‘Mud’ Director Jeff Nichols Finds Heartbreak Along the Mississippi River

By  · Published on April 26th, 2013

Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter are no lightweight cinematic affairs, and writer/director Jeff Nichols certainly didn’t pull any emotional punches when making them. While both Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter put put their audience through the emotional ringer, his third film, Mud, is a departure. While Nichols’ old-fashioned picture deals with heartbreak, for both youngsters and oldies, it’s more of a crowd-pleaser than the filmmaker has made previously.

That’s not because Nichols decided it was time to lighten up and make a movie for everyone, however, but unlike Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, his last film follows the perspective of two kids. Centering the feature on children gives Mud a more innocent and adventurous spirit, while also pushing Nichols as a filmmaker on a technical level.

Here’s what Mr. Nichols had to say about his “big American movie”:

The last time we spoke you were literally editing the movie.

I remember that! Yeah, I was in my office.

Right. You said it was one of those days you felt crazy in the editing bay, wondering if the film was coming together or not.

I didn’t have my arms completely wrapped around it. Now I know what it is, and I mean that from a narrative point of view and as a movie. I know how it lives next to Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories, and the stuff I’m going to make in the future. I think I have that sorted out. Now, that doesn’t mean I think it’s all perfect. In fact, I’ve stopped watching it. There comes a time where you’ve made your decisions and the joy you get from watching it with an audience starts to diminish. You just start watching all the things…it’s not necessarily the things in the movie, but, like, if someone gets up to go to the bathroom and you think, “Oh, do they not like it? Are they coming back?” [Laughs] You start to see negative returns.

I’m real proud of this film. If people don’t like it, it’s my fault. I feel like I got to make the movie I wanted to make.

You said you came up with the idea for Mud in college. How fully realized of a story did you have at that point?

Well, I had references for it, but something struck me. I was struck by the idea of a man hanging out on an Island on the Mississippi river. That felt like a big, classic American story idea. I wanted it to be a big movie. I don’t mean a 100 million dollar comic book movie, but a classic, epic American fable. I remember not wanting to execute it until it could live in that space. I knew I wanted [Matthew] McConaughey in it, and I wrote the part for him.

This movie feels like it represents that initial idea for me. Whether it ends up being a successful movie, that’s not really what I mean by a “big” movie. I wanted a dense story, which is what I was hoping it would be. I feel pretty good about that execution.

I liked one review that said it felt like a book you would read in grade school, and I think your past two films have some of those qualities as well. Are you just naturally drawn to those types of stories?

So far, yeah. I think I write from character rather than plot. A lot of screenwriters write plot, while I write character. That seems to be a fairly literate approach, you know? That’s just who I am and the stuff I like to think about. I like thinking about who these characters are, what they do for a living, and what moves them around their story. I like classic American fiction, particularly contemporary. A lot of the stuff I spend time listening to, reading, and watching fit into this wheelhouse.

Do you ever see yourself making a story in an urban environment with a more modern approach?

Yeah. I got this idea for a 1960s biker movie set in Chicago. Really, I’ll go anywhere if I understand the place or story. I have to share something with the story’s point-of-view. I have to have something in common with it. Otherwise, I’m the wrong guy for the job. I’m not scared of anything or reluctant in going anywhere. It’s just…what does the story need, and am I the guy to supply that?

Obviously you know what the movie is now. When we spoke, you emphasized the father-son dynamics, not really the coming-of-age story. Did you see it as that story from the beginning or did the coming-of-age angle appear in editing?

Going back to our last phone conversation, I really think I didn’t know how to annunciate that yet. During Take Shelter, I didn’t really talk much about that storm shelter. Whenever I did, I thought it sounded stupid or cheesy. Whenever you start talking about High School love and all that, it sounds stupid or cheesy. That’s why it takes me 2 hours and 5 minutes to lay it out [Laughs]. Now, I feel like I have my arms around it and the film is really about heartbreak, first heartbreak, and the cycle of how that works. Like, we fall in love, get our heartbroken, we’re in pain for a while, then something happens and we heal, and then we’re ready to do it again. This is the pattern.

Mud is this character whose trapped. He’s kind of like Lolita, being trapped in this one part of life. He can’t get past his first love. Some people ask, “Well, why does he have to get past the first love of his life?” In this case, he needed to. This was holding these two parallel stories together through the eyes of Ellis.

Looking at Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories, they can be painful movies. Mud, while it has heartbreak, is a crowd-pleaser in many ways. Did you know you wanted to make a story that could be more accessible in that regard?

I think Take Shelter is a hard movie. You’re asking a lot of people to sit down and experience that movie, which is good. Movies should do that. Chiefly, I think this movie is about boys. Because the point-of-view in the film is a 14-year-old boy’s, it shouldn’t be weighted the same. He doesn’t have the same pressures that Michael Shannon did in Take Shelter, thank God. Kids don’t have those kinds of pressures. They have stresses and emotions running wild, but it’s a lighter feel. This movie is lighter on its feet, so it moves differently than my other two films. I think those are more specific things to talk about than, “Oh, I was just sitting around and wanted to make a more entertaining movie.” Take Shelter is entertaining, in its own right.

This movie just has a different feel. Some people will like it more and some people will like it less than Take Shelter, which is fine. This is a different side of my personality. Take Shelter was a very serious, austere, dark side of my personality. Mud is a little more adventurous. Looking back at myself at the age of 14, I was looking at what it felt like. You don’t really understand the world fully. There are mysteries out there, and who Mud is unravels like a mystery. I like being a kid and thinking there were big, great things out there in the world, but I had hints of them. That’s what I was thinking about when making the movie, and that fuels the watchability of the whole thing.

You’ve stated how Take Shelter came out of a very personal place with becoming a father as well and, with Mud, like you said, reflecting on your teenage years. Does your work tend to reflect how you’re feeling at a certain time?

Yeah. You know, that’s a big difference [with these films], but it doesn’t make one more important than the other. Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories were immediate films. They were about where I was right then, and they were made right then. Mud is about an earlier time of my life, which doesn’t make it less relevant, but it gives the film a different texture and feeling because you’re looking backwards. Hopefully it still feels immediate and relevant, but its inspiration comes from old feelings I was pulling up. I don’t know. All those things add up to a different thing.

Plus, it must be nice knowing your kid can watch one of your films 10 years from now or so and relate to it.

You know, it’ll be interesting to see. I have a two and a half year old, but I haven’t really thought about that. I don’t know how Mud will exist in my larger filmography. I know I’ll make more films, so I don’t know if it’ll stick out or not. Technically, I know where it fits, in terms of my technical growth as a filmmaker and director. In terms of the bigger picture, I’m not sure. I’m just now finishing a new script, and it feels more like Take Shelter in its inspiration. That movie was made by a guy about to be a father, while the next film is by a guy who now is a father. That totally changes your perspective on things. I don’t know where Mud fits, but I’m glad it exists.

How do you see Mud as a part of your technical growth?

I finally got to move the camera, and have full control over that. In Take Shelter, we moved the camera in a very specific, simple way, which was just on a dolly track with motivated camera moves pushing towards the characters in the middle of the frame. That was used to imply the world around Michael Shannon’s character was closing in on him, that this force was collapsing in on him. This movie is about kids and the river, so we used steady cam and I finally got to move. Shotgun Stories is a stagnate film about people who aren’t upwardly mobile, so it’s locked into one place. This movie moves. I feel like I got to shake off the concrete around my feet.

This being your third time working with Michael Shannon, how has that collaboration evolved? Is there more of a short-hand?

I only had him for two days, because he was shooting Superman. Honestly, I’ve talked to him since and he said, “Man, I wish we talked my character out more. There are some things I’ve realized since I’ve seen it.” [Laughs] I’d like to say it was a lot different, but it really wasn’t. I wish I had him there longer. We could’ve hung out more. I’m kind of working with him on my next film too, so you’ll get to see more.

That’s great. What were some of those realizations he had?

I don’t know. You’d have to talk to Mike about that. I haven’t really fully explored it with him. I think I saw his character one way, while he saw his character a different way. It still turned out the way I was thinking. I think Mike had a different idea about it, but when he saw the movie, he said, “Oh, I see what you were trying to do.” [Laughs] You should ask him about it. He mentioned it in passing and we just kind of moved on.

One of your cast members you mentioned being very excited about was Sam Shepherd. Does that type of dynamic feel different than with other actors, considering he is a writer?

Yeah. I had to take a pretty deep breath before going up to talk to him, but that had nothing to do with the way he was behaving. He was lovely and totally embraced my writing. He just got it, and he was pretty outspoken about that fact. He made me feel comfortable, but there were times where I thought, “Oh shit, I’m going to have to go talk to Sam Shepherd about what I want him to do in the next take.” You just take a deep breath and do it.

I mean, everybody on this project just responded to the material. I spent so much time on this script. I can’t tell you how much time I spent on this damn script. It spoke to them, which made my job on set relatively easy. I couldn’t tell you one instance where there was a big moment of, “Oh God! What are we doing now?” Everybody got their marching orders from the script. Once Sam said the material was good, it kind of put everybody at ease.

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Mud is in limited release now.

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.