Jeff Nichols on Mud and the Realities of the Contemporary Indie Director
Jeff Nichols, a product of the vibrant class of the North Carolina School of the Arts film program that also produced David Gordon Green, Craig Zobel, Michael Tully, Jody Hill, Tim Orr, and Danny McBride, announced himself as a highly talented young filmmaker with his 2007 debut Shotgun Stories. The slow-burning rural drama was gorgeously shot in Scope and revealed Nichols’ ambition to create cinema on a big canvas, even when his budgets were small. Four years later, his sophomore feature, Take Shelter, about a father who believes an apocalyptic storm is coming, caught the imagination of both critics and audiences. After debuting at Sundance, it won prizes at Cannes and Deauville, and had an acclaimed theatrical release in fall 2011.
Starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, Mud is Nichols’ highest profile (and biggest budget) film so far, and sees him continuing to tell bold and highly cinematic stories. It concerns two Arkansas teenagers, Ellis (Tree of Life’s Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), living on the Mississippi who discover the mysterious Mud (McConaughey) hiding out from the law, living in a boat stuck in a tree on a remote river island. They befriend the fugitive and pledge to help him escape the bounty hunters and police seeking him, and also reconnect with his longtime love, Juniper (Witherspoon). Mud is a compelling drama, a piece of classical, coming-of-age storytelling that is given a genuine depth by Nichols’ emotionally insightful writing and assured visual sense. Like his previous films, Mud has thriller elements to it, yet it never plays like a genre film because it remains resolutely grounded in real life. Sheridan, in only his second role, impresses in the lead role, while the supporting performances from McConaughey (continuing his recent impressive run), Lofland and Witherspoon – not to mention Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker and Nichols regular Michael Shannon – are all perfectly pitched.
Filmmaker recently sat down with Nichols to discuss Mud – which is released in theaters today – plus the merits of living in Austin, the reason why Take Shelter succeeded, and making epic movies for audiences who watch on ever smaller screens.
Filmmaker: When I was young and naïve, I had the idea that when you have a movie playing in theaters, there was some money involved. Which is so often not the case these days, though you are at that point now. Are you able to live?
Nichols: I am, and that’s a fairly recent development. I mean on Take Shelter I got paid $6,000. Which they didn’t pay me until it was over, so I was really fortunate to be working at an ad agency in Austin, Texas, writing and directing small things for them. That kept my head above water financially. I also kept my life very trim. My expenses have gone up, oddly. Apparently the more money you make, the more money you spend. But I’m pretty comfortable right now. I took the money I made from Mud and my wife and I bought a house in Austin. We didn’t pay cash, obviously, we financed it. I certainly don’t feel like I’m out of the woods by any means but I can really focus on the work. I’m not riddled with, “Oh God, how am I going to pay next month’s rent?” Not right now.
But it’s a weird business. It comes in waves. It’s kind of like you get a job and then you’re good for six months. But that’s great; it used to be two weeks, so that time has expanded. It’s a big change to a creative person. We’re sensitive people and I made a whole movie about it, Take Shelter. I’m very sensitive to the stability I have: How much money do I have in the bank? How long can I make it stretch? It’s weird, though, getting paid in big chunks. It’s dangerous and you can see how people mess up. My thinking was I would have two bank accounts, and the big check would go in one and monthly I would get…every month I would pay myself.
Filmmaker: Have you done that?
Nichols: I haven’t done it yet. I did, however, get an account and put my taxes aside. And this was the first year I was actually able to pay my taxes on time and in full. That was a great feeling, so I guess I’m coming around a bit.
Filmmaker: It’s funny because, one of the things I was going to talk about was Austin and being a part of that community; Michael Tully just bought a house there.
Nichols: In my neighborhood, and David [Gordon] Green’s down there [too]. I actually started to become friends with Rick Linklater now. Of course, Malick’s there; we don’t hang out or do barbeques, but Sarah Green is my really close friend and producing partner, so I feel connected to his camp through her. Another friend of mine named Darius Shahmir just moved down there. He’s worked on two of my films and he’s a writer. I got David Wingo down there who does my music. Brian Poyser, who’s a great guy. And I just lent my name as an executive producer to this film Hellion by Kat Candler and that’s the first time I’ve ever done that.
There’s always somebody you can call and go have lunch with and just talk out an idea. And it’s great, because I need that. It’s part of my writing process, to early on sit people down and say, “Alright, this film I’m working on…” and I tell them everything I have. You get this immediate feedback and it’s great because all the people there, not once I have I ever felt the sting of somebody being possessive about an idea or not wanting to help you because you’re another filmmaker and we surely can’t have two successful filmmakers in the same place. I feel like that’s a lesson I learned from David. And it’s not him saying it, just by his actions.
In film school I remember there was kind of a cattiness, a competition, which was actually kind of born out of the way the program was built up: only this many people get to make short films and only this many get into the directing program. So we were competing against each other. But with David, who came out of school ahead of me, it always felt like we’re all in this together and if we all succeed we’ll all do better. I’d like to think I would have arrived at that personally myself but I don’t know if I was that big of a person. I’m also kind of a loner out of the group. They were all working on each other’s movies, Craig Zobel and everybody else. I’m pretty useless on a film set if I’m not directing, so I just was kind of alone writing. And I write by myself, so I was kind of on my own. But then when we make the movies, everybody would come in, so it’s a great community.
Filmmaker: For a long time there was this idea that if you’re not in New York or L.A., you’re at a disadvantage. And with Austin that seems to be changing.
Nichols: Yeah, and I don’t think that’s ever really been the case. It depends on your career trajectory, what you really want, the kind of movies you want to make. I made Shotgun Stories for festival programmers; that was my target audience. And I almost got it right. Sundance turned us down but Berlin took us. And it worked. Luckily, it ended up translating for more people than festival programmers, but I knew that was my point of entry into the marketplace. And if film festivals are your point of entry into the marketplace, why do you need to be anywhere else. If you can get the money. It’s all about whose money you’re shooting with and I figured that out.
Now, though, I’m in this very lucky special class of people who get to work in this industry without having to go [to L.A. or New York]. But I have people out there, I have an agent out there. They take care of talking to people for me. I don’t have to talk to anybody and just get to do my own stuff.
Filmmaker: With a second movie, there’s a natural desire to step things up a bit and make something more high profile and with a bigger budget that’s more ambitious. What I think is remarkable is you hit all those marks perfectly with Take Shelter, and it did raise your profile and also brought you to Mud in a very short period of time. Looking back, what can you pinpoint that allowed that to happen?
Nichols: The flip, easy answer is, “I was real lucky.” Obviously luck plays into it, but I just wouldn’t be denied. I never even thought about the possibility of it not working, you know? When you have a goal that you can focus on out there, no matter how far away it is, as long as you can see it, there’s something you can be working toward. Whenever I would focus on the work, I was never afraid of anything. It was always just a question of, “How long will it take to make it?” Never if I would get to make it, or if I deserved to make it, or if it worthy of being made. I didn’t bother myself with those questions, I don’t know why. Maybe it was stupid but I felt like I had blinders on. “I gotta make a movie.” Certainly that was the case with Shotgun Stories.
Take Shelter was the first time that it was like, “OK, gotta write something that can get made. Let’s do something. Let’s do a genre, let’s do a genre. Alright, looks like a zombie movie. But OK, I don’t want to do a zombie movie, but do you know what’s awesome in zombie movies? When they’re collecting supplies.” That’s the cool part to me. When they’re in the Wal-Mart at night and getting the gas cans and the chainsaws. I was like, “OK, he’s got a storm shelter and he’s collecting supplies for the end of the world.” And then, I remember telling my agent at the time, “Yeah, it’s gonna be this kind of thriller movie about preparing for the end of the world.” And he was like, “Oh, that sounds great.” And I turn in this kind of meditative piece on marriage and commitment, you know? [laughs]
But I remember thinking, “I’m gonna have effects.” Take Shelter was a big step in thought capabilities. Mud was different. Take Shelter was, “I’m gonna make this to get made.” My target audience at that point was financiers. Which is different, and which is why it was really hard to get made. I ended up making a movie that wasn’t really targeted to financiers. But I had the idea for Mud before either of the other films. When I said out loud, “God, I want I guy hiding out on the Mississippi River,” that just sounded like a big, classic American movie. And I wanted it to be a big, epic American movie, and I wanted Matthew McConaughey and I wanted Steadicam shots. It wasn’t a specific reaction to the marketplace or me trying to grow my career, it was more about the essence of what I wanted to movie to be. I needed more money because I needed a movie star and I needed the equipment and the resources around me to pull it off, because I didn’t want to slash this budget to $1.5 million and figure it out. We did that with Take Shelter and I wasn’t willing to do that with Mud.
I wrote Take Shelter and was like, “Surely you couldn’t make this for less than $2 million.” But we made it for less than a million. I figured it out and I was willing to do that because I had to get something made, and that project could bear the weight of that. But Mud couldn’t.
Filmmaker: Matthew McConaughey has done four or five movies in the last 18 months that have really redefined him as an actor and pushed in directions that people have not anticipated, but that was all before you cast him in this.
Nichols: Yeah, we had no idea. I mean, I knew he had done Killer Joe. Which surprised me. He mentioned that in our first meeting together. He was like, “Yeah, I’m Killer Joe,” and I was like, “Wow. That’s a tough movie.” He just kind of laughed and was like, “Yeah, it gets pretty dark.” So I knew that was on the horizon, and then we find out he was cast in [Magic Mike] and was like, “Man, that’s cool.” The people handling our foreign sales on Take Shelter were handling sales for Soderbergh on [Magic Mike too]. They were like, “Yeah, it’s basically gonna be about Channing Tatum’s life as a male stripper in Florida. And it’s gonna have Channing Tatum in it.” I was like, “That’s fucking brilliant. That’s brilliant.” Then I heard, that [McConaughey] was the owner of the male strip club and I was like, “Oh man, that’s a good idea.”
I talked with Matthew about working with Soderbergh, so I got a glimpse of what he was doing with his character. It sounded hilarious and kind of dark and just great. He came from the set of Magic Mike to our set. He was trying to drop weight as fast as he could, but he had just gotten done doing push-ups every day and [applying] self tanner and stuff. Our funniest request [to the Magic Mike crew] was like, “Please, if you’re going to bleach the tips of his hair—nothing permanent. Just make it a wash out dye.” The same with his skin. Put makeup on it, don’t actually have him self-tan.
Filmmaker: McConaughey and Reese Withersppon are in Mud, but I feel like in your previous films you haven’t really had someone who carries the weight of their previous roles with them.
Nichols: Right, they don’t really have a public persona to bring into it. Which is kind of what I prefer because then they can feel like real people, which is what I’m going for in these things. But Mud and Juniper, the characters, they live in these boys’ minds like movie stars. And that’s what I told Reese when I was talking to her. She really responded to the material and when we talked about it, she was like, “I don’t want to distract from your movie.” I said, “The cool thing is, Juniper lives beyond the scenes that she’s in and you’ll do that. And when you walk across the parking lot, everyone will know you’re a special girl. Yet I can still have you beaten up and looking rough, but everybody knows.” Good and bad comes with all that. Much more good than bad comes from it in this instance. I just needed it. In the future it’ll be interesting. It’s all about money, man.
The first thing you do is you turn in your script and they say, “Who do you want in it?” And you tell them and they show you your budget. Because we’re doing all this stuff independently, they’re like, “This is what the foreign sales gets us.” You’re like, “Well, that’s half the money I need,” and they’re like, “You need more famous people in it or you need to figure out how to make a different movie.”
Filmmaker: Is that why this one happened so quickly? Because of the pre-sales?
Nichols: Yeah, I guess. I gave Take Shelter and Mud to Sarah Green back in 2009, when I had them both finished. And she responded to both. She’d seen Shotgun Stories and was kind of like, “I’m in. I’ll executive produce Take Shelter or just be a friend or helper or whatever you need, but I want Mud. Mud’s mine.” I was like, “You can have whatever you want.” So then you have someone like Sarah Green activated, and that was happening while I was doing Take Shelter. And she got it. She knew Take Shelter was a cog in the wheel that would make Mud. She is a true blue producer and I no longer had to be the engine that was driving the thing. With Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories, I was the one knocking on doors trying to get the thing made. Now I had Sarah, and FilmNation came on board very early. Not just their foreign sales part but the production side with Aaron Rider. It had momentum and people thinking about it even while I was off doing press for Take Shelter and Cannes and everything else. It was the first time I had a machine working for me. So that’s why it happened so quickly, I think.
Right now, I don’t have any script done so I can’t go make a movie. I guess I could go make somebody else’s movie but that hasn’t occurred to me.
Filmmaker: You have a kid, right?
Nichols: Yep. Two and a half.
Filmmaker: You said you had those scripts done in 2009, which I guess means they were done before he was born.
Nichols: Yeah. Sam was born two weeks after I got home from the set of Take Shelter. I had my editing suite set up in his nursery room. It was our guest room that we converted to his nursery, because I promised my wife that I wouldn’t leave the house for two weeks after he was born. But, we were trying to make a Sundance deadline. So, yeah, I was in his bedroom editing and he was in the crib. And I had headphones on and couldn’t hear him cry and my wife walks in…[laughs].
I was just telling Sarah last night, “I feel like you met me at the moment in my life when I’m at my least productive.” I’ve wasted a lot of time too, but a big part of it is getting paid to write. It used to be day job, write at night. Which is its own hell. So I would make enough money to get a good solid month or two. Honestly, I don’t know how I got Take Shelter and Mud written. I just had to do it. I just picked up work. Probably why it took me so long to write those things, because it was intermittent.
Same thing with Shotgun Stories, it was finished [production] in 2004 and came out in 2007 in Berlin. It’s because I was taking forever to edit because I was doing it intermittently. Now, a paycheck helps. What I’ve really got to work on is, I love writing at night. That doesn’t really work for me anymore. Mainly because there was just things to do during the day, and it’s got to be at home. But I’m really on a deadline. I really want to finish. I am going to start working nights next month on this project. I gotta get over the hill on it. It’s just like we were talking about, I have no option to not do it. I have to do it.
Filmmaker: The first time I saw Shotgun Stories was on DVD. And then I saw it, maybe a couple months later, at a press screening. It was just night and day. Increasingly I feel that independent filmmakers don’t make cinematic films, and people are watching things on their iPhone. What is it like for you when you’re making films?
Nichols: I don’t think about too much except to make it as big and epic as I can. And that’s something from way back on Shotgun Stories. It’s a small story and not much of a budget, but I want it to feel as epic as possible. Because I like Hud and Cool Hand Luke and Lawrence of Arabia and Spielberg films. It’s like when you’re flipping through the channels and you see an old John Carpenter film from the ‘80s and you see it in Scope and it has the black bars on the top and bottom, you’re like, “This is a movie.” Even if it’s on TV. So that’s all I’ve committed to do. I don’t want to figure out the other way. I’ve committed everything, I’ve spent my whole career thinking about how to make 35mm Scope work. I love that frame and I don’t want to leave that frame.