Sundance Interview: Director Jeff Nichols Talks Mud, American Classics, Drawing from Personal Experiences, the Future and the Identity of Film Criticism
by Sam Fragoso
You’d be hard-pressed to find a working filmmaker as genuine, kind, and thoughtful as Jeff Nichols. His latest film entitled Mud is now playing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and possesses many of the features displayed in Nichols’ sincere personality.
Below is a transcribed edition of our interview. How he managed to wax eloquently on everything from Mud to influential filmmakers to his future to the state of film criticism (in only 15-minutes), is beyond comprehension. The searing honesty and often unfound authenticity found in the conversation below should delight. I hope you folks enjoy it.
Sam Fragoso: After Mud I was beginning to formulate my opinion on the film, alongside contemplating what you were trying to say and convey. More importantly, I’m fascinated as to what you think your film is about.
Jeff Nichols: Ultimately it’s a film about that first heartbreak and how we work through that. That’s really what’s at the core of it. But it’s also about male mentors and about a dying way of life in the South. So, there’s a lot going on there. If I had to pick one to distill it, it’s a film about getting your heartbroken and how we recover from that.
Fragoso: You’re talking about this dying lifestyle in the South, and you’re indeed from Arkansas (where Mud is set). How did your personal experiences in the South affected you when writing the script and its characters?
Nichols: Absolutely. I grew up in Little Rock so I was a suburb kid. But my parents grew up in a very small town in Arkansas. So anytime we’d go visit relatives I was going to southeast Arkansas and I was getting dipped into this rural environment. And one of my distant cousins owns one of these house boats that I got to stay on. This particular area I wasn’t familiar with. I was going there to discover it, along with discovering the screenplay and what it’s about.
In terms of the dying way of the South, there’s a comment from Rick Bragg, he’s an author who has written a couple great memoirs alongside being a journalist, and in one of his books he mentions his daughter (they were living in Atlanta) who was made fun of for her Southern accent. This is a thing that naturally progresses. As the whole United States gets a little more homogenized and everybody gets cable TV and everything gets pumped in from the rest of the world, whatever was unique about the South, it changes. That’s not to say it totally goes away, but it’s definitely changing. You can go from one town to another and there’s a Best Buy and a Home Depot and a McDonald’s and it all kind of looks the same. There’s a character development that happens – everyone begins to talk the same, sound the same, and listen to the same music. And that culture becomes less unique. That’s what I mean by “a dying way of life in the South.”
Fragoso: Mud, in contrast to a film like Take Shelter - which sort of revels in the psychological horrors of Michael Shannon’s character – is a bit of a lighter film. At least tonally. Is this a new direction you’re going in?
Nichols: No, I wrote those two movies during the summer of 2008. They’re just different parts of my personality. I think often times critics want a filmmaker to be something. But we’re not. We’re complex individuals. We love movies. I love Fletch and Goonies as much as Hud, Cool Hand Luke, Days of Heaven and Badlands. And Mud was just an expression of a different part of my personality.
Fragoso: Two things: Your Sight and Sound ballot was one of the more fascinating ones with two or three Paul Newman movies. Secondly, you’re in saying critics often stereotype and define filmmakers by a certain genre. But you seem to be defying categorization, showing versatility, especially with Mud.
Nichols: I appreciate that. And again that wasn’t even my intention. These movies are personal to me. Lighter, darker, whichever, they’re all expressions of my personality. I think the main thing people are feeling is, to use your word, a tonal difference. I think there’s a better way to put it: I think Take Shelter was an immediate film about right now. Luckily in 2010 when it came out, the film still worked. People were anxious and people were worried about the economy, worried about the environment, and worried about raising their kids and giving them a life that they had themselves.
Personally for me, that’s exactly what I was thinking about right at that time – and those were my fears right at that time. Mud has been developing in me for over a decade. But Mud is not immediate. Mud is timeless in a way. I really wanted to make a classic American story. And this is it. This is the closest I can come. It’s dense, literate, and I think those are differences that you’re feeling. Some people will like Take Shelter more, some people will like Mud more. Hopefully more people like them than dislike them.
The one criticism that makes me mad is when they (critics) think this is less personal than any of the others.
Sam: This film feels like it’s more personal than any of the others.
Nichols: Well, yes and no. This is directly about me getting my heart broken. But Take Shelter was about me trying to stay married and protect my family. And Shotgun Stories was about something violent happening to one of my brothers. Each of them has a personal anchor for me.
Sam: So you’re constantly drawing from your personal experiences?
Nichols: I have to. It’s the only way I know how to tell stories that have a chance of connecting with the audience. You know, I think a movie fails when you leave the theater and then 10 minutes later you’re not thinking about it anymore. I think the reason for that is the film never emotionally touches you. And so I’m looking for a way to emotionally connect with my audience. Naturally, I can’t be every guy, I can’t be every woman, and I can’t be in their minds. But what I can be is very honest with myself and write about a pure feeling that I had. And usually it’s painful.
Sam: Where you around the same age as Ellis (the protagonist in Mud) when your heart was broken for the first time?
Nichols: I was a little bit older, maybe fifteen or sixteen.
Sam: How did you find these young actors?
Nichols: My producer Sarah Green produced Tree of Life, and Ty Sheridan (Ellis) was in Malick’s film. I met him and he looked exactly like Ellis in my mind, he sounded like him, he was him. He was this perfect sort of combination he wasn’t like some child actor that had been drilled to “give the right performance” and “this is how you do a script.” They didn’t give him a script for Tree of Life. He had to be in front of the camera being himself.
During that experience he saw the apparatus that was the film crew, be he never had any of the baggage that most child actors have of being forced into this way of behaving. You know, that Mickey Mouse club kind of craziness. So that was Tye. He was a gift. And then Jacob Lofland we found at an open casting call in Arkansas. Jacob is Neckbone (Ellis’ best friend in Mud). He showed up and played the part. He’s honestly one of my favorite parts of the film. Mainly because he’s a comic relief and a big surprise for me. It was fun discovering that performance with Jacob. In a weird way that’s the one performance I’m most proud of in Mud.
Sam: So this next question is not directly related to one, but it’s something I’m always curious in. What filmmakers influence your own style of filmmaking?
Nichols: Yeah, you know, whenever I get asked that question I often think less about specific directors and more about films. But, I’m a big fan of John Ford. I’m a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock is actually the one major influence because in a way because he picked a genre, he picked fear, which isn’t actually a genre, but an emotion, to work in. But people know him as “oh, he’s that guy that made scary movies” … but it’s because fear (which is why enjoy I love Take Shelter so much) is such a tangible thing to do through filmmaking.
Sam: Your love for Hithcock can been seen in Take Shelter, clearly. Just that scene where Shannon his holding his daughter as a drove of birds come flying by … that’s The Birds.
Nichols: How could you not? It’s certainly in my mind. But you know, like that Sight and Sound list, those movies never leave. Badlands was hugely influential. Malick’s movies, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, Tree of Life, all of them weigh on me. But Badlands was my one. Badlands was the one where if I could just make that movie over and over again I’d be fine. And finding the authenticity and the inspiration and the energy that he found in those performances is incredible.
Hud and Cool Hand Luke are just those classic American movies. That’s my Mud. Then you got John Ford doing Stagecoach and looking at landscape. And then you have David Lean doing Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai. These movies feel epic to me in a classic sense. I love it. I want do to that. And then you have Spielberg making Jaws. I can watch Jaws on a loop for the rest of my life, and sure you get over the fact that it’s about a big shark eating people. The way Spielberg was in a zone in that movie, the way he moved the camera, and the way the camera movement was motivated by character action … it’s just a school in and of itself.
And this isn’t me making an advertisement for anybody. This is just saying that these are things that struck me. There’s a Michael Ritchie film out there, and I always get the title wrong because it’s so long, but it’s something like The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. Impeccable, amazing, Not for the filmmaking craft. You don’t go to Michael Richie to say “where do I put the camera?” You go to Michael Ritchie to say “how do I make something honest, funny, and human all at the same time?”
Sam: In a way you’ve made your American classic with Mud.
Nichols: As pretentious as this may sound, that’s what I was going for. Whether I achieved it or not is going to be up you guys.
Sam: So what are you working on now?
Nichols: Right now I’m working on this one called Midnight Special. I won’t talk too much about it now, other than to say I kind of want to make a 1980s John Carpenter movie. If I had to choose one of those it would be Starman.
It’s interesting because I’m doing the same thing I did in the summer of 2008 where I’m writing two scripts at once. And so Midnight Special is going to be a genre film put through whatever bizarre filter is me. And then I’m writing this other movie based on a documentary that will hopefully be austere, quiet, sad, and beautiful.
Sam: Do you think you’ll be attending Ebertfest this year?
Nichols: I don’t know. If he invites me, I’ll go. I love that place, and Roger Ebert has been very good to me. He was one of the first writers to come out with Shotgun Stories and say “you all need to pay attention to this movie.” And that’s a big deal for someone who is off the radar.
Nichols: Well, I don’t know because I read all of this stuff, and the pigeon hold thing bothers me the most. It’s when you guys write with such certainty that you know what I meant to do or what I didn’t pull of. Those are the kind of comments that bug me the most. But look, I make these movies for people to watch them. And once I made it, that’s the end. I can get mad and I can get happy about good and bad reviews. At the end of the day I leave it to you guys.
We’re at an interesting time in film criticism though. Because so many people have access to do it, everybody’s a film critic.
Sam: I understand. It still baffles me when you can find my review of a film and Roger’s review of a film next to one another on the Internet.
Nichols: It’s pretty amazing when you come out of Cannes and the L.A. Times gives you a fantastic review, and then some blog didn’t like it – both of which can be found on the same google search.
Sam: I’d like to think quality writing will ultimately outshine bad writing.
Nichols: Hopefully quality will out. I think if it’s a truly good film then it won’t disappear. It may not get the success you want. But I don’t think it will disappear. And I’ve been really fortunate that to this point, none of my movies feel like they’re going to disappear.