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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.