A couple months back before all the turmoil and shenanigans that led to my departure from the old place, I had the opportunity to chat with writer-director Jeff Nichols about what was then his brand new film MUD. Having been a huge fan of TAKE SHELTER, which ranked as my top film of 2011 and later catching up with the magnificence of SHOTGUN STORIES, I was quite eager to talk with Jeff after enjoying yet another tremendous addition to his filmography.
We got to chat for a shade under 20 minutes about the film, its strong performances from Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan, its themes of love and plenty more, but, because of how everything unfolded around that time, this marvelous conversation has nowhere else to go but on the shelf. I was extremely disappointed that I couldn’t find this a good home at the time, before This Is Infamous was even in the works, bothered by the fact that here was this fantastic interview that no one would ever get a chance to read.
However, now that things are on far more stable ground, and with MUD hitting Blu-ray today, my talk with Jeff Nichols has been given a chance at new life. This is one interview I am extremely proud of, and I’m glad the opportunity has risen for me to be able to share it with you. Enjoy.
Jeff Nichols – Hi, Billy.
The Infamous Billy The Kidd – Hey, Jeff, how’s it going today?
Jeff Nichols – Great, how are you doing?
The Kidd – I’m doing good. I was a big fan of the movie. I was a big fan of TAKE SHELTER earlier, so I’m glad to have a chance to talk to you today.
Jeff Nichols – Well I appreciate it.
The Kidd – So, let me just start by asking you… MUD is a very different approach to love than what Hollywood typically churns out with happy endings and these hopeful romances. It kinda lays out this idea that sometimes “love sucks.” It doesn’t always work out, it hurts, it’s very painful… How hard is it to make a film like that in the current film climate? One that’s in such direct opposition to those kind of rosier love stories?
Jeff Nichols – You know, it’s funny, I’ve never heard anyone actually put it that way, though they might have been feeling it. The main things I heard were like, “So, do you really like the two kids as the stars?” And I’m like, “Yeah, they’re the main characters…” “But I mean you’ve got this guy on the run on an island… Couldn’t he be the star?” “No, he kinda comes and goes in the movie. [Laughs] Gotta be these kids. It’s all from the point of view of these kids.” So that was the main thing that I remember struggling with. I think Aaron Ryder, one of the producers on the film, and really a great supporter of the film, but… y’know… the first time he called me, he went, “There are 99 reasons not to make this movie, and one reason to make it – That it’s good.” [Laughs] That’s like a classic Hollywood producer thing to say. Like, well shit, I didn’t know there were so many reasons not to make it, I wouldn’t have written it. I think that despite the fact that no one had ever brought it up maybe as intelligently as you just did, it was a conscious thing I was thinking about… Most movies about romantic love are from a female point of view. That’s why they call them “chick flicks.” And I’m a fan of romantic comedies. I want to make a romantic comedy. But that’s not really what teenage love is about and that’s not even really what adult love is about. It just doesn’t work that way. It’s gritty and kinda tough. And I thought, “Well, let’s look at romantic love. Not just sex. But romantic love from a male point of view. So often the male point of view, a lot of it’s just about sex. Which obviously we think about a lot, but not Ellis. He’s just thinking about… literally love. And how it works, and doesn’t work, can it work. He doesn’t have an example of it around him that works. That seemed to be a slightly novel approach, I suppose.
The Kidd – Well there’s also this great spotlight that’s just cast on the lengths will go to, all in the name of love. Even when it doesn’t work. Especially in the case of Mud, you have this situation where it may or may not be being reciprocated back to him, but we don’t realize it. It’s almost like, how can you see the forest when you’re deep within the trees? He doesn’t realize everything that’s going on around him, the reality of the situation, because he’s so entranced with this woman that means everything to him.
Jeff Nichols – Yeah. And the concept of her. Yeah, unrequited love… that’s one of the best things out there. [laughs] People have been writing about the topic for a really long time. I started thinking about this in college when a girl broke up with me. I actually remember writing the character of Juniper… Originally, she seemed to be a little bit more malicious. And it wasn’t until I met my wife and was talking to her about the character and she said, “No, no no. Juniper is very sad. She doesn’t want any of this.” And it took me meeting… I guess, my wife, and the love of my own life, to start to broaden that character a little bit. And it made her much more important and serious and complex than my original interpretation of her. She doesn’t want these bad things to happen, but she knows in her heart that Mud isn’t right for her, and… I don’t know. It’s… Love is a tricky thing. I’m obviously still kind of befuddled by it.
The Kidd – Well, you know even in spite of these dark but very real aspects and feelings of love, here you still have this optimistic kid in Ellis who desperately wants something to believe in, and he has this kind of mentality of, “love conquers all,” and “love will find a way.” So can you talk a little bit about the process of finding the actors in Tye Sheridan and also Jacob Lofland, because they have a very heavy emotional weight to carry in order to get that story through and to get these emotions across.
Jeff Nichols – Well, Tye just kinda fell in my lap. My producer Sarah Green who produced THE TREE OF LIFE brought him up and said, “We worked with this young man named Tye on TREE OF LIFE, and he’s about the age of Ellis, and I really think you should meet him.” And I talked to Jessica Chastain about him and she was like, “He’s amazing. You should totally talk to him.” He was coming through Austin, doing some press. I went down to meet him, and… It was like I walked in the room, and Ellis was sitting there. The mental image of Ellis was sitting right in front of me. I think the key point that you’re talking about is… When you talk to Tye, he’s not shy, but he’s quiet. But more importantly he’s observant, which is everything that Ellis’ character is. It’s all about his point of view looking up at the adults around him, desperately searching for an example of love that works, and I think Tye’s just got that in his personality. He just watches people. And the great thing about him is that he’s got this kind of amazing face that, when you put a camera on it, things are going on. Because he’s watching people. I guess the actor equivalent is that they all say it’s about listening, y’know? And that’s why you can put a camera on Mike Shannon’s face and just sit there for an hour and a half watching it. Tye’s got that quality, and it’s because his brain is working. His eyes are working. Even when he’s not saying anything, and that’s very rare to find. In anybody, much less a young actor. And that was just serendipity. Now you’ve just gotta kinda thank the… Movie gods or whatever, that they dropped him off in your lap. Because the movie rises and falls on that boy’s shoulders. Jacob is another case where we just kinda knew it when we saw it. We’d cast a wider net. We’d actually published a description of Neckbone in papers and stuff all through Arkansas, and Jacob’s mom read it and said, “Well that sounds like Jacob.” And it was. Jacob just showed up and he just was Neckbone. Even saying that, both of these kids are just very intuitive and very smart. It’s what you hope for when you’re casting, and you just never really know until you’re out there on the island with them, and a camera is set up. But I lucked out. They both were very smart, and and they both would listen. Not just to me, but they would listen in the scenes, and I think that’s what you’re seeing in their faces, onscreen.
The Kidd – One of the other interesting things to me is that you have these characters that have this… not only this optimistic point of view, but it kinda goes into what we were discussing earlier about the complex issue of love. Is love kind of the collapse of people’s innocence, to an effect? Because you go through life as a child and as an adolescent without dealing with a great deal of problems, and then hormones kick in and you start noticing the same or opposite sex, and all of a sudden it becomes more problematic. It almost is a wonder whether that’s where skepticism starts to develop in people: when they may find somebody that they want but they can’t have.
Jeff Nichols – Absolutely. All that’s pretty right on. I think, and the reason I wanted to write a movie about it, that that first time they you love is probably the most intense. Because you’ve yet to have the rug pulled out from under you. So you there’s no… You don’t have any guards up. There’s no protection. Because you don’t know any better. And it’s a fierce, intense love. I remember the first girl I told, “I love you” to and I remember us breaking up. And I was physically nauseous. For months! And I think that’s kinda the guts of what you’re talking about, and it’s kinda the guts of what this movie is how extreme that first love can be. I guess if you want to talk about initiation into love and manhood and how that initiation begins to strip away that innocence, but what happens is we just build up protections for ourselves. We won’t let ourselves fall that deep, because we know better. I built, out of Mud, a character that despite continued rejection, just refused to build up those barriers, and that’s what Ellis responds to. Now of course that’s not a practical way to love. I love my life more than anyone I’ve ever loved in the world, but I don’t feel like… It’s not the same as that girl in tenth grade. That’s just not as intense! That love was far more superficial, but certainly more intense. I think that’s really what’s at the guts of this whole thing.
The Kidd – Enough can’t be said about Matthew McConaughey, who is doing easily the best work of his career lately, and that includes MUD. I know you had been developing this project for a whole, and initially you did have him in mind for it. So how did that ultimately come about, to pitch him and get him onboard with this project, and then working with him to make it come to fruition?
Jeff Nichols – Yeah. Well, I wrote it for him, and conceived of it for him and wrote it in his voice and all that. I had just… despite what he was or wasn’t doing with his career, I just had made my mind up that this was the guy. I certainly… Over the course of trying to get this film made, of course, I had heard plenty of just like… “What?” [Laughs] “You want who in it? You just worked with Mike Shannon and Jessica Chastain, why do you want to work with Matthew McConaughey? He tans.” I just had it in my head, and it was the best thing I could say… That he was just right for the part. I just knew it. And in 2008, I called his agent about it… This was before TAKE SHELTER, but after SHOTGUN STORIES… And I was at CAA but nobody was really listening to me. They were real polite, but no one was really listening. What I told the agent at the time was, “The only role that John Wayne ever won an Oscar for was for TRUE GRIT, and that was for Rooster Cogburn. The reason is that that role took advantage of the persona of John Wayne, but it allowed him to filter all of that into a true blue character.” That’s what I felt like I was doing with McConaughey. I didn’t know him personally, but I felt like the persona that he had created for himself, which in so many instances could be a detriment… I felt like it all was a positive with this character. But it allowed him to not just be that guy, but to be a character, and to take advantage of all those things. It’s just interesting that his life and career kinda dovetailed into mine at the right time. When we were making this movie, we had no idea that he was in the middle of a personal renaissance, because I would have made it two years ago, or three years ago, with him. He was just the right guy for the part, but certainly we encountered each other in a very interesting time in his life, and I think it made the part better.
The Kidd – It’s also interesting that the film is… it never feels small. You have all these different characters that, while they all might seem minor, they all still add up to the overall story. So when you’re working with Ellis’ parents in order to establish this relationship, or you’re working with Tom Blankenship… How hard is it to make sure that when you’re including all these characters that they do, in the end, pay off as far as their importance, That they’re not just superficial, but that they feel an ultimate part of the endgame?
Jeff Nichols – I mean, it’s tricky, and that’s why it takes me so long to write these things. I think that really begins in that I don’t think about plot first. I think about characters first. And I think about these people as people, not just pieces on a chessboard that move around. But as you start to design these characters, they represent things. They’re about certain things. Like, you need Mike Shannon’s character, because he’s yet another adult example of love, but that’s not enough. If you just had him show up to give another thing about love, that’s not enough. He needs to be the guy at the bottom of the river that looks up and sees that body at the end. That’s just… I don’t know. It’s just design. I don’t write in three act structure, but I feel like I’ve stumbled upon a narrative structure that I like, which is that I like setting things up in the first half of the movie so that they pay off emotionally in the second half. You know in SHOTGUN STORIES, there are things like… That kid lives in a tent, and that stereo comes on in the van. When you experience those things in the first half of the movie they may be slightly humorous or whatever, but when you experience them in the back end of the movie, they’re very emotional. They’re very sad, and arguably painful. So I try and design these movies so that by the back end, everything is paying off. Everything is there for a reason. So that way your movie doesn’t feel like an anecdote, or episodic. It actually feels like all this stuff is attached to a theme or a purpose. It’s because I start writing character and… instead of thinking about plot chiefly, I think about the thematic strand that ties all of it together. Because we’re very complex individuals. We have lots of sides to ourselves, and I can’t wrap my head around that, but what I can do is to take one point, which in this case is love, and… Really men thinking about love… And see multiple characters address that. That kind of brings them together. And then you have plot and… I don’t know.. everything else. It’s not easy! [laughs] It took me about a decade to write! It’s not an easy thing to do, and I think that the worst kind of scripts and the worst kinds of films that result from them are films that are just totally based on three-act structure, and protagonists, antagonists, and all this bullshit. It’s just terrible! The only result is you watch something executed in front of you that you already kind of understand, and that’s why they’re easy for people, and people can escape and turn their brains off for a while. That’s why those movies make money and my movies don’t! Because I think it’s a little more interesting to activate people’s minds and challenge them a little bit more with narrative, and with plot, and with structure. Instead of saying, “Okay, here are the two opposing forces. This is how they create narrative drives and raise the stakes and here we go!” That just isn’t how I approach it.
The Kidd – Let me ask you one final question about working with Michael Shannon. You guys did incredible work together on TAKE SHELTER, and while it is a smaller role here, it still does hold a great deal of importance. But in working with him twice… You also worked with Ray McKinnon twice… is there a comfort level that comes with working with these guys again and kind of already knowing what it is you’re getting with them on set? And as it relates back to Michael, is there anything that he can’t do at this point? Because he seems to always bring a familiar type of persona, it’s always very different every time you see him in a film.
Jeff Nichols – Well Mike Shannon is the greatest actor in the world, and I say that without hyperbole. I’ve actually worked with him three times, because he was in my first film as well. To answer the first part of your question, yes, it is better. I like writing things for people, and I obviously have a habit of writing things for people I don’t know and I’ve been lucky enough to meet. It’s real practical, to answer your question. When you think it out, it’s like the first day of school, you’re on set, and you don’t have to get to know each other. You can just kinda step over all that and say, “Let’s get to the work.” That’s the great thing. John Ford was famous for having a stable of actors that he worked with, and I liked that idea. Not to compare them to livestock, but I like the idea of having people that you work with over and over again because… Honestly you get through the niceties, and you just get to work. It’s actually the job of the director, even when you’re working with someone you haven’t worked with before, to navigate that as quickly as possible. It just helps when you’ve worked together before, because you know what they need to pull off a good performance, and my job as a director is to create and environment to do the best work they possibly can. That’s really my number one job: make sure people are behaving the right way on set, and to make sure they have everything they need between action and cut to do something that feels honest. And so knowing Mike and knowing Ray… it helps.
The Kidd – Well thank you very much. Like I said… Two years ago TAKE SHELTER was actually my number one film of the year on my year end list. I absolutely loved that film, and I was really eager to see what you had next. MUD, like I said, it gets to that early knowledge of love that just hits you, so it was another great film as well. So congratulations, and I wish you well with it, and thanks for talking to me today.
Jeff Nichols – Thanks, Billy, I appreciate you writing about it.
MUD is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and all digital platforms.