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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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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.

"I could tell you exactly what I think happens but…Why?"
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.

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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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