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.
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.
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!