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

Photo of Drew Taylor By Drew Taylor | The Playlist April 30, 2013 at 11:04AM

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.

Take Shelter
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.

This article is related to: Jeff Nichols, Interviews, Interviews, Mud, Take Shelter

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