Q&A: Jeff Nichols, director, Mud
Following a screening of Mud at Sundance London, director Jeff Nichols talked deleted scenes, inspirations, that ending and how he is turning to sci-fi for his next film.
WAS THE ENDING ALWAYS HOW YOU INTENDED?
I always have a title and I always have an ending before I get started. My endings are debated. My last film [Take Shelter], people loved that ending and hated that ending. The same goes for this. People say, “Just kill him”.
The reason why I always had that ending is that I feel like this film is about the cycle of first love. You fall in love and it’s the most deep, passionate love you may have in your life. It doesn’t mean it’s more sincere. It’s just very immediate and very passionate. Then you fall out of love and it hurts – like a physical pain. Then you come back around the other side and after time think you can do it again.
The issue with Mud’s character, he got trapped. He fell in love and got stuck on this girl. If this movie is about that full cycle – and for me, it is certainly Ellis’ story, which would make it appropriate to end on his face – but at some point it’s about Ellis and Mud kind of becoming the same person and learning the same things and I felt I needed to close his loop. It wouldn’t have felt appropriate not to.
As a filmmaker I can hurt you guys anytime I want but that doesn’t mean I should and it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. You can throw a puppy dog on a highway and show it get hit and people would say, “Oh god, that’s terrible.” But that’s not storytelling. This was a conscious effort to close that story.
HOW MUCH OF YOUR OWN EXPERIENCE DO YOU BRING TO SCRIPTWRITING?
Usually it’s just one point that is personal to me. Inevitably, more seeps through but I usually build it off one emotional point. My first film was what if something violent happened to one of my brothers. My second was what if that world falls apart and my marriage falls apart. This was first heartbreak. It was really palpable for me. I was physically nauseous when I got my heart broken in 10th grade… and 12th grade… and later tonight.
Anytime I can access a palpable feeling, I put that at the root of the story. I feel that’s the only shot I have at making a story that translates to an audience. Then you have bounty hunters and boats in trees and any crazy stuff you want but the whole thing is anchored to that emotion. That was the one thing.
DO YOU AIM TO WRITE TIMELESSLY?
Part of it comes out of circumstance. You get out on to the banks of the river and your cellphone doesn’t work. You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, which I guess you are. Part of that is just because of the places I have chosen to tell these stories.
Also, I try not to add too much of my affectations of what I think the South should be or what it is. I try and represent it honestly. But there are certain things I don’t like. I don’t like phone conversations in movies. Cellphone conversations seem worse for some reason. My style of storytelling is to have characters doing things and behaving – not just talking, I like character behaviour. Maybe that is a bit more of a classic style. One day I might make a movie in a city with lots of cars and things. I put the needs of the story before my own aesthetic needs. It’s not always the case. If I need to tell a story in modern times with modern conveniences, I will.
DID YOU HAVE ANY MOVIES IN MIND THAT INSPIRED THIS FILM?
On this one it was mostly literature. The [Mississippi] river is so defined by the writings of Mark Twain and by American Southern writers.
The exceptions are, I really wanted a Sam Peckinpah shootout. Whether people think it fits in the film or not, I don’t know – I don’t care. Similarly, I was thinking about a getaway film, chiefly The Getaway. If that’s what genre it’s in – which it’s not – I was thinking how I could dismantle it. Rather than follow a man on the lam, let’s follow these two boys who find him and have questions about him. I stepped back into making a coming of age film.
WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR NEXT FILM?
My next one is a sci-fi chase film. However absurd that sounds, it’s more grounded than [Mud]. I really wanted to make a 1980s John Carpenter film like Starman. I love the way those films look. It’s called Midnight Special.
WERE THERE ANY SCENES CUT THAT YOU’D LIKE TO PUT BACK IN?
No. There are days I wish I could cut a little bit more out. I only cut two major scenes.
One kind of explains why McConaughey takes his shirt off. When the boys show up that morning and they have his shirt, they give it to him and Ellis asks: “Are you still taking Juniper?”
Now, in the film, he just doesn’t answer, which I felt was appropriate for the pacing of the film.
But in the script – and we filmed it and McConaughey did a good job with it – he tells the boys: “I had a dream last night. I walked into a field and there Juniper was making love to another man. The tips of my ears were burning so I knew I was going to kill him because I’d felt that before. As I got closer to him, I could see a tattoo on his back and when he turned around, it was me.”
The way he finishes that scene is to say: “I’ll finish the boat, but I doubt I’ll live long enough to sail it,” because a vision of yourself is a sure sign of death. It was just one more of his superstitious beliefs. It explains why he gave up the shirt because he accepted that his death was imminent – which is real cool but we didn’t have the time for it. There was also a scene with the father that I cut out but, other than that, pretty much everything stayed in.
I’m fine with it. I’m really proud of this film.