Director Jeff Nichols On What's He's Been Watching And What He's Been Working On [Interview]

Jeff Nichols movie hasn't played in theaters in for two years now. We recently saw another project from the director of Take Shelter and Mud, a short film based on a Lucero song, but not since Loving has he shot another feature. However, based on all the projects he's working on and the ideas he's toying with, including an Alien Nation remake and an animated kids movie, we might not have to wait much longer for another Nichols feature. And when we do see his sixth movie, it'll be a reflection of the times –Nichols is sure of that.

The filmmaker recently spoke with us for an extended interview about his short film The Long Way Back Home, and following up part one and part two of our conversation with him, we now dive into what's next for Nichols, what he's been binge-watching, and why he doesn't believe we're living in the golden age of television.

It's surprising hearing you say how intimidated you are by making the biker movie, because I read that after Loving, you felt strongly that was your technically most accomplished movie as a director, so I'd figure there'd be more confidence tackling a story like the biker idea. How did your experience on Loving, and coming away from it with that takeaway, influence what you want to do in the future as a director? 

I think Loving was me getting me down, in terms of ... When I say technical, those are the directing skills. And really, if you want to reduce it even further, it's that I finally felt control over how I moved the camera. I've always had control over the frame, but camera movement has always been something that has intimidated me, and I feel like I got those two things worked out for my kind of movie.

Loving is not my story. It is not my film in many ways, because it's so much of the Loving story. Maybe this is one reason why I talk about it in terms of technical proficiency more than narrative proficiency, but I think it was told in a style that I've been working on since Shotgun Stories, and it's like, "Oh, this is the grown up, professional version of that style." It's still slow as molasses, but very specifically guided. That camera is guiding you through that movie, and sitting with those characters, and that I'm very proud of.

And I know this is gonna sound real granular, and maybe super technical, but I finally figured out the camera system that I loved the most. Steady Cam has always been interesting, and Mud was a Steady Cam movie. But nine times out of 10, Steady Cam just isn't the ... It's not the movement I want, and it's not just about movement, front back, left right, it's got that floating feel to it. Because it's sitting on that gyroscope, you know? So when you look at a ... Basically a static Steady Cam shot, it's just got this drift to it. It is really appropriate for some things; it was really appropriate for Mud because everything was about movement and water.

But the Coen Brothers, their stuff doesn't move like that. And No Country For Old Men is one of my favorite films, and we were looking at how they moved that camera, and I realized they have a dolly with a jim arm on it with a remote head on it. So you've got all of this tremendous amount of movement, but it's a bit of a dance with your crew. So you have your dolly grip, who is able to move front and back, but then you've got the person on the arm who's able to move up down, left and right. Each of them have a monitor, so they're kind of veering you in.

And then you have your camera operator, usually on wheels. Remotely operating this head that can move all these different ways. So you've got like three different people having to get sunk up with the same idea, but you say, "Okay, Joel Edgerton is gonna walk out of this building, and I want to move with him. I don't want him to have to change his pace at all, and I want you to stay rock solid in a medium close-up." And then you can do it, you know? And if he stops and bends down to tie his shoe, you can go down there with him.

It was like, "Oh, God. I'm such an idiot. It's with equipment like this that Spielberg has been designing those beautiful fluid masters that I've always loved and dreamed of." I was like, "How did he do that?" And I know it seems almost remedial and stupid, but we figured that out. We figured that out, and it was ... At some point, I'll have enough money just to have a Techno Crane around all the time, which is another version of this. But I don't know, that's a technical box I feel I checked with Loving.

Which seems really specific, and other filmmakers might read into it, "That guy's an idiot." But I've always been so reserved in my direction. I feel like I was coming out in time, developing as a director for film school and stuff when movies were getting kind of crappy, and cameras were flipping ... You had Guy Ritchie and stuff, and the camera's doing all these crazy things and you got Tony Scott making movies with cameras flipping around and doing all these other things, and those are all amazing techniques in their own right, but I was so concerned with point of view and what the camera's saying, what the placement of the camera is saying, and what the mood says and what the movement of the camera itself says.

Starting off, I just wasn't smart enough to start off moving it around a lot. And now I feel like I've got a handle on that. And it's why I'm amazed by directors that seem to come out hatched, fully-formed. And that's very impressive to me, but it's also been the thing that kind of keeps me from misstepping, I think, in some ways.

What are you working on right now?

So I've been working on Alien Nation like for two years, the screenplay. And I'm still ... I'm almost done with it. I'm hoping this draft that I'm working on now will be my last. And the studio seems to really love it, and we're working on conception design of the aliens and everything else, and it happens to be a studio that's being bought by Disney right now. I'm working with Fox on it, so it feels a little bit like you're one of those monks or whatever that's doing those giant murals in sand.

It might just blow away, which would be a real shame, but everybody at Fox has been so good to me about it. They're so positive about it, obviously I'm trying to stay in the positive zone, and hopefully knock out this last draft. It's epic. I mean, it's the biggest canvas I've ever painted on, but it 100 percent feels like a Jeff Nichols film. Which I'm sure there are gonna be some Alien Nation fans out there that are like, "What the fuck?" But my hope is if they ... If people come to it just ready for a new story, that they'll like it. And I put my heart and soul into it, it is like ... To be the project that's supposed to be me being a sell out, it is like the least ... I'm not saying that to save face or be cool. I put so much of myself into it, it takes place in Arkansas. There's so much of me in it.

When you're making something that big, there's just so many things that are out of your control. In a weird way, all you can control and concentrate on is the creative aspect. The winds will blow you where they blow you, but as long as you're telling to where you want to tell, and whenever that stops, then you gotta raise your hand and go, "Guys, this isn't gonna work for me anymore."

But so far, that's not been the case. So hopefully Alien Nation goes, I've got a couple of things that I won't say are more serious films, because Alien Nation is actually pretty serious, but there's a lot more traditional kind of adult movies. I've got a couple of those but I haven't settled on one, and then I've got a really another big PG, PG-13 kind of like summer blockbuster family film, which makes it sound real lame, but it's not. It's more like Mud, but with some bigger fantastical elements in it.

That one, I'm super excited about. But I can't speak to any of it now, mainly because I'm just so in Alien Nation work right now, which might be two more years of my life, but I'm gonna ... Yeah, there's this other script I want to write, and then I've been developing this animated children's film that I really want to do.

A lot of exciting stuff.

There is. I feel like I'm in this period that's kind of around between 2008 and 2010, when I was writing Take Shelter and Mud during the same summer. It felt like Loving was the end of a chapter of those five films. You know, I'd done a studio film with Midnight Special. And I went on the award circuit kind of for Loving. I accomplished a lot of things with those five films just personally and professionally, and I came out of Loving without the next script done.

It was like, "Okay, I'm gonna take this time to not only take on this big project Alien Nation, but really think about who I am and what I'm ... I have a microphone now for better or worse for a little while, what I want to say with this stuff, what I want the work to do, how I want to challenge myself professionally, personally." And I feel like Mark Twain talked about it. For a story, it's like a well of creativity that you empty, and you gotta wait for that well to fill back up. And my well is full, and I'm ready and I'm putting a lot of that stuff on paper now, so that you can then have another run where you're making things in a bit of both.

It's a run, you know? Because it's hard being a writer/director. It's just slower. I really envy ... I certainly think later in life I'll do this, I just really envy people that read a great script, and they're like, "Oh, let's go do this." Then they're making a movie. You know? It's just different for me because these things are all so personal to me. And I try to make them about life, you know?

Not just my life, but my point of view on life, and when you do that they just take on more weight, more gravity. That doesn't mean they're better films, it just means they take more time and they really feel like these kind of personal ... All of them. Even the ones like Alien Nation that are based on existing property and completely out of my control with a studio. Still mine.

Random question, but I'm just curious, what have you enjoyed watching lately? 

Man, whenever they ask that question, my mind just goes blank. I've been binge-watching a few things, currently I'm almost done with season two of Atlanta. It's pretty fantastic. I don't know quite what to make of it, I'm just kind of enthralled. Trying to think of the last feature film I saw, probably in the theater was Mission – Impossible: Fallout. It was okay, so many impressive stunts and things. I wish the dialogue had been a little bit better. It was just kind of like you put all this time and effort into these stunts, and then it's like the dialogue is so ... It's just like a sledgehammer hitting me in the face. I wonder, huh, maybe that's just all you had time for, I'm not sure, but that kind of bugged me a little bit.

I'm trying to think of the last big movie that I was really floored by. My producing friend Brian just produced this film Operation Finale that I liked. But I'm just trying to think of the most recent stuff I've seen. I do this thing called the Arkansas Cinema Society, I kind of helped create it. And we're trying to bring famous people to Arkansas to talk about their experiences and stuff, and kind of give people access to people in the industry. We just had our big event in August, and we had Will Forte as a guest, and I re-watched all four seasons of Last Man on Earth, which was pretty incredible. Pretty hilarious.

Do you have any interest in writing and directing a television show? 

Yeah, yeah. I would do something long form. I don't see how I'm gonna avoid it. One, it's really an interesting challenge as a writer. It's just where things are going, so yeah, I've got a couple of ideas for that stuff. Okay, here's a statement. I'm getting a little pissed off because everybody's like, "Oh, it's the golden age of TV. It's the golden age of TV. Streaming and service and stuff, feature films are dead." It's like, "Well, kind of. But half this shit isn't that good."

[Laughs] That's very true. 

What it is is they got a really good premise, and I'm not gonna go into detail, but they got a really good premise, so you're like, "Oh, I'm curious about watching that." And then they have cliffhangers at the end of every one. It's designed for binge-watching. I find myself watching these shows, and in the middle I'm checking my email, I'm reading the news on my phone. And I'm like, "This writing is not that good. It's almost like they gave them too much time." What do you got, 10, 13 episodes? And it's like, you can do this shit in 75 minutes. It's not great TV if all you're doing is making me want to watch the next episode, right? That calculus is too easy. And the thing is, they're really good at because I watch the next episode, because inherently you want to know and you want to finish, but I think there's gonna come a time where people are gonna be like, "Now wait a damn minute."

And to be quite honest, some of these things that are really good, like these longer format documentaries that are four part or six-part thing, they need to be three parts. They give them too much time. Hopefully there's a recalibration coming of like ... Yeah, I know you can have that much time, and I'll watch because naturally, as a human being and a viewer, I want a conclusion to the story, but that doesn't mean you're being a good shepherd of my time and of the storytelling unit. Whatever that unit happens to be for the six episodes, two hours, an hour and a half.

I think that's why people like Game of Thrones so much, and it sometimes suffers from what I'm talking about, but not that much. I think where it really succeeds is you feel the mind of that author, but also those two creators. Not creators, those two executive producers that make you go, "Oh, they've been planning this shit for a long time. They plotted this from the beginning." And that's really satisfying, you know? It's not like traditional sitcom faire where you're like, "Oh, well there's always more story. We'll just create it when they pay us to."

For me, it's much more satisfying, short form or long form, feature or series, to see a creative mind doling out their story to you in a very specific way. That interests me very much. Hopefully, there's a temperance that's gonna come, because this idea that all this shit's great... Bullshit. It's not. But when you find it, when you find it, it's amazing. Like Atlanta, you're like, "Those guys are on another level." It's hard for me to even understand what they're doing, but I like it, you know? So I don't know. But yeah, if I can ever get finished with Alien Nation, yeah, there's a lot I want to do [Laughs].

[Laughs] Earlier you said how you want to express your point of view on life with your work. You haven't made a movie since Loving, which came out in 2016. The last two years have been a terrible time for our country, so with everything going on, has it deeply affected your point-of-view and the stories you're writing? 

Totally. How could it not? Just wait until you see Alien Nation. My thing is, I kind of think we're having fundamental conversations about the society that we want to live in. Everybody seems kind of focused on partisanship and are you on the right or on the left? And politicians and just political conversations, it's like there's a centrifugal force going on in it. It's pushing everybody to the outside, which is never good.

I don't profess many political views, but I know fanaticism is not one that ever ends well for anybody. So whenever I start to think about it in my work, it very quickly kind of like ratchets up to much bigger questions about what kind of country do we want to have? But then you even bounce out of that one, what kind of society do we want to be a part of? I think as a storyteller, you want to look at the world and not just judge it, but just try to see it. See it for what it is, and see people for who they are and try to understand their points of view.

And so I come from the south, which is obviously currently pretty right-leaning, and I'm in an industry that is completely left-leaning, and I am certainly somewhere in the middle on a lot of these things. And it's not so much about what my politics are, it's more about where people are. And I'm trying to understand people that voted for Trump, and not just completely dismiss them. I'm trying to understand where all this anger came from, and where it ... It's easy to see where it's coming from now because it's just being stoked, literally, by the person in the White House. I think on purpose, that is a very calculated move.

But where did it come from before that? And now you're getting so much anger from the left because they are on the losing end of things currently, and I'm just trying to understand what people want and what they're going for, and trying to think about as human beings, what kind of society we need to function. There's a reason why there are two different sides to this, there's probably even more. But there's a reason why there's two ... Why there are two political parties, and there's a balance there. And there is a beautiful balance in governance set forth. Anything that infringes on that balance kind of freaks me out.

It kind of scares me, and it feels like that balance is being messed with a little bit. Not just by the government, but by citizens. But also I'm writing a movie called Alien Nation, and I've been asking myself a lot of questions about what it means to be a nation, you know? And the social contract that we have with one another that supposedly makes that operate. So you know, that question is actually very much pointed toward my next project.