By Linc Leifeste | August 5, 2013
Let’s get a painful admission out of the way up front: while men aren’t supposed to cry, it’s not all that unusual to find a tear running down my cheek in a darkened movie theater, especially here in Austin where most of the theaters have fully stocked bars. My first memory of this trait is from when I was about five years old and watched the classic film Lassie Come Home. Sure, the film has a happy ending but I’ll be damned if the preceding story of a boy being forced to sell his beloved dog due to his family’s economic hardships didn’t bury the knife deep and twist away. My hazy memory is that I made it through the film just fine, but soon after felt a heartbreak coming on. Worried that my dad, who I had never seen shed a tear, wouldn’t think highly of me crying like a baby, I grabbed a blanket and hid. But to no avail. My parents quickly caught on to the blubbering sounds coming from underneath the blanket and my dad was both confused by my behavior and displeased. My sobbing, incoherent attempts to explain the reasons for my tears made absolutely no sense to him. “The dog came home. I don’t see why you’re sad!” And so the die was cast.
I’ve almost come to accept that I’m prone to shedding a tear when master storytellers tap into themes of innocence lost, nostalgic feelings of dying cultures, the suffering of children or any halfway decent story about the Alamo. Yes, I’m still careful to wipe away any lingering signs of moisture before the house lights are lit, in some eternal ode to the lingering fear that my dad might be somewhere in the room to see, but I’ve come to realize I am who I am. Film, more than any other mode of artistic expression, can deliver a sucker punch to my emotions. And the last film that brought a tear (or two) to my eye was Jeff Nichols’ third film, Mud. To give you some context, the tears were very similar in composition to those that graced my cheek during Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, tears brought on by a master filmmaker’s nostalgic look at childhood memories of ideals crashing headlong into the tainted compromises that make up adult life.
Starring Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan, Mud is, at its core, the story of a boy’s idealistic youthful romantic yearnings crashing headlong into the cynical realities of the heartbreak inherent in adult interactions. And like all of Nichols’ films, this is a universal story told with a working class voice, a voice that is at once both so truly Southern and so truly American that I believe it’s nearly unparalleled in modern American cinema. It’s a timeless voice, one that will survive the test of time. With Mud, just released on DVD and Blu-ray, I believe that Nichols is poised to establish his voice within the American film canon alongside names such as P. T. Anderson, Terence Malick, Martin Scorsese and the Coen brothers. I recently had a chance to sit down and ask Nichols about Mud and about some of the themes that run through his films, leading him to wax poetic about those things and much, much more.
Linc Leifeste: Your films are populated with working class and small-town characters, in and of itself relatively rare in film, and you treat those characters with respect and dignity. I remember watching Take Shelter and being struck by a feeling of authenticity by the characters that populate the background of that film. Unlike a lot of storytellers, I feel like you get it right.
Jeff Nichols: You have to guard yourself from so much cliché. I’m a student of bad southern films. I watch them and my stomach turns a little bit. And it’s not just having a sheriff with a dip in his mouth, you know, hemming and hawing. It’s really just about your taste level and your aesthetic and your approach to the whole thing. I never set out to write a southern story. I set out to write a personal story or an emotional story, but I never set out to accomplish some southern ideal or anything like that.
I remember an interesting conversation I had early on with David Green about George Washington. I said to him, “Those kids are wearing Converse, Chuck Taylors. I’ve never met a black kid in my life that wears Chuck Taylors, wouldn’t be caught dead in them.” He replied, “I like Chuck Taylors.” And that really got me to thinking about affectation, which seems to be the big trick, because all of this stuff is an affectation, it’s all how I want to see the contemporary American south. It’s not true. The truth is far stranger and scarier. But that film had an authenticity to it and had a heart to it that nobody questioned. So the question becomes, “Where do you draw the line?” and you just constantly have to watch yourself. I remember with Shotgun Stories, thinking about what kind of music these guys would listen to and it would probably be Korn or something, something that I do not like and am not going to listen to, and I think sometimes you just have to put things in your movie that you don’t want to see.
Gary Hawkins, the screenwriter that wrote the script for Joe, which David just did here (Austin) with Nicholas Cage, from the Larry Brown novel, he was a professor of ours and made documentaries for a long time, he said something that has always stuck with me, “It’s the job of documentaries to be as close to narrative as possible and it’s the job of narratives to be as close to documentary as possible.” I don’t know, that makes sense to me. It’s like a diet, you really have to mind yourself while you’re doing it. You just try and make people look and move the right way. Their behavior just has to be as honest as possible. It’s tricky.
LL: Speaking of your first film, Shotgun Stories, I didn’t see it until after being introduced to your work through Take Shelter. But when I went back and watched it, I loved it. And I’m really surprised that it didn’t have more success. I read that the South by Southwest Film Festival rejected it?
JN: That’s right. I guess Matt Dentler was running the festival at that time. I didn’t know Matt but I think he was really trying to push a style of filmmaking around the festival at that time, the whole mumblecore thing. And I just didn’t fit very squarely in that, despite the fact that I had Mike Shannon in my movie, who loves to mumble. [laughs] He may be the best mumbler out there. Just the style that I was going after, which was much more kind of a classic cinema, didn’t really suit them.
Similarly, I remember, it didn’t get into Sundance either. Of course, I would have liked to get in to South by Southwest but to be honest, I remember at the time thinking, “I live in Austin and I don’t want to have my US premier in my backyard, I want to go some cool place.” So we ended up going to Tribeca with it, but that was only after we’d premiered in Berlin. And really, I think that was the game changer, in a way, for my whole career. And I don’t just mean that because of what it did for that film. It was good for that film, but it was really big for me as a filmmaker for that to be the first place that one of my films was seen. The audiences over there, I don’t know if you’ve ever been, but they’re bad-ass. You’re in a thousand seat theater, a beautiful theater, beautiful screen, beautiful projection, and it’s filled with people that really want to think about your movie, that really want to know what you were trying to do. And I remember at that time “W” was in the White House and the international community really had a lot of vitriol towards the United States. That didn’t come out towards me, but definitely they saw my movie in that context, and they wanted to know how Shotgun Stories was allegory for the Bush presidency, which it wasn’t, but it made me very quickly realize how important these movies are. It was an eye opening experience for me.
LL: One thing about your films that is really striking to me is your writing, both in the overall plotting and storytelling but also your dialogue, which is admirably concise and sharp. Is writing something you’ve ever considered pursuing outside of filmmaking? Is there a novel in your future?
JN: No, I don’t think so. I’ve spent a good part of my life getting as good as I can get at writing scripts and that is an art form unto itself. It is a very strange form because it is an incomplete work, it’s meant to be a blueprint, but there’s a right way and there’s a wrong way of doing it and I’m really proud of my scripts. I like them. And when I talk to my actors, they know that I like them. And they better like them too or we’re not going to get along. But I’ve been really fortunate in that everybody I’ve worked with from McConaughey to Mike Shannon to Jessica Chastain on down, they appreciate my scripts. I guess they wouldn’t have been there otherwise. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect. There’s certainly many times on set where we have to correct things and work things out but I’m a writer first and foremost and this directing thing, I’m still figuring out. But writing is something I take a lot of pride in.
There are people out there right now working on novels and working on how to make that work and the point of view necessary for a novel. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Whereas with a screenplay, I know exactly where to begin and what works for me. I’ve gotten to the point where I can look at them and know mistakes when I see them. It’s really two different art forms.
LL: At what point in your life did you decide you wanted to make films? I know you studied filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts but at what point did you think to yourself, “I can make movies.”
JN: It’s kind of silly; I came straight out of high school never having been on a film set before, but I thought making movies sounded cool. It wasn’t until I got to school that I realized what that meant and all that entailed. It’s just fortunate that I was pretty good at it and that I liked it. I like that work. Don’t get me wrong; I still don’t like that lifestyle. I really like the idea of home, of being home with family. I’m in a writing cycle right now and it’s really good because it’s almost like a 9 to 5 job, it’s not, but I get to be at home with my family and I have my friends here in Austin that I get to hang out with. You know, actors and the crew, they have it tough because they’re gone all the time. It’s a different kind of lifestyle. I like dipping my toes in it every year or two but it’s not something that I’d want to do permanently.
But other than that, the work itself, the style of work, I remember kind of being in awe of it when I first started to realize “Oh my God, this is so hard.” If you want to get it right, it’s so hard to capture things. The things that I liked in movies, when I started to figure out how they accomplished them, it was like “Oh, this is so difficult.” But then that became kind of a challenge. Directing is an extraordinarily complicated endeavor and it takes a massive amount of skills. It’s not just technical. It’s partly technical but it’s part personal, part emotional, part creative and all these other things and you’ve got to be firing on all of those cylinders at once. I think it takes a certain type of person to pull it off.
LL: It seems that your films are all very personal, stemming from your own personal experiences. Is that something you think we’ll continue to see or do you envision at some point stepping outside of your own personal experiences?
JN: It’s funny, because the experiences are not necessarily personal. The emotions are. All of those experiences in Shotgun Stories, I don’t have that. In Take Shelter, we got close, but even with that…I’m not a blue collar drill worker. But I have those same fears and same troubles and same emotions, the same thing with my characters in Shotgun Stories, the same thing with my characters in Mud. At the end of the day, we’re making movies here and people should want to see these things and they should be entertained by them. My challenge is to figure out how to take hopefully a fascinating concept, an interesting concept, an entertaining concept, and kind of stuff personal emotions into that. If I actually showed you my life it would be boring but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t walked through this life and felt things that are just as powerful as people in other situations. So I’m actually looking for big cinematic situations and it’s my job to figure out how to work personal emotions into that.
The other day I was talking with another Arkansas filmmaker who has been making horror films and he was saying that he wasn’t totally pleased with his path, that he wanted to make more dramatic films. But genre doesn’t matter. With Take Shelter, I wanted to just scare people. I wanted to make a movie that was scary. And it was fun. But inside a genre you can explore so much personal stuff. I think people sometimes feel like they’re limited by their genre and I’m not. The movie geek inside of me wants to make a thriller or a horror movie or an action movie, all these things. And it’s my job to elevate that genre. And the only way I know to do that is through personal emotion.
LL: I’d like to talk about a number of themes that seem to run through all three of your films. One of them is family and all that entails, both the blessings and burdens, particularly from the standpoint of examining the responsibilities of brothers and fathers.
JN: I didn’t set out to become a specialist on masculine relationships or anything like that but it seems to be something I gravitate towards. Although, it’s funny, Take Shelter was a conscious attempt to write a bigger female character, Jessica Chastain’s part, the mother and the wife. With Shotgun Stories I kind of put the wife a backseat role because it was a movie about men. But Take Shelter was not. It’s about family but it’s not about men. But Mud again is back around to examining male relationships. Even though it’s about love and figuring women out and all this other stuff, it’s from a male point of view, more specifically from an adolescent male point of view. I’m not really answering your question but it’s just an insecurity of mine.
But each one started with a very specific emotion that I was trying to explore, typically based around a relationship. Shotgun Stories started with the idea of how I might respond if one of my brothers was killed. At the time, that was the worst thing I could imagine because I wasn’t married. I hadn’t met my wife or had my son. With Take Shelter, I had just gotten married and I really wanted to explore that relationship. And the funny thing is, even though there’s a child and a concern with protecting that child, that movie for me is really about marriage. And then Mud, since I’ve been developing it longer than anything else, it was reaching back to having a girl break up with you in high school. But then it’s also about male mentors. I was thinking a lot about Gary Hawkins and my dad and other people who have kind of mentored me through life, both in matters of love but also professionally.
This next one I’m writing is actually about fathers and sons. So it’s not stopping. It’s going to keep going. The focus is always hinged on those relationships that I’m kind of wondering about at the time. I’m probably running out of angles but maybe they’ll just keep getting recycled. Family is such an important thing to me, just the most immediate source of emotion, I just don’t see how else to do it.
LL: It also seems that all of your films feature marital relations that are strained and crumbling as a key component. Is that something you’ve had personal experience with?
JN: It’s funny, after Shotgun Stories, people would come up and ask if my parents used to beat me or something. But I cam from a really loving family and the same goes for my marriage. I have a wonderful marriage and we’re very happy. I don’t know, I guess part of it is my exploring the fear of it all just going off the rails. That’s what Take Shelter was about. But honestly in Mud, the dissolution of that marriage was really to put pressure on the boy. It wasn’t really intended to be an analysis of divorce or anything. I just needed to put the screws on my main character a little bit. It’s the same thing with the daughter’s disability in Take Shelter; it originated as a narrative tool to put the screws on my main character. It ultimately developed into more than that, which is what you always hope for. You start these things, these narrative devices, but then you hope they fold into the story in a much more intricate way.
LL: Interestingly, religion is mostly absent from your films, despite being a staple of Southern storytelling. But it’s something that lingers around the periphery of your films, in a way. And while maybe not traditional religion, your films have aspects of superstition, signs and visions.
JN: It’s almost like something people, especially people in the north, expect to see when they watch a Southern movie. Okay, well, where are the Baptist snake handlers? That shit doesn’t happen. I’ve never seen anyone handle snakes in my entire life. I grew up a Methodist. We didn’t do anything interesting. And so I think that was one affectation that I just stayed away from. I mean, if anything, the way that I present religion in my films is, in the first two, organized religion is something to be a little wary of, from the point of view of the main characters. Which isn’t about religion. It’s actually not an attack on religion or anything like that. What it is, it’s me personally trying to develop a belief system of my own. Back to that earlier idea that I respect guys that are sorting things out on their own because ultimately I think that is what happens. It’s such a personal thing. Only the most shallow, stupid people actually apply these kinds of platform beliefs. So we’re all kind of looking for a way to say it for ourselves and interpret it for ourselves and that’s all my characters are doing. It’s not that they’re turning their back on religion, necessarily. They’re just not buying that guy’s take on it, which speaks to who they are and who I am and a lot of bigger things.
LL: I know that Michael Shannon has been in all three of your films. What’s that relationship like now? Do you stay in touch with him regularly? Do you talk with him about what you’re writing and bounce ideas off of him?
JN: I’m trying to continue to work with him. I show him everything I write, which isn’t a lot. I’m not prolific. Really, when I get done writing something I want to go make it. I don’t have a stack of scripts; I have a stack of ideas, I just don’t have a stack of scripts. So yeah, he’s aware of everything I’m trying to do and how he fits in. And so far so good. I just need him to get famous, which he might. We’re both banking on that. He did the new Superman movie, which is huge. Come on, make Mike a superstar. But seriously, it deserves to happen and it will happen. That’s one of those inevitable conclusions. Mike Shannon is going to be one of the biggest actors in the world. It’s just when that happens and how that happens that remains to be seen.
LL: While Mud is just about to get its national release, I think I read that it and Take Shelter are both stories from around the same time?
JN: With Mud I first had the idea in college, back around 1999. So I’ve been thinking about Mud longer than anything else. But I finished both of those screenplays at the same time. I started writing Mud in 2006, after I’d finished Shotgun Stories. I wrote the first thirty pages and stopped because I realized I wasn’t good enough yet. I wasn’t ready. I’m real good at writing stoic characters that don’t talk a lot but I wanted Mud to feel different. I wanted it to be kind of a feel-good film, I mean it has a music montage in it for God’s sake, and I wanted to try for that. At great risk to the kind of “cool” persona that I’d been building through Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, and will return to on my next film. But I wanted to…not be silly, exactly, but just be a little more free and make something a little more lighthearted. Which is a dangerous endeavor, especially the third time out. Mainly I wanted Mud’s character to be verbose. And that’s hard to write. Some people write like that. David Mamet writes like that. I don’t write like that. But yeah, Take Shelter and Mud were finished in the same year, 2008.
LL: I find it interesting to think that your new film, which is just coming out, is something you finished writing five years ago. I understand you’re doing the same thing now, working on multiple projects. Do you think there will be a big change in where you’re coming from creatively now as compared to these stories that you wrote five plus years ago?
JN: You know, it’s funny, I remember finishing Take Shelter and showing it to my dad and he said, “Jeff, it’s great but you need to go ahead and get this made because the economy is falling apart right now.” Unfortunately, it continued falling apart. They keep mentioning this recovery but I’m afraid that’s not the case. So that worked out. But the cool thing that’s happening now is that I find myself in a position where I can get movies made, not more easily, but I have the potential to get movies made without having to wait five years. Which is important for some movies. Of course, who knows, Mud could totally tank. It’s within the realm of possibility. I hope it doesn’t. I don’t think it will. But it could.
But Take Shelter, in the grand scheme of things, got made relatively quickly, I finished writing in 2008, was shooting it in 2010 and by January, 2011, we were at Sundance. As far as movies go, especially independent films in development, that had a pretty quick turnaround. Hopefully the same thing will happen for Midnight Special, which is this film that I’m about to make. That’s all to say it’s not like Mud, where I started thinking about it a decade ago. But Mud could survive that because it’s a different kind of story. Take Shelter is a very immediate story whereas Mud is intended to be a timeless story, a nostalgic story. I hate to use that term because it seems to have negative connotations but it’s truly what it is. I was dipping into a nostalgic feeling, because unlike things I still carry with me like the love for my brothers or the love for my wife or love for my son, which is what Midnight Special focuses on, I’m continuing to feel all those things but that heartbreak from high school, that’s something I’ve grown through. So it can’t help but be a nostalgic look backward toward that. It’s something that I can still remember and feel very potently but that film can’t help but be a memory.
LL: I’ve read that with Take Shelter, you were inspired by specific films, specifically Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Safe, and that you studied those films in preparation for making your movie. I know with Mud, you early on described it as “Sam Peckinpah directing a Mark Twain story.” When I watched I could see those influences but was also really put in mind of True Grit. Can you talk about how specific films influence the films you make?
JN: True Grit is huge. Huge. In fact, I read it on my honeymoon in Mexico for the first time. I’d seen the film, I knew the film, but I’d been digging into Dog of the South and Charles Portis, an Arkansas writer, an amazing writer, and I decided to take True Grit down there. And I was shocked at the similarities it had to Mud, in terms of the snakes, even the structure and that man’s personal philosophies and his behaviors. And it was really funny because when I first spoke to McConaughey’s agent, I told him, “You know, the only Oscar John Wayne ever won was for Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. I think the reason for that is because it took the persona of John Wayne and everything that you knew he was going to bring to the table and channeled it into an actual character that could take advantage of all that. And then he could actually build off of it and make the character of Rooster Cogburn. That’s what I want to do with McConaughey. I want to take all of those things that are great about him that he’s known for, that maybe in some roles stick out, and I want to channel them through this character and give him something to build off.” So yeah, it’s funny, True Grit, it was a big one.
With Take Shelter, Close Encounters affected me story-wise, I guess Safe did too as well, but those movies also directly affected me, as well as The Shining, aesthetically as a director. There’s the writer and then there’s the director and they overlap and bleed into each other. With Mud, just for the way it looked, we looked at No Country for Old Men a lot. Because, God, they got that movie right, to the point where I’m like, “I just wanna remake this movie over and over again.” And of course they made that a period piece in a really subtle way, but it was a really good way because it didn’t feel affected. It could have, but it didn’t. Those guys are incredible. You watch a movie like No Country for Old Men or The Man Who Wasn’t There (I love that film. Billy Bob Thornton’s performance in that is incredible but I think he’s a genius), it’s like a hand that…kind of like what I was talking about when we first started, kind of like a diet…it’s this control that you have to have, and they had so much control in that film.
When we looked at No Country, we were really looking at very specific elements. I wanted the night photography to look better than it did in Take Shelter. We didn’t really do that much night photography in Take Shelter, and the majority of it was inside, but I wasn’t really pleased with it. But we were running and gunning on that film so much. I had the same gaffer, in control of the lights, with the DP, on Mud as Take Shelter, which is a good thing, because it wasn’t that I thought he did a poor job, he pulled off miracles on Take Shelter. We just hadn’t really nailed the design and the look of that night lighting and we really got there on Mud. I really like the way the night photography looks, which is hard, because we shoot on film. We’re not shooting on these digital cameras where you just show up and shoot some shit, you actually have to light this stuff and it’s really tricky because that’s where that affectation can start to come out really aggressively.
You look at the night photography in No Country and they did sodium vapor better than anybody I’ve seen. It’s got this kind of orange glow to it and that’s what my eye sees when I’m outside, that’s what it looks like to me. And I remember being really impressed by that. Not to mention that the Coen Brothers, they move the camera better than most modern day filmmakers. The camera is always where it needs to be. It’s really daunting as a director, if I was going to come up and shoot this conversation, you’ve got 360 degrees, all these different angles you could choose, lenses, you’ve got all these different choices, but there’s only one right place to put a camera for every single shot. I believe that. And the Coen brothers make it look effortless, every shot you can look at and study.