Jeff Nichols and Matthew McConaughey on the set of MUD

'Mud' and 'Take Shelter' Director Jeff Nichols Delivers University of Arkansas 2017 Commencement Address


Do I dare classify Jeff Nichols as one of Hollywood’s elite writer-directors of the 21st century?

Perhaps that’s a bit of an overstatement. How about this - Jeff Nichols is one of Hollywood’s elite writer-directors of the 21st century under the age of 40? Better right? Regardless of age or adjectives, perhaps we can agree that writer-director Jeff Nichols has quickly established himself as a visual auteur whose knack for storytelling transcends the metaphysical, instilling a unique sense of place through carefully crafted characters and layered familial bonds as seen in Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, Midnight Special, and Loving. All this in a career that spans less than ten years.

Jeff Nichols
Jeff Nichols

In case you were wondering what Jeff Nichols has been up to - outside of his Alien Nation reboot and launching the Arkansas Cinema Society - he recently gave the keynote commencement address to the 2017 University of Arkansas – Clinton School of Public Service graduating class. Though Nichols attended film school at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, the bonds that tie his creative works are deeply rooted in the city where he grew up - Little Rock, Arkansas. What follows is the complete transcript from his commencement address on May 7, where Jeff shared his philosophies of passion and how that passion spawns ideas, and how our ideas can shape the world around us.

You can also watch the full video (starts at the 18:00 mark) however based on the production quality (along with a screaming baby) you may want to sit down with a cold beverage and enjoy the read.

Jeff Nichols - Clinton School of Public Service Commencement Address

"First off, congratulations. Your achievement at this University is remarkable and it deserves all of this recognition and more. I’m honored to be speaking with you and I can’t wait to see what amazing things you all do in this world. I imagine some of the smartest ones among you are asking, what could a guy that makes movies possibly have to say to a group so committed to the betterment of the world? It’s a fair question, and one that I’ve been asking myself since Skip invited me to give this speech two months ago. So I tried to think about this program and the work that you all are setting out to do, and I tried to find a way to relate to it. I realized that what you all are setting out to do and what I set out to do in my career, while the goals are different, the inspiration and execution of those goals are pretty similar. We all are passionate about an idea, and we all must strive to service that idea with our work. So I want to talk about passion, I want to talk about the creation of an idea, and I want to talk about the service we give to those ideas. Together, I think these things are the engines that help us affect the world.

The greatest thing about a passionate person is that they don’t need to be told what to do. That doesn’t mean they don’t need advice, guidance or support throughout their life, quite the opposite actually. It means that a passionate person always finds a way, regardless of the path.

Growing up the son of a furniture store owner here in Little Rock in a solid middle class family, I couldn’t have felt or honestly been further away from the Hollywood machine that made the films I watched every week at our local multiplex, but despite this I grew up wanting to make movies. I went away to film school without a clue of what the process of making a film involved, and once I discovered more about that process and graduated from film school, I still had no clear or easy path to actually making my first film. I waited tables at a pizza place while living with my parents, I wrote ad copy for Fudruckers restaurant at a boutique ad agency. I did whatever I could to pay my rent, but had you asked me what I did for a living back then, I’d tell you, “I make movies.”

I was never defined by the jobs I took or the places I found myself along the way. I was defined by my passion for the thing I wanted to do most in my life. My first serious girlfriend once asked me over the phone when we were in college what I was going to do after graduation. I said, “Make a movie.” She wisely asked, “but what if you don’t?” I said, “But I am going to make a movie.” And she asked again, “Yeah, but what if you don’t?” I had no answer for her. She was smart, and she was being practical. But I honestly couldn’t answer her. And that’s what I mean by being a passionate person. You hold a goal in your mind, and no matter where you are in life, everything you do bends you toward that goal. I had no clue how long it would take, or who’s money would be spent to make it happen, but those just seemed like details to me. The greater trajectory was defined by what I was really passionate about.

You may have already encountered a few, “But what if you don’ts?” You may have even encountered a “That’ll never happen.” In a way, those are the easiest ones to respond to. Sometimes, you may never have anyone ask, “But what if you don’t?” That could be because they may not be asking about your project at all. It’s easy for people to go all day without thinking about getting water and sanitation to more parts of Uganda. Nothing in their day may cause them to wonder about the quality of services for seniors from the Arkansas Food Bank. And that is where your passion starts to pay off. As a passionate person, you are always going to be the best advocate for your idea, regardless of resistance or worse indifference. If you’re truly passionate about something, every person you come into contact with will have the opportunity to be affected by your ideas. Your passion for that idea will consume your life, and it will be your greatest tool in realizing your goal.

Now, it’s not always easy being a passionate person. I remember driving around one day behind a garbage truck. I was in the middle of trying to write one of these screenplays, which usually means I was deep in the pits of self-doubt and crippling insecurity. And as I trailed behind this garbage truck, watching these guys grab sacks of yard clippings off the street, I thought, “That must be amazing.” I bet when those guys go home, they don’t think one minute about that sack of garbage. I bet when they get home their minds are free to think about sports or the weather. I’m sure they have their worries. I imagine they’re worried about paying their mortgage, or if the city is going to cut their health benefits next quarter, but whatever they are worried about, I can almost guarantee you it isn’t that sack of garbage. No, when you are passionate about something, it is your work and your life. It shapes you, your family, and everything that comes in contact with you. It has to be that way, and the truth is we don’t have a choice in it. Our passionate ideas choose us, and how we respond to them will define our efficacy in this life.

Now, passion for an idea, passion for an idea. Let’s talk about this supposedly great idea. This is where the rubber starts to meet the road. In my life, I can attest to the fact that it is not always about the quality of your idea, but usually the clarity of it. In most of my films, I’m not reinventing the wheel. I’m actually trying to find universal ideas and tether them to earth through specificity. Unrequited love was the basis for my film MUD. Not exactly treading new ground with that one, but you don’t often see a boat in a tree or a man in a homemade diving helmet crafted out of a hot water heater. It’s those details, that specificity to place, that makes the big, universal idea gain traction in the minds of the audience, and it’s where my ideas begin to find their clarity.

I’m a big believer in clearly enunciating your idea, say it out loud, even if it sounds cheesy. Say it out loud, even if you’re not entirely sure what it is yet. I love to sit people down and tell them about the stories I’m working on. It forces me out of my own head and makes me accountable for the dreams I’m hatching. It also drills down the essence of my idea. It’s shocking how far you can get on something before you really know what it is you’re trying to do. I made a film called MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Don’t worry if you didn’t see it, the vast majority of people did not see that film. Despite that fact, it’s probably the most personal film I’ve made, because it’s about my son. Now, I could literally tell you every scene in the first 45-minutes of that story long before I ever knew what it was about. I knew it would be a sci-fi, action chase film, but that’s just plot. I knew I wanted it to be about a father and son, but that’s not a full idea. Father and son, what about a father and son? It wasn’t until I witnessed my son having a febrile seizure, and my wife and I feared we might lose him, that I realized what I was doing. I was making a film about a father having to deliver his son to another place. Maybe that’s heaven, maybe it’s college, or in the film’s case a parallel dimension, but at the end of it I knew my idea behind this film was about a father delivering his son to another place. That’s a lot different than just saying I’m making a film about a father and son. What I challenge you all to do, is never stop cultivating your ideas. Work them over, say them out loud. They’ll be better for it.

Okay, so we’ve got a group full of passionate people here with amazing, fully realized ideas. Great. High-fives all around. But this work is serious and a lot of inspiring words aren’t enough. That’s what leads me to the word service. Every film that I’ve made was born out of an idea that was personal to me, and that’s a terrifying thing to share with the world. Once you step out and say, this is how I see things, this is what I think of things, in your case this is how I want to fix things or make things better, when you do that you immediately set yourself up for critique. In fact, in my business, there are people specifically employed to sit back in judgement of my ideas. And that’s okay, that’s how things work, and it can honestly be a galvanizing force, but the worst critique I can get, is one where the viewer failed to see, feel or understand the idea behind my film. That’s my failure. Because everything I do, writing, directing, editing, should be in service of that original idea.

The service of an idea is one of the most crucial things any of us can do with our lives. I’m going to say that again because it’s kind of my point for this whole thing. Your service to an idea is one of the most crucial things you can do with your life.

To make an impact, I believe you have to clearly enunciate what it is you want to say or do and then make every choice and action in that endeavor support it. In a film, every line of dialogue I write, every shot that I frame, every cut that is made, should be in service of the greater idea I’m trying to convey. If it doesn’t do that, it’s not necessary. It needs to be culled.

When I set out to make my most recent film, LOVING, about Richard and Mildred Loving’s battle for the right to be married and live in their home state of Virginia, I was immediately struck by the idea that this was a great American love story. These were two people whose love was so sincere for one another that they were willing to live in hiding under the threat of arrest or much, much worse just to stay together in the place they belonged. To me, it was one of the most beautiful, pure expressions of love I’d ever heard of. Now, Loving V. Virginia also happens to be a landmark supreme court decision that would prove integral to the Civil Rights movement as well as more recent struggles for marriage equality. To grossly understate the matter, it was an important case. But you watch the film we made, and you don’t see any rousing court room scenes. You don’t even see the sweeping effect the decision had on our society. Why not? Because that was not my idea for the film. My idea was about the love between these two people. So rather than court room scenes, all you see are two people, continually reaffirming their love for one another. Every line, scene, and edit was constructed to service that idea. Lots of people disagreed with that approach, but luckily for me lots of people liked it too.

Regardless though, once I had that idea clearly enunciated, every part of the process that followed had to be in service of it. And I look out at you all, and I know you are teeming with ideas to thrust upon this world. Accessibility to housing, school breakfast, women’s empowerment in Dubai, tourism in Albania, improving computer systems in Mozambique. These are worthy, true, good ideas, and it will be on your shoulders to service them with the passion that got you here. I truly believe the service of an idea is what will ultimately allow you to fulfill your passion.

So, in closing, I’m becoming more and more rare in the world of filmmakers because I’ve never made a big superhero movie. I talked about directing Aquaman for a while, but luckily the studio came to their senses and hired someone else. I’m sure it’s going to be great, but the point is I’ve spent some time studying the subject, and I have to say, you all are like superheroes to me. Through your ideas, your passion and your studies, you now have these powers, and today we are watching as you take them out into the world and do great, great things with them. I’m inspired by you, and I look forward to seeing what your passion delivers. Thanks for letting me be a part of this. Good luck."

Greg Harmon | Managing Editor and Cultjer Contributor | Follow me @sweetharmony for Film & TV discussion