Last weekend, “Mud,” a charming story about a couple of young kids who help an escaped murderer (played by Matthew McConaughey), opened in limited release. The movie is the third feature written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who made a splash with his gritty debut “Shotgun Stories” and then followed through on that initial promise with “Take Shelter,” a wry psychological thriller that starred Michael Shannon (who also appears the director’s other two features). “Mud” continues along the path that the earlier movies established – they’re all hardscrabble genre films to one degree or another, set in a Deep South so tangible you can practically reach out and squeeze the hanging Spanish moss. We got an opportunity to talk to Nichols about what he took from Mark Twain for “Mud,” what the dynamics of his relationship with Shannon are, if working on water is as much of a pain in the ass as everyone says it is, and if he’ll ever reveal what’s behind the “Take Shelter” ending.
In “Mud,” McConaughey plays the titular character, who is both on the run from the gangsters he ran afoul of (including Paul Sparks from “Boardwalk Empire” and living legend Joe Don Baker) and trying to reconnect with the love of his life (played by a glamor-free Reese Witherspoon). He enlists the help of two young kids (Jacob Lofland and Tye Sheridan from “Tree of Life“) to get a boat out a tree that has been lodged there since the last hurricane, and the three form a truly interesting, powerful friendship. “Mud” is embroidered with all sorts of Southern Gothic weirdness but it never feels like a put-on; everything about “Mud” is salt of the earth.
What were your inspirations for “Mud”?
I wanted to make a movie on the river. I was walking around a library in Little Rock and I picked up this book about people who make a living on the Arkansas River and it had photos of houseboats and fishermen and a muscle shell diver in a homemade diving helmet, and I was just like, “Alright, this is a good idea.” I remember, growing up, there was a bridge between Little Rock and North Little Rock that crosses the Arkansas River, and there was always a little island out in the middle of the river, and I used to fantasize about how fun it would be to go and just hang out there.
The idea just popped into my head one day in college – man hiding out on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. It came out just like that. And immediately I thought it was a good idea for a movie – it sounded like a big, classic American movie. I spent the next eight years adding detail in an attempt to turn it into that.
It seems like “Great Expectations” was clearly an influence. But it also has these Southern Gothic elements.
For sure. But in a weird way I wasn’t thinking about “Great Expectations.” I thought a lot about Mark Twain. But more about how Twain was able to bottle the essence of what it feels like to be a kid. You read “Tom Sawyer” and it’s what it feels like to be a kid. I wanted to do that. I was thinking about a time in my life when I got my heart broken and that was a very palpable thing, and in each of my films I try and grab on to an emotion that is palpable and then anchor the story with that. As long as that’s at the core, it can be anything.
And the Southern Gothic stuff – when I hear people say that, I’m mainly thinking about Mud, the character. I had written so many quiet southern men before, I wanted one who talked. And I wanted him to move and constantly be in motion and have this personal belief system based on superstition that he built from the ground up. I wanted him to constantly be saying crazy things and doing crazy things. And that’s where the Southern Gothic stuff comes from. I don’t categorize the other stuff as Southern Gothic because it’s real, it’s not an affectation. These houseboats exist, Piggly Wigglies exist, those were real high school students. And that’s how it went.
Now, you wrote this character for McConaughey. What did you see of Mud in him?
I was watching “Lone Star” a lot and I liked in that film how he lived up to a legend. He was a myth, that character, and he personified it. And he, and this is through John Sayles‘ writing, became more complex and flawed and interesting. I liked that idea – that we could be rooting for this man because he was likable and kind of funny, but we’re not quite sure of his intentions. I loved the idea that these boys would go spend days with him but then go get information about him from other people. They would never be on solid ground. This whole film is about adolescence and what the transition of adolescence feels like – you’re never quite on your feet.
How sure were you of getting McConaughey? Did you ever have a contingency plan for if he turned it down?
Luckily I didn’t have to have a contingency plan. I was talking this idea out with my wife forever. I’d talk about other actors and other things and she would always say: McConaughey. McConaughey. And I agreed with her. I just knew he was right. That’s why I wrote it for him. Just like I knew Michael Shannon was right for “Shotgun Stories.” You just get these things in your head and you set out to execute your plan and I was just executing my plan. I honestly haven’t had to give it much thought.
And it must be great coming after the wave of all of this incredible stuff he’s been doing.
Yeah that was just serendipity. Because I knew about “Killer Joe” and he came straight from “Magic Mike” and I guess “The Paperboy” was in there somewhere. I wasn’t thinking about those so much, since I had been thinking about this for so long. I would have made this movie whether he had been doing that or not. As long as he’d say yes!
Your relationship with Michael Shannon is obviously pretty deep. What is that relationship like?
He’s kind of like my big brother. I already have two older brothers so I don’t know… I fit that role pretty easily. He makes fun of me. And I’ll take it and move on. I love Mike. He’s shaped who I am as a filmmaker. I feel like I learned to direct by working with Michael Shannon, at least in terms of working with actors. Although that may not be a great thing – we have a real specific working relationship. We don’t really rehearse. We don’t talk about too much. And some actors [laughs] want those things. But Mike and I, we’re friends. We’re colleagues. It’s a very unique relationship. He’s very important to me.
You always hear about what a nightmare working on water is. Was that the case here?
[Sighs] Yes. Absolutely. And it’s funny – not just on the water in this particular instance, because a river is a living, breathing thing. So it would swell and shrink and swell and shrink and move stuff around – and not just boats and stuff, it would move huge pieces of land. That’s really what’s on that island – it’s sand that’s washed up so it looks like a beach but that whole beach could be removed in a day if the rain came. So you never knew what you were going to show up and see. Luckily, it was so damn beautiful, there was always something to shoot. It was tricky, there were one or two scary moments… our assistant cameraman went into the water one time…
What was it like assembling that supporting cast?
I lucked out there, too. I wrote that park for Mike. I wrote that part for Ray McKinnon. And I wrote that part for Sam Shepard. And they all said yes and they’re all bad-asses. I didn’t write that part for Joe Don Baker but Joe Don Baker showed up and it was awesome. It made sense. He attaches the movie, in a cool way, to the movies that were an inspiration for this – those films like “Walking Tall,” this is my weird, thoughtful version of those movies. “Mud” has bounty hunters and shotgun shootouts and Joe Don felt like a physical connection to all that Americana.
Now, it’s been a little while since “Take Shelter.” Are you comfortable sort of definitively answering the questions about the ending or is this going to be a “Is Deckard a Replicant”-type debate forever and ever?
You know, I think it kind of has to be. Because this next film has an open ending but I realized the difference between the two. In the next film, there’s crazy shit going on but it’s really happening – it’s never called into question whether it’s happening or not happening. So I can define the end of this next film, even though it’s open-ended I can still define it.
Because “Take Shelter” is one big question of what is happening – is it really happening or happening in his mind? – it’s unfair to define that ending because it’s not just about the ending, it’s about the whole movie. It’s funny. I didn’t make it to be this ambiguous. I had a very clear idea of what I thought was happening. It wasn’t until people started asking the question that I realized, Wow, I need to shut up and not answer that. Because that’s great; that’s great that I’ve made something that people talk about and question and hate and love and HATE [laughs]. I don’t know where the polling is on that. I realized that that was a gift.
And I was always really clear that that last look between the two of them had to be clear, that they were together. Because the movie is about marriage – coming together, falling apart, coming together – and once that’s made clear, that’s the last thing I need to make clear in that movie. It’s a total copout answer. I could tell you exactly what I think happens, but… Why?
“Mud” is now playing. Go see it.