Interview with Jeff Nichols for MUD

We caught up with Jeff Nichols to talk about his latest film, MUD

After the success of TAKE SHELTER, which competed for the Palme D’Or in Cannes before going on to win numerous awards, director Jeff Nichols has returned to his childhood roots with MUD, the story of two young boys who discover a fugitive hiding on an island in the Mississippi. Together, Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and the two boys form a plan to avoid bounty hunters and reunite Mud with his one true love. caught up with Jeff Nichols to talk love, adventure and loss…

Until recently, Matthew McConaughey was best know for his roles in romantic comedies, how did you go about casting someone who was not the obvious choice for the role?
JN: Well he was the obvious choice for me! In 2000, when I first conceived of the idea, it was him. I wrote it for him and I wrote it with him in mind. When it came to time to finance they threw out other names and ideas, which, just to be dutiful, I considered, but I kept coming back to Matthew McConaughey. I’d seen Lone Star pretty recently when I had the idea and I was just like ‘This is the guy’ Then I went off and started my career and his career did this other thing and I feel that we have dovetailed into each other now. I think it was the right time for both of us.

How did you create the character of Mud?
JN: I don’t know where the idea of having a man hiding out on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River came from. I found this photographic essay in the public library when I was in college and it was all of people who were all living off the river; one was a mussel shell diver like Mike’s character and there were people on houseboats who were commercial fishermen, so I had that in my head. I had the idea; what if these boys find a guy on an island? That idea, I don’t know where it came from, but it was a spark and what I did with Mud’s character is that he was the depository for all of my superstition. I got this great little book in a used bookstore which was a brief history of American superstitions and you just read about these superstitions; things that you don’t really notice in the film… In the first scene he is tying his hair into a knot, which is good luck for fishing, he spits on his bait… Everything that he did had a little thought of superstition to it. I just thought that it would be exciting, plus I had written all of these stoic characters – well played by Mike Shannon – that never speak, and I wanted Mike to be in this constant stream of talk and always have something to talk about, whether people were listening or not. In 2006, I sat down and wrote the first 30 pages of the script and I stopped; I just wasn’t ready to finish. I wasn’t ready creatively, I wasn’t ready mentally… Whatever it was, and it wasn’t until 2008 that I came back and finished it. Part of that was my fear of not fulfilling the obligation of the idea I had for this character. I wanted to be good enough and I wasn’t ready, at that age, to do that writing. I was still in my stoic phase.

How much research did you do for the story?
JN: I went and lived on a houseboat. I found a cousin of mine that owned one of these houseboats – because they are a dying thing – and I just stayed on a houseboat for about a week. It’s amazing, it was at the base of the Arkansas River – the Arkansas River and the White River meet in the state of Arkansas and they both flow into the Mississippi River – and it’s called the White River Refuge. It was just beautiful, there were bald eagles flying around and snakes everywhere you look. I was in a boat and I heard something splash behind me and I turned around and a snake was hanging from the limb, it had dipped into the water and killed a fish and it was dragging it into a tree… They were just everywhere.

Michael Shannon has become known for playing the bad guy, was his appearance in the movie something of a red herring?
JN: I like the way it ties up at the end. His character in this is very similar to the character Shampoo in my first film, which is this character that is kind of in the background, but connected to the whole thing. He’s the only character that sees the boys with Mud, and he doesn’t say anything. The intention was that, by the end of the film, he’s the only one that sees Mud’s possible end, but then again, doesn’t say anything about it because the boy – Neckbone – later says ‘Do you think he’s dead?’ and obviously he hasn’t communicated with him about it. I just thought it was this nice connective tissue throughout the whole thing and plus, I needed another mentor. I needed one more male mentor and what a great male mentor to have in Mike Shannon! [laughs] What 14 year old kid doesn’t want to sit on a couch with Mike and talk about love!? [laughs] It’s absurd and hilarious!

There is something nostalgic and timeless about the film – there are no mobile phones or computers – how important was this to you?
JN: Oddly enough, that wasn’t something I fought a lot for. It’s always a question with me whether I want cell phones in there. There are a couple of cell phone scenes in TAKE SHELTER… I just don’t like them in movies, they are just boring! [laughs] In this you’re kind of at the ends of the earth, none of our cell phones worked; people don’t use cell phones out there because they don’t work, they don’t have service, so that was kind of a natural cause. That’s the one thing that defines society so much; everyone has their smart phone and once you take that out of the picture – which you do so naturally, because there is no service – it starts to feel different. That place feels different, we went there, we went to the end of the road, and then we kept going a few more miles and we found these places. These houseboats were real and the desire to capture that world – which is fading away, they really are trying to get rid of these houseboats – I just needed to capture it before it disappeared. I think that effort, somehow, is what makes it feel timeless, like I am trying to capture something that might not always be there.

You were working on this movie for 10 years, how do you feel now it is over?
JN: I am very proud of this film, and I was in the main competition at Cannes, I have just been giddy. With TAKE SHELTER I was still anxious about the world and about the film, I just kept waiting for the bad reviews; luckily not too many of them came, some came, but for some reason I never knew how others would take that film. On this one, no offense to anyone, but I don’t really care. I love this movie and I have lived with it for 10 years. I had both TAKE SHELTER and MUD in my hands and there was some discussion about which to make first and I told people I was not going to make MUD until I had the resources to make it correctly. I knew we would have to put a boat in a tree and we would have to go out to these places. I knew I wanted it to be steady cam; it moves unlike any film I have made and that was a conscious decision. I have a fondness for it, I don’t know how I am going to feel with it behind me. I have always had MUD; it was always like ‘Well if SHOTGUN STORIES sucks I have MUD… “Well if TAKE SHELTER doesn’t work, at least I’ve got MUD’…

MUD is at Irish cinemas from May 10th

Words: Brogen Hayes