One of my favorite films from this year’s SXSW Film Festival is MUD by Arkansas native and Austin based director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories and Cannes Grand Prize award winner Take Shelter).
During the film festival, both the director and Matthew McConaughey, who is the character known as Mud in the film, were in town with the director’s third film and I was invited to participate in an interview with them.
The film’s story is about two 14-year-old boys, Ellis (Texas native Tye Sheridan, The Tree of Life) and his best friend, Neckbone (Arkansas native Jacob Lofland) who go out on an adventure and find a houseboat in the woods about 50 feet up in the trees, discovering this is where Mud hides out. Neckbone does not care for Mud at first, but Ellis does and it is his and Mud’s relationship that this story is focused on.
During the interview, Nichols stated he began writing it many years ago, with McConaughey in mind. “I kept it, added layers” and about the time he had “thirty pages, the beach and the boys,” he stopped. “I wrote Take Shelter and then I finished it.”
McConaughey stated “It has a very specific voice. I loved the language and the superstition. It is a love story.” About his character, he added “His romanticized view is banging up with the reality of life – this guy is a poet in my mind.”
In the film, the setting is the river and the two teens live in houseboats with their families; Ellis with parents who are about to separate and Neckbone with a single uncle who brings home the female companions, Galen (Michael Shannon). Both teens do not have a good role model for handling personal relationships, and since Ellis’ life is in a flux with his parents and heartache with a local gal, he wants Mud to succeed in his relationship with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
During the interview, Nichols and McConaughey talked about the teenagers and their characters in the story. “It was written just like this; I have to give them credit. Tye was from Tree of Life; no problems with him as a child actor. He had already seen the machinery of it all and did it. I had to know if Tye could speak these lines.”As for Jacob; “I knew immediately he was Neckbone. The kids were able to injest the material and it just came out.” McConaughey added, “Jacob is just like this; he could say things and it sounds just like him.” Nichols continued, “We shot Reese first, with Tye in front of the camera. Jacob was standing (in the back) in awe when watching Reese. I had to correct him, but had more trouble with the adults in correcting them.”
The setting for Mud is a small Southern town and locations in Arkansas were selected. Scenes were shot in Dumas (the fictional hometown of ‘Dewey Cox’ in the John C. Reilly comedy Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story). The town has a Piggly Wiggly grocery store and that completely took me on memory lane, as I have not seen one since I was a child in South Texas. Scenes were shot there and the ’60s-era budget motel in town. The location for the film is a great selection for conveying a different time and lifestyle.
There is a houseboat in the woods where Mud hides out and we discussed its use during the interview. Nichols explained, “Obviously, it is shelter. The boat in the tree is a physical image of what we want in summer. Each one of my films has something with a specific purpose and is always a character.”
McConaughey stated something during the interview about his experience with the script, saying “this took me to the 80s, when I was about Ellis’ age” then later explained something from his youth. “Yeah, I spent many summers with my Dad in a trailer park and thought was Mom was on vacation, though they were divorced. In the back of the area was a lumber yard. I started to steal lumber and made a tree house all by myself, and then I showed it to my Dad.”
McConaughey was queried about his work or relationship with the teens off screen. “I do not try to do anything conscious; friendly, but did not say ‘let me give you some advice.’ We hung out during part of the camping I did there and took my son to fish at the end of the river.”
Mud has the biggest budget of any of his films and was shot in 39 days over eight weeks in Southwest Arkansas. Nichols’ film team includes Adam Stone, director of photography on all three of Nichols’s films. Information about the film’s production indicates it required a 90- ton crane holding the 1958 fiberglass hull boat in and out of the tree.
With an excellent story, performances and great cinematography, this is a film to to be vieweed on the big screen while in theaters, including the following in Austin: Regal Arbor Cinemas at Great Hills 8, AMC Barton Creek 14, Alamo Drafthouse Slaughter Lane 8, Violet Crown Cinema. In Bee Cave, TX, it can be seen at the Cinemark Hill Country Galleria 14 and in San Antonio at Santikos Bijou Cinema Bistro.
Note: This film screens as part of AFS Selects, which is presented in partnership with Austin Film Society. AFS Members receive a $2 discount on tickets purchased at the box office or by phone during the run of the selection, except the first show of the day.
Liz Lopez Rating A-
Source: Roadside Attractions, Austin Film Society, Violet Crown Cinema