Last weekend in Little Rock, Arkansas, Jeff Nichols launched Premiere, the first event of his newly minted Arkansas Cinema Society. The writer-director of “Loving,” “Mud,” and “Midnight Special” screened a selection of smart movies, including Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson” and J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” hosted by star Adam Driver, whose family spent summers in Arkansas. Austin-based David Lowery brought “Pete’s Dragon” and “A Ghost Story” and producer Noah Stahl came with current release “Patti Cake$.”
I interviewed Driver, Lowery, and Nichols about how they define creative independence as they balance high- and low-budget movies. (It has been edited for length and clarity.)
Working with the studios
Jeff Nichols: I’m smack dab in the middle of the first draft of “Alien Nation” for Fox, trying to balance sensibilities. When you set out to work on something with a big price tag on it in terms of production cost, I’m aware that it needs to do certain things that lower-budgeted films don’t do. I put stress on myself to try to write something meaningful and deep and also populist.
[Vice-chairman] Emma Watts at Fox said, “We hired you because we wanted you.” I keep trying to enjoy it because I feel that will be reflected in the work. I didn’t enjoy writing “Midnight Special.” I wrote that in a fever, it was so personal to me. I loved writing and making “Mud,” which was reflected in the material. I’m trying to keep that spirit, which is hard to do in this age when everybody is so divisive and people are pissed.
Adam Driver: I don’t consciously think of whether it’s a studio movie or not. I’ve tried to follow the directors. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of good ones. I did a movie one time for money, and it felt terrible. (Editor’s note: It wasn’t “Star Wars.”) It helped pay for things like college debt. Looking back on that feeling, I never wanted to feel it again.
When “Star Wars” came, it was an example of a big Hollywood movie, but it was not a financial choice. It’s a good role and J.J. Abrams was directing it. When I did “Midnight Special,” it wasn’t because it was Warner Bros. It was Jeff Nichols. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with studio movies when they’re good. When they suck, I feel duped. It makes me angry.
But if somebody comes to you like Martin Scorsese [“Silence”], obviously, “OK, I’ll do that.” Soderbergh, Nichols, Noah Baumbach — no-brainer — Terry Gilliam [the historically troubled “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”]. Even now, when no one is on set, everyone is expecting a flood to happen in the editing room!
David Lowery: I’m literally sitting on the couch working on the first draft of “Peter Pan,” and editing “The Old Man and the Gun.” Fox Searchlight took that off the market when it was in prep. I never got any script notes. I wrote quite a few drafts. It’s a journalistic true-crime story. Everyone knows what the movie is, with no surprises. Then we went off and made it. They visited the set twice, saw Robert Redford.
“Peter Pan” will take longer to shoot. In every regard, the stakes are higher. It’s one of the crown jewels of Disney’s animation empire. I feel a responsibility to make sure it’s done right. It’s also a movie I want to make.
Working with Steven Soderbergh
Adam Driver: Making “Logan Lucky” was intimate. There was nothing in excess. “Star Wars” has more moving pieces; they’re not running the set like a NASCAR heist movie. Almost every day, Steven would say, “Everybody break for lunch, and that’s a wrap!” We were done so early because he controls the pace, which is so much faster. Money is utilized in such a smart way. There’s no sitting around, losing momentum. He picks up the cameras, everything is lit practically. He can put the camera where he wants it. So he can work that fast.
He was inclusive and unmysterious. He invited the crew to come and watch him edit. Everyone at the hotel was at the bar. He had 30 minutes edited two weeks after shooting it. He will try something, he’s going off his first impulses, then he’ll try something else, do a lot of takes. It’s a different way of working. It feels more economical.