When it comes to experiences that bind us together, there are few things more universal than heartbreak. Everyone remembers the first time it happened—the earth-shattering sadness and the way that painful fire burnt inside you for the very first time. You look back on that initial taste of love and remember the sweetness, the overwhelming, almost suffocating sensation that came from finally understanding what it truly means to need another human being. But in the natural progression of life, eventually that love ends or fades, and although it hurts like hell, you survive. Wounds mend, you meet someone else, and, in time, you’re able to start the cycle all over again. With his third film, writer and director Jeff Nichols explores this "cycle of first love," told through a fourteen-year-old boy experiencing his first heartbreak, inside the larger tale of a man stuck in first love’s loop—never having been able to move beyond his first love. "It’s kind of like Lolita in a less gross way," says Nichols, whose new film Mud may look one way on the surface, but is moved along by a powerful and emotional undercurrent.
As the follow-up to 2011’s psychological drama Take Shelter, Nichols’ Mud explores a similar rural American landscape, filled with ordinary people dealing with extreme circumstances, living normal lives until something creeps its way in and shatters their foundations. Written in the summer of 2008, Nichols finished the script for Mud alongside Take Shelter, but says he had been thinking of the former since college. "I always had Mud on my mind," says Nichols. "I was building towards Mud."
You can see what he means. Since his first feature, Shotgun Stories, Nichols has been slowly evolving on a larger scale. Mud feels like his most ambitious and fully-realized work yet, packing not only a wonderfully-crafted narrative but the emotion and heart that separates it from stereotypical southern tropes. When asked if his Arkansas upbringing made a large impact on him as a filmmaker, Nichols claims that "It defines who I am." Setting his films in the worlds he grew up in, the worlds that his memories are steeped in, is just another way the talented director has differentiated his work.
"It was just real comfortable and really easy to close my eyes and write in that voice and in those places," he explains. "I didn’t have to do copious amounts of research, I could just imagine it." With that sense of imagination, Nichols tells the thrilling, adventurous, and emotional tale of a 14-year-old boy, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) who happen upon a fugitive hiding out an an island in the middle of the Mississippi river near their home in Arkansas.
The boys meet the mysterious man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) after finding out that he’s been living in an abandoned boat in a tree that they’ve claimed as their own. The boys agree to help out Mud and bring him food while he’s on the lam, hiding from both the police and the shady men who are after him for a crime he’s committed. But all the while, he’s waiting to be reunited and run away with the woman he’s been in love with since he was a child, the woman with nightingales tattooed on her hands, Juniper ( Reese Witherspoon). It’s that romantic sentiment and commitment to his woman that Ellis connects with and admires in Mud as his own mother and father contemplate divorce and the future of their family, creating a bond between the young boy and the outlaw. Living across the river from Ellis is the old and wise Tom Blankenship, played by the wonderful Sam Shepard in one of his best roles in recent memory.
After discovering a book of black-and-white photos of people living and working on the Arkansas river, Nichols says he realized that there was "a world in my backyard that I don’t know about." This idea sparked his vision of a guy hanging out on an island in the middle of Mississippi. "Little Rock is split in two by the river," he explains. "Whenever you drive over the bridge you see this little island in the middle of the river, and I always fantasized about playing out on that island." Nichols ruminated on the topic for a while, before deciding that the story was simply too good not to pursue. "When I said it out loud—a guy hanging out on an island in the middle of the river–it just felt like a good idea, like a big classic American movie idea."
But not wanting to make a simple getaway film about a man on the run, Nichols thought about young boys finding Mud, and who those boys were. "A girl had broken up with me and I was feeling defeated and pained," he admits. "I started thinking, yeah, what if this kid’s going to get his heart broken and there’s this guy who always gets his heart broken, but for some reason always keeps coming back. All the sudden I had what ended up being the core of the story." And that core being love–first, unmerciful love. "A lot of the time we look down on that young love we had and think, oh wasn’t that cute or puppy love and all, but its kind of the fiercest love there is," he says. "You don’t have your hands up yet, which makes the fall so hard because you’re fully committed to it, you’re all in. And oh man, it hurts."
Having written the character of Mud for Matthew McConaughey without ever having met him, the challenge was finding the right actor for the role of Ellis. " I went in to meet him and he was just the physical manifestation of my character," says Nichols of Tye Sheridan, who, in his role, gives one of the most endearing and fearless performances of the year so far. "He looked like him, he sounded like him, he was from east Texas, he hunted and fished, did everything that I needed this kid to do." Sheridan had recently played the youngest son in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which turned out to be just the proper training for the young actor, who Nichols found out about through Jessica Chastain and his producer Sarah Green. "He’d been through this amazing experience of being on a Malick film," says Nichols. He’d had the experience of working with celebrities and getting to understand the mechanism of filmmaking and cameras. "He had just gone through this amazing improvisational bootcamp and came to me fully formed as a talent," he adds. "All I had to do was give him the script and get out of the way."
There’s a particular moment in the film in which Sheridan explodes on Mud. He runs into the scene bursting with emotion and delivers an incredibly well-acted and authentic moment that hits you straight in the gut—which elicited an audible gasp from the audience at Sunday’s premiere at MoMA. Nichols recalls showing up that day on set and asking Sheridan if he needed to talk about the upcoming scene. Sheridan replied "Give me a few minutes," and sat on a log for two to three. Then: "Bam!" Nichols snaps his fingers in repetition."Two, three takes, just like that. I was like, holy crap. McConaughey and I just looked at each other and were like, we’re gonna make it."
But what rings true with all the male characters in the film is inverting standard ideas of masculinity. Nichols takes the southern male mentality and exposes its "endearing" weakness. "I wanted to make a romantic film about the male point of view of love, and I don’t think that happens a lot," he says. He takes these hard men, whether it’s Mud, an outlaw, or Blankenship, a reclusive older man, and shows their vulnerability and their devotion to love. "They might be men who don’t feel comfortable sharing their feelings but they have all those thoughts, they have all those feelings, and we treat them like humans, like the real people that they are, and we don’t need to fit them into a stereotype of masculinity."
The dynamic between men and women in the film feels akin to that of the works of Shepard himself—an almost antiquated and structured view of how one should be, with the intellect and insight to understand the confounding nature of love’s instability. As a huge admirer of Shepard himself, Nichols admits, "there were definitely days on set where I was like, I’m not worthy of being here." He also recalled "the greatest day ever" when he was sitting on the beach and Shepard, who had the day off, came over "just wanted to hang out." The two sat together on the beach eating lunch, talking about music and films and books. "I was like, this is the coolest thing that I’ve ever done in my life."
With its release this weekend, Nichols is finally able to sit back and reflect on the film that’s been living inside him for years. "Now that I’ve made Mud, I feel like I’m ready to move on to a second chapter," says Nichols. For the 34-year-old director, it may be the beginning of a long and exciting career. "I’ve had Mud with me so long as an idea, it feels like it’s the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one. I just feel it."