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Director Jeff Nichols Talks 'Mud,' Writing For Matthew McConaughey & The Ending Of 'Take Shelter'

Interviews
by Drew Taylor
April 30, 2013 11:04 AM
8 Comments
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Mud

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.

Matthew McConaughey, Mud
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.

Matthew McConaughey, Mud
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!

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8 Comments

  • Audrey | May 5, 2013 8:45 AMReply

    I just saw MUD and thought it was a wonderful film. However, I'm trying to figure out what the medication was that was left in the paper bag along with the bottle of Jack Daniels. This wasn't addressed in the film - at all. I'm assuming it was some sort of psychotropic medication that Mud was supposed to be taking.

    HELP!

  • bexter2001 | May 1, 2013 11:04 PMReply

    I suspect Nichols made the ending thinking it was clear that it was REALLY the apocalypse and Michael Shannon's character was right all along...

    But thank god he made it ambiguous enough that I can read it otherwise because that sucks. It's a cheap punch in the gut that undermines the powerful relationship drama that went before. The 'emotional payoff', referred to elsewhere in the comments, for me comes when Shannon opens the door to the shelter and learns to trust his wife's instincts over his own.

    Who wants religious mania -justifying vindication when you can have a less bombastic but more relatable message about human relationships. Marital trust over religious faith, please.

    The two aren't mutually exclusive, I'll admit, but it's very hard to not feel like that ending is a slap in the face to the wife character and all she has stood for.

  • caleb | April 30, 2013 7:48 PMReply

    Spoiler alert!

    I thought the ending to Take Shelter was fairly forthright. When she sees the tidal wave and says "Ok. Ok." she isn't afraid of what's coming because it puts to rest her fears about her husband's sanity and commitment to her family. That forgiveness and that relief is more important to her than incoming death and to take that final scene literally, for what it is, hokey or no, is what gives it it's power. To say, "it was all another dream" doesn't really add anything to the plot or the conversation. All this shit happens to him and our emotional pay-off simply takes place inside another dream? That rings false. I believe that the strongest form of emotional power lies in the revelation, relief and ultimately forgiveness of that terrifying moment. Jeff Nichols achieved a highly unusual emotional payoff in an incoming death tsunami. It's pretty clear what is happening. Adding ambiguity cheapens the storytelling in this particular instance. At least, that's my take. I didn't know there were other stances!

    Super stoked for Mud.

  • Erik | April 30, 2013 2:06 PMReply

    Great interview Drew. It was definitely worth asking him about Take Shelter's ending. Here's my take, for what it's worth: The final scene, when a massive storm shows up on the beach, and Shannon's wife and daughter both see it, is another dream. Throughout the rest of the film, they've been nightmares where only he sees these things. The beautiful arc of his character is that, while his condition is not solved and wrapped up in a nice little bow, his family understands him now, they have empathy for him, and he can now work towards a new life with them as a unit. It's such a powerful use of the dream motif to end it this way. They see it now, so he can at least know he's not alone in taking on these frightening images and feelings.

  • Erik | April 30, 2013 2:00 PMReply

    Great interview Drew. It was definitely worth asking him about Take Shelter's ending. Here's my take, for what it's worth: The final scene, when a massive storm shows up on the beach, and Shannon's wife and daughter both see it, is another dream. Throughout the rest of the film, they've been nightmares where only he sees these things. The beautiful arc of his character is that, while his condition is not solved and wrapped up in a nice little bow, his family understands him now, they have empathy for him, and he can now work towards a new life with them as a unit. It's such a powerful use of the dream motif to end it this way. They see it now, so he can at least know he's not alone in taking on these frightening images and feelings.

  • spassky | April 30, 2013 12:41 PMReply

    Wasn't 'Take Shelter' based in Ohio?

  • Brad | April 30, 2013 4:19 PM

    I believe the film was set in Ohio as you stated, but if I am not mistaken, I believe it ends in South Carolina.

  • Pete | April 30, 2013 12:11 PMReply

    THANK YOU for not opining about the ending of Take Shelter. Keep the mystery alive Mr. Nichols.

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