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Decoding Midnight Special: An Interview with Jeff Nichols

on March 28, 2016, 12:00am

Photo by Heather Kaplan

Jeff Nichols’ three films to date – 2007’s Shotgun Stories, 2011’s Take Shelter, and 2012’s Mud – have marked the Arkansas-born director as a vibrant and vital filmmaker on the rise. Nichols’ sparse, deeply intimate approaches to Southern Gothic drama often border on the mythic, their small scale belying complex, intense emotional cores to his layered characters.

His latest, Midnight Special, sees Nichols dipping his toe into the studio well with Warner Brothers, switching gears to tell the tale of a dedicated father (Nichols’ perennial muse Michael Shannon) on the run from the government to protect his son, who seems to have mysterious powers that transcend our understanding of the universe.

Even with a larger budget and the addition of other big names like Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver to the cast, Midnight Special feels like a natural progression for Nichols’ uniquely confident, heartfelt filmmaking. Recently, we sat down with the filmmaker to talk about the production of the sci-fi drama and his own progression as a filmmaker.

You’ve said in interviews that Midnight Special is influenced by these kinds of government-chase films from the ’70s and ’80s like Starman. I even picked up a little Capricorn One and Firestarter in there a little bit.

You know, I don’t think I’ve actually seen Firestarter all the way through, so that’s not one from me, but a lot of people seem to think they have a lot in common.

Yeah, there’s probably a kind of collective unconscious thing happening there. But was this a film you’d always wanted to make, or did you feel like at this point in your career you were able to take this leap?

A little bit of both, really. It felt like I was at a point in my career where [the studio]’d let me pull something off at this scale, and I’d be given the resources to do it appropriately. But yeah, I grew up on films like this, and I was always struck by this kind of Spielberg template from these early films, which is this mystery that unfolds into some sense of awe. I wanted to try my hand at that. But those are just good places to start; you don’t want to fall into the trap of simple homage, that’s just boring. So you still have to figure out how to make it your own, but it’s good to have inspiration.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Speaking of which, because this is such a goal-oriented chase narrative, it feels like a departure from some of your earlier films, which are more physically static character dramas. Was that a challenge in terms of structuring the film?

It was a pleasure, because all that’s about point of view. Mud has such a specific point of view, because so much of it was from [main character] Ellis’ point of view. Whenever you were on set, and you had a question about where to put the camera, you’d just say, “Well, where’s Ellis?” That dictated lens height and everything. With this, I knew I wanted to have this cross-cutting action so that you’re going from this group in the chase to the government or the ranch. But later on, when the team splits, you gotta get back and forth between those two things.

It’s just what most movies do; I just had never tried my hand at that before. It was just really nice to be able to just get what you need out of a scene and cut to some other place. You know, in Mud, it was very much like, “Get what you need to out of a scene and then you have to show that character leaving and arriving at another place.” There’s always a lot of coming and going in my movies, and I feel like in Midnight Special I got to lop all that stuff off.

There are some special effects in Take Shelter, but Midnight Special is definitely your most effects-heavy movie to date. How did that inform the filmmaking process?

That kind of stuff’s not that hard, really. To be honest, there’s not really all that much CGI in the movie – we tried to do as much practically as possible, which is a page out of [Christopher] Nolan’s playbook. You just try to ground all these effects in reality, so I’d say about 80 to 90% of the lens flares you see were all created in-camera. We built this rig for [Alton] the boy’s goggles for when his eyes lit up. It was these safety glasses we’d set this really bright LED setup on. So it’s just an example of us striving to do things practically, which is the same approach we take to lighting or wardrobe or production design. You just strive to make these things realistic.

This is the bajillionth film you’ve done with Michael Shannon, of course. What is it like writing a Michael Shannon character, for his particular sort of intensity that’s so unlike any other actor that’s working right now?

Shannon makes me a better writer. He certainly makes me a better director. I knew from the beginning [of Midnight Special’s writing process], I wanted this to be a very lean screenplay in terms of narrative and exposition. If you’re writing that part for Mike, he’s going to be able to fill all those spaces in between the lines – and in this movie, there are so many of those spaces. He’ll be able to fill those with all the subtext that you don’t want to have to write about. He can carry all of that on his face, and that makes him a very powerful tool for a writer/director like me.

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL

Speaking to the rest of the cast, what was it like working with Adam Driver? He has a very different energy than a lot of characters in your previous films.

He was a bit of an unknown [at the time]. I wasn’t familiar with his work. He was recommended to us by the studio head, actually, who’d worked with him on another film at Warner Brothers. I met him and I thought he was a really nice guy, but I didn’t know, you know? I hadn’t seen Girls. I didn’t know if he was going to be one of these more hipster-fied kind of actors, you know, birthed out of the mumblecore movement and just does improv or something. And he showed up, and he was so much more intelligent than that, and skilled. He really was building this character before my eyes and making what could have been one of the weakest, more stock characters some real personality. I owe Adam a lot for that, and I think he’s going to be one of the most successful actors of our generation. Not just because of Star Wars, but because he’s got the real chops.

Driver’s character is a lot more urbane, which is a departure from the Southern Gothic aesthetic you’ve had in your previous films. Midnight Special, in particular, feels like that Southern atmosphere being invaded by these more industrial forces, like in the methodical government takeover of the ranch. Was that reflective of the bigger scale of this film compared to your other works?

Yeah, I mean that’s probably the nature of the sci-fi government chase movie, which is the subgenre we knew we were dealing with. All I know about government agencies is stuff I’ve gotten from movies, which is really dangerous. The way I looked at it when writing the film was, right or wrong, government is just a giant bureaucracy. I thought about the line at the DMV, and I like the idea of, “Well, I think I can get away with these depictions of the government if you never feel like you’re seeing it in its totality.” So Adam Driver’s character gets a hint of this larger operation going on, but he doesn’t have operational control of it. We’re never in the command center, with the general saying, “This is what we’re doing.” You avoid that kind of clichéd scene, and you just sit with a character that gets this side view of much bigger mechanisms at work around him. That felt like an honest approach, and maybe it’s how it goes down sometimes. No one person has all the information.

Funny thing is, this happened right before Edward Snowden and all those revelations, so that kind of shifted my viewpoint of what the government’s capable of. I was kind of shocked and astounded to be honest. When we’re talking about how the NSA works, and you have these different kind of people with different desktops working on one piece of code or one piece of the puzzle, and someone else working on another, you never have anybody who has access to the whole piece at once. They’ll give you the phone numbers, but they won’t give you the name of the person, or vice versa.

That kind of “left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing” thing.

Exactly. That’s how I felt I would have this government operate.

In a weird way, it feels strangely timely since we’re circling back around to distrusting the government in media again. We really wanted to trust our government after 9/11, so we didn’t really depict that kind of paranoia in the early 2000s, and only now are we dipping our toes back in again. I mean, we just got another season of The X-Files this year.

I was writing this in a time before we found and killed Osama bin Laden, as well, so you’re kind of like, “Come on, guys.” You see that movie Enemy of the State with Will Smith? The first second you’re on your cell phone, boom-boom-boom, they’ve got you. “Well, I don’t know if it really works that way.” Turns out it does! But still, they don’t have it all. They can’t laser me out of the sky, not quite yet.

So it’s curious, then, that Alton is able to, in some ways, command this surveillance technology better than they can, or have a greater awareness of it. By the way, what was the casting for Alton like? I recognized Jaeden Leiberher from St. Vincent, where he had an almost alien-like quality to him there too.

You know, I hadn’t seen [that] when I met him. I just thought he was honest. A lot of times, when you meet child actors, they perform for you, and that’s not what you want. They don’t have the tools necessary to do what someone like Mike Shannon does, right? So you just need them to be very simple in their approach to things and understand the context of the situation they’re in and behave normally. Easier said than done. What Jaeden had, what I was immediately struck by, was his awareness of the situation he was in – very aware of me, and why we were talking, but without being stiff or fake. I knew at some point in this film, this boy had to become aware of his place in the universe, and I knew Jaeden would be very suited for that.

Children are very special in a lot of your movies – in Mud, they’re the perspective characters, and they seem to have a different look at the world than the adult characters. Then there’s Michael Shannon’s deaf daughter in Take Shelter. There’s a sort of overarching theme in your films of children being, in some way, outside of the adult world. You’re a dad; were those personal questions you were asking yourself about in those films?

This is sort of where you all have found me in my life. Definitely Take Shelter and Midnight Special – and Shotgun Stories to a degree – they’re written in the immediate. So Take Shelter was written by a guy about to become a father, and Midnight Special was written by a guy who now is a father, just looking at the practical side of it and not just the theoretical side. But Mud was different; I started conceiving of that in college, and it was about my perspective as a child. Which is why Ellis is the main character; I was writing about how I felt in high school, first love and everything else. So that’s a different relationship with the child character. That movie sits aside the other three.

Now that you’ve sort of tackled a much different genre than you’re used to, are there any other genres you’d like to dip your toe into?

I really wanna make a biker film, something in the period between The Wild One and Easy Rider. I want to make a bigger film where I do some world-building; not sure what that is yet, but I got a little taste of that in [Midnight Special]. I want to really take the gloves off, not worry about money, and write something crazy. I don’t know what that is, though.

In terms of genres, though, I really want to make a detective film. I’ve been pretty outspoken about my love for Fletch, but I also grew up on Magnum P.I. and Rockford Files and all that stuff. That’s what I like about The Big Lebowski, is that it’s just a weird detective film, and I like the feel of those. I’ve got an idea for something like that.

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