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Jeffrey Ryan Nichols directed and wrote the screenplays for the critically acclaimed movies Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter (2011), Mud (2013), and Loving (2016).
Jeff Nichols was born in Little Rock (Pulaski County) on December 7, 1978. He grew up in Little Rock, graduating from Central High School. He studied filmmaking at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where he befriended fellow Little Rock–born director and frequent collaborator David Gordon Green. He graduated in May 2001.
Following his father’s advice to write about Arkansas, Nichols began contemplating his youth in the land between Little Rock and England (Lonoke County), a landscape he says he romanticizes from childhood visits to his grandparents. Yet in writing and filming, Nichols says he feels “accountable to some kind of realism” regarding the South, which is often a film setting for “affectations.”
Nichols realized some of his thoughts about the South in his debut film Shotgun Stories, filmed mostly around Highway 165 in Scott (Pulaski and Lonoke counties), Keo (Lonoke County), and England. The film, starring Michael Shannon, is a revenge tale concerning three brothers amidst small town and rural landscapes. Shot on a thirty-five-millimeter camera (with Adam Stone as cinematographer, a position he held for Nichols’s first three films), the film underscores the effects of environment on people.
Nichols’s older brother, Ben Nichols, is the founder and leader of the Memphis, Tennessee–based alt-country-rock band Lucero. He contributed songs to Shotgun Stories as well as Nichols’s other films.
Shotgun Stories earned wide praise and garnered several awards, as did its follow-up, Take Shelter, also starring Michael Shannon along with Jessica Chastain. Filmed in Ohio, this near-future dystopian film revolves around the real and imagined apocalyptic events unfolding around a man as his wife questions his sanity. Nichols says the film was inspired by the financial crises of the late 2000s. Take Shelter won the Critics Week Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, among other awards.
He wrote the script for Take Shelter a short time after he wrote the pilot for an HBO series that was eventually rejected. The show, called Land of Opportunity, was set in Stuttgart (Arkansas County) in the near future and revolved around the lives of locals during the next Great Depression. Nichols has stated that he may revisit the script in the future.
Arguably Nichols’s greatest success to date, Mud, stars Matthew McConaughey as the title character and was filmed mostly in Dumas (Desha County), Stuttgart, DeWitt (Arkansas County), Lake Village (Chicot County), Crocketts Bluff (Arkansas County), and on a small island near Eudora (Chicot County). The film also features Reese Witherspoon and Sam Shepard; Shannon has a smaller role in this film. Tye Sheridan plays the central character: fourteen-year-old Ellis. Ellis’s friend Neckbone is played by Jacob Lofland, a Briggsville (Yell County) native.
The plot of the film follows Ellis and Neckbone as they meet a local drifter (Mud) who is hiding from the police on a small, uninhabited island on the Mississippi River. Mud is pursuing the unlikely plan of removing a boat stuck atop a tree on the island, navigating it down the Mississippi River, and picking up his old sweetheart Juniper (Witherspoon) on the way to the Gulf of Mexico and freedom. Feeling a connection to Mud, despite his murderous past and strange, superstitious behavior, the boys help him secure the boat.
Nichols has said that the film was inspired greatly by the river tales of Mark Twain. Nichols employed hundreds of local Arkansans in this tribute to a vanishing way of life, as the last remaining residents abandon their river houseboats for life in towns. Mud won wide praise from critics and won the 2014 Robert Altman Independent Spirit Award, among others.
Nichols began directing Midnight Special for Warner Bros. in 2013, which he wrote and stars Kirsten Dunst and Shannon. The film, which has been described as “a contemporary science fiction chase film,” was released to fairly wide praise in March 2016. His next film, Loving, based upon the Loving v. Virginia court case that overturned laws against interracial marriage, was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival; it debuted nationally in November 2016. Ruth Negga, who played the role of Mildred Loving, was nominated for a 2017 Academy Award for Best Actress.
Nichols lives in Austin, Texas. Nichols admires the films of Terence Malik, the director to whom he is often compared, though his favorite directors are Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg. On March 22, 2017, it was announced that Nichols would be serving as chairperson of the newly formed Arkansas Cinema Society, an organization with the aim to build a film community in the state of Arkansas.
Nichols released a short film, starring Shannon, in August 2018 inspired by the Lucero song “Long Way Back Home” from Lucero’s 2018 album Among the Ghosts. It was screened in Little Rock as part of Filmland, an annual event hosted by the Arkansas Cinema Society.
For additional information:
Ampezzan, Bobby. “Jeffrey Ryan Nichols.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, November 18, 2012, pp. 1D, 8D.
Dawson, Nick. “Jeff Nichols, Shotgun Stories.” Filmmakermagazine.com. March 26, 2008. http://filmmakermagazine.com/1309-jeff-nichols-shotgun-stories/#.UsXu99KA2cw (accessed March 3, 2017).
“Jeff Nichols.” Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm2158772/ (accessed March 3, 2017).
Millar, Lindsey. “Q&A with Jeff Nichols.” Arkansas Times, June 22, 2011. http://www.arktimes.com/arkansas/qanda-with-jeff-nichols/Content?oid=1825004 (accessed March 3, 2017).
Wallace, Amy. “Close Encounter: The Enigmatic Vision of Jeff Nichols, Hollywood’s Next Blockbuster Auteur.” Wired, March 2016. Online at http://www.wired.com/2016/03/jeff-nichols-midnight-special/ (accessed March 3, 2017).
Bryan L. Moore
Arkansas State University
Last Updated 8/28/2018
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