For many cinephiles, the prospect of Jeff Nichols, the director behind an impressive string of indies including “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” and “Mud,” getting to play in the big studio sandbox with “Midnight Special” is an exciting one. And while some have been dismayed at Warner Bros.’ seeming indifference to the picture — pushing back its release date from last year, and giving it what seems like a half-hearted North American bow (for example, it only opens in Canada in April, in limited release) — it serves to be reminded that the studio did bring the picture to the Berlin International Film Festival last month (our review) and has been completely supportive of the filmmaker from the very first step.
In a career-spanning, “Midnight Special” focused profile in Wired, Nichols reveals that he wrote the script for the film with the goal of the movie serving as a stepping stone into a different phase of his career, and giving him the challenge of making a bigger movie than he had ever done before. But instead of shopping it around, he took it directly to Warner Bros. because they had been supportive of the visions of filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, and Spike Jonze.
“Look, I want to be a Warner Bros. director,” Nichols told WB executive Greg Silverman. “I want this to be a Warner Bros. film. I’m not playing you.”
“I said, ‘I need two things: Michael Shannon and final cut. Well, three things, because: $20 million.’ Then I left,” the director recalled about his pitch. Well, he got all three things, the studio is spending $20 million on marketing as well, and the filmmaker has been able to give his input on the trailers too. It’s a modest gamble on Nichols’s film, which stars Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Jaeden Lieberher, and centers around a small boy whose extraordinary powers make him the target of various factions, while his father tries to keep him safe. Nichols is candid about his own struggles in making sure his film worked.
In the summer of 2014, Nichols showed the movie, without finished effects, to a group of moviemaking buddies including David Gordon Green and Todd Rohal (“Uncle Kent 2,” “The Catechism Cataclysm“) who said the picture could’ve stood to have a bit more exposition to let the audience into the story. Beyond that, Nichols had room in his budget to shoot an extra scene for the film after production had officially wrapped, worked hard on the sound mix, and rerecorded the dialogue. Five times. Again, not many studios would allow a filmmaker that much tinkering.
Well, the film is now done and coming to theaters soon, and the hardworking Nichols already has another movie finished, the true story, interracial marriage drama “Loving,” which we’ve already pegged as a potential Oscar contender in 2017. The director is modest about the final product of “Midnight Special,” but takes complete ownership of how it turned out. “Listen, I made the film we all want to see. I made the film we all sit around saying, ‘God, I wish I could have a film experience like watching ‘Close Encounters‘ again,’ ” though he makes the distinction between himself and Steven Spielberg clear: “I do awe, but I don’t do wonderment.”
As for the future, Nichols would love to create a big, new franchise all his own. “Like, why can’t we have more Terminators, more Avatars? Let’s do that! I’ve never just said, ‘Let’s do some world-building.’ Maybe I’ll pull it off, maybe I won’t. But that’s what I want to do,” he said.
Meanwhile, if he takes anything away from making “Midnight Special,” it’s learning the ropes of playing the big studio game. “I can talk to execs very clearly, very plainly. I don’t get nervous in front of them anymore.” Nichols said. “I think I needed to tick that box before going into the next phase.”
We can’t wait to see where he goes from here. “Midnight Special” hits SXSW before opening on March 18th.