AUSTIN, Texas — Jeff Nichols’ own story is hard to get out of him. He’s very busy. Sweating through another screenplay, flying off to Rome to jury a film festival ... if you need him, please go through his scheduling agent.
He’s wary, too. Wary of the publicity. One of the first things he’ll tell you about the movie business is that critics like to shake your hand, but turn your back and they’re panning your movie. Think he’s got a thick skin? Think again — “I’m not just painting pretty pictures here. This is my job. Art? I never call it that. That’s where my problem with critics comes from. This is my living. God forbid I get a little agitated when you criticize it.”
For another thing, he’s just damn unimpressed. So “if some [reporter] came along and wanted to write a High Profile on me, [I think], ‘I’m not that interesting.’”
Nichols, 33, is as close to a “Hollywood director” as you can find building a career outside Hollywood. This year he directed Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon (on location in Arkansas and Desha counties). Set for release next year, Mud got a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival. His muse and close friend, actor Michael Shannon, for whom he literally writes parts, is slated to play General Zod in the forthcoming Man of Steel. He is, we’re told, “not available for this.”
Now, the way-down-deep reason his story is hard to get is something else entirely.
Nichols is a storyteller.
A storyteller is loath to part with a story he could tell himself, especially the story of himself.
He’s the youngest of three boys born to John and Joan Nichols, a Little Rock furniture store owner and stay-at-home mom. The family attended Trinity United Methodist Church. He will tell his own story at the church at 7 p.m. Monday for Trinity Presents, a free performance series.
The Nichols boys went to public schools culminating with Central High School. By all accounts, the family is closer than the Brady Bunch.
Myths develop around film directors’ fledgling work in the medium. Steven Spielberg famously staged war films with actual battle sequences before he could drive. Sam Raimi, who directed the Spider-Man trilogy, allegedly filmed car chase and crash scenes with his own car on the not-so-mean suburban streets of Detroit.
John Nichols, a film buff, bought a VHS camera in the mid-1980s, and the boys would position plastic army men on the toy Guns of Navarone action-figure cliff, then shove Black Cat firecrackers between their legs.
“It’d be like, ‘Action.’ Then we’d light ’em. Psssss. Boom! ‘Cut,’” he says. “There was no competence.”
So, it’s cute, but these episodes have little to do with Nichols’ path to pictures. More germane were the years he spent acting at the Arkansas Arts Center Children’s Theatre beginning in first grade in serious productions like Lord of the Flies.
“I remember watching him in this play, and I remember that he was doing such a good job I was watching him and I wasn’t watching my little brother,” Ben Nichols says. “Watching someone you’re growing up with, your brother, do such a good job you forget he’s your brother? Yeah, that’s talent.”
This early acting led to preadolescent voice-over work. These recording sessions paid as much as several hundred dollars, money that fed Jeff’s appetite for comic books. Comics are basically polished, published versions of cinematic storyboards. Meanwhile, he began writing movie scenes longhand in notebooks. So early did he imagine he’d make a living in movies that in 2008, in a Filmmaker magazine interview, when asked, “When was the last time you wished you had a different job?” he said, “When I worked at Blockbuster — that was terrible.”
Along with comic books and Children’s Theatre, Nichols points to his parents’ encouragement. His father, in particular, gave him the impression that his writing was the equal of published authors’.
“He’d come home from the library with 10 books, and they’d be on anything,” Nichols says. “He’d just read anything. And to this day, [Dad will] be like, ‘Jeff, you’re one of the best writers I’ve ever read.’”
The hardest thing about being a filmmaker from Little Rock is imagining your way to it. John and Joan Nichols are responsible for showing him, if not the way, the faith.
Jeff Nichols graduated from high school in 1997 and that fall started at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. The four-year degree program required few core liberal arts credits, mostly studies in the pursuit of filmmaking. John Nichols took a second mortgage out on the house to stake his son’s opportunity.
At this point in the brothers’ early adult lives, oldest brother Ben was making a go of rock ’n’ roll. (Today, he’s lead singer of Lucero.)
“Me being in a rock ’n’ roll band, I mean, that’s the most outlandish idea. So, once I was on that road, Jeff going to film school and becoming a director seemed like a very stable, normal career to pursue.”
Year one at North Carolina, students made a 5-minute video. Year two, a 10-minute video, the merits of which directed all students into an upperclass track — directing, producing, editing, cinematography or writing screenplays. The directing track is most coveted, and Nichols was one of seven students chosen.
His senior film, Noble Chrome Pirates, was a short film about five friends stealing auto parts to build their dream car. If it succeeded, he would be given the opportunity to screen it in Los Angeles, but he ran afoul of the film school’s dean, Dale Pollock, who saw a cut of the film without a score and concluded it didn’t make sense.
“I said, ‘It makes sense if you let me put music on it.’ He goes, ‘Look, I’m not gonna make you make these changes, but just know, you’re risking going to L.A.’”
“I argued strenuously with him to rearrange the sequence of events, cut out some material,” Pollock remembers.
“So the next thing, I was on the phone with my dad,” Nichols says. “‘He wants me to make changes to my movie, but they’re bad.’ [Dad] said, ‘You don’t want to change your movie, don’t change your movie.’”
“The story was one of the purest stories on friendship that there is,” John Nichols recalls.
“He really impressed me,” Pollock says. “He wasn’t intimidated. He basically said, ‘I’m the filmmaker.’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, I’m willing to bet you the first screening will prove me right.’ Instead, it proved him right.”
Nichols’ film — without changes — was the only one to get unanimous assent from the faculty and staff to go to Los Angeles. There, the director met many film industry junior executives keen on finding the next big talent outside the conventional farm system — the University of Southern California or New York University film schools — and sign it. One told him his studio would love to see a feature-length screenplay of Noble Chrome Pirates, so Nichols moved back home with his parents, got a job at U.S. Pizza in Conway, and went to work on the assignment.
“And then I realized, ‘Oh, wait, that’s all bull! None of those people have any say so in making movies.’ ... Some junior exec somewhere said, “We’d love to see a feature version of your senior film’ ... nothing happened. Of course nothing happened! He was out somewhere fetching coffee. Even his boss can’t greenlight a film.”
AUSTIN, BACK TO LITTLE ROCK
At a popular Mexican restaurant, Maudie’s, in a funky blue-collar corner of Austin, in a space that seems better suited for a small car garage or consignment store, Nichols says we have to try the queso. (This is the one and only interview opportunity we’ll get.)
“One thing I learned pretty quickly is, it’s not cheese dip. It’s queso.”
If it seems like a thoughtless aside, it’s not. It says a lot. Nichols pretty much had to leave Arkansas if he wanted to be a film director, but the truth is he has adapted quickly.
After turning his senior film into a feature-length screenplay he himself called “burn-worthy,” he wrote a “real” one called The Blue Side of Evening. With some guidance from an old college professor, Gary Hawkins, he submitted it to the exclusive Sundance Labs. It was rejected, and for the first time he considered that maybe this moviemaking business wasn’t going to work out. Indirectly, it’s why he hates speaking at film festivals today.
“People ask, ‘How do I get my movie made?’ It’s a terrifying question to get because I was them, and you can’t answer it. It’s so hard.”
He decided he had to get out of Little Rock. Hawkins got him an interview with an Austin filmmaker who put him in touch with the documentarian Margaret Brown, then working on a long — and ultimately successful — documentary on Townes Van Zandt, Be Here to Love Me. She also introduced him to the woman who would become his wife.
Halfway through his 20s it became clear to him that the rest of his life in film would hinge (or come unhinged) on his ability to make a single film — a project written and directed and produced by him. He set himself a deadline — September 2004 — to begin shooting, and here, again, it’s Hawkins who made what would prove a life-altering introduction: Michael Shannon.
“I remember [seeing him in a clip] and thinking, ‘That guy — that guy needed to be in every movie I make.’”
Shotgun Stories was shot on location in Scott, Keo and England in 21 days. According to Nichols, Shannon never once told him how to be a better director.
“He did something much better, because he did pull me aside. We were shooting 35-millimeter, and every minute the camera was rolling, I figured it out, it was costing $350 ... so if we did it in one take, I was happy with it.
“Mike pulls me aside and says, ‘Look, all these people here want to go home and watch TV. We’re the only ones that really care about whether this movie is good, and we need to do it until it’s right.’”
Shotgun Stories, a tale often characterized as a John Ford-inspired revenge fantasy, never made it out to a mass audience but achieved enough critical acclaim that Nichols could, in 2009, present two new screenplays — Take Shelter and Mud — to Terrence Malick’s producer, Sarah Green, who greenlighted both.
HOLLYWOOD (MAYBE, MAYBE NOT)
At Maudie’s, Jeff wants to talk sports. He’s considering a bio-pic about the basketball player Pete Maravich — that’s considering; not written or in talks to make, you ravenous bloggers — and all this prompts him to part with his first self-reflection.
Maybe winning is not a reward. Maybe winning is what we choose to do, and the result is our fate.
Last year, after the surprise success of Take Shelter, Nichols laid out the corollary to his theory about winning in an interview for Time Out magazine.
“People are always going to have something to fear, there’s ... always stress and anxiety. Filmmaking is a stressful job. I have a lot of people asking me what to do, but none of that stress makes the movie better. So I needed to find a way to process it, to deal with it, in order to get down to business. And that’s the closest I came to catharsis in this process.”
So if Nichols must cut this interview short — if he won’t make time for a photo shoot, the kind we always run with our profiles; if he won’t ask Shannon to be available for “this” — understand it’s not hauteur or disrespect. It’s the job, and the job, as he said earlier, is his living.
The boy storyteller has become the adult filmmaker, and films don’t get made with good will, or democratically. They get seized, and they’re finished much the way thirdworld civil wars are, by men with superior authority.
“One thing I’ve learned from doing [documentaries] on Harry Crews and Larry Brown, they spun their own biographies, and Jeff’s really spun his,” Gary Hawkins says. “That’s just what guys do. I don’t know why, but everybody does it.”
It’s not deceit so much as stewardship. Filmmakers literally witness the power of well-cast stories and the desperately thewless ones, and the better they get, the less hospitable they become.
“Movie productions are very dangerous because power vacuums always crop up,” Nichols says. “In an instance where there is a lack of leadership or a lack of vision, there is always someone there that is willing to take it ... whether it’s your DP [director of photography] sometimes, or your producer, or your studio, or an actor. As a director, I have to be ... really honest and clear with people. This is what we’re doing.
“This is what we’re going to do, and this is how I want it done.”
JEFF NICHOLS’ YOU MUST WATCH THIS LIST
Once every 10 years, the much-honored British film magazine Sight and Sound asks a bunch of critics, filmmakers and academicians to list their Top 10 films. Earlier this year, Nichols was invited to submit his. In no particular order:
Terrence Malick’s Badlands, 1973
George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, 1969
Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke, 1967
Michael Ritchie’s Fletch, 1985
Martin Ritt’s Hud, 1963
Robert Rossen’s The Hustler, 1961
Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, 1975
David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, 1962
Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, 1959
John Ford’s Stagecoach, 1939 From the 358 filmmakers who responded, the magazine compiled a Director’s Top 100 Films list — only Lawrence of Arabia, Badlands and Jaws appear. No Fletch.
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH Dec. 7, 1978, Little Rock.
MY FAVORITE PLACE IN ARKANSAS Is the Delta.
MY GREATEST WEAKNESS AS A DIRECTOR Improvisation.
AN ACTOR I’D LIKE TO WORK WITH Sam Rockwell.
WHEN I SMELL MAGNOLIA BLOSSOMS, I THINK OF My grandparents’ house in Altheimer.
A TALENT I COVET Carpentry.
ON MICHAEL SHANNON One of the greatest actors ever, no hyperbole.
AN ACTRESS I’D HAVE TO PUT ASIDE MY CRUSH IN ORDER TO DIRECT Is Ann-Margret (from Carnal Knowledge).
THE MENU FOR MY LAST MEAL WOULD INCLUDE Queso.
ON MUDIt was going to take a lot to make this movie. There’s a boat in a tree. There’s two 14 year-old boys without life jackets on the river, out riding 4-wheelers without helmets. ...
THE BOOK I’VE REREAD MOST Big Bad Love, by Larry Brown.
MY FAVORITE TELEVISION SHOW IS Magnum P.I.
THE LAST GOOD MOVIE I SAW WAS The Master, by P.T. Anderson.
THE TURNING POINT OF MY LIFE WAS Meeting my wife.
ON HOW I DEVELOP STORIES I take the things I love most and then think about what could happen to them — that’s where I pull most of my inspiration from.
THE BEST BUSINESS DECISION I EVER MADE WAS To finance my first film.
NEXT YEAR, I PLAN TO Make another film.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP Observant.