News Column

With 'Mud,' Nichols heralds a new generation of Austin filmmakers

April 28, 2013

YellowBrix

April 28--Linklater. Rodriguez. Malick.

You likely know those Austin filmmakers' names. You don't even need a first name.

Jeff Nichols. That's a name you need to know. You'll be hearing it a lot more in coming years.

Fans of arthouse cinema have known about the affable and talented 34-year-old filmmaker for years. The Arkansas native who graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts moved to Austin in 2002, drawn by family, the local movie scene and the creative but relaxed vibe. His first feature, "Shotgun Stories," a bleak and brutal film about family bonds, won the jury award for best narrative feature at the 2007 Austin Film Festival and earned the affable filmmaker an Independent Spirit Awards nomination.

"Take Shelter," Nichols' 2011 follow-up that introduced many movie lovers to Jessica Chastain ("The Tree of Life" and ""Zero Dark Thirty") and starred incredible "Shotgun Stories" lead Michael Shannon, offered a haunting meditation on building and protecting a family. The brilliant and disturbing film landed on many top 10 lists, including the American-Statesman's, and won the Critics Week grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

When he was 33, he became one of the youngest directors ever to have a film ("Mud") in competition for the Palme d'Or at Cannes, but the director was still known mostly among cineastes.

"Mud" should change all of that. The movie that opened Friday has the tone, pace and feel of an American classic. It's a story of a boy coming of age on the Mississippi River. It carries whispers of Mark Twain but maintains its own unique voice. The movie will appeal to people from ages eight to 80 and should move Nichols from the arthouse to the mainstream.

Life lessons

Two of the most difficult lessons to learn as a child are that romantic love delivers more (and less) than happiness and that those whom we most admire are not infallible.

Nichols drew from both of those experiences while writing "Mud." It details a summer of adventure and maturation for Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a 14-year-old boy who falls under the spell of a romantic mystic and ex-convict named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) while navigating his first heartache and the decline of his parents' marriage.

Nichols first had his heart broken in 10th grade when a girl he'd dated for five months cheated on him. It crushed him. But he lived. And as he matured he realized that some of the great mentors who touched his life weren't perfect or the smartest people in the world.

"But the great take-away from that for me is that they came into my life at the right time and they delivered a piece of information that I needed right then, and I'll always be grateful for that. They don't have to be perfect, and they never will be," Nichols says.

Those two sets of experiences serve as the anchor for Nichols' screenplay. The filmmaker, still boyish looking two decades after that initial heartbreak, says he always finds a stabilizing emotional point to which he can tether his movies.

In "Shotgun Stories," he centered the story on the hypothetical question of what he'd do if one of his brothers was killed. Nichols used the anxieties of building and protecting a family to root his follow-up film, "Take Shelter."

"With 'Mud' it was about that feeling back in high school. That's what this whole movie was anchored off of for me," Nichols says. "We've got boats and trees and snakes and things, and Mathew McConaughey saying crazy stuff, but at the end of the day, when that kid gets his heart broken, and when he realizes the fallibility of the adults around him, that is what this movie is about."

Moving to Austin

Nichols didn't want to move to Los Angeles or New York and chase the film dream after he graduated from North Carolina School of the Arts, also the alma matter of fellow Austin filmmaker David Gordon Green, so he made a more pragmatic and less glamorous choice. He moved back in with his parents and worked at a Little Rock pizza place while writing screenplays.

"After about a year of that I thought, 'This is a sad, sad existence, I gotta shake it up,'" Nichols says.

The director moved to Austin, where his brother was attending law school, and found work with director Margaret Brown, who was making "Be Here to Love Me," a documentary about the tragic and brilliant singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt. That experience simultaneously introduced Nichols to both the music and film scenes.

"I was hanging out with cool people really quickly," Nichols says. "Working with Margaret filled in a lot of knowledge in my gaps from film school because that was my first real-world job execution, so I was handling things that I needed to refine ... all these things I knew about but didn't have any experience with. And that gave me the confidence to legitimately produce my own movie."

He took that experience with him back to Arkansas, where he filmed "Shotgun Stories." Nichols, who lives in East Austin with his wife and son, wrote his subsequent features, "Mud" and "Take Shelter," the following year, an accomplishment that serves as testament to the flexibility and power of the filmmaker's imagination, but he had the idea for the "Mud" screenplay years earlier. While attending college in 1999, Nichols imagined writing a classic American story. He says he always knew the actor he wanted to play the self-mythologizing and complicated Mud.

"There's a guy on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River ... it should be Matthew McConaughey," Nichols says.

Finding Mud

McConaughey has experienced a career resurgence in the past year, but Nichols has long admired the actor. And, while "Mud" is just now hitting theaters, it made its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012, a month before "Bernie" and "Magic Mike" stoked the McConaughey comeback train. Nichols especially loved McConaughey's work in 1996's "Lone Star."

"It's tricky because his character in 'Lone Star' gets built up as a legend, and then you cut to the legend," Nichols says. McConaughey impressed Nichols with his ability to come across "bigger than life" once he appeared on screen and "carry a mythology on his shoulders" while also imbuing the character with depth and complexity.

"When I was writing it, I was writing it in his voice," Nichols says. "Matthew's innately likable. And I knew that before even meeting him ... it just comes through in his work. But you can use that to your advantage because you can make a compound statement with that. So you put him in a certain role, doing certain things that may not be likable -- there's lots of moments in 'Mud' where he may or may not be using these kids and you're not sure of his motives. So, to have those two things working at the same time, that's a cool thing as a director, as a storyteller, to have."

He may have written the role for McConaughey, but he almost didn't get his man thanks to the calendar and the actor's busy schedule.

Nichols worried about the impending change of seasons in rural in Arkansas. "Mud" is a quintessential boyhood summertime adventure film, along the lines of "Stand by Me," and Nichols knew falling autumn foliage would be a bad tell that could ruin the movie.

"You get McConaughey or you get the leaves."

That was the gist of the text the sculpted actor sent to Nichols. You can almost hear the charismatic actor's voice in the words. McConaughey was tied up with another project and asked the director for patience.

Looking back on it now, the director chuckles about his adamancy. "This is the guy you've been writing this movie for for over a decade," Nichols says.

Fortunately, by the time McConaughey and Nichols were able to shoot in late fall, the leaves remained.

The character of Mud intrigued McConaughey, who's known for waxing philosophical and once took a months-long sabbatical to go on a solo hiking trip in South America. Mud is an ex-con on the lam, and he uses his hypnotic rhetoric to enlist the help of Ellis and his buddy Neckbone. But his manipulation springs from one desire: to return to the arms of the love of his life, a tortured and dangerous soul named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). His methods may seem dubious at times, but to McConaughey they were all part of the character's truth.

"I see him as a guy -- and I like characters that do this, because I feel like I do this -- who built his own belief system. And that's interesting to me," McConaughey says. "He's not a schemer. He believes what he's selling. Schemer is much too conscious of a word for him. His logic comes from the stars and Mother Nature ... he's a dreamer. Mud does fate, he doesn't do suicide. He's been stepping in (expletive) for so long he doesn't think it's part of the riddle, he knows it's part of the poem."

Ellis falls under Mud's spell and steals spare parts to help fix the run-down boat that is to serve as Mud's method of escape. He also serves a courier and romantic proxy for the character whom McConaughey calls "an aristocrat of the heart," and follows Mud's idealized notion of love into his own bout of heartache.

When Mud's quixotic plans run into the harsh light of reality, Ellis feels betrayed. But Ellis is let down less by Mud and more by the reconfiguration of his own notions of love and adulthood. As Ellis comes to terms with Mud's imperfections, he's able to see the rhapsodic rapscallion less as a hero and more as a friend and support during a challenging time of personal change. They teach each other about trust and forgiveness. They give each other hope.

"That's kind of who Mud is," Nichols says. "He passes through this boy's life right when that boy needed him."

While "Mud" will appeal to the broadest audience of any of Nichols' three films, the filmmaker doesn't plan to kowtow to audiences. His next film, "Midnight Special," will be a science-fiction chase movie that Nichols says draws inspiration from John Carpenter and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." Regardless of genre, the movie will undoubtedly carry the hallmarks of all of Nichols' films. A man of unique vision, he intends to stay true to the voice he has crafted over the past decade.

"Well, what else do I have to lose?" Nichols says. "This is the way I've developed as a writer and a storyteller, and it's the only way I know how to do it."

___

(c)2013 Austin American-Statesman, Texas

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