Friday, August 19, 2016
The Auteurs #58: Jeff Nichols
Among a small group of filmmakers to make a name for himself in the past decade, Jeff Nichols is someone who has only made a handful of films so far in his career. However, he’s managed to attain loads of critical support as well as gain a growing audience interested in his stories about regular people dealing with the world and their surroundings as they’re mostly set in the American South. While many of his stories that are often set in his home state of Arkansas as well as rural places with people dealing with something that is either real or otherworldly. Nichols has crafted a body of work that is compelling as well as grounded in that air of realism and tenderness that many of today’s mainstream filmmakers aren’t making these days.
Born on December 7, 1978 in Little Rock, Arkansas, Jeff Nichols was born into a place that didn’t have much of a film culture yet would find some form of escape through books and films. Notably the work of Mark Twain who Nichols would consider to be a major influence in his writing while he was also interested in the world of cinema. Notably with the films of the New Hollywood era of 1970s American cinema and some of the films that was emerging during the 1980s. Through his interest in cinema, Nichols would attend the prestigious University of North Carolina School of Arts where it had become a starting point for emerging filmmakers such as David Gordon Green and Jody Hill who also made films set in the South. Nichols’ time at the school would prove to be a fruitful experience as he would meet those who would be part of his team of collaborators including cinematographer Adam Stone.
Following his tenure at the University of North Carolina School of Arts, Nichols met another alumni in David Gordon Green who had been making critically-acclaimed films in the early 2000s as they were all set in the South. Green decided to produce Nichols’ first feature film as he would gather money to help get Nichols funding as well as offer him one of his editors in Steven Gonzales to edit the film for Nichols. For the casting, Nichols decided to cast several unknowns as well as actors that not many people knew. For the lead role of Son Hayes, Nichols cast Michael Shannon in the role as it would serve as a breakthrough for Shannon.
Shooting on location in small towns near Little Rock, Arkansas, Nichols’ film revolved around a family feud involving two sets of half-brothers who both share the same father but both endured different relationships and lives with their father. The film follows three men who live very simple but troubled lives who still bear the scars of abuse of their father as they learn that he’s died as they crash the funeral to say insults towards him only to set a firestorm against their half-brothers. The feud wouldn’t just lead to tragedy but also a sense of unease where it is clear that it has come to the realization that this family is beyond damaged as three of these men who are just trying to make something in their lives are doing what they can while also trying not to carry the sins of their parents. Much of the film was shot in 2004 yet it took years and more funding for the post-production as Green was involved with other projects during that time which led to the film’s delay. It was around that time that Nichols brought in his brother Ben who was in the alt-country band Lucero to provide some score music as he would become an occasional collaborator for Nichols.
After some delay, the film made its premiere in February of 2007 at the Berlin Film Festival where it was well received as it led to a run of festival appearances that brought a lot of word of mouth for the film. Following a limited release in March of 2008 where it only made more than $168,000 against its $250,000 budget. The film was still a favorite with the critics as it made it into some top-ten lists for the year of 2008 including from the famed Roger Ebert who named the film one of the year’s best.
Despite the critical support he’s received for his first film, Nichols knew that being an independent filmmaker wasn’t going to be easy as he still took the time to develop his next project. That project eventually fell apart yet he did get the attention of independent film producer Sophia Lin who did accept another script that Nichols was working that would be his next film. The film would be about a man having a strange premonition about a storm coming to his home as he is consumed by fear and paranoia to protect his family while wondering if it’s all true. The film would be a more ambitious project than his first film as Lin would team up with Tyler Davidson to produce it as they gained nearly $5 million for the budget.
With Michael Shannon playing the lead role of Curtis LaForche, Nichols would also cast veteran actors such as Ray McKinnon as Curtis’ older brother and Kathy Baker as their mother while noted characters Katy Mixon and Shea Whigham would play supporting parts. For the role of Curtis’ wife, Jessica Chastain was cast as she was about to make waves for her work in Terrence Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life. The film would be mostly shot and set in Lagrange, Ohio with some additional shooting near Austin, Texas and Myrtle Beach, South Carolina with regular cinematographer Adam Stone in 2010. While Nichols wasn’t able to get his brother Ben to create music, he was given the chance to work with composer David Wingo who had been scoring music for David Gordon Green and Jody Hill.
The film made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2011 where it was a big hit at the festival where it would receive a festival run for much of the year and then picked up by Sony Pictures Classic for a limited release in late September that year. The film would be a modest commercial success making back its budget yet it was a major hit with critics as the film was praised for its story as well as Shannon’s performance. Its success also gave Nichols some major clout as he was already embarking on his next project.
Since the premiere of Take Shelter at Sundance in early 2011, Nichols had been approached to make more films as he got the attention of producer Sarah Green who had also worked with Jessica Chastain on The Tree of Life. Inspired by the works of Mark Twain, Nichols’ third film would be about two boys who meet a mysterious drifter in an island in the middle of Arkansas River. The film would be a coming-of-age tale where a young boy not only learns about first love but also help a man try to reach out to a former flame. The project was fascinating as it got the attention of Matthew McConaughey who agreed to play the role of the titular character. Green provided Nichols the services of casting director Francine Maisler who would bring in Tye Sheridan from The Tree of Life to play Ellis while Jacob Lofland would play Ellis’ friend Neckbone. The cast would also include Reese Witherspoon as Mud’s old flame Juniper as well as small roles from Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks, Joe Don Baker, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, and Sam Shepard.
Retaining the services of cinematographer Adam Stone, composer David Wingo, and Nichols’ brother Ben providing additional music. The crew would also include production designer Richard A. Wright and editor Julie Monroe as the latter would become part of Nichols’ stable of recurring collaborators. Production began in September of 2011 in Arkansas as Nichols was given a $10 million budget as well as complete access to shooting around various locations in his home state. Especially in its river where Nichols and Wright helped create a boat that would be placed on a tree as it was integral for the plot. Nichols didn’t just want an air of realism but also that air of suspense as it relates to old enemies of Mud who want him dead.
The film made its premiere in May of 2012 at the Cannes Film Festival playing in competition for the Palme d’Or. While it didn’t win any prizes at the festival, the film was a major hit as it helped raise Nichols’ profile as a filmmaker as well as give Matthew McConaughey more acclaim where many believed he was in the midst of a career resurrection. Following its limited release in the U.S. in April of 2013, the film would be a hit not just critically but also commercially as it made more than $21 million in the U.S. box office and $11 million more worldwide. Though the film got overlooked during the awards season, the film would receive the Robert Altman Award for its ensemble at the 2014 Independent Spirit Awards.
Following a break between films where Nichols had become a father, his time becoming a father would lead to a new project that would be about a father trying to protect his son from the government and a mysterious cult with the help of his estranged wife and a friend of theirs as they go on the road and on the run. The film was partially-inspired by Nichols’ love of sci-fi films including John Carpenter’s 1984 film Starman. Nichols took some time to write the script as he would get the support of producer Sarah Green as well as retain many of collaborators from his last film to be on board for the project while Michael Shannon was cast as the lead role of Roy Tomlin with recurring collaborators Sam Shepard and Paul Sparks playing small supporting roles. The cast would also include Joel Edgerton as Roy’s friend Lucas, Kirsten Dunst as Roy’s estranged wife Sarah, Adam Driver as government agent Paul Sevier, and Jaeden Lieberher as Roy’s son Alton.
Production began in January of 2014 with a $18 million budget in New Orleans where much of the film was shot there. The film would be Nichols’ most ambitious as it would rely partially on visual effects as Nichols wanted to maintain something that is real. Especially as it is about that relationship between father and son as they both try to escape the cult leader who is Roy’s father and wants Alton for something that he believes would send him to some kind of world. Nichols also wanted that air of suspense and action to be used but in a minimal sense so that it doesn’t deter from the heart of the story as some of the sci-fi elements didn’t just have some real-life stakes but also would be presented in a climax that is otherworldly.
Though the film was slated for a late 2015 release, it took some time for some of the post-production to be finished as well as the fact that Nichols was already working on another project at the same time. The film made its premiere at the 2016 Berlin Film Festival that May where it drew rave reviews as it led to a spring theatrical release in the U.S. While it would make $6.2 million in the U.S. box office despite the film being Nichols’ first film on a wide release scale. The film still managed to be a favorite with the critics as it helped give Nichols some mainstream visibility while maintaining his status as an independent filmmaker.
Nichols’ newest feature film is a dramatization over the real-life marriage between Richard and Mildred Loving as it was seen as illegal since the former was white and the latter was black. Starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in their respective roles as Richard and Mildred Loving with supporting parts from Michael Shannon, Nick Kroll, Bill Camp, and Marton Csokas. Featuring the same collaborators that Nichols worked with in his previous work, the film marks as Nichols’ first period film as well as it wasn’t a film Nichols wanted to do but was convinced by his wife to do it. The film made its premiere at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival that May where it was a major hit as it would get its theatrical release in November.
While he’s only made five feature films so far, Jeff Nichols is already creating a body of work that most filmmakers wish they could have as he is already on a roll. In an age where Hollywood wants to make films based on gimmicks, franchises, and such, Nichols is a filmmaker that American cinema needs as he creates stories about real people dealing with some type of situation whether it’s mysterious or real. Even as they’re set in places that is more homegrown rather than be set in cities or places that are often seen in Hollywood. If there’s any filmmaker that deserves a place to be called the best American filmmaker working today, it’s Jeff Nichols.
© thevoid99 2016