AFF 2013 Dispatch: 'A Conversation with Jeff Nichols'


jeff nicholsMany Austin Film Festival-goers kicked off their week by attending one of the first panels on the schedule -- "A Conversation with Jeff Nichols." In a Q&A session that lasted a little over an hour on Thursday afternoon (it was moderated by Christopher Boone), the Austin-based director discussed the three films he has completed so far (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud) as well as his upcoming release, Midnight Special. As a writer and director who has achieved critical success while working with both small and big budgets, Nichols had plenty of advice and entertaining tidbits to share with the audience. 

Nichols, who comes off as both boyish and wise, eschews traditional film-school techniques (such as following a strict screenplay formula) but stresses the importance of adhering to certain personal storytelling rules. He described his process as beginning with various large ideas (masculinity, first love, financial anxiety, etc.) and then filtering them through a story that is ultimately about the characters he has created. Nichols' actual writing process involves arranging notecards filled with scenes and plot points and holding tightly to the idea of point of view.

Humble about his creative accomplishments and clearly knowledgeable about the business of making movies, Nichols made for a practically ideal AFF guest. The audience remained rapt and appreciative throughout, and this panel was an excellent reminder that AFF is all about dissecting the filmmaking process and appreciating good work. Here are a few highlights from the session:

  • Much to Nichols' disappointment, Shotgun Stories was rejected by both Sundance Film Festival and SXSW Film Festival. However, it was embraced at the Berlin International Film Festival and also screened here at AFF, where it received the Feature Film Award in 2007. 
  • Nichols often writes about white men (because he is one), but expressed the desire to include strong and realistic female characters in his work. That Jessica Chastain's character was domestically-oriented in Take Shelter was a reflection of his mother, who Nichols considers one of the strongest women he has known. 
  • Nichols views each of his films as a different kind of experiment and is always unsure of how successful they'll be; he bluntly confessed that he's not sure Midnight Special is going to be received very well by audiences. 
  • The original screenplay for Mud was packed with detail and ended up being about 165 pages long -- "unacceptable," admitted Nichols half-jokingly. For those who care to learn more about Nichols' style and process, the shooting script is available online
  • Michael Shannon, who has starred in all of Nichols' films thus far, treats the director like a "little brother" (deservedly so, says Nichols, who seems in awe of Shannon's power as an actor). 
  • On the topic of how he has chosen character names in his films, he cites S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders and Rumble Fish as inspiration, and says the idea to use the name "Mud" was brought about by listening to the Townes Van Zandt song "Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold."
  • Nichols' advice to all the young filmmakers in the room was simple and succinct: "If you believe you can do it, find a way to do it."
The schedule for this weekend's panels has been slightly adjusted since the AFF program was printed, so be sure to use Festival Genius and/or follow @austinfilmfest for the latest information.