Jeff Nichols tells Tara Brady about his com­ing-of-age drama, Mud,

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FRONT PAGE -

Is it South­ern Gothic? Amer­i­cana? Or just an­other rea­son to love Matthew McConaughey? Jeff Nichols is back with the in­trigu­ing Mud. He talks to Tara Brady

Jeff Nichols crept up on us.

Lucky old us. In 2007, a for­tu­nate few were clever enough to catch a pow­er­ful south­ern melo­drama named

Shot­gun Sto­ries. Jeff’s film didn’t make that much of a splash. But its creepy, seedy tone im­pressed all sane peo­ple who saw it and con­firmed Michael Shan­non as an ac­tor to cher­ish. Four years later, Nichols’s tremen­dous and apoc­a­lyp­tic Take Shel­ter – again star­ring the heavy-browed Shan­non – achieved proper cult suc­cess. (It was The Ir­ish Times’s Film of the Year don’t you know?)

With Mud, Nichols looks set to se­cure his po­si­tion as a mod­ern great. In­deed, he’s cur­rently the hippest di­rec­tor on a univer­sity cam­pus near you.

It pre­miered in com­pe­ti­tion at last year’s Cannes Film Fes­ti­val – if Drive was 2011’s hot ticket, Mud was 2012’s must see - the film stars Matthew McConaughey, Lazarus of our time, as a vagabond dis­cov­ered lurk­ing in a damp, wooded sec­tion of Arkansas. Like his other two films, Mud is soaked in the mytholo­gies and ec­cen­tric habits of the Amer­i­can South. He knows whereof he speaks. Jeff was raised in and about Lit­tle Rock, cap­i­tal of the great state of Arkansas. Can I claim him as a fel­low red­neck?

“Sure, sure. You can,” he laughs. “I ac­tu­ally wrote a pa­per in col­lege com­par­ing South­ern­ers to the Ir­ish. We are both clas­sic un­der­dogs. We are no­ble, but prin­ci­pled. The Scotch-Ir­ish in­flu­ence was hugely im­por­tant. I love the South­ern story and I oc­ca­sion­ally feel frus­trated by the peo­ple. They gave me their cul­ture. They gave me ev­ery­thing I ad­mire. Then they’ll turn round and be racist or go on about buy­ing guns. It’s hard.”

There’s also a lot of Charles Laughton’s great The Night of the Hunter in Mud. Two chil­dren dis­cover Mud, the ti­tle char­ac­ter – Nichols is great with names – liv­ing in a boat that, fol­low­ing flood­ing, has been sus­pended surre- ally in a tree. Mark Twain’s Huck­le­berry Huck­le­berry Finn Finn hangs over this Mis­sis­sippi tale. Steven Spiel­berg’s ET ET and that di­rec­tor’s de­but short, Amb- Amb

lin’, lin’, show their in­flu­ence. “Luck­ily I hadn’t read Huck Huck Finn Finn too re­cently. But that is a book I carry around with me,” he says. “Mud has a cross on his heel and I stole that from how Huck used to recog­nise his fa­ther. It’s down to the essence of that stuff. We found our own ver­sion of that.”

Does he recog­nise those nods to early Spiel­berg?

“Well, you hold th­ese things in your mind,” he says. “We held Close Close En­coun­ters En­coun­ters and ET ET and Stand Stand by by Me Me in our minds. You al­low it all into your bones. The style of Night Night of of the the Hunt- Hunt

er er comes from so much from those weird sets they built. You re­mem­ber that and maybe the essence come through.”

He’s a smart chap, our Jeff. Now 34, smi­ley and fresh in the way only Amer­i­cans can pull off, he seems to come from a fam­ily of creative types. His el­dest brother is a mu­si­cian. His younger brother is a lawyer, but, ac­cord­ing to Nichols, he “is the most artis­tic of the lot of us”. Dad owned a fur­ni­ture store, but found time in the af­ter­noons to in­stil a love of cin­ema in his mid­dle son. Was he wor­ried when the boy be­gan think­ing of film as a pro­fes­sion?

“Quite the op­po­site. He al­ways en­cour­aged me,” he says. “I ended up hav­ing to be an ex­tra-tough judge of my stuff be­cause I wasn’t re­belling against any­thing. I was al­ways my dad’s movie buddy. When he wanted to go he’d bring me. It’s the act of go­ing to the movies rather than any par­tic­u­lar movie that I re­mem­ber as an in­spi­ra­tion. There was noth­ing bet- I ac­tu­ally wrote a pa­per in col­lege com­par­ing South­ern­ers to the Ir­ish ter on a fine sunny day – when you should be out­side play­ing – than to go into a movie theatre. The cur­tains part­ing; the lights go­ing down: it was a cer­e­mony I loved and still do to­day.”

Among the many re­mark­able things about Jeff Nichols is the fact that from his first fea­ture he seemed to have dis­cov­ered a very par­tic­u­lar, char­ac­ter­is­tic style. The three films are, of course, very dif­fer­ent. But they tread in the same murky bay­ous. Shot­gun Sto­ries does so with a taut tale of vendetta. Take Shel­ter finds a man ei­ther go­ing berserk or be­ing gen­uinely vis­ited by vi­sions of catas­tro­phe. Mud sees its an­ti­hero sus­tain­ing an an­cient af­fec­tion for the first woman he loved.

Can we sling the word “Amer­i­cana” in his di­rec­tion? The films re­ally are crowded with icons of that na­tion.

“I don’t re­ject that word,” he says. “But I don’t ex­actly em­brace it. Then you are head­ing down the slip­pery slope of af­fec­ta­tion. I have seen south­ern films that I don’t like be­cause they deal in cliche and so forth. I just try and move straight for­ward and grab those

Di­rec­tor Jeff Nichols at the re­cent Sun­dance Lon­don Film And Mu­sic Fes­ti­val 2013

Down in the swamp: Matthew McCon­aghey and co-stars in Mud

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