Interview: Jeff Nichols Explores Love From Male Perspective in ‘Mud’

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CHICAGO – Rare is the film that explores love from a male perspective and doesn’t become overtly preoccupied with sex. Writer/director Jeff Nichols’s fabulously entertaining third feature, “Mud,” is a bittersweet ode to the broken heart, and how it can both hinder and bolster one’s evolution as an individual. The picture is romantic in every sense of the word.

Matthew McConaughey continues his aptly dubbed “McConnaissance” with his mesmerizing performance as the titular fugitive who enlists two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan of “The Tree of Life”) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), to assist him in his quixotic pursuit of an old flame, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Bristling with fine performances, arresting cinematography and a tirelessly twisting plot, “Mud” is the most impressive work to date from Nichols, who previously garnered acclaim for his potent collaborations with Michael Shannon, 2007’s “Shotgun Stories” and 2011’s “Take Shelter.” The director spoke with Hollywood Chicago about his love of the Beach Boys and the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, critics’ misperception of his female characters and his memories of the late, great champion of his work, Roger Ebert. I couldn’t help thinking of you when reflecting on Roger Ebert’s passing, since it was his reviews that introduced so many moviegoers to your work.

Jeff Nichols: He invited me twice to Ebertfest, and in fact on Friday, we showed the film at the Dallas Film Festival. I dedicated the screening to Roger, which is something that I had never done before. I only met him once in person because the first year that I went to the festival was with “Shotgun Stories” and it was the only year that he had missed. When we went back with “Take Shelter,” I got to meet him in person. He couldn’t speak, of course, but he was [communicating by] writing on a pad. He had been such a supporter of mine. When he put “Shotgun Stories “ on his “Best Of” list, it literally separated that film from the pack, and I owe a lot to him. This may be selfish, but I’m very sad that he didn’t get a chance to see this film. I really wanted him to see it because I think he would’ve liked it.

Jeff Nichols, director of Mud.
Jeff Nichols, director of Mud.
Photo credit: Roadside Attractions What was it like screening your work at Ebertfest?

Nichols: When I went there with “Shotgun Stories,” it felt like the center of the universe. I grew up watching and listening to Roger Ebert—agreeing with him, disagreeing with him. He was in my home, and he defined what film criticism was to me. By the time I went to his festival, I had toured all around the world to show my film at festivals, and one thing I had noticed about most of them is that they weren’t really conducive to loving film. Most film festivals are about getting as many films as you can to play, screening them against each other and getting as many people to see them as possible, which has its merits. But at Ebertfest, everyone is in one theater watching the same movie, and then everyone is talking about it. I took my dad there, and we saw every single movie that year, even if I had seen it before. We watched every one and then listened to the Q&As. It felt like a community of people who loved movies and wanted to talk about them in a very honest and grown-up way. I hadn’t felt that before, and to have my film included in all of that, it just reminded me of how important making movies is. It made me take myself more seriously. How did you go about casting Tye Sheridan in the crucial role of Ellis?

Nichols: There really wasn’t an audition process. My producer on this film, Sarah Green, produced “Tree of Life,” and Jessica [Chastain, star of “Take Shelter”] was in “Tree of Life.” Sarah was the first person to say, “You really have to look at this young man, Tye Sheridan. He’s from east Texas, he’s a country kid, and we just loved working with him.” I talked to Jessica, and she said, “You’ve got to meet Tye. He’s the greatest young actor I’ve ever met.” He was coming through Austin to do press, and when I walked in the room to meet him, there was Ellis. He looked exactly like the mental image I had of the character. He knew how to hunt and fish, how to ride a boat and a dirt bike. And he had been in a Malick film. He was perfect. Then I got to see him in “Tree of Life,” and I thought, “Yeah, this is going to work.” Listening to him talk about the script, which he read and interpreted, I realized that he’s a smart kid who is truly, truly talented. We did a more traditional casting search for Neckbone, and it was a similar experience where you just see him and you know he’s the right person.

Some people are comfortable in front of the camera and some people aren’t, and that goes for adults as well. Both of these boys were able to be themselves on camera, and that’s a gift not everyone has. You can lose it the older you get and the more self-aware you become, but I don’t think these two boys will. I think they’re that talented, Tye especially. A lot of times when you work with child actors, you’re supposed to remove the dialogue, tell them the situation and let them be themselves in front of the camera. That’s what Malick has taught us in “Days of Heaven” and even “Tree of Life.” But I had a much different approach with this film, which is heavily scripted. I needed them to read these lines and ingest these lines and say them in the right order. [laughs] And they did that. As natural as these kids seem, they are delivering performances. It’s all to their credit.

Director Jeff Nichols chats with actors Jacob Lofland, Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan on the set of Mud.
Director Jeff Nichols chats with actors Jacob Lofland, Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan on the set of Mud.
Photo credit: Roadside Attractions Your portrayal of masculinity in this film reminded me of Paul Newman classics such as “Hud.”

Nichols: Paul Newman is an extremely likable person who can also pull off very complex dramatic roles and having that combination of things is what also makes an actor like McConaughey so great. So many times in American films, we look at romantic love through the point of view of women. It’s a female subject and they’re called “chick flicks” for a reason. “Mud” is a film about romantic love from a very particular male point of view. It’s about men not just thinking about sex, but thinking about love. That might be the thing that separates it from the pack a little. It was a conscious reaction to something I felt was lacking in other films. It just felt like an interesting point of view. Though the women initially appear to be double-crossing in “Mud,” they turn out to be every bit as complex as the men.

Nichols: To look at these women as antagonists is an insult to the characters. I understand why some people may feel that way, but they’re not catching the breadth of the characters’ intentions. The story is told from a male point of view, and men do get their hearts broken by women. It happens. [laughs] But these are real people dealing with very complex things. [Spoiler Alert] Juniper’s character realizes that being with Mud is not a healthy thing, but she doesn’t know how to process that, and the same goes for Ellis’s mother. She’s totally validated in her position. I appreciate you saying that about the women in this film. There was a review I read that said the women were weak and it made me angry because I didn’t think that they were paying attention. How are you able to bring such an epic scope to the film without making it a distraction?

Nichols: It all begins with the frame. I shoot everything in scope, which means that we’re putting anamorphic lenses on those cameras. It’s that 2.35:1 aspect ratio that gives you a super rectangle and that, to me, feels like a real movie. When I’m flipping through channels at night and I find “The Thing” by John Carpenter in scope, you get those black bars above and below the image on TV. Even when you get black bars on a widescreen TV, that’s when you know you’re watching a movie. It literally begins with the frame, and then your challenge as a director is to fill that frame and your compositions begin to have this beautiful balance. You have one character on one side and you have background information in the middle, and you can just do so much within that space. I love it and I hope I always get to work in it.

When you’re creating these characters, you want to build a certain amount of backstory that is left unspoken. I think that helps these characters live beyond the edges of the scenes that they’re in. It lends a sense of mystery and suggests that there’s a world beyond the frame. When I wrote “Shotgun Stories,” my big harp on southern films was that they all took place in Mayberry. There was always a town sheriff and everyone knew everybody. Even today when I talk to people about writing southern films, they have preconceptions about southern life and use them to explain certain plot points. I’m not saying all southern towns aren’t like that, but it doesn’t reflect my experience. Not everyone knows everyone, people have secrets, and the world feels big and mysterious, especially to these boys in “Mud.” There are things that they don’t know about and certain dangers in the world that only appear as the tip of the iceberg. I think that helps broaden the narrative scope of the film in the same way as the frame. I love when a film leaves an indelible mark on a song, and “Mud” absolutely does that with “Help Me Rhonda” by The Beach Boys.

Nichols: It has two points of significance for me. I grew up listening to Beach Boys music because my dad was a fan, and it kind of imprinted itself on me as a kid growing up. So when I was thinking back on things, Beach Boys music just made me feel like a kid again. But the funny thing is, when I was growing up, the song “Help Me Rhonda” just sounded so sweet. But once I really started listening to it, I realized that it’s about a guy sleeping with a rebound girl. He got his heart broken and he’s calling this girl to basically have sex in order to make himself feel better. [laughs] I thought, “God, what a totally true, dark, strange underpinning of a Beach Boys song.” It seemed obviously appropriate for Michael Shannon’s character in “Mud,” but also appropriate for this story. It has a sweet idea about love on top of everything like a coating, but there’s some serious stuff at the center of it. It felt like an appropriate allegory for what I was trying to do with this movie.

‘Mud’ stars Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Paul Sparks, Joe Don Baker and Michael Shannon. It was written and directed by Jeff Nichols. It opens in local theaters on April 26th, 2013. It is rated PG-13. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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