IN A SUMMER SWAMPED with superheroes, sea monsters and zombie plagues, it's heartening that a film such as Mud even exists. A low-key melodrama that draws more from Mark Twain than Marvel Comics, it is one of the breakout indie hits in the US this year.
It marks the third film for Arkansas-born writer-director Jeff Nichols, who followed his 2007 debut Shotgun Stories with the sublime award winner Take Shelter (2011), which starred Michael Shannon as a blue-collar family man haunted by visions of the apocalypse.
"I would do anything for Jeff," says Shannon, who also featured in Shotgun Stories and has a cameo in Mud - proof of the loyalty that Nichols inspires.
Mud is an altogether different beast. The drama is set on the banks of the Mississippi River, showing influences from Days of Heaven director Terrence Malick's appreciation of nature.
A genial 34-year-old, Nichols seems delighted to be mentioned in the same breath as Malick. " Badlands [Malick's 1973 debut] is as near perfect as you can get," Nichols says.
That Nichols sought out Tye Sheridan, the 16-year-old actor who rose to prominence in Malick's 2011 Palme d'Or winner The Tree of Life, not to mention its producer Sarah Green, shows just how much he shares Malick's sensibilities.
Sheridan plays Arkansas teenager Ellis, who ventures to a remote island on the river with his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). There, they encounter Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a fugitive living in a boat stuck in a tree.
It's here where Twain references - to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn - are most pronounced. "If you're going to steal stuff from somebody, you should steal stuff from somebody real intelligent. And I stole things from Mark Twain," says Nichols. "There is a scene in Tom Sawyer where Tom swims out into the middle of the Mississippi River and takes a nap on a sandbar. I think I read that in an eighth grade English class, and I could never get it out of my head."
Even the moment that the boys find a boot print with a cross shape on the heels is a direct nod, recalling the shoe worn by Huck Finn's father. "Me and Tye got to read Huck Finn on the set and through our classes, and we found a lot of stuff that happened that wandered into the script," says Lofland.
Yet Mud is more than just a modern-day homage to Twain, with McConaughey's tattooed and tanned convict desperate to reunite with the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
With his character plotting to swoop up his paramour and skip town, McConaughey says, smiling, "I've got a lot of affection for Mud." He continues his career renaissance after roles in Killer Joe and Magic Mike.
"I love his language, I love what he represents. Mud's love is so innocent, so pure and so young. He's stepped in s*** so many times, he's now come to think that this is a good luck charm."
McConaughey sees Mud as almost child-like. "He's still eight years old, which is what's beautiful about him."
The Texas-raised actor even compares Mud to a Labrador puppy. "The Labrador is just a straight lover. You can kick them 1,000 times and they'll come back and say, 'You didn't mean it, did you? Pet me again!' And that's Mud. He'll just keep doing it. He's someone who lives in the clouds. If he grasps Juniper, got her within his grasp, I think he'd die. … So there's nothing pragmatic about love."
When he encounters Ellis and Neckbone, Mud uses them as a go-between - and Ellis, in particular, is only too willing to help. With a plot as snaking as the Mississippi River itself, Ellis learns some sharp life lessons.
"My character is a mentor to them, but also he's never condescending or looking down on his friendship with Ellis. They form a real friendship. He cares about him on that friend level," McConaughey says.
If anything suggests how well-written the script is, it was the response of Sam Shepard, the actor-playwright for whom Nichols wrote a small role in Mud.
"One of the best days of my life was when we got a reaction from Sam," recalls the director. "His agent said, 'He wouldn't change a word of the script.' I beamed! I'd find people in the street and say, 'A Pulitzer Prize winner just said he wouldn't change a word of my script'."
The film is a strongly authentic portrayal of small-town Mississippi life. Nichols' innate sense of place - another trait that can be associated with both Twain and Malick - is also why you'll find Witherspoon on board.
The Oscar-winning actress rarely takes supporting roles, claiming her presence on the fringes "distracts from the story", but after Nichols' assurances to the contrary, she accepted.
The Louisiana-born star spent her youth riding dirt bikes and fishing, much like Ellis and Neckbone. "So when I read Jeff's script, it just felt like home," she says. "And you never get to see home on a big movie screen. There are very few movies about the American South that are accurate, and I feel this is one of them."
The way Nichols sees it, the contemporary South is "a dying way of life". What with everything from accents to buildings becoming homogenised, he was keen "to capture a snapshot of a place that probably won't be there one day".
He even shot the film in anamorphic widescreen, the aspect ratio usually reserved for vistas reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia.
"A small town isn't small," Nichols says of his choice to go widescreen. "It's epic and it's sweeping."
Certainly the young protagonists' adventures with Mud are made to feel that way. Preferring not to cast "LA kids", Nichols searched locally for his Ellis and Neckbone; in the case of Lofland, sifting through 2,000 other hopefuls.
"It was remarkable to find boys that could ride dirt bikes, run boats, hunt, fish … whatever I needed them to do," Nichols says. "I couldn't steer that dirt bike. And we were like, 'We're not going to give you helmets.'" He looks nervous. "I don't know if that's legal."
While there's talk that Nichols, along with Shannon, may swap rural melodrama for science fiction in his next film, for the moment he's stuck in the Mud. So what can audiences take away from the film?
"[That] in love, you get banged up and bruised up," Nichols says. "For some reason we always put ourselves back together, and we go after it again. And that felt like something worth talking about."
Mud opens on August 15