If Terrence Malik and Steven Spielberg had a kid he would be Jeff Nichols. The eerily talented, Austin-based filmmaker can be both philosophical and entertaining at once. His first two films, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, helped launch Michael Shannon’s career, and his latest, Mud, is poised to resuscitate Matthew McConaughey from the rom-com stupor he’s been stuck in. The film follows two Arkansas boys who come upon a boat magically suspended in a tree––but what could be their own summer hideaway turns out to be the hiding place for a sunburnt, snake-tattooed outlaw (McConaughey). If Nichols’s first two films were filled with dread and darkness, Mud is leavened by the clean boyish faces of its heroes (modern day Hucks and Toms) and the poignant (rather than smug) charm that McConaughey brings to his performance. There is a humility that runs throughout this film and belongs as much to its characters as its director. When I meet Nichols in his SoHo hotel room I find a down-to-earth, generous Southerner––more at home in jeans and white tube socks than anything fancy. Here we talk about the evolution of his work––as well as of the American South and of his new muse, Mr. McConaughey.
What I find so impressive about your work is how much soul you put into each project. Each film feels like it needed to be made. Where does that need come from?
That’s a whopper of a question. If I’m going to be really honest it started when I was in high school. I just thought going to film school would be cool. I didn’t know anything about it. But I went to film school and realized I liked it, I had a knack for it. And one thing led to the next.
So it just sort of happened?
I don’t know. It’s weird. I don’t want to say that “I was meant for this,” or anything. But there was always an arrow pointing me forward. I guess it’s only now that I’m starting to look back and examine my path. For these past three films I’ve just been like, ‘Let’s get them made.’
Mud has a lot in common with Take Shelter, but it’s also a departure. This is a much more hopeful film.
It’s got a different tone to it. But you know what’s funny? I wrote this and Take Shelter in the same summer. Or at least that’s when I finished both scripts. I mean writing is a strange term because how long do you carry a story around inside you? That’s writing too I suppose.
So they gestated together?
They’re both reflections of my personality. It’s interesting to see people respond to Mud as some sort of answer to Take Shelter. For me they’re just two sides of myself I was trying to express. In Shotgun Stories, it was about the death of one of my brothers, which luckily never happened, but I imagined it. Take Shelter was about the fear of settling down and becoming a father and the world unraveling. But with Mud, I reached back and thought about what it was like to get my heart broken for the first time. And that whole cycle of love and first love. And I don’t remember it being a dark time.
Take Shelter presents a view of a crumbling world where your immediate family is all you have. And Michael Shannon portrayed the anxiety of a father so effectively. But Mud is a story about strangers helping strangers. So it wasn’t just a lighter tone but also a whole new idea about who you should care for in the world.
That’s interesting. It’s a great way to look at it. Because, in a way, if you think about it, I have just created a new family with my wife and my son. Take Shelter was about that. But first love…that’s a time when you actually step outside of the comfort zone of family. You’re taking this heart that has possibly been protected or not protected by your family and kind of giving it a test run. That’s what first love’s about. In order to evolve and grow and make another family, you have to eventually step out in the world.
And that’s something that binds all men together.
Certainly. And that was more conscious than the other point. I was like ‘Let’s look at romantic love through the eyes of men.’ Because so often it’s, you know, chick flicks and things like that. This felt like an interesting way to look at love and romantic love specifically. It’s really not about sex. There’s no sex in the movie. It’s about men dealing with their feelings for women. And how we get those things passed down to us from our male mentors.
Rom-coms been Matthew McConaughey’s bread and butter for a while now. Every other movie he was in seemed to have Sarah Jessica Parker or Jennifer Aniston. And then Mud reminded me of something I’d forgotten, which is that he can actually act.
You know, I started the script with him in mind. This was way back in the late ’90s, when he was in films like Lone Star and Dazed and Confused. We forget about Frailty and I’m even a fan of Reign of Fire. I think that’s an overlooked film. I just wrote the part in his voice. It was easy to sit on set and hear him reading his lines. I just thought he was right for the part.
Totally. He was great. But I have to ask: was it an inside joke when he takes off his shirt?
No! It’s so frustrating.
I just heard people joking about that in the theater. Granted, it was a press screening.
I mean, I thought about it on set. I was aware that people were saying these things, but I had written this really great scene! I found this book called The Brief History of American Superstition, and it was A through Z, and just listed all these different superstitions alphabetically. Under ‘W’ there was ‘wolf’s eye,’ and I thought that Mud was the kind of guy who would have a wolf’s eye on the sleeve of his shirt. So the moment was perfect for him to finally abandon that. By the time he finally does take off his shirt he’s prepared to die, he would take off the one thing that would protect him. I just thought that was a cool point and I wasn’t willing to lose it because people would make fun of him for taking his shirt off. It was a calculated risk or gamble, but…I don’t know, man.
In five years, people won’t even think to see it that way. You know what I mean?
Yeah, and I really don’t care. But it’s funny. It’s the difference between working with actors and movie stars. Michael Shannon is a great actor. He’s a great actor. But Matthew McConaughey’s a movie star, and if there’s a celebrity attached to it and a persona attached to it…I took advantage of a lot of that. It’s part of what makes it an interesting role for him.
A friend of mine from Arkansas gets annoyed when people forget that even trailer parks in Arkansas have the internet, for example. That was something I really appreciated about both Mudand Take Shelter, bringing the modern into a more classic setting.
Well, you just have to be honest. We all have opinions about what we think the south is and it’s an affectation. I’ve done it. I’ve fallen into the trap, as well. But, as filmmakers, it’s really easy to say ‘Oh, I want him to drive this truck, not that truck,’ and ‘I want him to listen to this music, not that music’ and wear Chuck Taylor Converse and not these shoes. But you have to be willing to open your eyes and go down to these places and see what people are wearing and doing and talking about. I mean I still didn’t 100% follow my own rule, but it’s enough that I’ve protected myself against at least the most extreme abuses of it.
In all three of your films there’s this question about what it means to be a man in a modern America.
The way I thought about that with Mud was different than with Take Shelter. There’s a way of life in the south that I think is dying. There’s an accent that is dying because things just get kind of homogenized. We have Home Depots and big box stores. I think there’s kind of a dying voice in the south. I don’t cry about it. It’s just evolution. It’s what’s happening. There was one way of life in the south and 25 years from now the south will still be there, but it will be a different way of life. The film is all about transition, about adolescence and going from one period of life to the next. The south that my dad talks about from growing up very poor in rural Arkansas is so different than the south that I’m seeing today. I realized that at the end of making the film, ‘Oh, the whole damn thing’s about transition.’