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Cannes 2012: Jeff Nichols' 'Mud' Slides Into Competition with Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon

Lee Daniels, Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey 'Mud
Getty Images

The "Take Shelter" director talks to THR about premiering his coming-of-age tale, being the youngest director in Competition and his unexpected upcoming project.

After days of rain on the Riviera, on Saturday night, Mud will slide into the Palais for the world premiere of Jeff Nichols’ third film on the last day of the Cannes competition.

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While few can forget Nichols’ sophomore film, apocalyptic thriller Take Shelter that won the Critics Week prize just last year, not many people will remember even seeing Nichols during this first time in Cannes in 2000 when he was still in college and came to the festival through an internship with the American Pavilion. Not so long after waiting tables for busy execs, the prolific filmmaker is back with a coming-of-age story starring Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon and child actors Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. Nichols and his cast made the journey from the rugged Mississippi river to the French Riviera for the premiere.

“There are water and sand in both places, so it’s kind of similar. The temperature is about the same in both places. Actually, the Mississippi is just like Cannes,” Nichols joked.
After his Critics Week win, Nichols is back in Cannes just one year later in a competition slot.

The director is the youngest in this year’s competition and will battle it out with acclaimed auteurs like Michael Haneke, David Cronenberg and Jacques Audiard.
 “I’m more nervous. The stakes feel higher because they are. You can’t walk into the Palais and not feel overwhelmed,” he says.

Yet despite the global praise for Take Shelter and his spot amongst Cannes greats this year, Nichols remains a modest Southern boy. “I’m just happy to be at the party,” he says of films from his fellow competitors like Cronenberg, Haneke and Andrew Dominik that “shaped me as a filmmaker and as a storyteller.”

Nichols also credits another influence to his work, specifically this film, namely American writer Mark Twain.

The director was inspired by Twain’s coming-of-age tale Tom Sawyer. “Tom Sawyer did something very specific. It captured a sense of being a child in a particular time in life,” he says, then, at he risk of “hyperbole” adds, “Twain is the greatest American writer to have lived.”

Like many Competition directors this year, Nichols was in the mood for love when making Mud.

“It’s all about love. It’s from a very male perspective I suppose. It’s about unrequited love if you had to choose a kind of love that it’s about,” he explains.
He adds:  “I wanted to capture a point in my life in High School when I had crushes on girls and it totally broke my heart and it was devastating. I wanted to try and bottle that excitement and that pain and that intensity of being in love and being a teenager.”

The film will be the second time McConaughey walks the Cannes red carpet steps after presenting Lee DanielsThe Paperboy on Thursday.

“I wrote it for McConaughey,” Nichols says of the story that he began to develop when he was still a student in 2000 and taking trips to the public library. He remembers thinking: “’I should write about the Mississippi river and there should be a man living on an island there,’” he says adding: “Of course, I thought Matthew McConaughey should be that guy.”
Then, Nichols went on to make two films and McConaughey continued his prolific big screen career, however, says Nichols, “I just kept coming back to him.” Then, Nichols met the actor in Austin and, he says, “I just loved him. He was perfect. It was so easy because I wrote it with his voice in mind.”

Witherspoon is at the same agency as Nichols so the Oscar-winning actress wasn’t a tough sell, according to Nichols. Plus, “She pairs really well with McConaughey.” He says of their incipient encounter: “She was smart and funny and awesome. I said ‘I’m going to put tattoos on you, you’re going to look rough and smoke a cigarette and you’re going to be living in a motel in Arkansas and she just said ‘Bring it, I can handle all that.’ There wasn’t one whiff of prima donna status.”

Joining McConaughey and Witherspoon are the film’s young talents Sheridan and Lofland who have central roles in the story.

Sheridan starred in last year’s Palme d’Or-winning film Tree of Life, but this is his first time in Cannes.

“I just feel very fortunate and I’m very blessed to even be a part of this. It’s just unbelievable to me,” says the young actor, already ostensibly wise beyond his years.
Sarah Green, producer of Tree of Life, brought Sheridan into the picture and Lofland was hired after he stumbled upon the open casting call launched in Arkansas on the internet.

The boys enjoyed hanging out with co-star McConaughey in between takes and also learned a lot about their art from the experienced actor in the process. Sheridan recalls their fondest memory from the set:  “It’s a very serious scene and right in the middle a spider came down from a web from the tree above and landed on Matthew. We broke character, we couldn’t hold it together, we just started laughing,” he remembers. And while McConaughey made time for fun on set – “He loves Frisbee” says Sheridan – he also remained focused. “You can tell Matthew tells his work seriously by his reaction. After the scene, he was a little bit disappointed in us, but we learned from that and we learned from our mistake,” Sheridan says. Adds Jofland: “We got it together after that. We didn’t have as many mess-ups.”

After Mud sliding for two years in a row in Cannes, Nichols will head back to the US to work.

“It’s time to go back and spend some time writing” after two years in production. “I’m actually ready to go home and sit in front of the computer,” he adds. His next project is “Midnight Special” that he describes as an ostensibly un-Nichols-like break from his previous films, a “sci-fi action chase movie” produced by Sarah Greene and Brian Kavanaugh-Jones.

The film will certainly be a break from Nichols’ sweet story that was one of several looks at “l’amour’ in Cannes this year.

“There’s a lot of love going around. Last year was anxiety and this year is love,” he says.