Guest of Honor

Jeff Nichols Celebrates Men of Few Words

The Southern filmmaker behind "Midnight Special" brings sci-fi down to earth, then offers up some pearls of wisdom.

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Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for SXSW

Jeff Nichols is probably best known for his hit coming-of-age thriller “Mud,” about a troubled kid who befriends a drifter in the backwaters of Arkansas. It helped re-launch Matthew McConaughey’s career… although Nichols’ go-to actor is Michael Shannon. The actor has appeared in all four of his films, including his new one: the tender sci-fi drama “Midnight Special.”

It’s the story of a kid with supernatural abilities, whose family must protect him as they’re chased through the South by everyone from a religious cult to the federal government.

Jeff has said one of his inspirations was John Carpenter’s 1984 sci-fi movie “Starman.” When Rico spoke with him, he started by asking what about that film moved him.

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Jeff Nichols: I think the first time I encountered it was probably on TV. Flipping through late night TV, just kind of like, “Garbage, garbage, garbage…” And then you come across a showing of “Starman.”

The photography in that film is really beautiful. You’re just like, “Now, wait a second. What is this?!” I just remember being kind of struck by it.

And then you get caught up in the story… and there’s this mystery that’s being handled very pragmatically. You know, like, they seem like they’re on the locations where these things were taking place. It looked like the gas stations and the roads that were really out there. And the characters’ behavior seemed to be fairly honest.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, it’s pretty realistic.

Jeff Nichols: It is, you know?

Rico Gagliano: There’s something that attracts you to that idea that there’s this grand, other-worldly plot happening in a very realistic setting, I guess?

Jeff Nichols: Yeah. Well if you talk about my favorite films from that period — and it’s an earlier film — but “Close Encounters” is really the pinnacle. If you look at “Close Encounters,” Spielberg’s depiction of American suburban life, at that period of time, was probably more realistic than anything I’d seen in any other movie.

You know, it’s like, they’ve got one of these playpens for the baby, but the baby’s not in it — The baby’s crawling around on the floor. And there’s a toddler like with a stick, just banging the side of it. And there’s always a kid, like, hitting a piano key…

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, the depiction of family life in those Spielberg movies, like  “Close Encounters” and “ET,” are just chaotic.

Jeff Nichols: Yeah! And then, of course, you’ve got this mystery happening to these everyday people. And then it gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger… and it ends with this kind of mouth-agape sense of awe at what the universe can potentially deliver. And I love that! Like, who doesn’t want to make a movie like that?!

Rico Gagliano:I feel like there’s also something inherently optimistic about that, that I see reflected in your last couple of movies: This idea that you can live this standard or even humble American life, but spectacular things can happen in the middle of it.

Jeff Nichols: Yeah. And I think it makes the extraterrestrial parts, or supernatural parts, whatever they are, feel more grounded. It’s like it grabs all that fun stuff and holds it closer to Earth.

Rico Gagliano: I think it’s telling that you mention the way family life is depicted in “Close Encounters.” Because all your films are on some level about the difficulties of doing right by your family. And you’re very sympathetic, in your movies, to all the family members… but especially, it seems to me, the husbands. Who often seem like these tough guys, but are actually scared and fragile in a lot of ways.

Are those men always you? You know, some representation of yourself? Or is there another family member like that who made an impression on you in that way?

Jeff Nichols: I think there were other family members.

I mean, obviously, you can hear me talking… I like the sound of my own voice.  At least when it comes to talking about my movies. But you know, I grew up in Arkansas, and my grandfather especially… he cared for us very deeply, but he just didn’t talk a lot, you know?

And in fact, I remember the first movie about the American South that I saw that I actually thought was accurate — really accurate — was “Sling Blade.” And when I heard Billy Bob Thorton’s voice in that film, I was like, “Huh. That sounds like my grandfather.” Which is a little embarrassing to say, but that’s about the amount that he talked.

And I really liked the idea that these men… their emotional capacities are not at all diminished, they just can’t articulate the way they feel. What that does is it makes it kind of just emit from their pores. These are the men that… it’s not just that I knew them growing up, but they’re the ones, in a way, I respected the most.  It just seemed like a very pure, honest way to approach life. Not to have to explain everything on a talk show every time, but to just look at somebody and visit with them in a quiet way, and know they’re kind of in lock step with you emotionally.

Rico Gagliano: You mentioned representations of the South in films. This movie, like your last one, is set in the South. How conscious are you of the way you portray the South? Do you have an agenda, I guess?

Jeff Nichols: I don’t know. It’s tricky. Because it would be easy to say, “Well, I’m from there, so I know everything about it.” And that doesn’t really matter. In fact, sometimes, some of the worst Southern films can be made by Southerners. Because we want to show people how we want to be seen.

Rico Gagliano: Ah-ha. You want to call anyone out in particular?

Jeff Nichols: No… well, I’ll use an example. I’ve worked with actors before who have come from the South. And I hear them talk and I’m like, “You have a great natural southern accent! This is beautiful. This will work out well.” And then we start rolling the camera, and it’s like, “[does comically bad Southern-accent sounds].” And you’re like, “Wow, where did that come from?!?”

Rico Gagliano: They’re putting it on.

Jeff Nichols: Yeah, they’re laying it on thick! And it’s like, “Wow, someone has told you what Southerners sound like, and now you’re doing that. And that makes me want to cry.”

I think, you know, for me — cause I’m susceptible to it as well — I try and just check myself on that, as much as I can. I try to say, “OK, I don’t want everybody in a cool old pick-up truck.” You know? “What would they really be driving?” And, like, not everybody [in the South] is listening to a perfectly timed Hank Williams track right when you want it. They’re usually listening to Korn, with the “K” backward.

Rico Gagliano: I noticed actually, one of the characters in “Mud” is wearing a T-shirt from the punk band Fugazi! Which seems like the last thing I would ever imagine this, like, swamp-rat kid would be wearing.

Jeff Nichols: Well, that’s my affectation. But also, you know, I came from Little Rock in the ‘90s, and there was this really great punk rock scene. Like, that happened.

Rico Gagliano: You’re just kind of getting the breadth of that Southern experience in there; it’s not just the stereotype.

Jeff Nichols: Yeah, for sure. Not a lot of people saw that one coming.

Rico Gagliano: I did not. Which actually dovetails well with one of the questions that we ask all our guests on this show. And that is: tell us something we don’t know. Either about yourself or just a piece of trivia about the world.

Jeff Nichols: Well, I’ll pull this anecdote out of “Mud,” if that’s all right.

Rico Gagliano: From making the movie “Mud”?

Jeff Nichols: Well, no from… there’s a process in it.

Michael Shannon’s character dives for mussel shells. And that was a tradition that first started on the Arkansas River and the White River and the Mississippi River because they would use the mussel shells for buttons.

Rico Gagliano: For buttons?

Jeff Nichols: But as… yeah, they would make buttons out of them.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, I thought… so he’s not diving for the meat, for mussel meat. He’s diving for the shells.

Jeff Nichols: Well, but the thing is, buttons are made out of plastic now, which makes sense.  And the trade of mussel-shell diving these rivers almost died away… until, in the ‘80s, they figured out how to grow cultured pearls in these mussel shells. And so what they would do is sell the shells to the Japanese, who became very good at growing cultured pearls.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, wow; so it’s not that the people in the South are growing pearls — they’re getting the shells to send to Japan to grow the pearls.

Jeff Nichols: Correct. And I was talking to one of the local mussel shell divers, and he thought that was quite funny that women would go into these highfalutin stores, and buy these expensive pearls that had been grown out of shells from the muddy river behind their house.

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