Who Is Jeff Nichols and Why Aren’t You Watching His Movies?

According to Rotten Tomatoes (RT), the #5 best-reviewed movie of 2013 was Mud.  It featured an acclaimed title-role performance by one of the bigger stars in Hollywood, Matthew McConaughey, who (by the way) won that year’s Best-Actor Oscar for the eighth-best-reviewed picture (Dallas Buyer’s Club).  It also had supporting performances from Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson and Michael Shannon, among other familiar actors.  And it boasts a 98% “fresh” RT rating.  Yet RT reports less than $22 million in box office for Mud; compare that to $274 million for Gravity, RT’s #1-ranked film in ’13, but also a blockbuster hit.

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Filmmaker Jeff Nichols at a gala screening of Mud in 2013. By larry-411 (Intro, “Mud” Gala Screening) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Shannon anchors a repertory company of actors that are loyal cast members for the director of Mud, Jeff Nichols, who has also worked repeatedly with Shepard and, more recently, Joel Edgerton.  Edgerton co-starred along with Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Shepard (in a cameo) in Midnight Special, a poorly titled but beautifully crafted genre-grafting sci-fi/chase/supernatural/family drama released early this year.  Despite some ravishing special effects, that strong cast, and mostly enthusiastic reviews, Midnight Special made barely $3 million at the box office, according to RT.  It had its HBO premiere last night (if you subscribe to the premium cable channel or have HBO Go, it’s certainly worth a look).

Nichols launched his screenwriting and directing career with 2007’s spare, darkly lyrical Shotgun Stories, starring Shannon and set amidst a financially and spiritually impoverished clan in a desolate-if-rather-scenic patch of mid-America (of Nichols’ home state, Arkansas, to be more specific).  It established the filmmaker’s naturalistic style, his milieu in what lately the media has stereotyped as Trump country (his characters are often struggling or disappointed working-class white folks in rural regions of the central and southern U.S.), and his fascination with boys and young men groping for their meaning and purpose in the world.  It only began to hint at Nichols’ mythic vision; there is a latter-day Hatfield & McCoy/Mourning Becomes Electra feel to the proceedings, and the central characters are named Son, Boy, and Kid.  But it earned him a well-deserved reputation as a top-tier director of actors; small wonder that the likes of Jessica Chastain and Shea Whigham chose to join Shannon as stars of Nichols’ next feature, Take Shelter, released in 2011.  Although it had the strong support of the great opinion-maker Roger Ebert, Shotgun Stories (which is now available to rent on iTunes) grossed only $45,000 at the box office, according to IMDB.

Nichols has made five movies (he wrote as well as directed them all); of the four that I’ve seen, Take Shelter is my favorite.  I think Shannon, who plays a young father obsessed with protecting his family from a cataclysmic storm he mysteriously forecasts, deserved another Oscar nomination for his intense, profoundly haunted, sometimes outright-unhinged performance.  The picture somehow simultaneously achieves a realistically gritty, empathetic depiction of an economically insecure working man’s inchoate terror along with an extraordinary dreamlike quality.  It too got some of the best reviews of its year, but RT reports it made just $1.6 million.

From the evidence I’ve seen, Nichols has not yet created a film that’s great from top to bottom.  Take Shelter‘s ending is nightmarishly ambiguous, and it tantalizes us with the filmmaker’s potential.  Midnight Special‘s plot builds in a remarkably engrossing way (despite some obviously gaping holes) and its conclusion fully answers its dramatic question, but thematically it leaves us wondering what exactly was the point.  If you’ve seen any of these movies it was most likely Mud, and you most likely enjoyed it a lot but you more than likely would call it derivative of everything from Tom Sawyer to Stand by Me.  Whatever their imperfections, though, these are absorbing movies and every one is superbly acted by audience favorites.  So why aren’t they more successful?

Maybe Nichols’ latest film, Loving, will be his commercial breakthrough.  It’s a departure in that it’s a true story (of the interracial couple whose Supreme Court case forever established their right to marry even in the south).  But in many ways it plays to his strengths, it stars the popular Edgerton (with, of course, Shannon in a supporting role), it too has been well reviewed, and for the first time a Nichols film seems a fairly strong candidate to win one or more major awards.  So far, though, you haven’t seen it any more than I have–am I right?  I’m guessing, because RT says it’s made less than $7 million gross.

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Nichols with Loving stars Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton at the Festival de Cannes.

Photo: Georges Biard [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia

This Director’s a Beast of at Least Four Nations

Cary Fukunaga

Cary Fukunaga “Beast Of No Nation” at Opening Ceremony of the 28th Tokyo International Film Festival. By Dick Thomas Johnson from Tokyo, Japan

I was more than intrigued enough by the can’t-look-away-or-even-blink direction of True Detective‘s first season on HBO to become curious about the work of Cary Joji Fukunaga.  I was also delighted when he won an Emmy Award for his work on that gripping series.

When I saw Beasts of No Nation on Netflix, though, I felt compelled to learn more.  Beasts is the first film distributed from day one by Netflix, which premiered the movie simultaneously in art-house cinemas and  on its home video streaming service.

It  depicts the experience of a child forced into service as a soldier under the command (and under the spell) of a charismatic and depraved warlord fighting a fictional civil war in an unidentified west African country (it was shot in Ghana).  The movie is devastating in its authenticity, shocking, heartbreaking, and sickeningly violent, yet it is hypnotically beautiful, sometimes hallucinatory in its visual intensity, sometimes surprisingly funny, and maybe, just maybe, a little bit hopeful about the resiliency of the human spirit.  Somehow it ended up reminding me of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which for decades I have called the greatest movie I’ve ever seen.

Fukunaga not only directed but also wrote (dramatizing the novel by Uzodinma Iweala), produced, and lit the film as its director of photography.  When the camera operator pulled a hamstring, the director (after recovering from malaria) even shot the rest of the picture himself.

Fukunaga has said he hopes as many people as possible will see Beasts on a big screen, and I for one would love to, but I don’t live near a theatre that’s showing it.  It has been a complete disappointment at the box office yet millions have seen it in their homes.

Idris Elba, the formidable British star that plays the warlord, called “The Commandant,” is said to be a likely Oscar nominee, and the miraculous performance of novice actor Abraham Attah, who was 14 (but looked as young as his character, the happy-go-lucky 11-year-old Agu) when the film was made, has generated considerable speculation that he might become the youngest best-actor nominee in the history of the Academy Awards.  In a ten-nod Best Picture race I wouldn’t be surprised to see Beasts itself get a nomination, though perhaps Fukunaga himself is a longshot.

Having seen Beasts, I found myself at home sick one day last week, unable to get much work done but functional enough to watch a couple of movies.  I found that Fukunaga’s 2011 feature, Jane Eyre, filmed in the north of England and starring Mia Wasikowska, Michael Fassbender, Jamie Bell, Judi Dench(!), and Simon McBurney, with a script by Moira Buffini, was also streaming on Netflix, so I had a look.  In many ways it is very much in the tradition of other good recent adaptations of romantic novels (such as Joe Wright’s 2005 Pride and Prejudice), but it is redolent of its director’s distinctive, simultaneously dark-yet-airy style.  It is a very good movie, and it is unusually well acted.

Now on a mission, I next found Fukunaga’s first feature, the acclaimed 2009 indy Sin Nombre, on iTunes, and rented it.  It is an arrestingly strong directorial debut, winning a top award for him at the Sundance Film Festival. It too is beautifully shot and beautifully acted.  It was shot mostly in Mexico and most of the dialogue is spoken in Spanish, one of two additional languages in which the English-speaking, California-born-and-reared American Fukunaga is fluent (his father’s ancestry is Japanese, his mother’s is Swedish).

I thought I noticed several commonalities among these films (which are also present in True Detective).  The destruction of childhood at the hands of others (whose souls were perhaps also poisoned at a young age?) is a consistent theme (he is planning a film inspired by the suicide of Jadin Bell, a bullied gay teen).  Fukunaga’s worldview is hugely compassionate yet deeply haunted.  He has a truly extraordinary sense of place, conveying an expansive and highly specific sense of each world he explores/creates on screen, finding the terror that permeates remarkably beautiful landscapes and the beauty that radiates from remarkably terrible settings.

In a few cases Fukunaga has worked with some of the most acclaimed actors in the world (Dench, Fassbender, True Detective‘s Matthew McConaughey), but he is better known for drawing amazing work from fresh talents (Wasikowska) and complete neophytes (Attah and Sin Nombre‘s Edgar Flores).  I couldn’t help wondering how he elicits such deeply felt, nakedly honest performances from his casts.

My reading provided few clues, but what I did find was gratifying to me as a proponent of clear, economical storytelling–and respect for actors.  In Allen St. John’s interview with Fukunaga for Forbes magazine (Feb. 9, 2014) about True Detective, the director said:

I think I learned discipline on Jane Eyre. Charlotte Bronte’s dialogue, the intellectual duel between Rochester and Jane Eyre’s character is so compelling that you didn’t have to do much with the placement of cameras. It was up to the actors to do most of it.  The tete a tete they have by the fireplace I literally just put the camera over each actor’s shoulder and let them do their best work. At times it felt like I should be doing something else instead of just sitting there. But it was the right thing.

I knew that what was going on [when detectives played by Michael Potts and Tory Kittles were interrogating McConaughey’s character in True Detective] was going to be really interesting. Especially contextualized and juxtaposed with the past. So my idea was to be as simple as possible. No reason for shaky hand-held cameras. Just set the camera down and let the actors do their work.

Fukunaga is not above shooting his inexperienced actors without actually telling them that the camera is on.  This is him speaking to Jada Yuan for an interview on vulture.com (Sept. 30, 2015):

…a lot of times I would shoot without calling “rolling.” When you’re dealing with non-actors — and the same thing happens in America — they change as soon as you say, “Action!” There’s something about people just being people that feels much more authentic….  [W]e would start rolling scenes without people knowing, and then [Idris Elba] would start giving people an order. It looked more authentic because then people were living in the moment of whatever was happening.

As impressed as I have been by the virtuosity of some of Fukunaga’s camera blocking, I am also inspired by his desire to serve the story, the actors, and the audience without foregrounding his own contribution.  Katey Rich wrote in Vanity Fair (October 18, 2015):

The single-take action sequence in the fourth episode of True Detective became famous, but Fukunaga says he doesn’t like shots—single takes or otherwise—that call attention to themselves. “You are, as a director, a sort of conductor of the whole thing, the orchestra,” he says. “You aren’t letting the music speak for itself. You’re like doing all this crazy shit, and everyone is looking at, you know, instead of listening to the music.”

I also sense that Fukunaga is a highly practical craftsman/leader, enormously prepared but also enormously flexible.  I’m impressed by his willingness to puncture the myth of the purist auteur in this quote, which is also from his chat with Yuan:

I compromise all the time. You find solutions. If anything, that’s probably my skill-set: trying to get what I want, but also making everyone else and the powers that be happy as well.

Everything I’ve seen and read makes me want to learn still more about Cary Fukunaga and how he does his consistently excellent work as a motion picture and television director.  In fact, writing this post has made me want to go back and watch the whole first season of True Detective again, and most of the movies as well.  I think he is an artist worth following, and I’m eager to see what’s next from this 38-year-old filmmaker.  Here’s Rich again in Vanity Fair:

“There are directors who are brands,” Fukunaga says. “People are going to see a Tarantino film, people are going to see a Fincher film. That’s very helpful.” How about a Fukunaga film? “Probably not yet,” he says. “Hopefully in a couple years, a couple more films, people want to see a Fukunaga.”

In this case, I guess, I’m an early adopter.  I want to see a Fukunaga.


Je Me Souviens

The recent annual conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) in Montreal turned my head around in several ways.  The theme of the conference was “Je me souviens,” which is the motto of Quebec and means something like, “Lest we forget” or simply “I remember.”  As a result, many of us were thinking in various ways about memory and history in relation to theatre and performance.

By Joanne Lévesque (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Joanne Lévesque (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

As journeyman directors we may be called upon to stage stories drawing on a potentially vast range of content, and few if any of us can claim to be experts in so many subjects.  For a period of weeks we lead a theatre company and then an audience into territory that may be completely unfamiliar, not only to them but to us.  Certainly part of our job is to study the available “maps,” researching geography, society, culture, history–memory–to illuminate our paths.  But how much must we learn of each setting, each community of characters, each character’s belief system, each time period?  How much must we, in effect, “remember?”

One excellent panel I attended in Montreal addressed questions related to these in ways I found thought-provoking and ultimately reassuring.  The renowned American director Sharon Ott began with a rather startling statement: “I profoundly doubt the veracity of the stories we tell ourselves when we remember.”  This launched a fascinating discussion with Canadian directors Gordon McCall and Catherine Joncas that included contemplation of history as un-knowable in any absolute way.  They talked of learning to trust stories that are more deeply connected to spirituality than is factual history.  At another good session, Prof. Siouxsie Easter spoke of the idea from Simon McBurney (Complicité‘s Mnemonic) that remembering is “not just an act of retrieval but a creative thing.”

(An alternate point-of-view is emerging among some LGBTQ people in response to the trailer for Stonewall, a fictionalized movie treatment of the 1969 rebellion in New York’s Greenwich Village that lit a fire under the gay rights movement, which was written by playwright Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Roland Emmerich of action-adventure movie fame.  Some are calling for a boycott of the movie, saying it “whitewashes” the riots by downplaying or neglecting the courageous contributions of people of color and trans people such as the African American drag queen Marsha P. Johnson.  Baitz and Emmerich are saying that the role of diverse people is depicted in the full film even though their story centers on a handsome young white gay cisgender man [an American who happens to be played by an English actor, but that’s a subject for another post].  The boycott’s leaders say they want the truth, the facts, the history of the rebellion to be represented accurately in the film, and all accounts do indeed suggest that drag queens, trans people and people of color were indeed among those that took the lead in the Stonewall fight.  [For an exhaustively researched account of the riots, see my friend David Carter’s amazing book, Stonewall.])

If history is subjective and inevitably incomplete, though, is there any point in researching it?  I started to ask in the Ott/McCall/Joncas session if these directors didn’t still want to learn as much as possible about the historical context of whatever they were directing, but I concluded that the question answers itself.  Then another person attending the session asked a more penetrating question: What if an invention, well-intentioned but born in part of a lack of information, becomes a cultural misappropriation? When is it acceptable to use another’s story for our own artistic purposes?

Joncas had a provocative answer, and one I hope is right: “When it’s good.”  Maybe we can never know as much as we would like, or as others might think we should, about the contexts of the plays we direct, and certainly we can never know it all.  But if we come to know as much as we can, inquiring and collaborating with an open mind and voracious curiosity with our dramaturgs and other team members, if we work with respect and integrity, and if, in the end, our productions are worthy of being called “art,” perhaps we can hope that is enough.