Mud: Writer/Director Jeff Nichols

By Meredith Alloway · April 26, 2013

He’s not even 35 and his portfolio is already mind-boggling. He delivered an eerily captivating depiction of revenge in small town Arkansas with Shotgun Stories. Then he tackled the psychological thriller with Take Shelter, which premiered at Sundance in 2011 and won the FIPRESCI and Critics’ Week Grand Prize at Cannes the same year. Mud, is no short of his prior success. If anything, it’s even better.

Mud stars a made-for-the-role Matthew McConaughey as a mysterious man stranded on an island. Smack dab in the middle of the Mississippi, two young boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), stumble on the drifter and soon become aids in his escape. He’s in love with a woman named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and enchants the boys with his plan to reunite with her. The story unravels into an unexpected and incredible exploration of teenage romance, identity and the truths about love. It’s wonderfully new territory for Nichols.

ATW: The film all started with this picture of a river diver you found at the Arkansas Public Library. 

N: That was a part of the puzzle. Equally as important was this bridge I used to drive over when I was young. It bridges Little Rock to North Little Rock and crosses the Arkansas River and there’s an island off the bridge you can see. I always used to think wouldn’t it be cool to hang out on this island. Then I saw these photographs and the river seemed like a new part of the state I hadn’t thought about before. Sometimes ideas just hit you in the head. It just popped in my head: a man hiding out on an island in the middle of the Mississippi river

ATW: I’ve crossed the Mississippi river many times. My family drove to Florida every summer.

N: Did you guys go to Destin?

ATW: Yup!

N: That’s where we went! But yea, I don’t know I had this idea and I started thinking, what’s the best way to encounter him? I wanted to be a boy discovering him and then you start asking questions about who this boy is and what’s going on in his life. That’s where this idea of first love and home started to come to the forefront. Before I knew it, I wasn’t making a getaway film about a guy on the run; I was making a movie about first love and adolescence.

ATW: You don’t realize it’s about that till the very end either.  It was a subtle through-line.

N: Thanks!

ATW: I’m curious, were you drawing on personal experiences? It seemed like Mud was someone you knew as a kid.

N: The personal parts are the thematic cores. I feel like when you write, you have to have a personal core to a story if you have any hope of it translating to an audience. There are certain emotions you have throughout your life that are palpable, you can feel them; they hurt. Every film I’ve made, I can point to one of those emotions, and for this one it was going to be heartbreak. I can create all these plot lines, but they have to service that. It’s like you said, by the time you get to the end of it, that thematic idea has just seeped into the story. You haven’t attacked it head on; you’ve been able to let your audience absorb it into their bloodstream.

ATW: You’ve got a lot of writers like Carruth and Malick trying to break free of this narrative form lately, and then I saw Mud and thought, no the narrative still works! So what’s your background with writing and structure?

N: I stumbled backward in my approach to structure. I was trying to hold these stories in my head, and then I started writing them down on note cards to keep it all organized. But what I realized was that’s a great way to break the linear structure of a story. If you have a note pad and you’re writing what happens first, you’re writing what happens next and it’s really hard to jump around. I develop a system where I think about a story for a very long time, writing is the last step. I carry it around for a long time, and then I’ll ambush my friends and sort of…

ATW: Oral Story-tell?

N: Yea! It’s a great way to get immediate feedback, and so I start to get it up on its legs by just talking about it. Then I’ll go back and start my note cards.

ATW: I love that you use note cards because you can physically move them.

N: You put them on the floor first, so there’s no linear nature to them. Then they go up on a giant corkboard in my office, and then they start taking form. I think in terns of script days and each column on the board is that day. Some might have three cards and some might have twenty. Then I start to build a story and a card will have the word “shoot out” on it or have one or two lines. By the time I’m done, and I’ve done this for all three of my films, I can just sit and watch the whole movie on the note cards. You get to think about the balance, the shape, and the pace. Then I’m ready to sit down and start writing.

ATW: You’ve said Mud is about movement. When do these core, visceral elements come into the process?

N: That’s the directing side of my brain, but you never shut that off as a writer. Although I have some crazy rules as a writer, I don’t allow camera direction in my scripts. When people read my scripts, I want them to read like literature and I don’t want them to be thinking about the camera, but the characters. That doesn’t mean I don’t put screen direction in, but it’s in there in a very specific way.

ATW: Do you try to hide it in the text? With a writer like Shakespeare, all the stage directions are in the text.

N: Absolutely. And it’s not direction; it’s behavior. It’s the same thing as dialogue because it’s not there to get plot points out. Dialogue is an expression of behavior in the scene, and you can’t put things in your characters mouths that are dishonest. As a writer, though it’s hard because you only have script action and dialogue to work with.

ATW: Tye and Jacob performances are so natural, same with McConaughey and so you definitely succeeded in that! But why was it important to stick to the script and not let them improvise?

N: There was no need. Improvisation is a technique to discover something about the story and the characters. In this situation, we didn’t need to figure anything out. That probably sounds pretty arrogant! But I spent a lot of time thinking about that stuff. I don’t mean to sound that crazed about it, but you look at it and if you’re going to change something, you better have a really good reason for it. I have remind myself as a director that the guy who wrote it really thought about it, so don’t be too impulsive about changing it. But back to your initial question about movement. I wanted Mud’s whole plot to be like the Mississippi river. It’s one of the most winding rivers in the world; you can’t see around the corner.

ATW: And you can’t see a foot below!

N: Yea, you can’t see below it; it’s a murky place. And that’s the thing with Mud, you never quite know where that guy is, where he’s been, where he’s going. But with Shotgun Stories, it’s a very stagnant, still film. We never moved the camera and the characters never moved. A part of that is a weakness as a first time filmmaker.

ATW: But that’s the lifestyle.

N: Absolutely, guys sitting on a front porch. But with this movie, I wanted Mud to be in constant movement, these boys constantly moving. That’s all part of the same fluidity with the camera. It’s not just saying yea, we’re shooting steady cam! That’s not a complete answer. You’re shooting steady cam because I wrote a character who was moving from point A to point B to point C. It’s all baked into the screenplay.