Mississipi Yearning: Jeff Nichols on Mud

Feature by Tom Seymour | 02 May 2013

Jeff Nichols, director of Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories, is one of the most exciting young directors in America. He talks to The Skinny about his latest film, Mud

Mud is a coming of age story and an elegy for a dying way of life. Set in the Deep South along the banks of the Mississippi, it feels like an adaption of an American literary classic; a Mark Twain story for the millennial generation. Yet it was written and directed by a 34-year-old Arkansas native called Jeff Nichols.

“I first read Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in this dingy classroom in seventh grade, when I was 13,” the director of Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories says of the classic American novel. “There’s a scene in which Tom swims out to this deserted island and takes a nap. Nothing really happens; he just takes a nap. I remember sitting in this classroom, bored as hell, thinking: God, I wish I could do that.”

The seed was planted there, with Mud born as a screenplay when Nichols was still in college. With 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his devoted friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) as his vessels, Nichols’ eventual creation is imbued with the folklore of the American heartland, from Truman Capote to Laura Ingalls Wilder, from Badlands to Stand By Me. It’s a film about the struggle of childhood in a continent conquered but not connected, a remembrance of life defined by livelihood and possession and our small relationship with the vast unexplored. “There’s a purity about Tom Sawyer which just perfectly captures what it felt like to be a kid,” Nichols says. “I wanted to do something similar with Mud.”

Taking his father’s boat, Ellis travels with Neckbone to a deserted island in a deep turn of the Mississippi; there a flood has surreally moored a boat high in the branches of a stately tree. They try to stake their claim, but the boat is already occupied by a strange hermit named Mud (Matthew McConaughey); a kind, storytelling ramshackle of a man, yet a wanted fugitive with bounty hunters on his trail – he murdered the man with whom his lover chose to stray.

“Going into it, I saw Mud as a getaway film, like something Sam Peckinpah would make,” Nichols says. “But I wanted to make the film personal and mean something to me and my life, so I gravitated quickly towards the boy Ellis’s story. Finding this man on an island is a grand adventure for him, but I began to think about heartbreak and first love as something I could hang on his shoulders as the force of the story.”

The two children are recruited by Mud. After requests for food, they’re asked to courier letters to Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), Mud’s first love to whom he is still hopelessly committed. She’s stuck in town, locked down by guys who sense blood. Yet Mud hatches a plan to spirit her away to an Eden down river, and asks the boys to shelter and aid his getaway.

Mud, like all Nichols’ films, seems to come from his own experience, his own upbringing. He grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and his maternal cousins lived on a houseboat by the delta. “I really wasn’t familiar with that part of my state, even though it was in my own backyard,” he says. “When I was back from college one year I found a photo-book of people in the region; mussel shell fishermen with homemade diving helmets. So I started asking around and realised I had a bunch of relatives who had grown up on houseboats and lived that life.

“I remember them first taking me out on the White River, which flows into the Mississippi,” he says. “It was stunningly beautiful; teeming with wildlife. I saw bald eagles and panthers and snakes, and it felt like a mythical place. There was an island out there and I imagined a guy hiding out there, all alone; once I had that thought I held on to it. I knew it was a good idea, but when I heard that the houseboats were being demolished, I knew I had a movie.”

“There’s a purity about Tom Sawyer which just perfectly captures what it felt like to be a kid. I wanted to do something similar with Mud” – Jeff Nichols

Nichols needed an actor good enough to play the title role, and he chose Matthew McConaughey, the 43-year-old Texan who, before his turn in 2012's Killer Joe, spent a decade making modern classics like Ghosts of Girlfriends PastHow to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Surfer, Dude. Since playing the title role in Willian Friedkin's comeback, however, McConaughey seems to have regained his acting chops and is a revelation as Nichols’ island convict; loose and garrulous, deeply likable, yet distant, hurt and unknowable. When did Nichols first decide McConaughey was his main man?

“I decided I wanted McConaughey to play Mud over a decade ago, before his onslaught of romantic comedies,” Nichols says. “I saw him in John Sayles’ Lone Star – he plays a myth, a legend, but he adds such complexity to it, he takes it further. I needed Mud to be a guy you wanted to go back to and hang out with, despite the fact that he is strange, and speaks in a strange way. You think about Paul Newman or Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant, these are actors you just want to spend time with; if you have that as a director, all you do is confuse that a little bit.”

Like its star actor, Mud is a gentle, sentimental movie filled with romance and belonging, filmed with a deep, resonant love of this wild, dangerous part of the world. But the black dogs of jealousy and betrayal lie crouched in the shadows; every relationship is in peril, every character is on their own deserted island, suffering their own torment. Ellis’s parents are in the midst of a separation, his taciturn father too wedded to the river, his mother desperate to break free. Neckbone is a tough, searching orphan raised by a juvenile uncle (Michael Shannon). Ellis himself looks to Mud for a sense of value and meaning, an idea of masculinity as he tries in vain to navigate his own burgeoning attachments to the opposite sex. Can Mud respond? Can he carry the weight of the boys’ expectations?

But beyond the dynamics, a greater meaning impresses itself; that Mud is Nichols’ love letter to the culture that raised him, which has been left behind as the world turns.

“The American South is a very particular way of life and it’s a celebrated way of life,” he says. “We’re known for our stories and our cultural richness, but it’s a place that’s getting a little diluted – not a little, a lot.

“We’ve become about Home Depot and Walmart, and we have access to the same vast worldwide culture, so the distinct voice of the American South is becoming homogenised.”

Stood on the bow of a boat, being taken downstream by his cousins, Nichols couldn’t help lament the growing tide of progress: “The houseboats that you see dotted along these rivers feel like they’re from an older time, another world. Even though the people living there have sneakers and cell-phones they’re still so attached to nature, to an older ethos. That way of life is fleeting, and it fell in line with my opinions on what’s happening with the American South in general. It’s disappearing, gone with the river.”

Film Review: Mud.

Mud is released in cinemas on 10 May by eOne