Little Rock native Jeff Nichols’ third film, Mud, inspired an 18-minute standing ovation at its Cannes Film Festival premiere in May. A few months earlier, Nichols’ second film, Take Shelter, had received Oscar hype but in the end, no nomination. Mud, about a bayou community, a lovelorn fugitive and two kids who befriend him, was shot for about $10 million, largely in the Arkansas Delta. It subsequently screened at Sundance Film Festival in Utah, South by Southwest in Texas and Deauville Festival of American Film in Paris. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette caught up with Nichols at a neighborhood coffee shop in Austin, Texas, where he lives. Mud will open to general audiences today.
D/G: Where are some Mud locations that Arkansans might recognize?
Nichols: We shot a lot in Stuttgart, which is where our offices were. That’s where that marine junkyard is, where they [Ellis and Neckbone] steal the boat motor, and that was actually something I saw driving through there and wrote specifically for that spot. And then the houseboats were outside of DeWitt. Jacks Bay was actually the name of the inlet … it’s part of the White River. … And then the island itself, we had to go way down to southeast Arkansas. … That island was owned by Cottonwood Farms. They would bring in really high-paying clients to have a private boat hunt on the island. We rented it.
D/G: What about Arkansas cast and crew?
Nichols: The pinnacle of Arkansas cast is Jacob Lofland, who plays Neckbone. He was kind of the find of the century, in my opinion, because he’s in so much of the film. And even though you can definitely describe him as the sidekick, he’s in so many shots and so many scenes, he has to be present and doing his job. So Jacob was a huge part of it. And Sarah Tackett and The Agency out of Little Rock helped us find him. The story is that his mom read our press release in their local paper, and she was like, ‘That’s Jacob’ and sent his videotape in. … It was kind of amazing, because we were showing the film to Reese [Witherspoon] and her manager, and I think Reese’s manager was so blown away by Jacob that she reached out to him. So he may be represented by Reese Witherspoon’s manager, which is no small thing. It speaks to just how good he is in the film.
Obviously we put together all the high school kids in the parking lot and stuff. We had a giant open call - it was so bizarre - in Stuttgart, around the swimming pool. It was an inside swimming pool at one of the hotels there, and they had all these high school kidslined up, and they wanted me to just walk through and kind of point to the ones I wanted. It was terrible, terribly awkward.
Arkansas crew? We had some great grips. David Fowlkes was the location guy for us. He was on the ground even before I got there. He did a great job.
D/G: Why did you make Mud in Arkansas?
Nichols: It’s where I wrote the film. I was walking around the Little Rock pubic library, in college, and I found this book published by the University of Arkansas Press, called The Last River, and it was a black-and-white photo essay about people that make a living off the White and the Arkansas rivers, and I was kind of fascinated by some of the jobs in there. I started asking around, and I found out a cousin of my mother’s named Donald Lee Ruffin, down in DeWitt, actually had access to one of these houseboats, and he let me come down there and stay with him. That was back in 2006, so I was just finishing Shotgun Stories. But I had the concept for Mud in my head from about 1999. I knew I wanted to have a guy hiding out on an island, that kind of thing. … Staying down there with him [Ruffin] really informed the story, and when it came time, and I had the whole script written, I went to the producers and I said, “I understand that the Mississippi River runs through Louisiana, and I understand that Louisiana offers 30 cents on the dollar in rebates and tax incentives, but Arkansas just feels different. I want to do whatever we can to shoot this in Arkansas.” And of course, [Arkansas Film Commissioner] Christopher Crane and Gov. [Mike] Beebe really stepped up to the plate, and they ended up matching the Louisiana tax incentives through a discretionary fund that the governor had access to. And we wouldn’t have been in Arkansas without it.
See more of Cheree Franco’s interview with Jeff Nichols at blooddirtangels.com.
MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 04/26/2013
Print Headline: Film’s creator lobbied hard to do shoot in Natural State