During a 2007 interview actor Ray McKinnon motioned to a young man sitting nearby and remarked, “This is who you should be talking to. Someday I hope to be in one of his movies.” It was an intriguing remark considering that the unassuming stranger McKinnon spoke of had made only one film—Shotgun Stories—a low-budget Arkansas indie feature that, at the time, had been in few festivals; it was turned down by Sundance. Redemption for that mistake, however, would come a year later when the film appeared on numerous Top Ten lists including those of critics Roger Ebert and David Edelstein. Jeff Nichols, it appeared, was being noticed by everyone, except for the actor he desired to connect with the most, Matthew McConaughey, who would eventually become the star of Nichols’ third film Mud, opening in theaters this week.
“I started thinking about Mud back in college,” says Nichols who went to the University of North Carolina School of the Arts where he met fellow director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, George Washington). “I had the idea of a man hiding out on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. Immediately I was thinking of Matthew for this part.”
But despite favorable reviews of Shotgun Stories and sharing an agent with McConaughey, Nichols couldn’t get the actor to read the script. “I just didn’t have enough heat,” says the director. “I didn’t have enough juice. So I went out and made Take Shelter.”
Take Shelter received a number of accolades—including Independent Spirit Award nominations for best director, best feature and best actor in Michael Shannon—something he hoped would give him the Hollywood credibility to reach someone of McConaughey’s stature. But then Mud’s financiers complained that the actor was out of their reach. When that led to a failed experiment with a different actor, Nichols was finally given the green light to talk with McConaughey.
At the center of Mud is young Ellis (Tye Sheridan) who lives in a houseboat on the Mississippi with his parents on the verge of divorce. He and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover an abandoned boat high in a tree on an island in the Mississippi. Also on the island is the fugitive Mud, and McConaughey has found another unique and distinct role to add to those he has adeptly collected over the past few years, from a male stripper in Magic Mike to a psychotic police detective in Killer Joe. The boys help Mud escape from some Texas bounty hunters, but not before he aims to reunite with his lifelong love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Putting rural citizens in extreme circumstances has become a theme in all of Nichols’ films, and he does it with a minimum of dialogue, some on-target casting and an authentic simplicity, something clearly seen in the character of May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), an older girl with whom Ellis has a crush on.
“In the first scene she’s in, one of her friends is calling to her to come on,” says Nichols. “And she’s like ‘Okay!’. I wrote ‘Okay’ in the script but the way she delivered it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s exactly how I want that said’. But I didn’t even know it until it came out of her mouth. My job is to get the behavior right, meaning don’t force them to do anything they wouldn’t do.”
His passion for the craft becomes evident as he further expounds on the art of screenwriting. “Plot doesn’t have anything to do with behavior. And dialogue is the greatest tool and also the greatest weapon to ruin a movie, because you have two things in a script. You’ve got lines of action and lines of dialogue. So people use lines of dialogue to tell you things. I think that’s stupid. I think dialogue should be behavior in every instance.”
As the writer and director of all three of his films, Nichols feels that the best way to relate to audiences is to pull from personal experiences, something he uses in Mud, remembering when he was 15 and had a “fierce need to have this girl love me.”
“In each one of my films I try and put an emotional punch in the gut somewhere in there,” he explains. “In this one it’s when that girl breaks up with Ellis. I just wanted you to watch a tiny little heartbreak on screen. The only way that I know how to connect these things emotionally to people is if they’re extremely personal for me. I try to find an emotion that is palpable.”
While he applies that rule to Mud, he readily admits that Mud the man is quite “verbose”, something that McConaughey appreciates, saying that the script has “a very specific voice.”
“The character had language that I never read before,” says McConaughey. “It was highly mysterious to me. I loved the superstition. I loved that it was a love story—an unconditional, almost innocent love, yet a very fierce love for this woman. As a character it was fun for me. He’s been able to be that Labrador that you can kick off the porch a thousand times and he’ll keep coming back. Just pet me one more time.”
McConaughey believes that his character is a true romantic, “banging up against the ceiling of reality,” he says. “Mud is this poet, in my mind, who’s sort of an aristocrat at heart. I’m a stickler for stories like this, for the logic of the narrative. It was a well-written script, one that you can’t find holes in.”
Nichols, who grew up in Little Rock but could drive 30 minutes and reach the Mississippi Delta, speaks of the grandeur of the area. “You have this massive amount of space,” he says. “If you look at my films it’s reflected in that. It has certainly formed my stories, consciously or not.”
Nichols knew he had the right guy for the film when McConaughey chose to spend some nights camped out on banks of the Mississippi. “My only neighbors each night were those tugboats taking stuff up from New Orleans to St. Louis,” he says.
“You’re literally struck by the Mississippi River,” says Nichols. “And your jaw drops a bit.”
As for McKinnon, the prophet of Nichols’ jaw-dropping, accelerating career? He got his wish and has appeared in Nichols’ last two films.