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"I think I can finally say that I have a career without smirking," Jeff Nichols said last week on the phone from outside his editing studio in Austin, Texas. The Little Rock-born writer and director couldn't, actually. He started laughing as soon as the words left his mouth.
Call it a symptom of his current state of mind — "cautious optimism," he says — about "Mud," the Southeast Arkansas-set coming-of-age drama that wrapped filming just before Thanksgiving (and with Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon and a host of other name actors starring, the biggest film production set in Arkansas since ever). About the prospects of his sophomore film "Take Shelter" in awards season (most notably, up for five Independent Spirit Awards, more than any other film save "The Artist"). And about his future in the business.
How are you feeling about "Mud"?
You just really never know until you get into the editing room and put it all together. But while we were filming, I had the same feeling I had on "Take Shelter," this distinct feeling of, "Man, we're doing something unique." You hope that culminates into a good film.
As far as the moving parts, the cast was really amazing and the crew was really amazing. Now I'm in sitting in front of this period of work, where the pressure is on my shoulders to take all that blood and sweat and turn it into something.
How's the editing process working?
I'm working with an editor, Julie Monroe, who's worked a lot with Oliver Stone, all the way through. It's been totally different. She's been editing the entire time we were shooting. I just got back in Austin and I've already watched an assembly cut of the movie.
With a bigger budget than your previous films, were you able to get a lot of different takes during filming?
Yes and no. It's really funny. We were still very limited on time because we were limited by Screen Actors Guild rules on how much time the two boys who play Ellis and Neckbone [Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, respectively] could work. So there are still some scenes where I got two takes. But this movie is immensely more covered than my other films.
The biggest difference between this film and my other films is that I really wanted to move the camera. "Take Shelter" had very specific camera movement. "Shotgun Stories" had no camera movement. Each of those were creative choices, partly dictated by production restraints, especially on "Shotgun Stories," but mainly dictated by story. Most of "Mud" was shot using a Steadicam. It's a pretty big progression because the camera moves constantly, which is really appropriate for the film: It takes place on a river, and I've always said I wanted the camera to move like a river, so it kind of flows through the story, not to mention that it's a film about these 14-year-old boys who're constantly moving.
Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to cast an Arkansan in the role of Neckbone?
I knew I wanted to, but I didn't know if we'd find him. I was just looking for a kid who was honest, who was a non-actor. We read some kids that had been in other movies and I just wasn't really finding what I was looking for. I didn't really care where he came from, but it was an extra bonus that he came from Arkansas.
We really lucky to find Jacob. He's incredible. They both are. All the adult actors were impressed by the kids. I know I was impressed.
How did the Arkansas crew work out?
The Arkansas crew we had did a great job, but we had to supplement it with people from Louisiana and elsewhere, so it'll be nice to see the local crew base grow so we don't have to bring as many people in.
How was filming in Arkansas otherwise?
[State film commissioner] Christopher Crane made it possible for us to shoot in Arkansas. That guy is a badass. He's the best thing to happen to Arkansas film in a long, long time. There were plenty of instances where he could've said, "This just isn't going to work," but he didn't.
Whether the film is good or not, I don't know. Or whether it presents Arkansas in a light that people want to see themselves in, I don't know. But it's a beautiful film. Like jaw-dropping. Because Arkansas is beautiful and the river is amazing. I'm trying to put as many shots in the movie as I can.
I don't know if most people think of that part of the Delta as beautiful-Arkansas.
I always have. We'd be driving home from set out in Stuttgart and you'd get the most beautiful sunsets you've ever seen in your life. The horizons are unlike anything else in the world. And then you get down in the river and that's an entirely different thing. The White River and the Mississippi River never look the same; they always give you something different visually. We shot all this stuff at night and the weather was changing and it was getting colder and the air temperature was much colder than the water, so all this mist was coming off the river. It's so beautiful and crazy looking, it looks fake.
You shot a lot of the film on an island?
It's outside of Eudora. It was this farm-owned piece of land. It was ridiculously beautiful. Sandy beaches and tall willow trees. It feels like you're on an island in the "Thin Red Line" or something, but in Arkansas. Sam Shepherd had some days off and he would just come out to the island. I'd look up and Sam Shepherd would be on the island looking at barges.
But all of our locations were really great. McConaughey was joking to me about it; he said for all of them you take a car down a dirt road, then it turns into a gravel road, and then it turns into mud, so you have to get out take a four-wheeler and then, when you're almost to set, you have to get out and walk down a path for five minutes. Another time, he said, "I knew when I turned on Possum Waller Road, this was going to be a good-looking location."
I hope that translates.
So how was working with McConaughey?
I love him. I think he's amazing. He's a superhero. We had him dangling from trees and jumping off moving dirt bikes in cowboy boats. He'd come and talk to our stunt guy and he'd say, "Yeah, I think I can do that," and he'd just nail it.
He's just a cool guy. He's focused and serious when he needs to be and he's totally laid back the rest of the time.
You definitely had way more star wattage than your previous films. Was that hard to manage?
Not from my perspective. We had two huge movie stars and they were up for the challenge. We took them into these backwoods crazy places and they were up for it. We had them staying at the Days Inn or whatever. I never heard anybody complain. No prima donna moments at all.
My big worry going in was how I was going to deal with someone who's on their Blackberry all the time or asking about their trailer.
McConaughey never wanted to go to his trailer. He was around all the time. He was part of the process. He wanted to be part of that process. Reese was a little different because her parts were more self-contained, but she was very similar in that regard.
What about the logistical challenges of having to manage an army of people as opposed to the smaller groups on your previous films?
I got shielded from a lot of that because Sarah Green is without question one of the greatest producers in the world. Things were just taken care of. That's what I had to get used to, not being in charge. On "Shotgun Stories," I was in charge of everything. With "Take Shelter," I definitely knew everything that was going on, and I oversaw most of it. But on this film, things just showed up. They just happened. I had a marine department and a marine coordinator, and I didn't meet the head of the department until he showed up.
What does that even mean, marine department? Someone who drives the boat?
He coordinates all the stuff on the water. We had to move our entire crew out to an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. We had pontoon boats and speedboats and another skiff for shooting from. We had multiple boat drivers. We had to get jet skis to put safety divers on for the kids in the boats. It was nuts.
Artistically, the learning curve for me was figuring out the best way to use all those resources. We're still trying to do the exact same thing we've always tried to do, which is to capture something that feels real and honest. In a way, you've got more to work against because you have all these amazing artists, you're production designer, your AD — all these people who are great at their jobs, and they will make anything happen that you want to happen. If you want to block traffic, they'll make it happen. So you're like, "Why is there no traffic behind this kid?"
And they say, "We blocked it for sound."
"But there's no traffic; we're on a busy road."
So they're like, "Well, we'll bring cars in."
And you say, "Well that seems stupid [laughs]."
There was an equally big learning curve as I've had for my last two films. "Shotgun Stories" was everything. "Take Shelter" was effects, both practical and CGI. This movie was learning how to operate on a legitimate film set, where you have people working there for you and how to best use those resources and still maintain as much honesty and spontaneity as you can in the film.
Last time we talked you said you were at kind of a crossroads, where you felt like the next decisions you made could set the course of your career. Has that thinking changed at all?
It's a constant thing that I'm managing. You always want to think about what's a good next move. The cool thing about having "Mud" in the can is I feel like with these three films I've said a lot about who I am as a filmmaker and, from this point on, I'm done establishing myself. After "Mud," I don't feel as much pressure about making a certain kind of movie. I always have to make good movies. I still have to make things that are successful. But I feel this interesting freedom coming. I don't know if that's true or not. With these three movies, it's an interesting cross-section of stuff that is all part of who I am with a filmmaker and a storyteller and it's literally across the board. Watching these three films, you can definitely get a sense of the kind of filmmaker I am, but maybe it's a little harder to categorize me.
You're potentially about to get even more juice in awards season.
Getting nominated for five Independent Spirit awards is crazy. It's already made a difference. But it goes back to the heart of what I was telling you several months ago — it just allows me to keep some control in my hands and allows me to make some decisions about what I want to do. That's the most exciting thing to me about "Mud" — that I was able to get it made at a much bigger level than I ever had before and still make it one of my films. A big part of that was [producers] Sarah Green and Everest and Film Nation. That's really exciting, and I feel like that control or whatever you want to call it is mine to lose as opposed to mine to earn. Anything that happens during award season only helps foster that.
What sort of schedule are you on?
We're hoping to have it done by the spring. It's a big movie, but the pieces are there, from what I've seen.
In the meantime, you're not going to do any other projects?
We're looking at stuff, but I've got a movie to edit. They're sending me scripts and other things. There are always two tracks with me writing and directing my own stuff and there's this other track of me doing other stuff, whether that's writing a script for someone or directing someone else's script or adapting a graphic novel, and all that stuff interests me. You never know whether those two tracks will converge. I've got two movies that I want to sit down and write and they're not contingent on the rest of the world at all.