Jeff Nichols: the hippest young director on the block

Is it Southern Gothic? Americana? Or just another reason to love Matthew McConaughey? Jeff Nichols is back with the intruguing Mud


Jeff Nichols crept up on us.

Lucky old us. In 2007, a fortunate few were clever enough to catch a powerful southern melodrama named Shotgun Stories . Jeff’s film didn’t make that much of a splash. But its creepy, seedy tone impressed all sane people who saw it and confirmed Michael Shannon as an actor to cherish. Four years later, Nichols’s tremendous and apocalyptic Take Shelter – again starring the heavy-browed Shannon – achieved proper cult success. (It was The Irish Times ’s Film of the Year don’t you know?)

With Mud , Nichols looks set to secure his position as a modern great. Indeed, he’s currently the hippest director on a university campus near you.

It premiered in competition at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – if Drive was 2011’s hot ticket, Mud was 2012’s must see - the film stars Matthew McConaughey, Lazarus of our time, as a vagabond discovered lurking in a damp, wooded section of Arkansas. Like his other two films, Mud is soaked in the mythologies and eccentric habits of the American South. He knows whereof he speaks. Jeff was raised in and about Little Rock, capital of the great state of Arkansas. Can I claim him as a fellow redneck?

“Sure, sure. You can,” he laughs. “I actually wrote a paper in college comparing Southerners to the Irish. We are both classic underdogs. We are noble, but principled. The Scotch-Irish influence was hugely important. I love the Southern story and I occasionally feel frustrated by the people. They gave me their culture. They gave me everything I admire. Then they’ll turn round and be racist or go on about buying guns. It’s hard.”

There’s also a lot of Charles Laughton’s great The Night of the Hunter in Mud . Two children discover Mud , the title character – Nichols is great with names – living in a boat that, following flooding, has been suspended surreally in a tree. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn hangs over this Mississippi tale. Steven Spielberg’s ET and that director’s debut short, Amblin’ , show their influence.

“Luckily I hadn’t read Huck Finn too recently. But that is a book I carry around with me,” he says. “Mud has a cross on his heel and I stole that from how Huck used to recognise his father. It’s down to the essence of that stuff. We found our own version of that.”

Does he recognise those nods to early Spielberg?

“Well, you hold these things in your mind,” he says. “We held Close Encounters and ET and Stand by Me in our minds. You allow it all into your bones. The style of Night of the Hunter comes from so much from those weird sets they built. You remember that and maybe the essence come through.”

He’s a smart chap, our Jeff. Now 34, smiley and fresh in the way only Americans can pull off, he seems to come from a family of creative types. His eldest brother is a musician. His younger brother is a lawyer, but, according to Nichols, he “is the most artistic of the lot of us”. Dad owned a furniture store, but found time in the afternoons to instil a love of cinema in his middle son. Was he worried when the boy began thinking of film as a profession?

“Quite the opposite. He always encouraged me,” he says. “I ended up having to be an extra-tough judge of my stuff because I wasn’t rebelling against anything. I was always my dad’s movie buddy. When he wanted to go he’d bring me. It’s the act of going to the movies rather than any particular movie that I remember as an inspiration. There was nothing better on a fine sunny day – when you should be outside playing – than to go into a movie theatre. The curtains parting; the lights going down: it was a ceremony I loved and still do today.”

Among the many remarkable things about Jeff Nichols is the fact that from his first feature he seemed to have discovered a very particular, characteristic style. The three films are, of course, very different. But they tread in the same murky bayous. Shotgun Stories does so with a taut tale of vendetta. Take Shelter finds a man either going berserk or being genuinely visited by visions of catastrophe. Mud sees its antihero sustaining an ancient affection for the first woman he loved.

Can we sling the word “Americana” in his direction? The films really are crowded with icons of that nation.

“I don’t reject that word,” he says. “But I don’t exactly embrace it. Then you are heading down the slippery slope of affectation. I have seen southern films that I don’t like because they deal in cliche and so forth. I just try and move straight forward and grab those things I see around me.”

Let’s try another cheap cliche. Few treatments of Nichols’s work have managed to avoid the term “Southern Gothic”. What does he think about that?

“Again it’s a definition that eludes me a bit,” he says. “It’s other people’s jobs to make those calls. To be honest, when I hear ‘Southern Gothic’ I think about decorating. I think about weird candles and so forth. I don’t think of William Faulkner as gothic. I just think of him as southern.”

Yet Jeff does seem to have a handle on a class of weirdness that you don’t find anywhere else in the world. The pictures abound with moments of wonderful oddness. In Mud , his great pal (and sometime muse) Michael Shannon appears as an alternative rock fan who fishes for shellfish in a clunky diving suit that he made himself. Sam Shepard lurks eccentrically as a loner who might once have been a government assassin. It’s all going on down there.

“You know, I was only 19 when I started thinking about this story,” Jeff says. “And so I was already collecting stories. Once there was an earthquake that made the Mississippi flow backwards and they found saltwater sharks in Missouri. Those sorts of myths are everywhere. This is one of the busiest waterways in the country. It’s like living in an airport. The culture is always being peppered with stories.”

What did Mark Twain call those tall tales? Stretchers. We rednecks know how to tell them.

yyy Mud opens on May 10th

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