Jeff Nichols isn’t the type of director to make a light film. His first feature, 2007’s Shotgun Stories, a terse family drama about a blood feud between two sets of half brothers in rural Arkansas, became one of the most talked-about films of the year and established him as a fresh new voice in the American indie-film scene. In 2011, he followed with one of the year’s best, Take Shelter, which starred Michael Shannon as a disturbed family man plagued by visions of an apocalyptic storm.
Most striking about Nichols’ oeuvre, though, may be his Southern sensibility. Nichols—-who grew up in rural Arkansas—-injects his films with a very distinct sense of emotional gravitas, directly inspired by his own experiences, anxieties, and the blue-collar, working-class environment in which he was raised.
Nichols’ latest film, Mud, stars Matthew McConaughey as the titular outlaw hiding out on a small deserted island on the Mississippi River when two precocious adolescents, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), discover him. Mud is a beautifully crafted, layered, and explosive coming-of-age story that transcends genres as the narrative unfolds. Recently, I spoke to Nichols over the phone about his new film, his literary influences, working with his brother (Lucero’s Ben Nichols), and how Fugazi influenced Mud.
Washington City Paper: This story is so layered and feels very personal. Where did it come from?
Jeff Nichols: The layers come from all the time I’ve spent on the script, to be honest. I was interested in this story for a period of eight or 10 years, and over the time I kept adding and adding and adding to it over the years. So, the density of the narrative really just came from time.
But, the personal level, well, whenever I write a film I think about two things. The first is what the is movie about and who the characters are, but the other is kind of a dramatic idea, which equates for me as an emotion. It has to be an emotion that is very near and dear to me. It has to be palpable for me. My first film [Shotgun Stories], was about my brothers, and my second film [Take Shelter] was about the idea of my life and my marriage falling apart. In this film it’s about heartbreak and first love, and how intense that was. I guess it’s really just about my first heartbreak and how intense that was for me.
Anyways, once I have an emotion that I can directly relate with, one that’s palpable, then I feel like I have an anchor for the story. Then, every character, no matter who they are, starts to surface better. That’s just my approach.
WCP: There’s a question I’ve been dying to ask you: As a huge Fugazi fan, I couldn’t help but notice the Fugazi T-shirt that Neckbone wears in the beginning. What’s the story behind that?
JN: [laughs] That was actually written in the script! I was a huge fan of Fugazi growing up and I was thinking a lot about certain things in my life from the time period that I was Ellis’ age. My brother was in a punk rock band in Little Rock, and there was a pretty good punk rock scene in Little Rock, so I was listening to a lot of Jawbreaker and Fugazi and everything else. Working on this script reminded me of that time and when I was building my characters, the character of Galen, Neck’s uncle (Michael Shannon) was written as this sort of washed-up punk rocker. If you look through his house, you’ll see a bunch of flyers and things from Little Rock punk shows.
What I was thinking [when writing Neckbone], was that this kid would have a hand-me-down Fugazi shirt, which of course would have had to have been homemade. It’s funny though because we went had to get permission to use a Fugazi shirt, so a producer called whoever Fugazi’s representation is and they wouldn’t give us permission because they never made T-shirts! But we found a fan-made shirt online and asked if we could use that. I didn’t think they were going to let us use it and—-I don’t know, I wasn’t involved in this process—-I remember telling one of my producers “Well, if we don’t get Fugazi, we’ll just make a Jawbreaker shirt.” But we were able to use the Fugazi shirt.
Anyways, it was just my own personal wink to myself. I was listening to tons of mixtapes with Rocket From the Crypt, Fugazi, and Jawbreaker on ‘em the time I was falling in love for the first time, so it’s just a little homage I made to myself and that time in my life.
WCP: That’s a seriously awesome homage to include in your film.
JN: Some people are just confused by it. David Wingo, my composer, when he first saw a rough cut of it was like, “The movie’s great, but why is that kid wearing a Fugazi shirt?”
WCP: Speaking of your brother, I’m also a big fan of his music and his band Lucero. I always thought his music had a sort of cinematic quality to it, so it’s reaffirming to hear his songs end up in your films. I’m curious about the working relationship you guys have.
JN: It’s funny, we don’t directly collaborate on things, but of course we talk about things often. Ben is by far the coolest person I know. It really helps that he’s my big brother and you always think your big brothers are cool. But, I don’t know, I just think he’s a badass. I think he’s got a great barometer in terms of taste and everything I do I run by him. He’s one of the first people to read my scripts, and I pick his brain about it, asking him things like, “Do you think I can get away with this? Can I get away with that?”
What’s funny about the using his music all the time is that I’m just a huge fan of it. I listen to his music when I write, it’s on all my playlists. So I often write scenes with certain songs of his in mind. What I really love about his songs is that there’s specific sound to his music that just feels like the South. And it’s not traditional, which is what I love. But it feels like high school to me, it feels like a contemporary literary sound to me. Like contemporary fiction, Larry Brown or something. The sound of his guitars is so unique. He’s not playing any corny banjo or harmonica, it just sounds like our version of the South. And that’s what I like, that’s why I had him do the music for Shotgun Stories. He didn’t really do anything for Take Shelter other than the final song that plays over the end credits. Mud was kind of a dream come true where I took David Wingo and his score, which was beautiful and defined much of the film, and I combined it with Ben’s stuff. And it came out great, it was really a dream come true.
WCP: Your films have this sort of literary quality to them, as if they were adapted from some great novel. Where do you draw influences from?
JN: I think a lot more about books than I do about movies when I’m drawing up a story. I’m inspired by movies, I love movies, but I really don’t think about movies until I start to direct, and I start thinking about the visuals and everything else. But in terms of writing characters and story, I think about the novels that I’ve read. I’m a fan of Southern literature. Older Southern literature as well as some contemporary literature.
Obviously, there’s a lot [in my work] inspired by Mark Twain. Some of the things [with Mud] that wasn’t so directly inspired by Twain was just the concept of big, great, classic American stories. I was struck with the idea of a man hiding out on an island on the Mississippi River, and that just felt like a classic idea. From there, I knew I wanted the film to feel that way—-like a classic American novel.
You know, there are certain elements from Twain that I kind of stole, but more than anything I like the kind of characters he can create. In [his] books, you could meet such vibrant characters, you could find someone like Mud, and I wanted to try tap into that. Anyways, Twain, along with Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and more contemporary writers like Raymond Carver and Larry Brown, these are all people that have a significant influence on me and the kinds of stories I like to write.