Interview With Writer/Director Jeff Nichols

Young American film director Jeff Nichols is barely out of school. He graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts School of Filmmaking in 2001 and has written and directed six short films and a single feature film.

But he carries an old head on his young shoulders and has captured the attention of film writers and festival juries with his low budget revenge drama set in the American South. The prestigious film monthly Sight & Sound singled his film out from the pack at this year’s Berlinale in February. It was under-whelmed by the CIA saga The Good Shepherd and by The Good German with Blanchett and Cooney, but the magazine was impressed by the taut, clean lines of Nichols’ work and noted he was  ‘a talent to watch’.

Several months afterwards, Nichols’ Shotgun Stories won the Grand Jury Prize for New American Cinema at the Seattle International Film Festival. That was on June 17, a day before Nichols was due to present his film to audiences at the Sydney Film Festival (SFF), and you just can’t be in two places at once.

As a guest of the SFF and the Australian Film Commission’s IndiVision, Nichols had been invited to present a masterclass, one of several special sidebars for the professional Australian film industry at the festival.

Other guests of the SFF included Sisse Graum Jorgenson from Denmark, whose company Zentropa has produced the films of Susanne Bier (After the Wedding, Brothers), and Dutch director Nanouk Leopold, who had three of her films showing during the festival.

Nichols held a filmmaker dialogue on June 19 with a group of 30 or more indie filmmakers. ‘The masterclass surprised me a little. I expected to be talking to younger filmmakers who had probably not made any feature film. I was surprised to find out that I was talking to some of Australia’s leading indie filmmakers.’ And he shifted the focus to discuss in detail how he made Shotgun Stories.

It was a quick and clean operation, with little or no room for rehearsals and the film was shot in three weeks, over 12-hours days. “It was really the only way to get things done.’

Set in Little Rock, Arkansas where the writer/director grew up, Shotgun Stories is made with a spare and uncluttered technique, striking imagery and telling performances that are the mark of a director in command of his craft.

The sound and fury of this revenge drama is set among the cotton fields and dusty roads of rural Arkansas. A man who has fathered two sets of brothers by two different women dies and a feud erupts between them when the eldest son spits on his father’s coffin at the funeral.

The first three sons, Son, Boy and Kid, left behind to be brought up by a ‘hateful’ and implacable woman, are listless and barely functional and have suffered the most through their father moving on. The younger four brothers have at least been properly named and are making a go of it on the family farm.

What has been the response to the film’s title, while violence has become so everyday? ‘It’s a blessing and a curse,’ Nichols says, acknowledging that the title of his film and the violence it conjures up could turn some viewers off. The description in Variety magazine of ‘a point-blank buckshot blast of inarticulate American rage’ could too. Nichols agrees that it was risky. “But young audiences are up for it.’

Despite the ugly mood the film sets up, it plays out differently. Revenge is, after all, “an inappropriate response’ says Nichols, and this is no film of simple oppositions.

‘There are no bad guys in Shotgun Stories. The only character who perhaps constitutes a “bad guy” is Shampoo, who has a role like a Greek chorus.’  Urging people on, precipitating a confrontation.

Nichols says that literature has been a strong influence on his work. Yes, William Faulkner for one, and he is greatly inspired by contemporary southern American writers like the late Larry Brown and Harry Crews, as well as short story writer Raymond Carver, whose work was most recently adapted for the Australian film Jindabyne. He believes that short stories in particular lend themselves to film.

As for the movies that have influenced him, he says he had been greatly influenced by films like Tender Mercies directed by Australian Bruce Beresford and Terrence Malick’s Badlands, and Hud in which Paul Newman played a roguish errant son. ‘Actually, any film with Paul Newman.’  Billy Bob Thornton’s Slingblade was also an influence.

Nichols is now living in Texas, after his formative years in Arkansas which he describes as a ‘viciously beautiful place, where the people are harsh, blue collar workers’ with a tough take on life.

His female characters didn’t have much to say or do, did they? ‘No, but they inform what characters do,’ he says. During a Q&A after Shotgun Stories screened at the SFF a member of the audience thanked Nichols for making a rare film about the emotional life of men, and for ‘leaving so much unsaid’.

Nichols thinks that perhaps in the future he may get up the nerve to write for women, but time will tell. We may have to wait for the movie after his next, based on Goat, a memoir by Brad Land, an indictment of the fraternity system operating in American universities.

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