Down by the Mississippi River, if you take 4x4 trucks deep into the woods on what barely qualifies as a “road,” and then switch to utility terrain vehicles, you reach a deer camp. Next, continuing on foot, there is a large, old tree that happens to have a 35-foot, 1960s-era cabin cruiser wedged 30 feet up in its canopy. This location was dubbed “Boat-in-Tree,” and this was the trek that cast and crew — with equipment — made on a daily basis for director Jeff Nichols’ latest film Mud.
“We found locations that were hard to get to,” admits director of photography Adam Stone, “but when you see them on film, they are just gorgeous. It sets the movie apart.”
Shot in rural southeast Arkansas, Matthew McConaughey plays the titular character Mud, a fugitive hiding out in that boat in the tree, where he can elude the authorities but not a pair of curious teenage boys. The trio bond, and the boys become determined to help Mud escape the bounty hunters and reunite him with his one true love. Mud also stars Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard and Ray McKinnon.
Stone, who also shot Nichols’ films Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, chose a variety of stocks for Mud’s challenging shoot. “We had every different lighting situation, and the Kodak Film stocks were amazing,” he says, noting he used KODAK VISION3 Color Negative Films, including 50D 5203, 250D 5207, 200T 5213 and 500T 5219.
Because of the wide vistas, Nichols and Stone opted for the anamorphic format, utilizing a couple PANAVISION MILLENIUM XLs and G-series anamorphic lenses and a Panavised ARRI 235. They also had a hodgepodge of just-in-case gear — some old Gold series cameras and older long-lens primes. They were, after all, miles from any semblance of civilization and even farther from the nearest rental house. “The Mississippi River has a very brown palette, but the island we chose to shoot on was very verdant and full of life,” Stone explains. “It juxtaposed the brown color of the river well, and shooting anamorphic just added to the classicism of the film.”
Another prime location for the film was the aforementioned island, which was difficult to reach in the middle of the Mississippi River.
As Stone recalls, “We would arrive at base camp before sunrise, and jump in pontoon boats loaded with equipment. Then we would motor two miles downstream, dock on the beach, unload the equipment, walk to the shooting location, hide all the overflow equipment with branches, pull out the STEADICAM, and then shoot. The return trip after wrapping was just as interesting. Pontoon boats loaded with equipment, coupled with the onset of night and barge wakes made for a harrowing experience. (Note: Barges produce very large waves.)
“We shot a lot of scenes where we had no light control,” he says. “On the island, there was no way to get equipment other than the camera and a skeleton crew to it. So we didn’t have generators or overheads. We shot with a little bit of bounce, and that’s about it. On the beach, we used 50D Film. Under a tree canopy, we shot 250D Film.”
Nichols was adamant about having plenty of camera movement. So, a STEADICAM system was used liberally, with operator Matthew Petrosky often trudging through sand, water and mud. “On this film, we really wanted to open it up and have the camera move more than in our previous films,” says Stone. “Though we wanted a lot of movement, we wanted it to be benign and not call attention to itself. Matt did a fabulous job operating in such a manner.”
The filmmakers, themselves Southerners, often have found the South — whether person, place or just vibe — to be portrayed in an incorrect or artificial light in Hollywood movies. Here, they took great care in authenticity, embracing each location’s interior and exterior for what they were. Stone describes, “Shooting on location and staying away from sets gave the film a naturalistic look and palpable authenticity.”
For example, the interior location of a houseboat was shot in a real, 15-year-old houseboat that had been moved up river. In the Deep South, this meant that the structure was little more than a handmade shack floating on Styrofoam chunks. “The boat was small and cramped, so we brought in most of our light through windows,” the cinematographer says. “We did this by tethering flotillas to the side of the houseboat. For daytime setups, each flotilla had a 6K. We also set a 4K balloon in the river for some night work. The balloon was attached to a flotilla anchored to the river floor. Will White, our marine coordinator, made all the water work safe and fun.
“Flying a balloon out in a river was a first for me,” he adds, “and probably for the balloon operator, too! We did a lot of stuff for a small movie, and we were lucky to have such an agile film crew to get to each of these locations.”
Breakout Indie Director Jeff Nichols Talks About Why He Shoots On Film
Jeff Nichols has written and directed only three feature films—Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud—but while it is early in his filmmaking career, he already has garnered what seems like a lifetime’s worth of critical acclaim, most recently with his latest film Mud earning a nomination for the Palme d’Or prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Set in southeast Arkansas along the banks of the Mississippi River, Mud tells the story of two boys who help a fugitive reunite with the love of his life, with Matthew McConaughey playing the titular character known as Mud.
Nichols, an Arkansas native and graduate of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, collaborated with his cinematographer classmate Adam Stone on all three films, all of which were shot on film. Nichols talked with Kodak about Mud and how film fits into his expanding, evolving oeuvre.
The setting and story seem so intertwined, but being from Arkansas, did one come before the other in the development of the project?
Jeff Nichols: The original inspiration came from a photographic essay I found in the Little Rock Public Library called The Last River that is about people who make a living off the river in lower Arkansas and in Mississippi. This was an area in my home state that I wasn’t very familiar with, and I wanted to find out more about it and place a story there. One of my relatives owned a houseboat, and he toured me around the lower White River and the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers. It was this magical place teeming with wildlife and bald eagles. That sealed the deal of wanting to do something in that area. Simultaneously, I was thinking about the kind of story I could have, and it all grew together.
The budgets for your films have been low yet you adamantly shoot on film as opposed to alternatives. Why is that?
Nichols: The reason for using film has evolved since my first project, even though my conclusion is the same: It looks and feels better for me. I know what I can get out of film. Most all of it is thanks to my director of photography, Adam Stone. On Shotgun Stories, our first film we did together, the independent film market seemed flooded at the time because of the advent of nicer digital cameras. I thought that shooting on film, especially anamorphic, was a good way to separate myself from the pack. That was before I had fully examined the benefits of film because I had never shot a feature film before, nor 35mm. Out of that, I realized that film is such a beautiful format. What looks mundane when shot on video, film brings to life and brings energy to it. We really planned that entire movie—the budget was only $50,000—around shooting on film. Adam, with very few resources, would just take a camera and available light and craft beautiful images.
In Take Shelter, I started to take advantage of that a little more purposefully. We had to shoot Super 35 on that one. Because we would be running and gunning with no room for error and because I wanted to move the camera more, we were intimidated by anamorphic’s shallow focus. We wouldn’t have the time or money to do reshoots.
When it came time to do Mud, we had our ducks in a row and had more time and money, so we decided to go back to the anamorphic format. It really pays off. Adam knocked it out of the park with some beautiful stuff. I have so much respect for him. He’s made my career in a lot of ways.
How did you work the dense forest locations and their vertical structure into the wide anamorphic framing?
Nichols: It’s kind of funny. I saw that whole movie as a river constantly moving at a graceful pace, not just in terms of what we were photographing but how we were photographing things. I thought a lot less about horizon lines on Mud than I did on my last two films. Shotgun Stories was shot in the delta and was stagnant and still, much like the characters in the movie, so it was all about these locked-off landscapes that were big and open and beautiful but also suffocating at the same time. In Take Shelter, it is all about horizon lines because you have these massive storm clouds coming at you and we wanted to see the breadth of that. But for Mud, we follow these two boys, and it was all about movement. It was the first time we tackled any Steadicam work.
Did your choice of camera movement equate to the perspective of two boys exploring their world?
Nichols: For Shotgun Stories, there is no movement because it is about stagnation. Take Shelter is all dolly on track because it is about an unstoppable, supernatural force outside the edges of the frame that is pressing down on these characters—slow, slow laborious push-ins on our subject. With Mud, we threw the shackles off, and I wanted to go wherever these boys go. If they were running, I wanted to be running. This whole story is about adolescence and passing from boyhood to manhood. It felt like the movement from point A to point B on a river, especially the Mississippi with all of its winding and turning. Steadicam was the perfect way to represent that kind of energy with an elegant movement that just never stops, just like a river. The Mississippi flows at two to three miles per hour, so it is not about speed so much as it is about constant, elegant movement.
There are lots of greens and browns in the locations. Did the way Kodak film stocks render the color palette come into play?
Nichols: Where I noticed it the most was in the blacks. We were shooting in situations with very little light. I get nervous around lights, and I sometimes don’t like any. We were continually impressed by the grain structure and the quality of the inky blacks. We first noticed that on Take Shelter, the quality in the low-light areas was exceptional, and we applied that to Mud. Talking about latitude, the only light we were supposed to have was from one bare bulb on these houseboats or by fire in the middle of the woods, and that was how we did a lot of shots. I think Kodak went hand in hand with our ability to pull that off.
Was there any trepidation about shooting so far from support, or even what could be described as traditional civilization?
Nichols: I don’t remember being as worried about it as maybe I should have been. I’m used to being isolated from gear. You problem solve and work with what you have. I think that actually has benefited me on my three films. For me, from a director’s point of view, it’s about shooting time. On Mud, we were dealing with these boys, so we have a limited amount of time in the day to shoot with them and it takes you an hour and a half to get out to the location—it starts to make things a little dicey. That fear melted away when I rode down this muddy road to a location that no one has seen on film before or landing on a beach on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. I thought, this is going to pay off for all the difficulties we were enduring and the sacrifices we were making!
I was intimidated by the water from a safety perspective. We had our camera operator strapped with all this heavy gear, and we put him in a boat … you don’t want to think about it too much! It’s not like the Mississippi River is the calmest, safest river – there are whirlpools, undercurrents, logs sucked under water that explosively breach the surface. It’s scary!