NEW YORK - During a day of press interviews for Jeff Nichols' second film, "Take Shelter," a publicist scurried back and forth looking for the director. After some frantic searching, she realized the flannel shirt-clad Nichols was sitting right in front of her, casually chatting among journalists.
The 34-year-old, Little Rock, Ark.-native may be unassuming, but he's becoming harder to overlook. Next week, he'll release his third film, the Mississippi River coming-of-age tale "Mud," a movie that confirms Nichols as one of the most promising young filmmakers in the country, a personal storyteller with an instinct for the kind of classically American films of Steven Spielberg or Paul Newman.
With his indie debut "Shotgun Stories," his critical breakout "Take Shelter," and now "Mud," an ode to young love starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, Nichols has gradually grown in scale and skill. It's the kind of ascent Hollywood notices, but despite studio offers, he's so far stuck to writing his own scripts.
"It's tempting the same way it's tempting to become a garbage man," Nichols said in an interview by phone from his home in Austin, Texas. "It pays pretty well. You have your hours. You do your job."
"I'm not taking that route," he says. "I want to tell my own stories. I want to make movies with Mike Shannon."
Since first seeing footage of Shannon, the imposing, versatile actor of "Boardwalk Empire" and the upcoming "Man of Steel," Nichols swore he'd be in every film of his - a promise he's kept. Then a film student at the North Carolina School of the Arts (the film program that produced David Gordon Green and Danny McBride), Nichols called Shannon up to say he had written "Shotgun Stories," an unconventional story of brotherly revenge, for him.
"He didn't act like a kid," says Shannon. "He didn't talk like a kid."
Nichols' next film, "Take Shelter," starred Shannon as a paranoid young father obsessed with building a bunker for his family. Nichols wrote it out of the anxiety he was feeling personally in his first year of marriage, and generally in the air during the George W. Bush administration. The film won numerous awards at the Cannes Film Festival and appeared on many critics' top 10 lists for 2011.
Shannon treats Nichols like a younger brother: mockingly but affectionately. "I believe in him and I want him to prosper," says Shannon. "Kind of like a horse I got some skin on."
"He's got a real hunger to grow as an artist," Shannon adds. "I know for a fact that there's been projects he's been offered along the way that could have put some cash in his pocket and maybe gotten him a little more into the mainstream."
Nichols grew up the son of a Little Rock furniture shop owner and his father's "movie buddy" from an early age. (His brother Ben Nichols, who contributed music to "Mud," is the front man for the Memphis alt-country band Lucero.) A formative experience in college was working on Gary Hawkins' documentary about the Mississippi author Larry Brown, who demystified the creative process, telling him it was more about hard work than talent.
Nichols' favorite films, polled last year by Sight & Sound, aren't littered with the art house picks you might expect from an independent film star like Nichols, but instead feature beloved 1960s and `70s movies like "Hud," "Cool Hand Luke," "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "Jaws." Those influences are easy to see in "Mud," but Nichols says he thinks "Mud" owes even more to a fiction tradition.
"It feels like, I hate to say it, like the DNA of the whole thing," says Nichols. "I wanted it to feel like a Mark Twain story or some classic American fiction."
"Mud" stars Tye Sheridan (the preternaturally mature young actor who impressed in Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life") as the 14-year-old Ellis who, with his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), comes upon a fugitive named Mud (McConaughey) hiding out on a small island near his Arkansas home on the Mississippi. Mud's trouble, we learn, is due to his undying devotion to his less than trustworthy girlfriend (Witherspoon). The young Ellis identifies with Mud's romantic ideals and gathers supplies for him.
The film, ultimately, is about the innocence of first love and enduring the inevitable heartbreak that follows. Nichols had hoped the film's posters would be in the style of the illustrations in "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." (Marketing executives nixed the idea, saying it called to mind required high school reading.)
"More so than any other film I've ever worked on, we shot this film scene for scene, just what was written," says McConaughey, for whom Nichols specifically wrote the part years ago. "(Nichols) isn't trying to be someone else. The world and everything he embraces, he looks it in the eye."
Nichols first started writing "Mud" over a decade ago, and long yearned to make it. He considers it a culmination not only for him personally, but for his trilogy of films. (All were meant to be set and filmed in Arkansas but "Take Shelter" was shot in Ohio for tax breaks.) His skillfulness as a director, he says, has grown from the sparse stillness of "Shotgun Stories," to the structured dolly-track movement of "Take Shelter," to the fluid Steadicam of "Mud."
"Between these three films now, you have all been watching me learn how to direct," he says.
Though finding financing for his own projects remains a struggle, Nichols hopes to keep working in budgets south of $20 million, making personal films "that people, god forbid, want to see." He's nearly finished writing his next film, which is inspired by 1980s science-fiction movies. "The whole thing is about light," he says.
"I certainly feel like I'm ready now," says Nichols. "I wasn't fully formed before `Mud.' Now I feel like I can handle it."