Cheree Franco talks to Jeff Nichols, part two

April 26, 2013

This is a continuation of the interview in today’s — April 26, 2013 — MovieStyle section.

By Cheree Franco
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

D/G: You just called up this distant cousin and asked to stay with him?

Nichols: Yeah. We knew each other, or at least, he knew who I was. He and his son own a well drilling business in DeWitt. Donald Lee is, I don’t know if he would call himself a part-time preacher, maybe he would call himself a full-time preacher and a part-time driller, but there’s a Baptist Church down there that he preaches at. He’s just one of those people that you meet him and you go, ‘how can people be as nice and giving and as sweet as you are?’ With hindsight, I’m sure he had things to do. But he just kind of hit pause and took me out of this boat for two days straight, and we went out of the Arkansas, into the Mississippi. That scene of the boys going out onto the Mississippi for the first time and being scared, it’s directly inspired by experience, going out from the Arkansas to the Mississippi with Donald Lee on a boat that’s kind of similar to the boys’ boat. And you just feel, you know, it’s dangerous out there…It was just kind of a magical weekend… Because that place was just teeming with wildlife. I remember, we were in this boat and these two bald eagles were just flying on either side of us. And we went fishing and just kind of boated around, slept on the houseboat that he had.

D/G: So Donald Lee lived on a houseboat?

Nichols: He didn’t live on one. Very few people live on them anymore. Most people use them as hunting or fishing cabins, duck lodges, things like that. I think it was more like a retreat for him, at the time. By the time we went back to make the film, I don’t think his houseboat was even still there. But it’s funny, the one that, when I first went down for that visit, was next door, it wasn’t there anymore. We tracked it down, because it’s kind of the houseboat that I modeled their [Ellis’] home after. We found it, and the guy let us use it. None of those were sets or anything. We really strived to do everything on location, which was challenging. The tree, for instance – the tree was on a farm outside of Pine Bluff, I think. We had guys going through the woods, talking to people ,just scouting for trees. ‘Do you have a massive tree that could hold,’ I mean that boat weighed a ton, literally… And someone would be like ‘oh yeah, this tree here,’ and then I’d get photographs of trees, and then we’d go out. I saw personally five to 10 trees, and they must have seen 50 or 60… we were asking hunters, landowners, and this one guy was like, ‘I’ve got a tree. I’ve got a tree for you.’ He took us back down this one road, and then we had to get in a Gator, which is like a 4-wheel drive golf cart….And we see this tree. It was shaped like it could just clutch a boat. And I think they had a structural engineer come out, maybe an arborist, to look it – is this going to kill this tree, you know? And everybody signed off on it. The location was so remote, and it was so important to us, we had to get a crane back there to lift the boat and put it in the tree. We paid for a road to be built, a gravel road, which is insane — that we built a road, and they let us build a road. The crane couldn’t leave. We always had to have the crane holding the boat. So it was off in the woods, and we put camouflage netting all over it, and then we had a crane in one or two shots that, digitally, we had to remove… What we ended up doing, it was a scheduling nightmare, but we shot all the scenes where we were on the ground looking up at the boat, and that’s with the crane. Then we shot all the scenes on the boat. We removed the crane, but first they built scaffolding all underneath it and supported the boat…

This whole movie was a logistical challenge. The houseboat that I wanted wasn’t in the location we wanted to shoot at, and the water level had dropped, so we had to hire a housemoving company to move the boat by land down to another spot in the river…All those scenes on that island – you get your actors out there, but you have to get all of your equipment, all of your crew. I remember, we had a floating barge just for our toilets…it was a mess.

D/G: Did you think about all of this before you decided to make it?

Nichols: Well I had written Mud and Take Shelter in the same summer, and I gave them both to Mike Shannon to read. I said, ‘I want to make Take Shelter first, because I can make it for less money.’ And he said, ‘That doesn’t make any sense. Take Shelter has birds and floating furniture, how’s that going to work?’ And I said, ‘thats all CGI. Mud, I have to go physically put a boat in a tree, and it’s going to be expensive, and I have to have kids, and we have to get out on the water’… So choosing these locations affected everything, but I think it paid off because just look at the film. It’s crazy looking, in a great way. You just don’t get out to places like this very much in movies.

D/G: How long did y’all shoot?

Nichols: I think official shooting days, we had 29, and that spread out to 2.5 months of shooting. We started in mid-September and finished right before Thanksgiving. Which was funny, because everyone in Stuttgart was really generous and welcoming, but everyone was like yeah, by this date, you have to get out. And it’s because it was the first day of duck season. Like, movie was cool and all, Reese Witherspoon, great to have you in town, but you can’t compete with duck season. Our last day of shooting was the day before duck season started. We were finishing the shootout, and the next morning we were going to shoot the houseboat being torn apart and taken away. So we had shot all night long, and we were all delirious, and the sun was starting to come up. I think it was like 6:30 in the morning, and first light, on the dot, it was a firing range echoing up and down the strip – bomp, bomp, bomp. And we covered our heads like, this is it, maybe about three to four minutes, then it all stopped. Everybody got their limit in five minutes. It was like, there’s duck season.

D/G: What about lighting? It looks like you used mostly available light.

Nichols: There was some night photography in there. But available light is what I like to shoot from, if at all possible, because it make things look more natural and more real. It’s an aesthetic that I strive for. The same goes for the night photography. I’m really hard on my gaffer, I just don’t let them set up many lights… especially the shootout scene, which all takes place at night. That was a very particular sodium vapor look that we were going for. Just off the edge of the screen, in the water, we built a floating platform and a guy brought in a giant helium balloon with a light inside of it, and it basically doubles as the moon. And you would pull that closer or further away, depending on where the shot was. It came with it’s own operator, and he had one of those sleeping bags that went to this balloon, and he was just sleeping out there. That shootout scene was so cold. There’s steam literally coming up off the water. We were shooting in a metal boat … I bent down to pick up a rope, and it had frozen to the bottom of the boat.

D/G: If it was that cold, all those diving scenes must have been a nightmare.

Nichols: When Mud gets shot at the end, part of it’s McConaughey, but the guy going in the water is our stunt guy. He was a professional water skier, sweet, sweet guy, and I was looking at that water, and it was so cold. And he was like, hey, no problem, I’ll jump in there. He jumped in twice. But the diving scenes were shot several months later, here in Austin, in Barton Springs. The problem with the river is, there’s so much sediment and so much going on, if you tried to scuba dive and take a camera down there, it would be muck.

D/G: There’s a lot of archetypal symbols and themes in this film. Are you a Joseph Campbell fan?

Nichols: Yeah, I read that book [The Hero with a Thousand Faces]. I read that book in high school. I don’t know, talking about Mud specifically, I just picked a few things. Out of the gate, I picked superstition to be a huge part of his personal belief system. He was the kind of guy that would, I don’t know, he had a law that he applied to things. It’s sometimes a natural law and sometimes a metaphysical law, and I had this book called, I think, A Brief Dictionary of American Superstitions. I found it in a used bookstore. And it would go from A to Z, you would go to ‘owls,’ and it would show all the superstitions for owls. And I read about a wolf’s eye and a wolf’s eye, if sewn into the sleeve of the shirt, would be for protection, and I thought well that’s got to be in the movie. And everyone makes fun of McConaughey, not having his shirt on at the end of the movie, and all that had nothing to do with McConaughey. I had a shirt with a wolf’s eye in the sleeve, and at the low point in the film, he takes his shirt off because he doesn’t need it anymore. He’s ready to die. So maybe in this particular instances, a lot of that archetypal feeling comes from these bigger superstitions and myths. Snakes in particular.

I was on a church retreat in high school, and we’d gone up to Oklahoma, and we were building a fellowship hall for a small Baptist Church there. And there was a guy who was Native American, who had been in Vietnam … and he said, if you put a braided rope around your bed, a snake won’t crawl over braided rope. So I’ve been carrying that around with me since the mid-90s. And someone was telling me about getting bit by a cottonmouth and how venom was made from horse antibodies, and I was like, I don’t know if thats true. But it sounded like something Mud would believe. I didn’t even google it. I didn’t even want to know if that’s true.

More in the archetype category – fathers and sons, male mentors, best friends, first loves – I feel like these are archetypes. And I certainly dwell on father son relationships…This film is kind of like a love story for men, not between men, but from a male point of view.

D/G: You’ve said before that you had an idyllic childhood, but that your father wasn’t close to his father. Do you think that you keep writing about blue collar families in tough situations because you’re inspired by, or maybe romanticizing, your father’s childhood?

Nichols: I think my dad had a rough time. His father was an alcoholic, and I think he had that childhood that other people have had – a father coming out of World World II and not being able to deal with it very well. And as a result, my dad had a very clear goal, which was to have a happy family. He doesn’t drink, and he just made it his life’s ambition to have happy kids, and we’re the result of it… I have such a healthy relationship with my family, maybe it allows me to peek into some darker places, because I’m not exorcising any demons. Family relationships, they’re such a direct connection to your audience, because everyone has a family and everybody has that connection, so it just seems like a natural place to wrap a story around. But it comes out of different things. The father figure in Mud developed out of being a counterpoint to Mud. I wanted a direct counterpoint to Mud’s philosophy on love. And Shotgun Stories was just about brothers, and Take Shelter was about a guy trying to keep his family together and keep his life on track. And so, I don’t know, it ends up being a byproduct more than the inspiration in many ways.

D/G: I noticed Alan Disaster in the credits, and your brother [Ben Nichols of the band Lucero], of course. Did you use any other Arkansas music?

Nichols: The Alan Disaster is from his band Smoke Up Johnny. I had their album, and Michael Shannon’s character listens to punk rock music, so I thought, let’s just put some Alan Disaster stuff in here. Other than that, I don’t think there’s any Arkansas connections to music, other than in set decorations in Galen’s [Shannon’s character] apartment. I think there’s some Big Cats posters. And we probably put a Red 40 poster in there.

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