Jeff Nichols talks screenwriting, calling Austin home

Penn Harrison

Austin-based writer-director Jeff Nichols has delivered one critically successful film after another, from thrillers like “Take Shelter” to the coming-of-age drama “Mud” and science fiction movie “Midnight Special.” The Daily Texan spoke with him about screenwriting, working with actors and living in Austin before the premiere of his new film “Loving” at Austin Film Festival. 

The Daily Texan: Peter Travers from Rolling Stone noted that you’re only 37 but already rank among the best directors of your generation. What advice would you give other young filmmakers trying to make the kind of impact you have?

Jeff Nichols: Try as best you can to set out and make a film as quickly as you can. Try and cultivate your ability to write. Everyone has that ability, but if you can, cultivate it. It will serve you well. I think this industry rewards creativity. They want the stories. And if you can be one of the few people that actually create them and execute them into a film, it will stand you in a good state throughout the rest of your career. 

DT: How do you adapt your directing style to the different actors you’ve worked with?

JN: Well, you know, every person on this planet’s different. It’s my job to provide an environment and a situation for them to do the best work they possibly can. They have a very tricky job. They are surrounded by things that are completely fake, and we’re asking them, between “action” and “cut,” to do something honest. 
The first thing I do for an actor is on the page. I try and make sure the behavior of that character makes sense. When you’re on set, you just have to understand what an actor needs. [Michael] Shannon doesn’t need very much. He takes that script and he’s ready to go. We don’t rehearse, we just kinda do it. Joel [Edgerton] is different because Joel’s from Australia, and I have him playing Southerners … so there’s a mechanical process that happens with him figuring out the voice. He’s also very big into doing things with his hands.

Every actor has their best range of takes in my opinion. Shannon’s really the only one who will give you eight to 10 takes and they’re all just pretty weird and interesting. McConaughey’s like a four or five take kind of guy. You start going up to eight or nine, and you’re starting to cover territory we’ve seen before. But he’s really fascinating take three to five. Ruth Negga was a take one kind of lady. She just showed up and it was really great. There were only a couple occasions where we would go into higher takes. 

DT: A lot of filmmakers make it big with one film then move out to Los Angeles. You chose Austin. Why? 

JN: I was living in Austin before I made my first film, and I plan on living in Austin for the rest of my life. My family’s here, my wife and son. L.A.’s a fun place to visit, especially if you’ve been successful in the movie-making business, because a lot of people want to talk to you and shake your hand and treat you really nicely. But it’s not reality. It doesn’t reflect who I am as a person, and it doesn’t really reflect the types of stories I want to tell. For me, it was important to be in a place where I’m at least referred to and treated like a normal person. That’s really important to me.