Jeff Nichols, 'Mud' Director, Eschews Hollywood for the South

7:09 AM PST 04/26/2013 by Jordan Zakarin
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The director, whose last film won three awards at Cannes, speaks to THR about his acclaimed new movie, why he stays in his own backyard, a failed HBO pilot and more.

"I remember I was in junior high school and I was going to write a short story about mobsters, or New York mobsters. I think I had just seen a Scorsese film," Jeff Nichols, the director of the new drama Mud, remembers. "And I told my dad that. And he was like, 'You haven't ever been to New York.' And I said, 'Nah, but that's where mobsters live.' And he basically said, 'Why don't you write something about Arkansas?'

"And a window in my mind opened," he continues, "and I realized all of a sudden that I had access to something that was interesting, that the rest of the world couldn't write about, because I was the one there.

Now 34, with a smooth baby face that gives him the look of an overqualified production assistant, Nichols is an acclaimed filmmaker with a third movie set to hit theaters on Friday. Starting with 2007's Shotgun Stories, each of the Arkansas native's films have grown in profile and star power. His friend Michael Shannon starred in his first two -- the other, Take Shelter, was a festival hit and awards winner -- while Matthew McConaughey takes the lead in Mud, playing a runaway outlaw hiding on an island, where he's found by two young teenagers, who try to help him reunite with a lost love (Reese Witherspoon).

All of Nichols' films take place in the South, where he grew up. The Hollywood Reporter spoke to Nichols about this, as well as an array of other topics, earlier this week.

THR: The audience at the premiere -- at New York's Museum of Modern Art -- and the subject matter was quite the contrast.

Nichols: I had some friends from HS who showed up to the after party, and they were like, "The only thing related to Mud in this room is you."

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THR: Are you still tight with them?

Nichols: Yeah, I had a great group of friends in high school. We kept up. And they're bright and successful people. It's cool.

THR: How many movies have you started writing but then just thrown out?

Nichols: Not many. I'm not prolific. If I write something, I like to make it. In fact, I sold a pilot idea to HBO. They paid me and I wrote that and of course they turned it down, they didn't make it. And it kills me. Because it's the only thing I've written that didn't get produced. It was called Land of Opportunity. In the grand scheme of things I'm glad I'm not making it because it's a TV series and I'm out making movies instead, and that's what I really want to be doing, but it's a cool idea and that's one of the only ones that's an original thing of mine, because when I write them I like to go make them.

THR: What was it going to be about?

Nichols: It was 2009. It was before Take Shelter but after Shotgun Stories. It took place in Arkansas and it was going to be about the next Great Depression. It was when I was writing Take Shelter and stuff, I had written Take Shelter at that point, I remember, so I was definitely thinking of dystopian things, and this was in the near future. We reached peak oil and it took place in Stuttgart, Arkansas, which is the rice growing capital of the world, which is where we shot a lot of Mud. And yeah, basically the American dollar had collapsed, and it began with the government passing a law that they would basically commandeer food crops instead of taxes, and it didn't go over too well in Stuttgart, Arkansas. And it builds into… of course it built into nothing, because it's just the pilot.

THR: So HBO just has it in perpetuity?

Nichols: Yeah, it's in turnaround, I think I get it back in a year or two.

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THR: Would you pursue making it again?

Nichols: I might turn it into a feature movie, but I think I'd have to pay them back the money. You never know. But I've kind of gotten of the dystopian idea right now, just because we're living in it, and it seems too sad and depressing.

THR: Your movies have gone back to the South and Arkansas, which is where you're from, so it makes sense. But why have you focused so heavily on it?

Nichols: I remember I was in junior high school and I was going to write a short story about mobsters, or New York mobsters. I think I had just seen a Scorsese film. And I told my dad that. And he was like, "You haven't ever been to New York." And I said, "Nah, but that's where mobsters live." And he basically said, "Why don't you write something about Arkansas?" And a window in my mind opened, and I realized all of a sudden that I had access to something that was interesting, that the rest of the world couldn't write about, because I was the one there.

And it just seems like, you have an idea, and it feels kind of fake or false or movie-ish, but when I drag it down to Arkansas and place it there, it starts to feel realistic and grounded and I'm accountable for the realism, because I know these people and these places and I have to get it right. And that's a good thing, because so many southern films are affectations that it's good to feel accountable to some kind of realism. I let loose of those reigns a little bit with Mud, because I wanted it to feel a little bit more magical, a little bit more like youth and childhood than my other two films. But at the same time, those are just the sections with Mud on the island and the boat in the tree. Whenever the kid returns home, it's pretty darn realistic.

THR: So did people back home say things to you?

Nichols: I haven't heard anything negative. But you know, home is tough. Because they're just thinking about themselves. I remember one of -- I don't know about only bad reviews -- but definitely one of the worst reviews of Shotgun Stories came out of a local Arkansas paper. And it ended, luckily, I don't think many other Arkansas went with this guy's opinion, but the last line of that review was, "We deserve better." That stung.

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THR: You'd think they'd be rooting for the hometown guy.

Nichols: You'd think. And a lot of people have. That was one review out of a lot. There's another local paper that's been really kind to me.

THR: You live in Austin, not LA. Why do you avoid that whole scene?

Nichols: I don't know if I've avoided it so much as it just kind of happened naturally. But I just knew I wasn't comfortable there. And I always wanted to live in a place where I could make a movie. And I don't feel like you make movies in LA. Big studios make movies in LA, but not me. So it's kind of like the same thing of going to college in the south and North Carolina: I wanted to be able to walk out the door and see the things that I write about. And that whole industry there, the whole system, and here in New York as well, I don't need it. I don't need to be a part of it in order to get my stuff developed and written, and it's not about the level of success I've reached. I didn't need it when I was making Shotgun Stories, and I don't really need it now, so why not live some place that's a good place to raise a kid. I have friends that they don't really care about movies that much, and they treat me like they treat anybody. And that's nice, it's comforting.

THR: Who would you say your influences as a director are, or people you really looked up to?

Nichols: More than directors I feel like I zero in on specific films. I loved anything with Paul Newman in it, they're always in my top five. The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Badlands is always on that list. Steven Spielberg had a tremendous influence on me through his early stuff. E.T., Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws I think is one of the most beautifully directed films ever. And then you start dipping into -- again, I wouldn't take Kurosawa's entire body of work, but I was really impacted by Dreams, which I caught on TV in high school.

I was a big fan of Jim Jarmusch's stuff. I'm also a big fan of Michael Ritchie's movies. It's just a weird hodgepodge of 80's movies mixed with then, like, weird film school stuff that you backtrack on, and Americana, like I grew up watching John Wayne and other things. One of my favorite directors is Clint Eastwood, and I hear about the way he works, and I think I'm of a similar style. Very few takes, you get what you take and you move on. It's very much a job and work. You can watch any Hitchcock film and be blown away. John Ford. I don't know, I went back and studied those guys, I didn't experience those guys the way I experienced Spielberg. Indiana Jones was me growing up. I could quote lines from Tango and Cash as much as I could quote lines from The Searchers.

THR: Did you know when you were a kid that you wanted to be a filmmaker?

Nichols: I don't know, I think I said it out loud but I didn't know what it meant. But I was attracted to the idea of movies.

THR: When you make a movie, are you concentrating solely on the characters and stories, or are you trying to make a bigger statement, about the country or people as a whole?

Nichols: Sometimes. Take Shelter certainly did that. That film kind of touched a zeitgeist that is an impossible thing to calculate, plan for. But you know, I just write character first. I put plot second, maybe obviously. And I write character first. And I try to write characters that, I care about these people. They aren't chess pieces that I move around for the benefit of some plot over here, to get from Point A to Point B. I really care about my characters.

THR: You went to the North Carolina School of the Arts. Everyone's coming from there.

Nichols: We've had, you know, it's how I make my films, with my friends. It's great. I love working with them, it's awesome.

THR: David Gordon Green has Prince Avalanche at Tribeca.

Nichols: That's great. He said he was flying in. I guess that's why. I love that film. I'm excited about his next one, too.

THR: What is it about that school that you think turns out filmmakers?

Nichols: I dunno, I'm not sure how it's evolved, but when we were there, it was a really young school. I was there in its fifth year of existence, fourth or fifth, and they didn't quite have it figured out yet, which was a good thing. They were just giving us cameras and letting us make movies, so people like David and myself, really responded to that. And we couldn't really afford or probably even get into USC or NYU, so this school was less expensive, and it was in the south, which I didn't even realize how important that was until now, I'm looking back on it, like, "God, if I had gone north, I wouldn't have developed this way, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing."

It's the whole package. It was in the south, those guys were there, we had some great professors. I think really, at the core, why that school, is they treat it like a trade school. It's not like typical undergraduate programs where you're just doing theory. We had very little theory. Maybe we could have used some more. But we got to make movies. They taught us how to make movies.

Email: Jordan.Zakarin@THR.com; Twitter: @JordanZakarin

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