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