Director Jeff Nichols On Working With Michael Shannon And How He'd Change The Ending Of 'Mud' [Interview]

"I know a lot of people hate the endings of my movies."

A lot of people may be an overstatement, based on how much audiences and critics have praised his movies in the past, but director Jeff Nichols is well aware that one or two of his endings have left some viewers frustrated. They've sparked plenty of debate, and those conversations haven't always been enjoyable for Nichols, who dissects his work with a real critical eye. He's arguably his biggest critic.

Funnily enough, it's perhaps most beloved and successful movie, Mud, that has the ending he's rewritten in his mind. He's still happy with the final image of two legends sharing the screen together, Mud and the late Sam Shepard, but when he recently spoke with us about his Lucero short film, he told of us a different ending he's imagined for Mud. Nichols also told us about working with Michael Shannon, his thoughts on the ending of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and a '60s biker movie he wants to direct one day.

When your endings do polarize and create discussion, is that always satisfying to you? 

There's something interesting about it. It's not always pleasing, and in fact, sometimes it's uncomfortable. But I'll say this, there's a difference and it's why I chose the ending that's in there. There's a difference between people wondering what happens next and people just being confused about what's happening. I never hope they're muddled, I always want people walking out talking, but what they're saying, what they're talking about, that can be really good or could be really dangerous.

If they're talking about, "I don't know what the hell just happened." That's not as good as, "Oh my gosh, do you think this happened or do you think this happened?" Those are two different kinds of conversations, but I think what it really points to is just my opinion about an ending, and ending in general. They're just ... They just never end, and so endings, if they wrap up too neatly, they always feel a little dishonest to me. I think that's what you're seeing me wrangle with more than anything, more than the desire to – M. Night Shyamalan or whatever – leave the audience with a twist. That's not the driving force behind the narrative decisions as much as something like, "Well, what's an honest way to leave these people?"

I think too, most of my stories dabble in darkness, I'm not a dark person and I don't want to make hopeless films, I always want the endings to allude to hope. Even if we haven't seen it achieved. Mud is by far the happiest ending of any movie I've made, and I think that even that, you're still not sure exactly what happens to him.

Earlier you mentioned you thought of a different ending for Mud. Looking back on that movie, how would you have ended it differently? 

Well you know, these things are kind of tricky to talk about because you're like, "I made a decision, so it's me." It's just like ... I think Spielberg said this, he wouldn't make Close Encounters the same way today, because now he's a father and he would never let Roy get on the spaceship because he would never leave his children.

Which is so funny because I watched that movie a million times and I never questioned that. But then when he said it, I was like, "Huh. That's interesting." But I'm kind of glad he made that when he did, because I'm kind of glad he got on the spaceship. But as a father, I completely understand what he's saying. Today's Spielberg would make a different movie, for better or worse. And that's how I feel about these things, with Mud I just really loved the idea of a guy coming out onto the Gulf of Mexico out of the Mississippi River. That seemed so beautiful, but if you're really adhering to the principles of the film, you would stay in Ellis's point of view.

At the end they're talking about, "Do you think he's alive? I don't know, I hope he is." You know? And then his dad would come to pick him up to go to work, and instead of ... And honestly, this was the reason why I really never did this, because I really love how we leave Ellis. In a way, the real end of the movie is Ellis looking across that parking lot and seeing those college girls, and just smiling at them when they nod to him.

That's really, for Ellis's character, that's the completion of what's important, meaning he has gotten over his first heartbreak. Which, his first heartbreak might be that girl in the parking lot, but it's also kind of Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and it's also kind of Mud, and it's also kind of his parents. Mud's big problem was that he ... It's kind of like a softer version of Lolita I guess, he was trapped, he was frozen in time in terms of his feelings for his first love, who was Juniper. He never was able to get over her, or get beyond that intense feeling that we've all had when we fall in love for the first time.

And so he's been in this kind of stasis his whole life, which maybe is partly why he remains so child-like and mythical, but it's also really hampering his life. He's chasing this girl around and killing somebody for her, and all this other stuff, and so we don't want Ellis to end up like that. We want to know that Ellis moves on, you know? Through that cycle, and he'll fall in love again. And he gets heartbroken again, but he'll be able to deal with it better and better and better, until he hopefully finds who he wants to spend the rest of his life. This is kind of the idea.

So that's why I ended there, and that's why I felt like, "Okay, well then now we can go to ... Who doesn't want to see Sam Shepard on a boat, looking at the Gulf of Mexico?" But there is another ending. If somehow, you could do it where you had the ending with Ellis in the parking lot, seeing the girls, and then his dad picks him up, and now they're out fishing, you know? Pulling in trout lines, and other things, and Ellis steps out onto an island to go get something, and he looks down and he sees these boot prints with crosses on the heels going into the water. Or coming out of the water, I'm not sure. And it ends with a closeup of his face just turning and looking, and then that would be the end of the movie. That'd be a pretty fun ending too, but it doesn't ... But I don't know.

It was harder to make that bigger point that I was talking about with that structure, because I like leaving Ellis in that moment of kind of moving on. I don't think he was supposed to encounter Mud again, and not that that other ending says that, but it's like he's done with Mud. Mud passed through his life on this river, but then the river took him on when Ellis didn't need that mentor anymore. I kind of like that. So that's why. These are the debates that I had with myself that you've now witnessed them happen in real time.

[Laughs] It's great to hear.

Yeah. So that's ... I know a lot of people hate the endings of my movies, but they're not ... What's the word I'm looking for? Callous, or they're not like, "Oh, okay. Well fuck everybody, I'm just gonna end it there." There's a fair amount of thought and processing that goes into it, and I really am trying to make these endings represent the whole. You know? Whatever.

No, that all makes sense. I read a quote of yours earlier today where you said what excites you is emotional conveyance. Having worked with Michael Shannon so many times, obviously he's an incredible actor, but specifically what qualities does he have that you know will convey the emotion you want? 

You know, you watch old Jimmy Stewart movies, especially the Hitchcock ones, and gosh, with a look he's able to convey such empathy, which means it could be painful, or it could be lovable, it could be ... I don't know. You do a slow push in on Jimmy Stewart's face, and there's something going on there. And Michael does that, but it's also kind of inscrutable. I mean, he can transit so much, but he also can hide so much from you.

Like when he says, "Why would I want to kill my little brothers?" And then we just hang on his face for a little bit, you're like, "Well, shit. I don't know where he's at on that." You know? But then, at the same time, my favorite shot of Michael Shannon in the a Jeff Nichols movie, and there are a bunch of them, there are a bunch of them. This isn't fair, because after he ... When he sees Jessica Chastain's character, his wife in Take Shelter, after going on that rant, that moment's pretty amazing. But in Midnight Special, when his son is running through the woods and he shouts after him, that moment's pretty special.

Here I am, you can write toward an emotional climax that is unspoken on a character's face, and you can set out to do that with confidence when you have Michael in that role. There are other actors that can do it, too, but man, it sure is nice watching Mike do it.

There's one story you have that I really hope you both make one day, the '60s biker movie you've talked about for the last few years. Where are you with that idea? Did you ever write that script?

There's no script for it, but I'm still ... It's really funny, I'm still emailing with the author of the book that inspired it, and I still think about it all the time. In fact, I mentioned it in a bar in Memphis when we were shooting this [short film], and Mike was sitting next to me, and he was like, "You've been talking about that damn idea for so long. You're never gonna make that shit." I'm like, "No, I am. It's a great idea."

I think I'm real intimidated by it, you know? And I haven't quite found my way into it. Because you got Sons of Anarchy and all this stuff, which is a show I don't watch, so it's not fair for me to judge it one way or another. But this movie's not that. Which is not fair, because I haven't seen ... Maybe it is, but I don't think so. I've watched some trailers and stuff for those shows. And that's not to say those shows are bad, it's they're not what I'm thinking about doing. But at the same time, it's tricky making a biker movie. It's tricky.

It's this weird thing where I don't want to just glorify it, but at the same time, there's something so glorious about what they're doing, and beautiful and free. Like all of those things ... And they're not affectations, they're real. All the things that biker culture ... And what I'm talking about making a movie about is, it's transition from this golden age of where it was less criminal and it was more just a place for outsiders to gather, but then how that kind of morphed and turned into somewhat more of a criminal organization.

So it's [a matter of] how to treat them, because they're not always doing good things, and how to not make that too beautiful and fun. How to make the right parts beautiful, and all that is about, I think, how we view them. Who the point of view character in that film is. And I've got ideas, two different ideas. But also, it doesn't take place in the south, it takes place in the Midwest. It's a completely different voice than I'm used to writing in. There are just a lot of things that intimidate me about it, but I truly hope one day I'll get my shit together and do that.


Make sure to check back soon for the last part of our three-part interview with Jeff Nichols.