Today, we present the second part of the two-part conversation I had with writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories) in front of a live audience at the 20th Austin Film Festival & Conference. If you haven't already, be sure to check out Part One of the conversation in which Nichols discussed the origin of his characters, the thematic elements of his films, and lessons learned from directing that impact his writing. In the second part of the conversation, Nichols elaborates on how he chooses his characters' names, the importance of settings and characters' professions, his relationship with actor Michael Shannon, and the pacing of his films.
These are excerpts from a longer conversation with Jeff Nichols at the Austin Film Festival, taken from the transcript of the live event. Many thanks to AFF Conference Director Erin Hallagan for providing this transcript and for her entire team that makes the Conference at AFF a must-attend event for screenwriters. You can buy your badges now for AFF 2014 at discounted prices, so don't wait!
[Spoiler alert: If you haven't seen Jeff Nichols' films, you should. This conversation covers all three of his feature films in detail and reveals key plot points from each film.]
CB: Many of your character names are quite distinctive. Where do these names come from?
JN: I guess I was really affected by The Outsiders and Rumble Fish, with Motorcycle Boy -- that’s the best name ever. So, S.E. Hinton obviously influenced me. But, you know, that’s an affectation. You’ve got to make a decision if you’re making the kind of movie that you can get away with it. And honestly, on the face of things, I don’t really want to make the kind of movies that allow you to get away with that. I want to make real movies, real stories, that are natural and authentic and all this other stuff.
You know, it’s almost like a deal you make with the audience, it’s like, “You’re going to let me get away with this, hopefully, and I’m going to give you a good name,” But you’ve got to be really careful with it, I think. And I’ve toyed with it probably a little bit more than I should.
The way that Son, Boy, and Kid in Shotgun Stories came around was I was in my office writing -- well, which isn’t really writing, it’s just kind of sitting there listening to music thinking about things with a lot of note cards. But there was a blues CD with a blues man with the first name Son, and I was like, “God, that’s just a great name.” I thought, “Okay, I’ll call the oldest boy Son,” because it seems rural. Then, moments later, you know, it didn’t take long to be like, “Well, what if the parents just didn’t name any of them?”
I thought, the only way I can do this is if I never talk about it. If we just have them named Son, Boy and Kid, and reference each other with those names. Of course I had written the scene that’s like, “Man, they never even gave us proper names, those bastards!” And it was terrible, you have to take that out. That was the deal I made with the devil on that one. It was like, okay, I get to call them Son, Boy, and Kid, but I, the writer, can’t reference it because that’s too cheesy. Maybe it’s too cheesy anyway, but I’m going to try and get away with it. Whereas I have no issue with calling a character Shampoo, that just seemed normal to me.
For Neckbone in Mud, I’d walked into this bar in the morning in Little Rock -- they serve breakfast sometimes -- and there were these older black gentlemen playing dominoes in the back. This guy slammed down this domino and said, “It’s on like a pot of neckbones!” And I was like, “Wow, that’s a great line.” I wrote it down on a note card and it had just been sitting in front of me for a year or two. And it was just like, “Neckbone, neckbone, neckbone.” I thought, that needs to be that kid’s name. I thought about trying to explain it again, and I decided you don’t need it in the script. That name just makes sense in this script’s world.
CB: Your first two films move at a deliberate pace. Not a lot happens in the first 10-20 minutes, but you reward audiences for their patience if they stick with you. Mud moves a lot quicker and now you’re telling us Midnight Special is going to be a wild ride. How do you structure your plots and figure out the pacing of your stories?
JN: I’ve considered each one of these films as an experiment in form. I don’t write in three-act structure. I’m kind of confused by it to be honest. I think somewhere in a textbook in college, I read about it and it just scared me, so I don’t think about it. I just think about what my characters need to do when they need to do it.
The experiment for Shotgun Stories was: “Can nothing happen for 45 minutes in a movie and people be okay with that?” Thirteen minutes in, Son spits on a coffin. Kid dies about 45 minutes in. Between that spit and Kid dying, not a lot happens. Not a lot of what we consider plot happens. But what does happen is you get to know these people. I remember thinking that the challenge wouldn’t be to make the audience miss Kid. That’s too much. It’s a character in a movie and you’re not going to get to know him even in 45 minutes. The challenge would be making the audience understand how much his brothers miss him. And that, I think, we did.
The thing I really wasn’t calculating was the tension that Son spitting on that coffin gave those 30 minutes. This is when you really start to understand how smart and how intuitive an audience is. They need very, very little to understand the dynamic between characters and where the movie is going. We’ve seen so many of movies, we just know. So you’re not going to hide anything from anybody. In fact, you have to remove information for that. What I didn’t realize was as soon as Son spits on that casket and you see those two sides, you know something bad is going to happen. You just don’t know where it’s going to come from.
"Really all I care about is the flow of the story and the build of this story. I will make an entire damn movie for one moment."
Take Shelter was very similar in terms of me not knowing if it would work. I do not like dream sequences. I think they’re a horrible film school antic and I made an entire film based on them. So how can we get away with this? How do we do this one? Well, they can’t feel any different than the other scenes from the movie. So no smoke or fog or weird things happening. They all have to begin like it’s another scene in the movie and before you know it, you’re caught up and then you’re in it.
How long will that device work? There’s a point in the film where you leave that device and there’s not another dream for a while. Will people get bored? Some people do. Really all I care about is the flow of the story and the build of this story. I will make an entire damn movie for one moment. And that’s Take Shelter. Take Shelter is for this one moment where Curtis flips up this table, goes effing crazy, then is embarrassed in front of his wife. That’s the whole movie. I wanted to make it for that one moment. Everything else is window dressing to get there, more or less.
Mud had its own challenges. The experiment in Mud was just staying with this boy. Because you say it flows better or moves a little bit faster than the other movies. Yes it does, but you’re also shackled to this boy. I was worried that that would be infuriating and boring. To some people, it is. But I think that the flow from that movie comes from the movement of the camera, which was designed into the writing as well, which goes back to my earlier point of POV being baked into your scripts. I knew that I wanted that movie to move like a river and those boys to never stop. I never wanted Mud to be at rest. I never wanted him not moving.
And now here we come with Midnight Special. I have no idea if people are going to like this movie. It’s a chase film, and my thinking is that you keep moving and if a character can’t move with you, then they don’t get to come along with us. And that’s my rule. It’s going to be fascinating to me to see if it works.
An earlier version of this post mistakenly contained the entire transcript of my conversation with Jeff. We have since excerpted parts of the transcript. A more complete version of the conversation will be available later in the year from Austin Film Festival's On Story.
Once again, NFS would like to thank to Jeff Nichols and Austin Film Festival for their generosity for this conversation. Be sure to check out part one of our conversation if you haven't already.
How do you choose a setting for your story and professions for your characters? How do you pace your stories on the page as you write? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.