RULE: Jeff Nichols gives himself directorial challenges to master on every project
Way back in 2013, Jeff Nichols’ fantastic Twainian yarn ‘Mud’ was the biggest box office draw of any indie movie that year. In stats compiled by IndieWire, ‘Mud,’ raked in $21,470,458 in ticket sales, surpassing the Ryan Gosling-starred ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ ($21,403,519) and Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut ‘Quartet’ ($18,390,117). Richard Linklater’s heart-wrenching ‘Before Midnight’ is #7 on the list, with $7,814,792 taken in at the box office.
In ‘Mud,’ Texas native Ty Sheridan stars as a kid going through a summer of discovery, led and misled by a convict played by Matthew McConaughey. By the standards of the indie world, Mud was a hit, a career-maker—nominated for the 2012 Palme d’Or at Cannes, and winner of the Robert Altman Award at the Independent Spirit Awards. The film is the highest grossing in the history of distributor Roadside Attractions. Mud eventually had 11 awards and 34 nominations.
Jeff Nichols served as executive producer of Austinite Kat Candler’s feature ‘Hellion’. He has done ‘Midnight Special,’ with longtime collaborator Michael Shannon and ‘Loving’ with Ruth Negga, and Joel Edgerton (who was also in Midnight Special).
However, Nichols didn’t move to Los Angeles or New York to chase the film dream after he graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts, he made a more pragmatic and less glamorous choice. He moved back in with his parents and worked at a Little Rock pizza place while writing screenplays.
“After about a year of that I thought, ‘This is a sad, sad existence, I gotta shake it up,’” Nichols says.
The director moved to Austin, and found work with director Margaret Brown, who was making “Be Here to Love Me,” a documentary about the tragic and brilliant singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. That experience simultaneously introduced Jeff Nichols to both the music and film scenes.
“I was hanging out with cool people really quickly,” Nichols says. “Working with Margaret Brown filled in a lot of knowledge in my gaps from film school because that was my first real-world job execution, so I was handling things that I needed to refine … all these things I knew about but didn’t have any experience with. And that gave me the confidence to legitimately produce my own movie.”
“I never wanted to make movies just for me,” Nichols says. “I want to make movies that people watch.”
He took that experience with him back to Arkansas, where he filmed “Shotgun Stories.” Jeff Nichols, who lives in East Austin with his wife and son, wrote his subsequent features, “Mud” and “Take Shelter,” the following year, an accomplishment that serves as testament to the flexibility and power of the filmmaker’s imagination, but he had the idea for the “Mud” screenplay years earlier. While attending college in 1999, Nichols imagined writing a classic American story. He says he always knew the actor he wanted to play the self-mythologizing and complicated Mud.
“There’s a guy on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River … it should be Matthew McConaughey,” Nichols says.
“When I was writing Mud, I was writing it in his voice,” Jeff Nichols says. “Matthew’s innately likable. And I knew that before even meeting him … it just comes through in his work. But you can use that to your advantage because you can make a compound statement with that. So you put him in a certain role, doing certain things that may not be likable — there’s lots of moments in ‘Mud’ where he may or may not be using these kids and you’re not sure of his motives. So, to have those two things working at the same time, that’s a cool thing as a director, as a storyteller, to have.”
He may have written the role for McConaughey, but he almost didn’t get his man thanks to the calendar and the actor’s busy schedule.
The character of Mud intrigued McConaughey, who’s known for waxing philosophical and once took a months long sabbatical to go on a solo hiking trip in South America. Mud is an ex-con on the lam, and he uses his hypnotic rhetoric to enlist the help of Ellis and his buddy Neckbone. But his manipulation springs from one desire: to return to the arms of the love of his life, a tortured and dangerous soul named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). His methods may seem dubious at times, but to McConaughey they were all part of the character’s truth.
Nichols is fascinated by people’s threshold for ambiguity—with less spelled out, the audience gets more engaged.
“I see him as a guy — and I like characters that do this, because I feel like I do this — who built his own belief system. And that’s interesting to me,” McConaughey says. “He’s not a schemer. He believes what he’s selling. Schemer is much too conscious of a word for him. His logic comes from the stars and Mother Nature … he’s a dreamer. Mud does fate, he doesn’t do suicide. He’s been stepping in (expletive) for so long he doesn’t think it’s part of the riddle, he knows it’s part of the poem.”
Ellis falls under Mud’s spell and steals spare parts to help fix the run-down boat that is to serve as Mud’s method of escape. He also serves a courier and romantic proxy for the character whom McConaughey calls “an aristocrat of the heart,” and follows Mud’s idealized notion of love into his own bout of heartache.
When Mud’s quixotic plans run into the harsh light of reality, Ellis feels betrayed. But Ellis is let down less by Mud and more by the reconfiguration of his own notions of love and adulthood. As Ellis comes to terms with Mud’s imperfections, he’s able to see the rhapsodic rapscallion less as a hero and more as a friend and support during a challenging time of personal change. They teach each other about trust and forgiveness. They give each other hope.
“That’s kind of who Mud is,” Nichols says. “He passes through this boy’s life right when that boy needed him.”
While “Mud” will appeal to the broadest audience of any of Nichols’ three films, the filmmaker doesn’t plan to kowtow to audiences. His next film, “Midnight Special,” is a science-fiction chase movie that Nichols says draws inspiration from John Carpenter and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Regardless of genre, the movie carries the hallmarks of all of Nichols’ films. A man of unique vision, he intends to stay true to the voice he has crafted over the past decade.
“Well, what else do I have to lose?” Nichols says. “This is the way I’ve developed as a writer and a storyteller, and it’s the only way I know how to do it.”
Little by little, strategic decision by strategic decision, Nichols has been preparing to make not this movie so much as the next one or perhaps the one after that.
Adapted from Statesman