Beyond the Screenplay There Is MUD

A producer-director recently told me how she delicately tells her photographer that she can’t afford to give him any more time to set up a shot: “It’s not that you’re finished,” she says, “but we’re done.” I commiserated. Sometimes DP’s need to accept that the film as a whole is more important than their part in it, I told her.

Then I saw Mud, a film that’s hailed all over the place as the realization of a major talent in writer-director Jeff Nichols. Nothing but respect for anyone who goes big and takes on the massive weight of American myths such as Tom Sawyer, wades into the Malick zone of visual film-making, and has a penchant for working class characters, of whom there are far too few in independent film. And I absolutely love the set-up, about two early teenage boys befriending a half-crazy fugitive on an island in Arkansas. Conception and execution, superb.

It just seems like a script with twenty major plot turns that should have been pruned down to fifteen. It had three very predictable twists in the last fifteen minutes, more than its allowance of coincidences – “Does this kid ever show up anywhere where a woman isn’t getting assaulted at that moment?” I wondered – and a too-obvious similarity between the two romantic plots. Near the end, the boy Ellis visits the fugitive’s girlfriend, who has been hiding in a motel room waiting for the fugitive to bust off the island, elude a cadré of bounty hunters and cops who want to kill him, and rescue her; only the boy finds her smooching with someone else at a roadhouse bar. “Why did you come here?” he asks her, meaning, invest all this time and patience if you were just going to piss it away.

Any time a character asks another why they did something that doesn’t make sense on the surface, I figure that is the writer asking himself, “Why? Is this good enough? Explain.”

It’s worth remembering this, when you revise and re-revise a script. Professionally, getting it perfect is better than letting it wallow in imperfection, but only to a point. If the most important thing a writer does is make a story that hits the major milestones, and offers dramatic fodder for its cast, then maybe quantity matters every bit as much as quality. Why revise when you could be writing the next thing, that will either be ignored or loved based on something other than its scripty-ness.

Sometimes, it seems, screenwriters need to accept that the film as a whole is more important than their part in it. People like films (and get moved by them) for all kinds of reasons besides the orchestration of the script, and if they’re moved, then I guess that makes it quality?

We should still be disappointed that no major critic (none that I found) bothered to point out the serious flaws in Mud. Nichols is a major point on the indie map now. Believe the hype, but hope for more from him next time.