel. “I’ll pick one up, work on it for a while, then lay it down and pick up another. The longer I work on them, the better they get. I first had the idea for Mud when I was nineteen and have been thinking about it on and off ever since.”
Today Nichols looks like a lanky Marty McFly in jeans and trainers, a flannel shirt and red sleeveless body-warmer, his thick sandy hair swept into a peak. At 34, he appears at least a decade younger, relaxed and thoughtful, brimming with enthusiasm for his new film and the work of those writers and directors that have influenced him; “Malick, Spielberg, John Sayles, John Carpenter. Man, I’ll tell you, John Carpenter is a hero to me…”
Nichols grew up in the city of Little Rock, hometown of former President Bill Clinton, deep in the American South. He was a child of the Arkansas suburbs with a passion for comics, television and movies. “When we were kids, my father would take us to the movies a couple of times a week. I was fascinated by the theater of watching films, if you know what I mean; the ritual of it. The audience settle into their seats, the lights go down and the curtain goes back. It has always been tremendously exciting for me.”
That thrill of witnessing a story unfolding is apparent in Nichols’ first feature, Shotgun Stories. A sparse and literary story of feuding Arkansas farming stock, the film featured a star-making turn from Nichols’ best friend “and muse, I suppose” Michael Shannon. His follow-up, Take Shelter starred Shannon again as a man despairingly trying to protect his family from his terrifying visions of the end of the world. Now he has swapped the dusty plains and anonymous suburbs for the lush green banks of the Arkansas river for Mud, another family-focused drama about two teenage boys Ellis and Neckbone (played by Tye Sheridan and newcomer Jacob Lofland) who encounter a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey) hiding out on an island in the Arkansas delta. Acting in secret, they help him evade the bounty hunters on his trail while re-uniting him with his long-lost true love (Reese Witherspoon).
“You could call it a coming of age story”, Nichols says, “I’m comfortable with that definition, but that wasn’t the original intention. I sat down to write a getaway film, a chase movie. But once I had this character who was a fourteen year old boy, he connected to all these other things that were floating around in my head at that time and I found I had stumbled into something else that was far more interesting.” What kind of things? “Well, my wife and I were expecting our first child and I was thinking about fatherhood and father figures, mentors, people who will help you along in life. I was thinking about communities and how they form and function, because I was about to add one to that number. Pretty heavy stuff”.
I ask Nichols how much of the film is autobiographical and he spreads his arms wide. “The first connection, for me, is always a sense of place. I didn’t grow up on the river, I wasn’t a river-rat like Ellis and Neckbone, but I had spent time in their world and felt close to it. With each of my films, I try and find one emotional connection to my own life, something that is physical and palpable. Ellis standing in a parking lot getting his heart broken is exactly and precisely me at the age of fourteen. I remember I had a physical reaction when that girl let me down that day, nauseous and light headed. It played out almost exactly as you see it in the film. Similarly, Shotgun Stories came from a deep fear that one of my brothers would be killed or murdered somehow. And in Take Shelter I was trying to recapture a momentary anxiety that I had that if my marriage fell apart, the world would end too. Like a total deterioration. These are feelings within me, not always rational or reasonable, but once I can anchor the film to that, the rest of it can be about anything.”
Once the kernel of an idea comes to him, his approach is to flesh it out with characters that he knows intimately. “Ellis and Neckbone are basically two sides of my personality, the fantasist and the realist. To bring them into the story, I just think about who they are, what they want and how they can achieve that. I try to make that as realistic as possible and as close a match as I can to the kind of experiences I have had myself. A lot of times I think filmmakers are only concerned with plot. They’ll say, “I am making a movie about this or that”, as if defining it in two sentences or less is somehow a positive. I think that is a bad way to tell stories.”
Nichols describes his method of screenwriting as “mostly thinking, then typing”. Relating how, one summer a couple of years back, he had two films on his mind, he tells me how he sat down to write them both at the same time. One became Take Shelter, the other became Mud. “They’d been knocking around for a while. They had to come out. I made Take Shelter before Mud because I knew with this film I was going to have to shoot in boats and on sets built on water. To do that effectively takes time and costs money. Take Shelter has a lot more special effects but oddly, in comparison, it was a simpler film to make. Whatever we achieve in Mud we did it practically, with effort and sweat.”
Before it came to shooting, however, Nichols had another practical problem to address. “When you write a script with two teenage boys as the central characters, you just have to believe that the actors to play them are out there, somewhere, and that you will find them. It’s a leap of faith”. I ask him if casting the film was a drawn-out process, and he laughs. “Not at all. In a funny way, the universe delivered them right to my doorstep, quite literally in the case of Tye Sheridan”. Sheridan, who had just turned fourteen when he was cast, came to Mud through Nichol’s producer Sarah Green, who had produced Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life and had spent more than a year on set with the young actor as he played one of Brad Pitt’s sons in 1950s Texas. “When I talked to Sarah, her first reaction was to call for Tye. He was about 11 when he was working on Tree of Life and it was an extraordinary experience for him. When we met he was just the embodiment of the character I had written. He looked like him, talked like him, behaved as I thought Ellis would. He’s extraordinary”.
As good as Sheridan’s performance is, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective without the presence of Neckbone; a tough, self-sufficient kid who rides a motorbike he built himself from scrap and speaks with the voice of reason. “For Neckbone, we put an ad in the paper. I knew Malick had done that to find Tye, so I figured it was the way to go. What I didn’t know was that Malick had received about another ten thousand audition tapes”. Casting Neckbone was big news in Arkansas, Nichols says, “like someone winning the lottery. What happened was that Jacob Lufland’s mother saw the ad and thought our description sounded a lot like her son. He had never acted before, never even thought about it. I knew very early on that he was the right guy.”
Nichols’ luck continued with casting continued with finding the grown-up actors from a deep pool of fellow Southerners, but he only ever had one actor in mind for his lead. “From day one I wrote the part of Mud for Matthew McConaughey to play”. The fact that Nichols had never met McConaughey, and had no idea if the actor knew of his existence, didn’t matter. “He didn’t return my phone calls for a long time and it took some convincing to get him to read the script but we got there”. I tell Nichols that, for a long time, McConaughey was better known for taking his shirt off than his acting abilities and the director nods his head. “He takes his shirt off in my movie too, but only because it was hellish hot. We talked about all that though and he told me that he was working in a very confined space, as an actor, in the studio romantic comedies he made for the last couple of years. He couldn’t be too happy or too sad, too bright or too dark, too up or too down. Those characters exist between these two points which are actually very close to one another. What’s great about Mud, according to Matthew, is that we can go wherever we want to”.
Like all of his films so far, Mud is set in his home state and the director feels a deep responsibility to represent the place as it really is. It’s a part of America that isn’t often depicted on screen, he says, where money is tight and communities are even tighter. “There are very few movies about poor people and the working class”, Nichols explains, “and these are the people I have the most respect for. When it comes to developing a character, the first thing I do is give them a job. Our work defines so much about who we are. I’m always confused when I watch a movie where everyone is an advertising executive living in a penthouse and driving an extravagantly flashy car. Who are these people? How can they afford to live to live like this? I just can’t relate to them.”
There’s more to Nichols’ determination to hew to reality than providing a backdrop to his stories: he needs his characters to carry their own authenticity. “Take Ellis’ father, for instance (played by Ray McKinnon). He is a small-scale commercial fisherman, and that tells us things we need to know about him: his love and respect for the river that gives him his livelihood, his connection to his community and his personal history and life experiences. I don’t have to spell all that background detail out for the audience; the character can do that for me. Films are about behaviour. There are two elements to any screenplay: one is action, the other is dialogue. Both of these things are driven by behaviour. If I just got up and walked out of the room right now, that would say something to you. I don’t have to share my reasons, or say anything at all, but you’re left here to deal with the consequences of my behaviour.”
He stays seated, thankfully, and continues. “So, I want my films to be rooted in character. I’ll have the big idea, like a fugitive hiding out on an island in a river, but the rest of it comes from character. Who is the fugitive? Who are the people who help him? Why are they helping him? What’s going on around them? I’m not just asking them to advance my plot and get me to a certain place. I want to know who they are. Everything is borne out of those characters and if you get them right, the rest falls into place. Ultimately, if you’re building towards that physical emotion I was talking about earlier, that kick in the stomach, the audience will feel it more if you have been honest with them all the way through. If you’re not, it won’t feel real. You might have this cool idea and manoeuvre everything to make it happens, but really you’re just putting words in your characters mouths”.
Nichols has more stories he’s been turning over, with the two most likely to become his next films precipitating a move away from Arkansas. “I have this science-fiction story I’ve been working on called Midnight Special. It’s just a little chase movie with speculative elements. And there’s a road movie, a biker film told from a woman’s point of view set in 1960s California. But I won’t write anything down until I have the movie in my head, from start to finish”.