Two boys, river-rats on the mighty Mississippi, run smack into adulthood when they encounter and befriend a fugitive from the law. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn echoes throughout every frame of Jeff Nichol’s Mud, the festival hit that became one of the summer’s under-the-radar hits. An Arkansas native, Nichols was mesmerized by the river and all that it represents, both in literature and its geographic importance, and his modern-day tale conjures up all the the familiar rhythms, drawls, and characters that filled Twain’s pages. Matthew McConaughey stars as the mysterious rascal whose name is literally Mud, and Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life ) and newcomer Jacob Lofland play the two boys who cross his path when they all claim ownership of a storm-damaged boat miraculously resting in the branches of a tree on a Mississippi River island.
The movie, which arrives on Blu-ray tomorrow, co-stars Michael Shannon, Reese Witherspoon, and Sam Shepard, among others, but as Nichols tells EW, Mud was nearly DOA when it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. The movie, which has drawn favorable comparisons to Stand By Me and Clint Eastwood’s A Perfect World, rallied to become a festival favorite and the latest stop on the McConoughey Renaissance Tour.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In the movie, Mud is hiding out on an island where he and the boys discover a boat in a tree. Is that something of a metaphor about filmmaking — you have the vehicle of your escape, but you have to figure out how to get it in the water?
JEFF NICHOLS: That’s funny. I don’t know, as far as a metaphor for film. I’ve never seen it that way. Maybe more of a metaphor for life. The boat was a friend’s idea. There was an actual boat in a tree from a flood, and it just opened this window in my head. First off, it’s this magical amazing thing to see for these kids. Plus, it makes sense: those islands flood all the time. It’s totally fantastic, totally surreal, but it could also kind of happen. And that’s where this movie dances in between those two things. It all could happen but it’s also a little bit fantastic.
Matthew’s performance was so wonderful partially because it really embraces the relationship the audience feels like it has with him as an actor, yet tweaks it a bit. Mud is this charming rogue, but there’s a hint of danger underneath that Matthew can play so slyly at this point of his career.
Without knowing him, I wrote that character with his persona in mind. I remember speaking to his agent early on in this process, saying, “It’s like John Wayne playing Rooster Cogburn.” It takes advantage of all the good things that are John Wayne, but it funnels them into a true-blue character that he can play. So he’s not just repeating himself, but at the same time, it takes advantage of all those things that are part of why we like him.
For a long time, Matthew’s good looks almost seemed to be a blessing and a curse in the roles he was offered and how we graded them. Sometimes it seemed like we discounted him because he was so pretty and made things look so easy.
Yeah, pretty people have an uphill battle. We don’t trust them automatically. It’s almost like you have to earn our respect in the audience. At the same time, I think male actors hit their stride in their 40s a lot of times. They just need a little dirt on them and wear and tear before they really get interesting.
Tye Sheridan is the heart of the film as Ellis, a boy who’s falling in love for the first time just as his parents’ marriage is crumbling. And for any adult male, the scene that stings the most is the one in the parking lot where he’s rejected by the girl who he thinks is his girlfriend. I fear that had to have been drawn from your own adolescence.
Absolutely. I took all of the pain and angst that came from not just one but multiple high school loves and rolled it into that scene. I balled it all up and tried to punch Ellis in the stomach with it. I like to think each movie I make has at least one real punch in the gut that reaches out and gets the audience, and that scene was always intended to be that. I think most people have felt rejection like that.
But I’m guessing Tye might not have been old enough to know that pain and humiliation.
He hadn’t, which is what makes him such a damn good actor. He was like, “Nah, I’ve never had my heart broken.” But that kid is a really good actor; it’s all on his face. You could see it. I didn’t make it up. I just rolled the camera, and it started to happen. I didn’t have to yell, “Cut,” and smack him across the head or anything like that. It was literally him just taking some time and bringing all that stuff up. You’re just like, “Where does it come from?” I’m kind of in awe.
When I spoke to Tye at Sundance, he mentioned that what helped him during that scene were the teenage boys who ripped into him pretty hard.
[Laughs] Now that I take credit for. It was in the script: to have him blurt “I love you” out in front of older kids, especially older guys. But I also went up to this group of guys, and I was like, “This kid is just a little dork and y’all need to just tear him apart.” And they did. They were not actors, they were these tough farmboy kids we found in Arkansas, so they kind of kept going, I think. So yeah, I think that was a big part of that scene.
The supporting cast is pretty amazing, from Reese Witherspoon and Michael Shannon to Joe Don Baker and Ray McKinnon. But I love most that you have Sam Shepard in the film. I love all his plays and I love that he’s Chuck Yeager! How did he come aboard?
Well, I’d written it for him, and one of the best days of my life is when we got a response from Sam’s agent: “He said not to change a word.” That’s Sam Shepard, Pulitzer Prize winning writer Sam Shepard! I was very flattered that he liked the material so much. And he was awesome. He just showed up. I had to pinch myself every once and awhile. There was this one day in particular. It was one of his off days, and we were on the island in the middle of Mississippi River, and I’m sitting in the sand, eating lunch. And I look over and Chuck Yeager’s just walking up, wearing aviator sunglasses. He walks up and he goes, “Hey Jeff, can I sit with you?” “Yes, yes you can.” And he sat down and we talked. He had just shown up because he liked being on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River, and he liked us, and he just kind of wanted to be around. I called my wife that night and said, “Honey, I’ll never be cooler than this day.”
Michael Shannon has appeared in all your films, but it also seems you have a growing relationship with the cast of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Shea Whigham was in Take Shelter and Paul Sparks plays the tough guy in Mud.
I actually think HBO has a fascination with the actors in my films! Totally a lie. To be honest, I hadn’t seen Boardwalk Empire. I watched the pilot but we don’t have HBO. But Shea was in David Gordon Green’s film, All the Real Girls, and I’ve loved him ever since. I knew I wanted him in Take Shelter, and he was going to play Carver in Mud, but he was busy with Silver Linings Playbook and it just didn’t work out. The casting director showed me this clip of Paul Sparks, and I said, “This guy’s great!” And then I come to find out Paul Sparks is Mike Shannon’s best friend in New York. So when I asked him, “Do you think Paul Sparks is somebody I should pursue?” Mike was like, “He’s one of the greatest actors I know.” And that’s coming out of Mike Shannon’s mouth. So Paul showed up and we had a blast. Apparently, Paul’s character is just worlds apart [from his Boardwalk character]. But he was telling me — because he’s from Oklahoma — this was the first movie he’s got to use anything close to his natural accent. That amazed me. He was great. I want to work with Paul forever.
Your movie ended up doing relatively well at the box-office, but it was extremely difficult, it seems, to get into theaters, despite the fact that you had a well-received festival movie starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon. That had to be frustrating.
Well, it started horrible and gut-wrenching, and turned out quite well. We had a sales screening the first day of Cannes and Harvey Weinstein walked out of it. People just didn’t respond. I got a call the next day from my agent. He’s like, “It didn’t go well.” Little did I know that it was worse than that because they don’t let journalists in [to the sales screenings]. So all the journalists are dying to know, “Hey, how’s the next Jeff Nichols movie?” And all the buyers are like, “Um, bad. Disaster.” So then all these journalists are stewing around all week, hearing about how terrible it is, and then we have a public screening… and it’s great. Not just because they gave us a standing ovation at the end. You could just tell in the theater: they’re laughing at the right parts, they’re jumping in their seats at the right parts. They were engaged in the film. You could just feel it in the crowd. So I was faced immediately with this strange dichotomy between, “Nobody likes your movie, kid” and “Hey, all these people love it.” It took awhile, but finally we landed with Roadside Attractions who’s partnered with Lions Gate. Roadside did a great job releasing it, really intelligent. We picked to hold it a whole year almost, and release it in the spring this year — for lots of reasons. Mainly, just to get out of the way of some of McConaughey’s other films that were coming out at the end of last year. And then it kind of started to shift. Sundance did us a big favor by taking it, and the Sundance screening went great. Then we went to SXSW, and it played through the roof. Then some really great reviews started to come out and it felt like the tables had turned, giving us the confidence to put even more money into the marketing. I thought they did exactly what this movie needed, which is a cool place to find yourself in a year after hearing crickets from your buyers’ screening.
Those issues don’t look to be concerns for your next movie, which you’re making for Warner Bros. with Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton. I’ve read “present-day sci-fi chase film inspired by 1980s John Carpenter films.” Is that about right?
Yup, yup. That’s the kind of go-to line and then you build from there. This is something I wrote, and I wrote it thinking that this could be my first studio film. It just made sense, and it really made sense at Warner Bros. They kind of saw it the same way, and if we keep the budget reasonable, then hopefully I’ll be able to make a film that is my film that remains as personal and unique to me as I want to inside that system. So far, everyone’s been amazing and it feels like I’m getting to make my movie with a studio, which is rad. I have all the faith that it will keep up. But it was, like, “Should I take this back and try and finance it independent and risk going through all this again?” Or do I take this shot. But since Warner Bros was so receptive, it felt like time to try to my hand at it. There’s a lot going on in this movie. The script is done and we start shooting in January.
Michael Shannon is with you again, so that’s a great start.
We like each other, yeah. I think we sync up together. The things I write and the way I write, I think Mike really enjoys it and enjoys saying the line, so that makes me a very very lucky guy.
You’re not tell me anything about the movie, are you?
I’ll probably sit on that a little more, but to be honest, it would be hard to even tell without getting into — it’s like pulling a thread on a sweater. I would keep talking and that would be bad.