Filmed on location in Arkansas for 39 days starting on September 26, 2011, Mud was the largest film production to set up camp in “The Natural State.” When it opened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, the film received an 18-minute standing ovation.
Directed and written by Jeff Nichols, who grew up in Arkansas and was recently nominated for Best Director for the 2014 Indie Spirit Awards, Mud stars Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life), and Jacob Lofland (a young actor also from Arkansas).
The story centers around two young boys (Sheridan and Lofland) and the eccentric, titular character named Mud, a fugitive with a mysterious past played by McConaughey. In addition to helping Mud get away from his bounty hunters, the boys also try to reunite him with his true love (Witherspoon).
Having worked on the script for Mud (specifically with McConaughey in mind) since the 1990’s, it’s Nichols’ biggest film to date. Mud evokes the romantic world of Mark Twain as it focuses on the friendship between two pre-teen boys in the midst of a timeless, mythical Mississippi River setting. Not surprisingly, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a required reading during the filming for the two young actors Sheridan and Lofland.
How Arkansas Became the Setting and Film Location for Mud
When asked how he came up with the idea and locations for the Mud screenplay, Nichols immediately gave credit to a book he had stumbled upon long ago. “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,” said the director. The book also features houseboats by the river which inspired many of the settings for Mud.
“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 Last River is such a huge inspiration for Nichols that he even features the diving helmet shown in the book in his movie. The diving helmet was made from a hot water heater with weights on the front to help keep the diver anchored at the bottom of the river as they collect mussels. These mussels were then made into mother-of-pearl buttons or sold to Japan (for the cultivation of cultured pearls).
Below are screenshots of the diving scenes from Mud. The first image features the diving helmet in action. The second screenshot is a scene in which Galen (Michael Shannon), Neckbone’s uncle who dives for mussels for a living, inspects the day’s catch on his boat.
Here are two photos taken from The Last River, photographed by the author Turner Browne, which have inspired Nichols to write and film the above scenes.
Having set the story in a small Southern town, Nichols, as an Arkansas native, had no doubt that he wanted to film Mud on location there also. “It was very important to us to bring this film to Arkansas,” he said. “The people and the river and houseboats in the region are particular to the Mud story. The Arkansas Film Commission and The Agency Inc. opened doors for us to make this happen. The people and chamber of commerce leaders and police in the places where we filmed really came out to help the film, and we greatly benefited from their support. I feel very proud to have made this film in Arkansas.”
The feeling, it turned out, was mutual. Arkansas was also elated to have Mud filming in its backyard. “The enthusiasm here for this film resembled an old-fashioned barn-raising. Everyone wanted to be a part of it, to support it,” said assistant locations manager and Little Rock native David Fowlkes. Many Arkansans even generously offered the use of their cars, trucks, and homes as settings and props for Mud.
The Film Locations
An homage to the 1980’s coming-of-age films Stand By Me and The Goonies, as well as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Mud was filmed in Southeast Arkansas, in the towns of Dumas, De Witt, Lake Village, Crocketts Bluff, and Stuttgart.
Mud employed over 100 cast and crew members, half were Arkansas residents. It also hired over 400 locals as extras.
To stay true to the script and story, a few of the film locations used in Mud were quite remote and rural. For example, the island featured in the movie was a real island located near Eudora. “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.”
To be as authentic as possible, the filmmakers portrayed each location’s interior and exterior exactly as they were. “Shooting on location and staying away from sets gave the film a naturalistic look and palpable authenticity,” said Stone.
1. The Houseboats
In 2006 while on a trip researching for the movie, Nichols visited his second cousin who owned a houseboat in the area where Nichols was location scouting. It’s not a coincidence that Nichols ended up filming Mud in the houseboat right next door.
In the script, Ellis (played by Sheridan) lives with his parents in a houseboat by the Arkansas River. The houseboat featured in the movie is a real-life 15-year-old houseboat on the White River. The structure - used as a film location - was literally “a handmade shack floating on Styrofoam chunks.”
To preserve authenticity, the interior scenes in the houseboat were filmed in the real houseboat itself. “The boat was small and cramped, so we brought in most of our light through windows,” said Stone.
The production department and the director made sure that each piece of prop and furniture used on the set was as authentic to the character it supports as possible. For example, in the screenshot below, we can see a small stack of books on the coffee table to the left of Tom Blankenship played by Sam Shepard. The book on top is an old edition of Don Quixote since Shepard believed his character would most likely read that novel.
Here’s a photo from the book The Last River (photographed by Turner Browne) of an original houseboat similar to the ones used in Mud.
Today, not many people live on these houseboats. They’re now mostly used as hunting lodges or fishing cabins.
The houseboats used in Mud, as well as many of the other Mud filming locations, center around the Mississippi River. “It’s one of the most winding rivers in the world and you never know what’s coming — and that’s what the movie is like,” said Nichols.
2. Mud’s Island
The island featured in the film is an actual and difficult-to-reach island on the Mississippi River. “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,” said Stone.
The natural beauty of the island made filming on it a bit of a challenge. Everywhere the camera looked, there was something worth filming. In the screenshot below, Mud, Ellis and Neckbone are walking across a part of the island that reminded the director of the surface of the moon.
3. Mud’s Boat-In-A-Tree House
Even though in the script Mud’s boat-in-a-tree house is located on the island, the actual location where the movie was filmed was in the hamlet of Crockett’s Bluff. The production had to scout many locations before they found the perfect tree by the White River for Mud’s boat. And then, to set the boat onto the tree required tremendous team work from everyone.
“Any time we get to play with cranes to move things around, it’s such a joy,” said Special Effects director Everett Byrom. “Managing the boat in the tree required a 90-ton crane holding a 1958 fiberglass hull boat in the middle of a forest along a river in Arkansas. We put it in and out of the tree four times in a night of shooting, navigating through branches 50 feet up in the air. It was thrilling.”
To film scenes on the boat, the production had to build scaffolding around the boat itself to house the crew and equipment. (See below behind-the-scene screenshot.)
4. Dumas Locations: The Piggly Wiggly Store and The Executive Inn
In the town of Dumas, the majority of the scenes filmed off of Highway 65 at the Piggly Wiggly, a local grocery store that reminded Nichols of his childhood in South Texas.
The production scouted the entire state of Arkansas looking for a grocery store that’s in close proximity to a motel. Christopher Crane, Arkansas Film Commissioner, called Nichols one day to tell him that he’s found the perfect grocery store for Mud. After looking at the photographs Crane sent him, Nichols knew they had found the backdrops for his movie.
The production also filmed at The Executive Inn (also listed on LocationsHub), a ’60s-era budget motel next door. In addition to fitting the bill by being right next door to each other, Nichols said he chose the Piggly Wiggly and The Executive Inn because they both were great for “conveying a different time and lifestyle.”
5. Gail’s Sports Bar and Other Locations Along Highway 65
The production also used many other businesses along Highway 65 as its film locations, including The Tobacco Store, The Big Banjo, and the El Torito parking lots. Other Dumas locations featured in the movie are Stimson Farm, Gail’s Sports Bar, and The Pendleton Inn.
“The owner of this bar was really great to us,” said Nichols about Gail’s Sports Bar. “They closed down for us and a lot of extras. I think they had fun with it."
Having a production filming in town helped increase sales for many of Dumas businesses, including gas stations, restaurants, and stores. Dumas tourism also experiences a boost as more tourists arrive daily to spend a night or two at The Executive Inn and check out the Piggly Wiggly next door. Everyone is eager to experience their own take of Mud country.
6. The Junkyard in Stuttgart
One of the film locations of Mud was a marine junkyard in Stuttgart. Nichols found the junkyard before he wrote the script and thought it was a “really cool location.” He liked it so much that he wrote it into the script. During filming, the production department didn’t have to do much to set up the scene because everything needed to make an impact was already there. Ah! The beauty of filming on location!
During filming, the production set up its headquarters at the former Clary Elementary Building in Stuttgart (107 East Superior Street). Stuttgart residents were thrilled to see filming activities in their area. “Everyone’s really excited about it, it’s been really great for the town,” said Stephen Bell, director of the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce.
“The local production company came to the Chamber of Commerce early on and let us know they were going to buy as much of their materials and use as many of the local stores as they could and they really have been great to work with and they really have done that,” shared Bell.
Filming in Arkansas
Mud could’ve been made on a sound stage. That probably would have made things a lot easier for the filmmaker and his crew. Instead, there was no question that the movie should be shot on location. And no other location could be more perfect for the story than Arkansas. “Arkansas is amazing. We fought really hard to get this filmed in Arkansas,” said Nichols. “It just felt like a legendary place that I wanted to see a present day story told.”
“In order to be true to the story you need to be true to its sense of place. We’ve gone deep into Arkansas to film this movie,” says producer Sarah Green. “Arkansas is an amazingly varied place and has extraordinary cities and culture, but it also has some very out-of-the-way places that take a very, very long time to get to. We’ve spent quite a bit of our time driving and boating and gatoring and walking and hiking. It’s been a running joke that every location takes forever to get to, but then you get there and think, ‘Ah, there’s a reason we came all this way. I haven’t seen this in a movie before. I haven’t seen this landscape, this river, this wild place.’ It’s thrilling.”
Nichols and Green aren’t the only two people who feel strongly about filming Mud in Arkansas. Producer Aaron Ryder also agreed when he said:
“People will walk away from this film feeling that they entered a world they didn’t know much about, and that they left knowing a lot more about it. This part of the country is amazing. There’s something magical about it ... this river life and these houseboats on the river, that’s something I’d never heard of before. If you look around this area, you can see the way these people live on these boats, and it’s a different culture and a different way of life.”
To help him get into character, Matthew McConaughey even went camping in the woods for a few days before production started. “What’s great about the South is there’s so much room, there’s less structure, not much regulation,” McConaughey said. “When you’re miles from civilization and something happens, you have to just work it out. You can’t always call 9-1-1 and wait for help. There’s a real spirit of self-reliance. When you walk out your door, be aware. There’s a comfort that comes with that.”
Nichols became emotional when he talked about his experience filming in Southeast Arkansas. “These places and people have such a particular accent and culture, and they’re quickly getting homogenized,” he said. “I wanted to capture a snapshot of a place that probably won’t be there forever.”
It would’ve been a lot easier and also more financially-sound if the production had made the movie in Louisiana or some place with huge film incentives. But then the authencity of the story would be compromised. “Location to me, it defines everything,” said Nichols. “It defines the socio-economic levels, it defines how people dress, how they walk, how they talk, where they live. So something as important as location, it is something you cannot separate from a story like this.”
The Arkansas Film Commission
As briefly mentioned above, Arkansas Film Commissioner Christopher Crane had a big role in bringing Mud to the state. Crane has held the post of film commissioner for Arkansas since August 2007. This means that on a daily basis, he oversees the promotion, recruitment and development of the state’s film industry. To sum it up, he actively markets Arkansas as a film location to both the national and international film industry.
In an interview with Arkansas Business, Crane generously shared his thoughts on film incentives, film festivals, and the challenges he faces trying to bring film productions to Arkansas. Here’s what he said when asked about the impact Mud has on Arkansas:
I can tell you that you should have conversations with many of the vendors used during the filming of “Mud”; they will sing its economic praises. These production companies purchase local goods and services and increase short-term employment and spending throughout the area. When you look at the impact, you truly do need to couch it in terms of having a huge convention in your area for several months. When speaking about just the cast and crew, these people rent houses, apartments, hotel rooms, eat, drink, buy gas, use the dry cleaners, buy local art, go to local entertainment venues, etc. They literally live in your community just as you do, and that’s not taking into account the direct spend of the production on the items needed to create the film itself. I think the circulation of the dollar on local level far exceeds the “impact model” that several detractors of film incentive programs use. “Mud” is also just a fantastic film — superbly acted, directed and shot. It’s a great calling card for what can be accomplished in film in Arkansas.
Not surprisingly, the love affair between Arkansas’s Delta Region and the cast and crew of Mud is a two-way street.
“Arkansans have exhibited world class hospitality to the cast and crew and we are extremely grateful to everyone involved in making this shoot a success,” said Crane. “There was a team effort among the Arkansas State Police, Game and Fish Commission and Department of Finance and Administration to keep the production running smoothly, addressing all concerns in a timely and professional manner. We really appreciate the work of Jeff Nichols and his team to bring this production to Arkansas. We are proud to call Jeff one of our own and hope Arkansas is home to many more of his films over the coming years.”