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A conversation with Jeff Nichols


Matthew McConaughey in a poster for Mud, written
and directed by Arkansas native Jeff Nichols.

Jeff Nichols's third film, Mud, is the yin to Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom yang. Whereas Anderson's film masterfully captures the magic of childish first love, Nichols acknowledges that young love can't survive for long. Starring Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan, Mud is a universal story told with a Southern working-class voice that's nearly unparalleled in modern American cinema.

Nichols debuted in 2007 with the unjustly snubbed Shotgun Stories. Rejected by both South by Southwest and Sundance, the film went on to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival before its limited theatrical and DVD release. Nichols's second feature film, Take Shelter, is an understated masterpiece of paranoia and mounting tension, capturing the timeless fears that exist in all relationships. The film went on to storm Sundance, garner overwhelmingly positive critical praise, and establish Nichols as a national voice.

I recently talked with Nichols about his Southern roots, his relationship with actor Michael Shannon, and some of the themes that run through his films.

Linc Leifeste: I can't think of another filmmaker today who has had the success you've had making the type of films you're making—intimate, universal stories told through a Southern and/or working-class voice. I'd like to start off by talking about your Southern roots and how they've shaped that voice.

Jeff Nichols: You mention, very flatteringly, that these films might be universal, and I think that comes from having a really specific, personal point of view. The more personal I make it, the more universal the story seems to become, which is an interesting thing to realize. And point of view kind of infects everything. It's not just, "I grew up in the South, and I want to tell a story." Point of view is everything, right down to the character that you're choosing to show your story through. It affects your writing. It affects your directing. It affects your editing. It affects everything. The only way I can have these stories connect with an audience is to get very specific in that point of view.

I grew up in Arkansas. I went to college in North Carolina, which is where I really started to figure out what it meant to even be part of something called "Southern fiction" and "Southern storytelling" and consider that in regards to the stories I was telling myself. So I think my particular point of view is inherently Southern.

LL: Your films are full of working-class and small-town characters. Those types of characters often feel stilted or inauthentic in film, but you treat them with respect and dignity.

JN: I think that a lot of time people—storytellers, filmmakers, directors, whatever—use their characters to do things for them, to serve some narrative goal that they have. Plot's never been that big of an issue for me—it's always been a secondary goal. The primary goal has been to connect with the audience out of emotion. In order to do that, I'm not thinking about these characters as chess pieces on a board to move around. Instead, I'm really trying to put myself in these people's shoes. A lot of the time they are manifestations of some part of my personality, and I really genuinely care for these people.

I remember in Shotgun Stories, when we took it up to Tribeca to premiere it in the U.S., they were giving me positive reviews but even one positive review referred to the three characters as "fools," I think. And someone said, "It's hicksploitation, through a David Gordon Green filter." It angered me to hear people talk about these characters like that, because they weren't fools and they weren't stupid. They're just people trying to deal with things and it's my job to think of them that way and to treat them that way. Having respect for your characters is one of the deciding factors in making those characters feel honest.

LL: It seems to me those reactions from reviewers are unavoidable to some degree, even if you get the characters right, because of a prevailing bias against those kinds of people.

JN: Well, that's the weakest thing about those kinds of reviews. That's when you realize that critics or reviewers are fallible. They weren't paying attention. It's such an easy thing to write and maybe they didn't have time that night, they had something else to do. It's why I can't read things anymore! I put five years into this film and then this person puts in the time it took to speed through the movie and to knock out a thirty-minute review. But whatever. It's not my job to correct that or anything else. But the funny thing about even some of the reviews where people wrote things like that—I think they still went on to talk about how they were affected by the films, emotionally. That means I at least still did my job. That's really all I can do.

LL: All of your films seem to be looking at what it means to be a man, how traditional ideas of masculinity and manhood adapt or carry over into a modern world.

JN: Part of it is—and possibly this is an affectation—the idea of the Southern man. I like the idea that you can be principled, and I believe that people build belief systems for themselves. They certainly did in Shotgun Stories. I saw Mike Shannon's character, especially, as being noble. He just believed in a sense of right and wrong, and he believed he'd been wronged and that was kind of it. And he just couldn't imagine people standing around his father's grave saying nice things. And in Mud, it's a different belief system but Mud has built a belief system for himself. And he lives in it and he lives it.

On a more subtle level you've got men, Southern men, maybe working-class men, whatever it is, men as a whole . . . I think we have an idea that we all try to live up to, and we're kind of in constant battle with it: who we are, what we want to be, what we want to be doing. Do we want to be cheating on our wives or do we want to be supporting our families? Do we want to be bums? Do we want to be drunks? I don't know. I don't think it's peculiarly Southern at all. It's just that, as men, we've been told we have a responsibility, whether that's true or not. It feels like it's almost a constant challenge that you have to answer to and deal with and live up to. I would say my characters are probably dealing with that.

LL: Interestingly, your films don't focus on one of the staples of Southern cinema, religion.

JN: The thing with religion is that it falls into the category of things that you just can't do, especially when you're making Southern films. I have a list. You can't have banjo. You can't have line dancing. You're probably limited to one or two pearl-snap button shirts per film. There are just certain things that you have to limit yourself on. Religion is one of them, because I think people turn to the South to give us this weird, mystic, snake-handling, Pentecostal, speaking-in-tongues religious thing. There will be a time and a place for me to make a film about religion, but it won't be this affectation, this clichéd view of it.

LL: Michael Shannon has been in all three of your films. I read that you wrote the character in Shotgun Stories specifically for him before you even knew he'd be in the film. Can you talk a little bit about how it came about that you guys started working together?

JN: Gary Hawkins had been at the Director's Lab at Sundance and he came back to school and wanted to show me his scenes that had been shot there. If you don't know the way that works, directors and actors shoot scenes from scripts in a workshop setting. Actors fly in to Sundance to do that because it's a big deal. Directors like Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and others have done it. They're all shot at the Sundance resort, so it really doesn't make any sense; they're all shot in log cabins. But Tarantino had Tim Roth there, yelling and screaming in a bathroom. So Hawkins brought me that film (that has yet to get made, unfortunately), and Mike Shannon was in it, and I was just like, "That guy. That's the guy." And I actually said, "That guy's going to be in every movie I make." I said it out loud.

And then I sat down to write Shotgun Stories with him in mind. We had a local casting director in Little Rock, Sara Tackett, helping out on the film and I remember showing her some clips of Mike Shannon and asking her if she could find me a guy like that. So I saw a few but the search didn't work out, obviously. So, almost out of desperation, I called Gary Hawkins again and told him, "I gotta try. I just gotta try."

So I called Mike, and I think he was outside on a cell phone and I said, "You don't know me, but I wrote this script for you. Will you read it?" And now that we're friends he's told me, "Yeah, I was going to throw that away." But he didn't. He read it, and I think he was immediately taken aback because it was good, which he wasn't planning on. So he showed a friend of his, Guy Swearingen, who's an actor as well as a fireman in Chicago, the Shotgun Stories script and asked, "Is this good? Can you read this and tell me if you think this is good?" And Guy read it and told him, "This is fucking really good, man." So I've always owed Guy something.

LL: I assume Shotgun Stories was a particularly challenging learning experience as it was your first film and you had such a small budget. Have success and the resulting bigger budgets made your job as director easier?

JN: Yeah, my first film was terrible. I was picking Mike Shannon up every morning because we didn't have any drivers. It was the typical indie film, I suppose, with parents cooking the food and that stuff.

To be honest, I lucked out the most on Take Shelter, because I had control over that film. After Shotgun Stories, it's not like people were beating down my door to give me money to make a film. But I found this scenario and got to make the film I wanted to make, and after making Shotgun Stories, I kind of felt like I understood what I was doing.

To me, one of the most interesting things is that while, yes, the crews have gotten bigger and yes, the money's gotten way bigger, I've managed, with the support of my producers and others, to keep the process kind of the same.

LL: I'm curious about your childhood. I know you have a brother [Ben Nichols of Lucero] who's a musician. Did you grow up in an artistic household? Did you have parents who pursued creative endeavors?

JN: I think the more important note there isn't that I grew up in some bohemian household, where we were painting fruit or something, but I grew up in a household that was free and open to possibility. My dad's an entrepreneur; he's a small-business owner in Little Rock. He owned a piano store with his brother and his mother, my grandmother, and then turned that into a furniture store as well, Nichols Furniture, which is still open in Little Rock. We were always raised with this notion that not only could you go out and do it on your own, but maybe you should, maybe that's the better way to go.

It's not since I've been doing interviews like this that I've even analyzed it but I think we were given that kind of freedom. And never once, for any of us, was it like, "Wait a second, kid, you want to do what?" Never once was it like, "Well, you really need to think about your career," which is such a foolish fear-ridden thing. I have a two-year-old son now and I can't imagine doing that but it happens all of the time. And I suppose it comes out of love. It's adults, parents, wanting their kids to be safe and happy and secure.  It's funny how sometimes the opposite comes out of that behavior. 

Watch a trailer for Mud:

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