The Mud writer/director talks us through his top filmmaking tips.
He’s directed three films in five years, received major honours and nominations at some of the world’s biggest film festivals, and is widely regarded as one of America’s most exciting filmmakers. And he’s still just 34. So how does Jeff Nichols do it LWLies took 10 with the man behind Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud to find out.
"Shotgun Stories started out as an image in my head of a character with buckshot in his back, which is inspired by a scene from the Larry Brown novel, Joe. With Take Shelter I was struck by the image of a man standing over a shelter with a huge storm approaching. And with Mud the idea came from a book I found in the library about people who make their living off the river, people who to me lived strange lives and worked strange jobs. Once I’m struck by these general ideas or images then I carry them around with me for a year or more. I was thinking about Mud for seven or eight years before I committed anything to paper. When I’m carrying an idea around I’m adding to it all the time; characters, events, even the smallest details."
"When I’m ready I don’t start writing down any of the scenes. I start with a basic outline, which I piece together using notecards. I find it hard to put pen to paper and say, ‘This is where the movie starts.’ With notecards I can take all of these images and thoughts and ideas and lay them all down and see what fits where. I throw them all on the floor and after a natural order becomes clear I start mixing the cards and experimenting with different elements of the storyline. Then I put them up on a giant corkboard in my office and before I’ve pressed one keystroke I can pretty much look at every scene in the movie from the beginning to the end. Some notecards have character details on them, others have entire pieces of dialogue, some are just one word. After that the actual writing process is like shading in the colour."
"I had the idea for Mud before my other two films and I knew it was going to be a bigger film. Not something I could pull off as a first-time, or even second-time director. Shotgun Stories was based on a very specific brief, which enabled me to make it with as little money as possible. It was really designed to be a first-time film to play primarily on the festival circuit. I knew that would be a good entry point. After Shotgun Stories I still didn’t have enough clout, so I sat down to write Take Shelter with the view to distancing myself from strict arthouse cinema. I wanted to do a part-genre, part-arthouse hybrid film. With Take Shelter I really took the gloves off, whereas I was a lot stricter with Shotgun Stories. I started thinking about things that would require special effects and that kind of thing. It’s important to always be aware of what the market will allow you to do. If you have a rough idea of what’s available to you and you keep perspective of that, then the hurdles you meet along the way will be easier to jump."
"There are lots of different styles of directing and the way I describe mine is something called 'constructive coverage'. Coverage is a really basic thing that they teach you in film school, it’s essentially the way you see most TV shows – you start with a wide shot then you go into a medium shot followed by a close-up of each actor. I think that’s kind of a boring approach. What I try and do is work out what shot works best for each scene, and so what I end up with in the editing room is all these puzzle pieces that I then have to try and assemble. It’s funny, when I was talking to McConaughey the first time I explained this approach to him and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s how John Sayles did it.’ The reason that’s funny to me is because I stole this technique from Sayles’ book [Sayles On Sayles]."
"I’m open to anything. Being a filmmaker is a constant struggle for control, but you have to accept that sometimes things happen that you can’t plan for. For the most part my films have been well received so I find myself in a position right now where I can write my own stuff and get it made. I don’t know how long that will last, but as long as it does producing my own scripts will remain my priority. I get sent a lot of scripts and a lot of the time I read something that I think is well written but doesn’t really have anything to do with what I want to say or who I am as a person. I’m very fortunate that I don’t have to take that kind of job right now, but I’m always open to other people’s ideas. But for the next few years you can bet I’ll be writing my own stories and continuing down that path."