The Mississippi River flows at three miles an hour, and on its banks Jeff Nichols shot his latest film, Mud. Like the river, the film doesn’t flow fast but has an irresistible force, steadily building to grand emotional moments. Jeff’s work is defined by the compassion he has for his characters and the recognisable, difficult, honestly-depicted world they inhabit.
Scraping a living along the banks of the Mississippi River, the characters in Mud dive for mussel shells, live in houseboats and have names like Juniper, May Pearl, and Neckbone. The film is set in Arkansas, a state that’s frequent prey to stereotypes as a rural backwater.
But it’s the state where Jeff grew up, and he was especially wary of lapsing into caricature. “The people of the American South are a bit like the Irish,” he says. “They have colourful literature, and it’s an enjoyable culture, but as a result of that it’s often depicted in a very patronising way. Because it’s a classic sort of place, it can fall into cliché. I’ve spent my very short career working against that.”
Even though Mud is the third film Jeff has written and directed, he worked on it for over a decade. “Over that time I definitely remember worrying ‘God, is this even worth it? Is this melodramatic and terrible?’” As Mud gestated in his mind, life progressed: Jeff got married, had a son, and established himself as one of contemporary cinema’s most gifted and humane young filmmakers, fulfilling the promise of his debut Shotgun Stories with 2011’s extraordinary Take Shelter. Throughout it all, the contours of his oldest, newest picture were slowly filled in. “It didn’t change so much as I did. I carry things around in my head for a very long time. I’d been thinking about it for six years before I even put pen to paper.”
The finished film is an expansive, lyrical tale about two teenage boys. In their quest to defy childhood boredom and find adventure, they discover a strange man living in a boat that sits in a tree in the middle of an island, and gradually become more and more involved in his troubled life.
“I wanted it to feel like a classic American film, the kind that was on television every Saturday when I was young.” Jeff gave the film a timeless quality, eschewing outward signs of technology so it would feel as if it could have been made five years ago or five years from now.
In the quest for authenticity, the film was shot on location in a single month. Mud’s crew struggled with shooting on water, transporting equipment on four-wheeler bikes and party barges. “When you really get down there on the river, technology stops working. You can’t even get reception on your cellphone. You’re not connected to anything. You’re committing to a totally upside-down environment that isn’t conducive to filmmaking at all. You’re moving, your subject’s moving. We were shooting on film: focus and light matter! And then trying to get a performance out of fourteen-year-old kids. It was challenging.”
Jeff is from the suburbs of Little Rock, Arkansas’ capital, but his extended family lived in communities like those he recreated in the film. The connection made him comfortable directing the accent, but also instilled a sense of responsibility: “Movies are a total affectation. Everything about them is fake. So it’s important for me to make myself accountable to a place. I want to know I can go somewhere and make a movie about people and they’ll say I got it right. You owe it to these regions to tell your stories as honestly as you can.”
It’s not simply a question of truthfulness. “It’s hard to ask an audience to believe in characters if you’re serving them up clichés,” Jeff says. “There are a million reasons to do it wrong, but it’s at the heart of a good movie versus a bad movie: an honest portrayal of a place.” By creating characters who have lives beyond the conveniences of a script, Jeff ensures we’re emotionally invested enough to be vulnerable. “In my movies I always try and have a moment where I punch you in the gut.”
In Mud, that punch comes when a character has his heart broken for the first time. For Jeff, this was the scene that carried him through the long decade he spent working on Mud. He’s always wanted to make a film about young love: that experience so universal, so frequently dismissed. “A lot of the time we look down on our past selves and diminish the emotions that we felt when we were thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, because we were young. But those are some of the most painful, joyful, potent experiences and times in our lives. There’s a reason why Romeo and Juliet were the ages they were. At that age love is a really, really intense feeling. I didn’t want to dishonour any of that because my movie’s about a kid falling in love with a girl in a parking lot.”