DALLAS — Jeff Nichols wrote his latest film, the Southern Gothic coming-of-age drama “Mud,” at the same time he was penning the script for “Take Shelter,” his 2011 breakthrough film starring Michael Shannon as an oil field worker who begins to see horrific weather phenomena during a stressful period in his life.
“Take Shelter” was a huge critical hit, winning three awards at the Cannes Film Festival, and by the time it started collecting accolades, Nichols already was doing preproduction on “Mud,” and had yet to process the impact of his previous film's success.
“So I didn't have time, thank goodness, to pause and say, ‘Oh God, who is Jeff Nichols, and what movie should he make next?'” Nichols said during an interview at the Hotel Palomar during the Dallas International Film Festival.
But Nichols noticed one major difference: After critics took notice of “Take Shelter,” which co-starred Jessica Chastain, agents and actors took his calls.
So for “Mud,” he was able to cast the film directly from his wish list. Having written the title character with Matthew McConaughey in mind, he filled out the rest of his cast with first choices, including Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Joe Don Baker and Shannon, who has appeared in all three of Nichols' films, including his 2007 debut, “Shotgun Stories.”
“Mud” takes place in Nichols' native Arkansas and stars Tye Sheridan (“The Tree of Life”) and newcomer Jacob Lofland as Ellis and Neckbone, two 14-year-olds who find a boat resting in a clump of trees after a flood, and soon discover there is a fugitive, played by McConaughey, living in that boat. The two boys become roped into McConaughey's plans to repair the boat, evade the law and reunite with his lost love, played by Witherspoon, a complication in the lives of boys dealing with both hormones and the failings of parents.
In 2013, the idea of McConaughey playing a morally ambiguous anti-hero makes perfect sense — his recent renaissance as a serious actor was built on darkly shaded performances in films such as “Killer Joe,” “Magic Mike” and “The Paperboy.”
But when Nichols was writing both “Mud” and “Take Shelter” in 2008, McConaughey was still mired in his decadelong wallow in romantic comedies and nonstarting big-budget adventures. Nichols said it was his idea to get McConaughey out of his “Failure to Launch” funk and back into the business of gritty filmmaking.
“I feel a little cheated, because it was my idea to bring him back to legitimacy, and Soderbergh beat me to it,” Nichols said, laughing. “He literally came from the ‘Magic Mike' set to our set.”
Nichols said he only expects such actors to show up in his films because they like the script. The 34-year-old writer-director crafts his scripts with as much detail as possible, something that both Sheridan and Lofland noticed when they first read for Nichols.