Director Jeff Nichols On Crafting 'Long Way Back Home' And Making A Song Into A Short Film [Interview]

Jeff Nichols' very first music video is both new and familiar for the filmmaker. The director behind MudTake Shelter, and Loving reunited with a slew of his frequent collaborators, including actor Michael Shannon and cinematographer Adam Stone, to create a music video/short film for Lucero's new album, "Among the Ghosts." It isn't Nichols' first collaboration with his brother (and Lucero frontman) Ben Nichols, but him directing a short based on a Lucero song was always an inevitability.

The song "The Long Way Back Home," which is about a criminal on the run, immediately struck a chord with Nichols. It's not the first time the Mud director has shown a criminal fleeing the law, or told a story about bad blood between brothers. In Long Way Back Home, a man (Shannon) searches for his two brothers (played by Garret Hedlund and Scott McNairy) in a story reminiscent of At Close Range and Nichols' debut film, Shotgun Stories.

We recently spoke with the director at great length about the short film, his career, and what's next for him. In part one of our three-part Jeff Nichols interview, you can read what he had to say about the making of Long Way Back Home.

It's been a few years since you've been behind a camera, right? Three years or so?

Wow, it was a while. Gosh, when did we shoot Loving? It came out in 2015, so we were shooting that in 2015, probably in the fall. So it would have been almost three years. It felt great, you know? I was nervous because this was a truly family affair home-grown effort, it was much like Shotgun Stories in that you're just calling everybody you know, asking for favors. Everybody my brother knows, asking for favors, and I've never worked with Scoot or Garret before, and we've been talking for the last several years about doing something together, and as excited as I was, I was kind of nervous because it's like, "Well, it's not gonna be like a full-fledged production, I hope that they don't come away like, 'That guy's an amateur.'" [Laughs]

Luckily, that wasn't the case. One of the smartest goals I made at the beginning was working with my producing partner Sarah Green, and I was like, "Yeah, I need your help. Help me produce this." And then later, we brought Brian Kavanaugh-Jones (Midnight Special) for some other advice, but we were really lucky because we were connected with ... I didn't know [director] Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow) but I knew he was a fan of Lucero, and he's kind of the Memphis showmaker. My brother put me in touch with him, and he put us in contact with his producer Erin Hagee there in Memphis. She was incredible, paired with Sarah, she put us in touch with all this local Memphis crew and some people, especially this guy Morgan Jon Fox who was just this great AD who just showed up and did ... On projects like these, everybody's getting, at best, like a stipend. They just want to be involved, and we had all this great Memphis crew show up and help us out.

And so to tie this point back up, it felt way more cohesive and legit than ... I was afraid if I had just kind of shown up and tried to do this on my own, and thanks to Sarah and thanks to Aaron and all these Memphis folks, hopefully Scoot and Garret got a pretty good sense of what it was like. Adam Stone shot it, and we had some local guys helping out with grip and gaffing. They were so good. I don't know. It felt like a Jeff Nichols film to a degree, everybody just kind of were hanging out and helping out. So, I think they got a pretty good taste.

Did the experience leave you wanting to make more music videos or short films in the future? 

No, I don't know about that. It's funny, and maybe this was an overestimation, I'm not sure, but we got out of it and I think going into it it was like, "Yeah, hopefully this thing works out. We'll see how it goes," and by the end, I thought, "Man, this feels really like something I'm really proud of." It felt like we had kind of pulled something off, and so I left with really positive vibes, and that's kind of where that idea of, "Oh man, I don't think this is just a music video, because it feels more like a short film."

And I know that that's nothing novel, filmmakers are making short film/music videos all the time, but for me, I think I was pleasantly surprised that I got to the other end of it and was like, "Oh no, I think this is gonna feel like a little neat Jeff Nichols movie, and that's good." That made me happy.

I think it wasn't necessarily going to be the outcome. Going into it, it was kind of like this could be a really weird experimental project, of just Mike Shannon walking around Memphis, and I'm not sure how it's gonna go. But I did the same thing that I kind of always do: I just started scripting and so what was gonna possibly be this non-linear story, ended up being pretty scripted. We shot the scenes.

So much so that I kind of went in for the production plan saying, "Oh well, I want to build out enough time so that I can just shoot random shots and things." And we did a little bit of that, but by the end of it it was like, "Oh no, I don't need any of that. I just need the parts that I shot." So in that sense it felt very much like the way I execute a film.

It definitely feels like a Jeff Nichols film. You're exploring family again, which maybe all your work is about. 

Yeah, I need to get some new inspiration. It came out of the song, you know? This was like kind of a snake eating its own tail situation, Ben was thinking about movies like Shotgun Stories, but also movies like At Close Range, which was an inspiration for me for Shotgun Stories and for Ben.

That's a great movie.

Even though that's not a southern film—I think it actually takes place in upstate New York—but it's a rural film. It was a vibe. When Ben sent me the album I was actually listening to a couple of other songs that I really love on that album. The whole album's actually pretty good, but he kept pointing me toward "Long Way Back Home," he was like, "Well, I was thinking a lot about movies like Shotgun Stories or stories like At Close Range, and short stories by Larry Brown." He was like, "You should really listen to that song," until I put it on repeat one night and I woke up the next morning thinking about it.

And that line popped in my head of, "Why would I want to kill my little brothers?" And it's strange because that's not a part of the song, the song isn't really about that. And so the video, if anyone cares to watch it multiple times, it's kind of a weird prequel to the song, which kind of gives away a little bit about what happened next.

The song is really about these three brothers that are part of a deal that kind of goes south, and there's some gunfire, and then they're driving at night while he's bleeding, and one of them had a pistol, and they're trying to get back home. Like across the bridge to Memphis. And so everything that I wrote was kind of an imagined version of something that could lead up to it. And certainly, in my stories, this is potentially darker than a lot of the stuff I typically write, in a way.

Because there's definitely the question of whether or not he shoots his brothers at the end of it. And I don't know, in that sense it does feel more like At Close Range or something, you know? If you remember that scene ...

Oh yeah, when Christopher Walken confronts Chris Penn with a gun at night? Walken is terrifying in that scene. When he screams "liar," it's chilling. 

Oh, gosh. Oh, yeah man. It's like, "Woof." And I think this is more in that camp, but I don't know. So yeah, it definitely has to do with family, which is easy for me to kind of write about, but it also Ben being inspired by the things I was inspired by to make my first film. It's all very close to home, to be honest.

You shot in Arkansas too, right? 

Well, yeah. So Memphis is right on the Mississippi river, and so Memphis looks out over west Memphis, which is actually in Arkansas, which is where the West Memphis three were from. Here you are in this big city in Tennessee, with a skyline and everything else, the Mississippi Bridge, and that's the Tennessee side. And then on that Arkansas side, there are no buildings. It's just farmland. I've been going to Memphis since I was a kid, I would look out over this field on the other side and I just thought they were always so pretty.

And that's the side where the sun sets, and I'd always wanted to go drive around these fields. It's so crazy, it's like big farmland, literally just right in sight of a big city. And so we were working with a location manager there in Memphis, and I kept saying, "What about those fields?" And she's like, "Oh, no. I don't know if we can get access to those. A lot of people ask." So we ended up getting a connection through the band that connected us to one of the farmers down there that gave us permission. But then oddly, we kind of realized there are a bunch of dirt roads around there, part of them are like new biking trails that I think someone tried to put in.

So anyway, we got access to it. It's amazing, because you stand in this beautiful field and on one side is the sun setting, and on the other is the Memphis skyline. And so technically, yes, you're 100 percent in Arkansas, but you feel like you're in the shadow of Memphis. That made me really happy because we didn't know going in that we would be able to get that exact spot, the farmland might have been more separated. And it's this crazy little section where we were joking it was like the perfect Jeff Nichols location because you got the sunset on one side across from a beautiful flat horizon line on a field.

And then on the other, you have the Mississippi River, the Mississippi Bridge, and this beautiful Memphis skyline. North, you've got I-40 in the background and south, you've got I-55, so you get ... I don't know, there was just a lot going on, and it felt very much like a place some dudes would pull off to transfer illicit materials from one truck to another. So it all kind of worked out, but that was a very long answer to yes, we shot in Arkansas as well.

[Laughs] It's beautiful, so maybe this is an obvious question, but what's cinematic about Arkansas to you? When you shoot there, what elements do you want to capture? 

I'm always leaning toward southeast Arkansas, and there's a big geographic difference in the state between northwest, which is the Ozarks, which is where, actually, True Detective Season Three was just filmed, and up from that is where ... I don't know where they shoot the show, Ozark, it's not in Arkansas I don't think, but also like Winter's Bone and that stuff was kind of all in Missouri and stuff, which is just kind of sitting on top.

That stuff is all kind of mountainous and foothills, and it's gorgeous. Usually when people talk about how pretty Arkansas is, they're usually talking about that region. But for whatever reason, I grew up going the other direction, southeast, and it turns into Delta. It turns into the corner of Tennessee and Louisiana and Mississippi, and so for me, what happens when you kind of drive 30 minutes southeast of Little Rock where I grew up, everything just flattens out. And you get this beautiful horizon line, and you get these really, really big skies. For me, growing up in a land-locked state, it was like going to the ocean because you get that line across the horizon that, when you're shooting anamorphic especially, which is the wider 2.35 screen format, it just shoots so much.

And you can get the type of shots like the last shot, you know, in the video. Where it's just land and sky, and there's a real distinct line there. And that's just, for whatever reason, that's always appealed to me. I love going to the beach, too. I love looking at those horizon lines, but there's just something about a land-locked one that is ... It's always been my idea of beautiful.

How did the final image of the brothers silhouetted come to you? How much do you debate your endings and final shots in your head versus just going with your gut?

Well that's funny, because it's both. I certainly applied it on this one. Every ending to my movies has been a subject of debate. Except with Shotgun Stories, but that's because nobody was around to debate with me, so I just got to end it. But you know, Take Shelter obviously [there was a debate]. With Mud, there was some debate in my mind. Never amongst producers or anything, but in my mind, there was another way to end that movie, though I'm really pleased with the way it ended.

Midnight Special, shit, you know? Yeah, there was a completely different scripted ending, it actually always ended in the same spot, with Roy's character basically in some kind of high-security prison, staring out at something. But what he was staring out at was completely different in the original draft. And then Loving never changed. Loving was always that way. It's kind of funny though, four out of the five movies ended with characters staring out over something. Usually it's Micheal Shannon, and in Mud's case, it was McConaughey and Sam Shepard. I guess that's kind of my thing.

For this ending in this video, I woke up that morning and thought of the line, "Why would I wanna kill my little brothers?" And then in the end it's like, "Oh, and you see him and his brothers are standing there in this beautiful western, kind of southern face off, and it's like, 'What are you gonna do with that pistol?'" And he clicks it. I was like, "How interesting would it be if you understood that that character was conflicted and he had reasons to shoot him, but he also had reason not to shoot them? To maybe protect them?"

There was one line in the song, "We'll take what we need," that I just liked so much. That became the middle scene, so then you're basically like, "Okay, here's the opening, it's gonna be with this drug-dealer type that lets you know that people think he may want to kill his brothers." But he never answers that question, you know?

The answer that he gives, you're not sure. And that's what Mike Shannon can do, you're just not sure where he lands. So I woke up, and it was like tick, ticket, tick, with the layout of this thing ending in this big, wide shot, where you're like, "Oh my God, what's he gonna do?" And then, we started to develop this story idea, I was talking to my brother about it and trying to give credence to his points of view and everything else, since he actually wrote the song. And he was like, "Well, you know, the song's not really about that. It's about one of them getting injured in fleeing and stuff."

I think my brother was getting at, he never came out and said it, because he was always like, "Whatever you want to do, Jeff." In his mind, he was like, "This guy does not shoot his brothers." I think it was maybe a little dark for him, or just not really what his intention was. And so we shot this beautiful final scene, that actually goes after that final moment. I kind of convinced myself that I liked at least the scripting to it, I liked this other ending. And it was so funny, we were sending it out to friends and everybody else, both versions, asking them which do you like.

And half of the people, just like every other movies I've made, half the people were like, "We like this other ending with these guys in back of the car, and Garrett Hedlund has a wound in his stomach." And then the other half's like, "No, no. You gotta end it at the road and the sunset, that's where it wants to end." Most of my films, I was having an inner debate with myself, because I wrote both endings and I liked both. Then, the weight of comments, especially from my wife, but also by Shannon, they started leaning toward ending on that road, which was the original idea.

And it was, in a way, the most dramatic because you end and you're like, "Oh, what's gonna happen next? Like what's going on?" The other one was, "What's going on? What just ..." [Laughs] It left people really confused, which I kind of dig, like, "Who gives a shit?" It's a short film, might as well have people talk about it. But alas, we went with this other one, so who knows? Maybe one day, I have a finished out version of the other cut, so maybe one day I'll release it. But it's really beautifully shot. Scoot and Garrett did such a good job at it, it was very tempting to end with them.


Make sure to check back soon for parts two and three of our interview with Jeff Nichols.