Man about town: Riverrun emerging master Jeff Nichols talks Mud

by Mark Burger

This Friday, acclaimed filmmaker and UNCSA School of Filmmaking graduate Jeff Nichols will receive the Emerging Master award from the RiverRun International Film Festival, following a screening of his latest film Mud, which will be screened at the Stevens Center.

On Saturday, the newly awardwinning filmmaker and School of Filmmaking faculty member Dale Pollock will engage in “A Conversation with Jeff Nichols” in the Babcock Theatre on the UNCSA campus.

The name of the movie is Mud (see review, Page 45), and its ecstatic advance word is warranted. The name of its writer/director is Jeff Nichols, and having made only three films, his big-screen career is impressive in itself. Both Shotgun Stories (2006) and Take Shelter (2011) hinted strongly at a distinctive filmmaker on the rise.

“I think Jeff has a remarkable touch on the pulse of American life,” observes Pollock, who was dean of the School of Filmmaking in 2000 when Nichols graduated. “He has the ability to write real characters whom he brings alive on-screen through great casting and direction. His films are deeply American, and offer insight into our country and our culture.”

Mud is unquestionably steeped in Americana. Nichols grew up in Arkansas and was determined to film there. The film is the story of two boys (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) who become the confidantes — and emissaries — of a mysterious fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey)

Among Nichols’ inspirations were such notables as Mark Twain, Richard Wright, Sam Peckinpah, Terence Malick and Sam Shepard. Among the notables who also appear in the film are Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, Ray McKinnon and, appropriately enough, Sam Shepard.

For Nichols, Mud is his first opportunity working with what could be called an all-star cast, including one Oscar winner (Witherspoon), two Oscar nominees (Shannon and Shepard) and one box-office superstar (McConaughey)… to say nothing of Joe Don Baker, an icon in his own right — and possessor of the maybe the best hound-dog scowl in the movies.

“There’s no one else like Joe Don Baker,” Nichols says gleefully. “He’s Joe Don Baker — he’s Walking Tall! He brings a presence. He brings a cadence, and his cadence makes sense. He is the ultimate tragic figure. He’s King Lear.” (That Baker’s character is named King is no coincidence.)

Nichols laughingly recalls that when Baker, as a wealthy and vengeful businessman, hires a group of killers to hunt Mud down, the actors hired to play those grizzled hired guns “couldn’t have cared less about Matthew McConaughey, but when they saw Joe Don Baker… you could’ve heard a pin drop.”

Working with Shepard provokes an immediate response. “He’s a huge influence — both as a writer and an actor,” says Nichols, and he recalls with no small measure of awe Shepard’s request before accepting the role:

“‘Do not change one word of this script.’ “He’s lovely to direct — really lovely,” Nichols says. “He treated me with such respect. I mean… this is Sam Shepard!” With some finesse in scheduling, Nichols was able to recruit his friend Shannon, whom he accompanied to the 2011 RiverRun festival when Shannon received the Emerging Master award, even though the actor was in the midst of filming Warner Bros.’ big-budget Man of Steel.

Shannon filmed for only two days, yet again makes his distinctive mark as Neckbone’s uncle Galen, a likable, layabout fisherman. It’s a treat to see Shannon, best known for intense roles (in Man of Steel he plays Superman’s arch-nemesis General Zod), play a role that’s light and loose. “We said ‘let’s have some fun with this,’” Nichols recalls.

Those who attended Shannon’s Emerging Master seminar at UNCSA with Nichols moderating got a firsthand look at the affectionate humor they share as friends and collaborators.

As for newcomers Sheridan and Lofland, this is not the first time that Nichols has plucked from the ranks of child actors with perfection, having selected newcomer Tara Stewart to play Shannon and Jessica Chastain’s daughter in Take Shelter. That Stewart is deaf made no difference — “she was the one, no question about it,” Nichols says simply — as he reworked the script to make the character likewise.

“They’re extraordinarily intelligent,” he says of Sheridan and Lofland. “They’re intuitive. They’re honest. If they’re indicative of the new generation of kids today, then America’s got a very bright future.”

McConaughey’s chemistry with the boys is key to the story’s progression and the film’s success, and Nichols believes he has made a successful film relative to his intentions.

“It’s everything I set out to do,” he says.

“I like this movie. I’m proud of this movie. If people don’t like it or say it’s self-indulgent, that’s fine. They can’t point fingers at anyone but me.”

Although Shotgun Stories is about a contemporary family feud, Take Shelter about the possible end of the world and Mud about broken hearts, “all of my films are hopeful,” Nichols says. “They’re all about hope.”

With Mud being released nationwide this month — the week after RiverRun, in fact — Nichols is currently riding the promotion locomotive, albeit now with an Emerging Master award in hand. He’s also looking forward to his next project, and indicative of his varied interests, it falls into the realm of science-fiction. The title is Midnight Special, and “it breaks against the conventions [of the genre] while also embracing them.”