After only two features—“Shotgun Stories” and “Take Shelter”—Jeff Nichols has been recognized as one of the most promising young American writer-directors. His third film, “Mud,” may be his finest work yet. It stars Matthew McConaughey as the title character, a ruffian on the run from the law whom two Arkansas boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), discover living in an abandoned boat perched atop a tree on an island in the Mississippi, where it had been left by floodwaters. They decide to help him fix it and reunite with his beloved, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). In a Dallas interview accompanied by Sheridan and Lofland, Nichols recalled how the script originated.
“I started thinking about it a little over ten years ago,” he said. “I was in college, actually, and I was walking through the Little Rock Public Library and I found a book that was a photographic essay of people who made a living off the White River and the Arkansas River and the Mississippi. And it had people on houseboats, and a guy in a home-made diving helmet diving for mussel shells—which is what Michael Shannon’s character [Galen, Neckbone’s uncle] does in the movie. I just thought that this was an area of my home state that I hadn’t explored before. I went down and started to do research, and the story started to develop.
“I couldn’t really tell you where the idea of having a man hiding out on an island came from,” he added. “These things kind of hit you in the head like a sack of bricks, and when it happens you just hold on to it and go from there.”
Shannon, of course, has appeared in all of Nichols’ films, and he responded to a question about whether the actor was his good-luck charm by saying, only half in jest, “Michael Shannon is the greatest actor in the world. So he’s anybody’s good luck charm. And I mean that without hyperbole. And I don’t mean it to diminish the other actors I’ve worked with. But Michael Shannon is without doubt one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with. And so just by having him around, I wouldn’t say he’s a barrel of laughs, but he just elevates everything I do. So in that sense, yes. It’s less than good luck—which I certainly believe in, and I’ve had a lot of. It’s about focus. He brings a focus to everything. Whenever Mike’s around, you’d better be serious about what you’re doing. He kind of demands it.”
Shannon, Nichols said, wanted to play Mud when he first read the script, but Nichols said he’d written Galen especially for him. “And we almost didn’t get him,” he continued. “He was shooting Superman [‘Man of Steel’] at the time, and I remember it was a minor miracle that we had him for two days. And all the producers showed up because apparently they’d had to take out some kind of insurance that said if we hurt him, we’d have to pay for ‘Superman.’ And then cut to him in a home-made diving helmet in the river, and I’m going, ‘Deeper! Go in deep!’”
Asked about how he chose Sheridan and Lofland for their demanding roles, Nichols said that although he saw plenty of youngsters, his instinct about them was immediate: “As soon as we got them in a room together, we knew we had the pairing. It just was obvious. Their personalities suit their characters so much, from my perspective it wasn’t a long distance from where these two guys are to Neckbone and Ellis. I had these guys in mind—I just didn’t know them yet. When I saw both these guys for the first time, you’re just like, ‘Well, okay, there they are.’ And you say thanks.
As for the other parts, in almost every instance he was able to secure the people he had in mind while writing the script, just as he did with Shannon: “Sometimes you don’t get the person you’re imagining, but I’ve had a really good run of luck with getting the people I’d imagined.”
The boys were asked how they developed the strong sense of camaraderie they exhibit on screen.
“We had two weeks of school before we started shooting, and we were pretty much together every day,” Lofland said. “[Jeff] wanted to make sure the chemistry was right,” Sheridan added.
“We don’t rehearse a lot,” Nichols interjected. “That’s something I developed on my first film [‘Shotgun Stories’], actually with Mike Shannon’s help. I had the actors around about a week ahead of time, and we were sitting around and I said, ‘Guys, y’all want to read some lines?’ And Mike Shannon just said, ‘Burt, I like to leave the juice in the lemon.’ So I’ve kind of applied that…although with these guys, when you base your whole movie on the performances of two fourteen-year olds, you get a little nervous. So we did do a few scenes here and there, but I don’t know if I’d call it rehearsal.
He added, “It’s really up to the adult actors to set the tone…and all of them treated these two guys like fellow actors. McConaughey said it several times—that his character in the film doesn’t look down at these boys …really treating them as equals, and I think that permeated the professional relationship, at least from my perspective.”
Asked what aspect of his part he most enjoyed, Lofland quickly replied, “The comedic part of it—that was my favorite part.”
And Sheridan just as quickly told him, “I don’t think there’s a line that comes out of your mouth that doesn’t get a laugh.”
“These kids are wickedly smart,” Nichols added. “But beyond just their ability to read the script and understand what it’s about, they have intuition, they show up and know what’s going on. There are adult actors who can’t do that. They understood the dynamic between them and between the adult characters. I don’t really remember explaining a lot to you guys.
Then he added a bit sheepishly, “Sorry to hog all the answers. You guys should talk.”
“You explained to me the first day that film costs money,” Lofland said.
“That was smart,” Nichols noted.
And asked about the physical demands of their roles, the boys essentially shrugged them off.
“The bikes and the boats came pretty natural to both of us,” Lofland said.
“Yeah, we’ve both been around that since we were growing up,” Sheridan added.
“They both fish, they both hunt,” Nichols interjected. “These are not some weird, affected Hollywood kids. They both run boats better than I do. And again he encouraged them to talk more.
“We can’t talk as long as you can,” Lofland protested with a smile.
A question raised the influence of Mark Twain’s work on “Mud,” and whether the boys had read “Huckleberry Finn.”
“I actually didn’t encourage them to do it, but their teacher on set had them read it while we were shooting,” Nichols said.
“How long did it take us to read that book?” Sheridan asked Lofland. “About six weeks? I think we read it pretty quick. It was a four hundred page book. Yeah, I found a lot of similarities between ‘Huck Finn’ and the script.”
And Nichols confirmed it: “Yeah, I stole certain things. Mark Twain is one of my favorite writers—he’s the Michael Shannon of Southern writers. I didn’t borrow the structure of ‘Huck Finn’—in fact…I borrowed a lot more from ‘Tom Sawyer.’ ‘Huck Finn’ is his masterpiece, without question. But in ‘Tom Sawyer’ he captures the essence of what it’s like to e be a kid, and specifically a kid on the river. It’s what it was like to be young—and not even specific to that time period. And I aged these kids up, because I wanted to be dealing with love, and adolescence and everything else, so instead of being ten-ish they’re fourteen-ish. But I wanted to bottle, or capture, a moment in my life when I was dealing with all these emotions and all this love. So that essence is really what I borrowed from ‘Tom Sawyer.’
“And then I stole other specific things. The cross in [Mud’s] boot heel is how is the way that Huck would always know that his father was around. I just thought that was incredible, and I needed to steal it. There are other inspirations. Tom Blankenship, which is Sam Shepard’s character, is the real-life name of the boy that Mark Twain based Tom Sawyer on.”
Asked about the shoot itself, Nichols said that it was done in early fall. “We were racing to beat the leaves falling from the tree,” he recalled. “We shot primarily in southeast Arkansas…on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River, just up from Louisiana.”
He described the long trip from their hotels to the location each day, and added, “It was near impossible. When you’re working with younger actors…you have a limited amount of time you can shoot every day. So already time is precious.”
But in one respect the timing of the shoot was serendipitous. “The year that we shot it, they had one of the biggest floods in the river’s history. It happened, you know?” Nichols said. “This movie was supposed to have a different feeling from my last film, and even my first film, which are very dark films, very serious films. This was supposed to have a levity to it. It’s about kids. It’s a world where a boat in a tree is possible. There is some fantasy, some magical realism applied to that, but I can tell you—the river gets that high. It is possible.
“I try to give my audiences a lot of credit,” Nichols continued. “I think they’re smarter than people give them credit for. I try to remove as much information as I can, so that people are having to figure out where they are in the film and wondering [who’s] telling the truth. That’s the entertainment and the joy of a well-crafted script. That’s my goal.
“Each of my films is a genre film. But genre is a convention, and I think a good convention, but it’s one you have to break. You have to break its back, break the narrative conventions in it, or else y’all would b be bored. So what I try to do in each film is define the genre, accept it, let that be the capsule around the medicine that makes it easier to swallow. And I try to narratively break up the genre. ‘Mud,’ although it’s definitely a coming-of-age film, is a getaway film. But it’s a getaway film from the perspective of a fourteen-year old boy trying to figure out love—which is an absurd way to tell a getaway film, but I found it interesting ‘Take Shelter’ was a psychological thriller, ‘Shotgun Stories’ was a revenge western. But you take all the benefits of that genre and you work against them. And you hope that enough of it remains to make it a palatable experience for the audience—one not confined by the genre.”
Asked whether he preferred writing or directing, Nichols replied, “Both are painful and both are beautiful and both are exciting. Writing is tough because you’re alone, and you have no feedback until someone reads it. Directing is something entirely different, a different set of skills. In writing you have ultimate control, in directing you have no real control—you’re just leading an orchestra, and hoping that the players hit the notes, and helping them.”
And he explained the relationship between the two: “The story is supposed to dictate the style. And I hope that as my stories evolve and grow, I’ll be able to evolve with them. The last thing I want to do is try to figure out who I am and just apply that as a cookie-cutter and make stories fit into to who I am. That would be very boring.”
And about “Mud” he closed with a simple credo: “If you don’t like it, it’s my fault. It’s the film I set out to make.”