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Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Nichols’

“The most ordinary conversation in the south has a theological basis.”
Novelist Harry Crews

“There are fierce powers at work in the world boys. Good. Evil.
Mud (Matthew McConaughey)
Mud written by Jeff Nichols

One of the reasons I’ve been blogging in and around the movie Mud for the past week is because screenwriter Jeff Nichols has done what I think the best writers do. He’s told a story rooted in place.  And the reason he set the story in Arkansas is because that’s a place he knows well.

Back in 1988 Georgia-born novelist Harry Crews explained in an interview with Terry Gross how embracing his own roots led him to the writings that would lead to his literary success.

“I wrote four novels and short stories before I even published anything, and the reason I didn’t publish any of those things was because it wasn’t any good. And the reason it wasn’t any good was because I was trying to write about a world I did not know. One night it occurred to me that whatever strength I had was all back in there in Bacon County, Ga., with all that sickness and hookworm and rickets and ignorance and beauty and loveliness. But that’s where it was. It wasn’t somewhere else.”
Harry Crews
Harry Crews On Writing And Feeling Like A ‘Freak’/NPR

Granted being from the South does have its literary traditions. (Flannery O’Connor, Pat Conroy, James Dickey, Harper Lee, Ernest Gaines is just a sweeping overview.) But just in the last two days this blog has had readers from Canada, Australia, Germany, Philippines, Russia, Ireland, Croatia, Japan, Sweden, Portugal, UK, Finland, Spain and Venezuela. And there are stories to be told in all those places.

“Truth of the matter was stories was everything, and everything was stories.  Everybody told stories, it was a way of saying who they were in the world.”
Harry Crews

Because Jeff Nichols mentioned Harry Crews as an influence to his writing Mud it caused me to kick around online and see what I could find of interest about Crews. Found this documentary called Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus —a film by Andrew Douglas. One of the people the doc features is Harry Crews. Watching the trailer above and the clip below, you can see that it is a real world where Matthew McConaughey’s character Mud would feel at home.

Related Post: Screenwriting Quote #70 (James Dickey)

Scott W. Smith

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“Writing fiction or plays or poetry seems to me to be a very messy business. To be a writer requires an enormous tolerance for frustration, for anxiety, for self-doubt.”
Harry Crews

When writer/director Jeff Nichols mentioned in a recent interview that one of the books that influenced the writing of his film Mud was the Harry Crews book of essays A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, I knew it would be the perfect time to introduce some people to Crews and his writing. Since I grew up in Central Florida I became aware of the writer and University of Florida creative writing professor when I was about 20.

Crews, who died last year, was known back in the ’80s when I was in college as sort of a living Hemingway type character—with a dash of Hunter S. Thompson.  He was a Marine, a boxer, and a heavy drinker. Add in he was raised in a dirt poor, dysfunctional Southern family and Crews had all the ingredients of a character in a Flannery O’Connor story. Dennis Miller called him a “different breed of cat.”

“Part of my job as a teacher is first to try to help my students determine what’s worth writing and what is not. If they want to write science fiction or detective stories, that’s fine with me; I just want to make sure they know what they’re doing, to make sure they realize they are not writing the kind of fiction that can crush the heart of the living memory. I want to show them that they are writing nothing but entertainment. It is not that the greatest fiction, the kind I want them to spend their energies on, is not entertaining. It is. But it is so much more than that. It is the ‘more than entertainment’ that I want the writers who work with me to know about, be concerned with, even consumed by.”
Harry Crews
Essay Teaching and Writing in the University
From the book Florida Frenzy

Crews was born in Alma, Georgia—not far from the Okefenokee Swamp— in 1935 and his novels include A Feast of Snakes, The Gospel Singer and The Mulching of America. You can learn more about Crews and his work at harrycrews.org.

Related Post:
Writing Quote #1 (Flannery O’Connor)
Jeff Nichols’ Other Roots

Scott W. Smith

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“I can remember very vividly in high school getting my heart-broken and it was like a physical pain. I was physically nauseous. And anytime there is an emotion that is that strong, or that I can remember or feel that strongly in the present day, it’s worth hanging a movie around.”
Writer/Director Jeff Nichols

While the overall cast of Mud is convincing and believable, the acting between Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan is unusually remarkable. Part of that credit goes to the actors themselves, but also to the writer/director Jeff Nichols. So I thought it would be beneficial to look at how Nichols approached the directing side of Mud.

“I give actors a fairly clear blueprint. And I’m happy to talk things out with them, but if they have big character questions then something’s wrong. Either I didn’t do my job or they’re not paying attention. We don’t really rehearse very much. If you don’t understand something I’ll walk you through it a little bit, but that’s really not the case. And I like to roll on the first take ’cause you never know what’s going to happen. And then I don’t shoot very much beyond that. We do four or five takes and we move on. And we don’t do very much improvisation or anything else….I read John Sayles’ book and I think we’re pretty similar in that we shoot constructive coverage. We shoot puzzle pieces that hinge and fit together. I don’t shoot standard coverage and I know the pieces that are going to be going together to make the whole thing.  And in order to do that I lean really heavily on the script. It’s my safety-net. “
Writer/Director Jeff Nichols (Mud)
Dp/30 Mud Interview

P.S. John Sayles directed McConaughy in Lone Star. I think the Sayles book that Nichols is referring to is Thinking in Pictures. A few years ago I wrote the post Thinking in Pictures (John Sayles).

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Writing “Mud”
Screenwriting Quote #183 (Jeff Nichols)
Screenwriting Quote #60 (John Sayles) A warning about movies going over a 2 hour run time. (Advice that Nichols didn’t follow. Mud runs 130 minutes.)

Scott W. Smith

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Writing “Mud”

“I just write character first. I put plot second.”
Writer/Director Jeff Nichols (Mud)

Mud Banner Poster

The reason I’ve spent all week writing about Jeff Nichols and/or his film Mud is not just because he is currently a screenwriter/filmmaker based outside of Los Angeles—but because I think Mud will end up with Oscar-nominations for Best Picture and best original screenplay. In various interviews Nichols has said that the Arkansas-centered story had been kicking around his head for ten years.

“It started with a book in the Little Rock (Ark.) library that was a collection of photographs of people who made their living off the river. Then, the idea of a man hiding on an island in the Mississippi River just struck me.”
Jeff Nichols
The Fresno Bee

That book is The Last River: Life along Arkansas Lower White by Turner Browne.

Then as I pointed out in the post Screenwriting Via Index Cards, Nichols turned to that simple, cheap, tried and truth method of many screenwriters over the years:

“I stumbled backward in my approach to structure. I was trying to hold these stories in my head, and then I started writing them down on note cards to keep it all organized. But what I realized was that’s a great way to break the linear structure of a story. If you have a note pad and you’re writing what happens first, you’re writing what happens next and it’s really hard to jump around. I develop a system where I think about a story for a very long time, writing is the last step. I carry it around for a long time, and then I’ll ambush my friends… You put [note cards] on the floor first, so there’s no linear nature to them. Then they go up on a giant corkboard in my office, and then they start taking form. I think in terms of script days and each column on the board is that day. Some might have three cards and some might have twenty. Then I start to build a story and a card will have the word ‘shoot out’ on it or have one or two lines. By the time I’m done, and I’ve done this for all three of my films, I can just sit and watch the whole movie on the note cards. You get to think about the balance, the shape, and the pace. Then I’m ready to sit down and start writing.”
Jeff Nichols
The Script Lab article by Meredith Alloway 

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Where Do Ideas Come From? (A+B=C)
Starting Your Screenplay
Screenwriting from Arkansas
Jeff Nicholas’ Other Roots
Directing “Mud”

Scott W. Smith

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“I feel like when you write, you have to have a personal core to a story if you have any hope of it translating to an audience. There are certain emotions you have throughout your life that are palpable, you can feel them; they hurt. Every film I’ve made, I can point to one of those emotions, and for this one (Mud) it was going to be heartbreak. I can create all these plot lines, but they have to service that…By the time you get to the end of [the film], that thematic idea has just seeped into the story. You haven’t attacked it head on; you’ve been able to let your audience absorb it into their bloodstream.”
Writer/Director Jeff Nichols (Mud)
The Script Lab article by Meredith Alloway

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Scott W. Smith

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“[Jeff Nichols] was way beyond most students with narrative. Of all the students I’ve seen in 10 years, he’s probably the best with just taking a story from beginning to middle and end. He was raised right, as we say in the South.”
Filmmaker and Instructor Gary Hawkins (now at Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies)
Storytelling Son of the South by Melena Ryzik/NY Times

Writer/Director Jeff Nichols (Mud) doesn’t just have roots in Arkansas, Austin and North Carolina—he has roots in literature as well. I think that’s one of the things that makes his work stand out.

“I was introduced to some of my favorite literature in high school, but it was in college that I started to read somewhat voraciously. At that time I was introduced to a lot of contemporary Southern writers: Larry Brown, Harry Crews, Cormac McCarthy. It was Larry Brown’s short stories that kinda floored me. Harry Crews wrote a biography called A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, a collection of essays, and that combined with Larry Brown’s short fiction and Big Bad Love and Facing the Music really kinda [made me think], especially given where I was from, ‘OK, this feels like an appropriate description of these places.’ I definitely hadn’t seen it in movies and the fact that I found it in books was pretty overwhelming. So then you get back into Flannery O’Connor and, for me, a lot of Mark Twain and then, of course, Raymond Carver. I stumbled across Raymond Carver in my junior year, which is late. I’m kind of a late bloomer.”
Jeff Nichols
Filmamker Magazine

And then there is his film roots:

“I love films and see a lot of them, but you could drop me into a film class and I might be lost. There are five films I like. Four of them star Paul Newman. There’s The Hustler (1961), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Hud (1963), Badlands (1973), and the fifth gets interchanged between Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Shining, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Jaws (1975), and Stagecoach (1939). All of these films are directed by a very specific hand. Almost all of them are in Scope and treat the Scope frame with extreme brilliance. I was watching Butch Cassidy on a plane, without sound, and noticed that scenes were shot in fluid master shots; they’re not in a rush to cut images together to get you some place, but they don’t feel slow. The camera moves at the perfect moment. It feels like a scene that was edited together, but you realize that there were only one or two cuts.”
Jeff Nichols

When you watch one of Nichols’ first three films (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud) you know there is some depth there. But especially if you’re a young filmmaker it’s easy to envy Jeff Nichols’ success as he lines up to do a sci-fi film with Warner Bros, but it’s also easy to overlook that Nichols has been on this journey for more than 15 years—and he’s just starting to find a wider audience.

Go back and read the posts The Secret to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) and How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip#41) and you’ll see that though screenwriters John Logan (Hugo) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) took different paths to their success than Nichols—there is a common thread.

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Scott W. Smith

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Love my ma, love my pa
But I just love ole Arkansas
Arkansas lyrics from the musical Big River

“I remember I was in junior high school and I was going to write a short story about mobsters, or New York mobsters. I think I had just seen a Scorsese film. And I told my dad that. And he was like, ‘You haven’t ever been to New York.’ And I said, ‘Nah, but that’s where mobsters live.’ And he basically said, ‘Why don’t you write something about Arkansas?’ And a window in my mind opened, and I realized all of a sudden that I had access to something that was interesting, that the rest of the world couldn’t write about, because I was the one there.

And it just seems like, you have an idea, and it feels kind of fake or false or movie-ish, but when I drag it down to Arkansas and place it there, it starts to feel realistic and grounded and I’m accountable for the realism, because I know these people and these places and I have to get it right. And that’s a good thing, because so many southern films are affectations that it’s good to feel accountable to some kind of realism.”
Writer/Director Jeff Nichols (Mud
Hollywood Reporter 4/26/13
Jeff Nichols, “Mud: Director” Eschews Hollywood for the South by Jordan Zakarin

Though Jeff Nichols currently lives in Austin, Texas (and recieved his educated at the North Carolina School for the Arts) two of his first three feature films (Shotgun Stories,  Mud) take place in Arkansas where Nicholas was born and raised. (The third, Take Shelter, is set in a small town in Ohio.) I finally saw Mud over the weekend and it reminded me a little of Tender Mercies, a little of Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn, a little of A Perfect World, and even a little of Stand By Me. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nichols getting an Oscar-nomination for his script. And if he ever wins an Oscar he’ll join fellow Arkansas native Billy Bob Thornton who won an Oscar for his Slingblade (1996) script.

And considering that Winter’s Bone (Mud’s country cousin) was set in a world on the Missouri/Arkansas border and the 2011 Oscar-nominated doc & Arkansas-centered Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory documentary there is some excellent (and gritty) work coming out of that region.

P.S. Other film related artists with roots to Arkansas and in the Arkansas Hall of Fame include Johnny Cash, Academy-Award wining actress Mary  Steenburgen, and actress Lisa Blout (An Officer and a Gentleman) who won an Oscar in 2001 for her role in producing the short film The Accountant. And to top it all off one of the most financially successful writers in history—John Grisham—was born in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Now that I think of it, there are traces of Grisham’s The Firm in Mud.  (The movie version of The Firm was shot mostly in Memphis, but some in Arkansas)

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Scott W. Smith

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