At 33, “Mud” writer/director Jeff Nichols is the youngest filmmaker in competition for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The Little Rock native slayed festivalgoers with his critically acclaimed 2007 domestic drama “Shotgun Stories” and reteamed with that film’s star, Michael Shannon, to deliver “Take Shelter,” an apocalyptic thriller that premiered at Sundance 2011, landed a home at Sony Pictures Classics and won both the Critics’ Week Grand Prize and the FIPRESCI award at last year’s Cannes.
With his latest film “Mud,” a western coming-of-age tale starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, Nichols skipped past Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar to land a coveted spot in the Competition, alongside such revered auteurs as Michael Haneke, David Cronenberg, Walter Salles and Abbas Kiarostami. Indiewire caught up with Nichols prior to Cannes (“Mud” premieres on Saturday) to discuss the film’s origins and what it feels like to return to the festival with this particular distinction.
You’re premiering so late in the festival. When did you wrap up editing?
We just wrapped up the finishing hours in LA last night to watch it. A week before that we were doing the mixing. Nothing extremely rushed — it was actually the schedule we set ourselves, not being presumptuous enough to assume that we would get into Cannes. We built the post schedule, just in case.
So this marks your second time at Cannes…
I’ve actually been to the festival three times in my life! The first was in 2000. I was in college and got an internship with Kodak at the American Pavillion where I waited tables. I didn’t go back until last year with “Take Shelter.”
That’s quite the evolution.
It’s a heady thing, I haven’t quite wrapped my head around it. When I went in 2000, I took a tux that my mom bought me. They managed to get me some tickets to see movies in the Palais, and I remember sitting there thinking, “OK, well, that’s it.” I’m having trouble even pre-visualizing myself sitting on that floor watching my movie. It’s great, it’s insane.
“Take Shelter” didn’t screen in the Palais last year, but can you bring me back to what that experience was like for you, especially considering how well the film went over with the jury…
The screening itself was a little nerve-racking. My flight was delayed and I went straight from the airport to the screening and did the introduction to the film. I remember sitting in the audience and then the lights going down, and going, “Ah, I’m going to have to watch this now with this audience.” There were a lot of journalists, and everyone kind of moves around, take notes and jostles. “Take Shelter” is a tough movie because there’s no humor in it, so there’s really no way to judge how you’re doing — whether people are still with you or not. So I didn’t know where I stood with folks. Then, slowly, as the international reviews started to come in, I was told they were positive (I don’t speak French or read it). And then the awards ceremony, it was just great, fantastic.
What did you take from that experience that you can apply this time around?
It’s all kind of the same thing. You just go and try to speak clearly and honestly about your film. I hope people take away something from it. With this one, the experience will be entirely different. Being in Critics’ Week was amazing, but the experience of screening in the Palais and walking up those steps — I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m thrilled at the idea of it.
This year around, you’re coming into the Cannes with the distinction of being the youngest director with a film in the Competition. Unlike so many filmmakers that found themsleves in your position, you got to bypass the Un Certain Regard section. What does it feel like coming into the festival with that kind of distinction among your peers?
I’m just happy to be at the party. To be invited was a huge win for me personally and career-wise, and for the film. This film is an unknown quantity. I know what I want it to be and what I think it can be. But that doesn’t mean that it will be what I want it to be. Just getting into the main Competition is a huge stamp of approval. It’s verficiation that we’re on the right track.
Again, it hasn’t computed yet. You read your name in the headlines (usually mine’s a few paragraphs down, but still), and these are filmmakers that I revere. I mean, I loooove “Chopper.” I consider those guys to be some of the greatest filmmakers working today. To even have my name said in the same breath — I’m just excited to be there. And it’s a little nerve-racking to think about competing. I don’t really look at it that way. I don’t want to embarrass myself [laughs]. I don’t want people to say, “That got in?” But all that’s just nervous energy. When I really sit back and look at the film, I’m so proud of it. I’m really excited to see what people think. It’s a fun movie to watch. It moves unlike anything else I’ve made.
When I last interviewed you for “Take Shelter,” you told me “Mud” was the film you’ve been dying to make for the past decade. What about “Mud” is so close to you?
It was an idea I had in college, around the same time I was going to Cannes. I found this book in a public library in Little Rock, Arkansas. It was photographs from the Mississippi river. I was inspired by it. I got this idea of these boys finding this man hiding out on a little island in the Mississippi River. Once I said that to myself, I knew it was a good idea. I spent the next eight, nine years slowly building the story up and building these characters up.
Every film I’ve made, I’ve tried to approach from two tracks: One of them’s the plot, the other’s from some kind of emotion. With “Shotgun Stories,” it was the thought of something bad happening to one of my brothers — that was such a tangible feeling for me to write from. With “Take Shelter,” it was obviously anxiety. And with this, I was reaching back into high school, thinking of when I got my heart broken for the first time. I know lots has been written on that, but why not throw one more on the pile?
So it’s really close to me, because it’s all about the heartbreak and stuff that you experience with young love and our ability to bounce back from it and push through. They’re all personal.
Would it be wrong to label this your most lighthearted, mainstream film to date?
No! It absolutely is. I hope the buyers think it is. It has a happy ending and that’s good. I was ready for one. I don’t think “Shotgon Stories” or “Take Shelter” have hopeless endings. I think there’s hope in both those films, no matter how hard you have to search for it. It’s there. I should say, this film has its emotional punches too, they’re just different. This movie follows this river and these boys, and moves like they do. It’s all steadicam work, something I’ve never worked with before. I would say 80 percent of this movie is shot in steadicam. It’s more kinetic than anything I’ve ever made before, in terms of camera movement and narrative drive. At the same time, there’s some hand-held work in it. It just moves like a river. I’m really proud of that.
You’ve worked with kids before, but never at this capacity. What was it like having two child actors — Tye Sheridan (“The Tree of Life”) and newcomer Jacob Lofland — leading the film?
It was daunting. I like scripts. I spend a lot of time writing them. From listening to other directors and watching other films with amazing performances from kids, I was told the first thing you do is throw out the script. I decided I wasn’t going to do that and do it in a totally different way. It might be a total disaster, but why not give it a show?
I was so fortunate to find these kids that just could breathe life into my lines. Even when I watched the final cut, I marvelled at how in the moment they are. I didn’t have to do a whole lot. The majority of that is just based on their raw talent and intelligence level. Sheridan had worked on “The Tree of Life” with this great cast, but it was Terrence Malick, so he was never given a script. He given this room to play. Basically I had gotten this kid who had gone to Malick bootcamp. Anytime we were on set and something felt stilted, I would say, “Hey, Tye, shake it up.” And all of a sudden he would get something.
Honestly, I think the two performances from the boys are the most exciting things in the film.