Since shooting out of the blocks with his 2007 debut “Shotgun Stories,” Jeff Nichols has become one of America’s most individual filmmakers, one who infuses very different stories and genres with a consistent voice. We’re getting to recognize a Nichols movie when we see one. There’s something in the determined pacing, the sense of impending danger, the reflections about parenthood, principally fathers – errant (“Shotgun Stories”), struggling (“Take Shelter”) or surrogate (“Mud”) – and the constant presence of fellow Southerner and screen alter ego, of sorts, that tower of bristling energy Michael Shannon.
Though still in his thirties, there’s little to connect Nichols to most young American directors. He has more of the ’70s auteur about him, so it’s not altogether surprising that with his fourth film he should hark back to that period; nor, given the supernatural overtones of “Take Shelter,” that he should pay homage to its science fiction. (Warner Bros. debuted the movie in Berlin; its U.S. premiere is at SXSW on March 12 and it hits theaters the following Friday, March 18.)
“Midnight Special” unashamedly doffs its cap to Spielberg and Carpenter, in particular to “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Starman,” with shades of “E.T.” thrown in, in the form of the boy with mysterious provenance and special powers, in desperate need to get “home.” As they’re pursued from New Mexico to the Florida coast, the result perfectly fits the sci-fi chase movie template: protagonists with an urgent destination and a ticking clock, government forces and others standing in their way.
That boy is Alton (the appropriately elfin Jaeden Lieberher), who has been rescued from a religious cult by his father Roy (Shannon) and his old friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton). The boy has a unique gift for touching people, using a neat trick with his eyes, which he hides behind a natty pair of goggles, and for tapping communications, much to the chagrin of U.S. intelligence agencies. The cult is grooming Alton as their messiah, the government sees him as a threat, but who, or what he actually is remains a mystery, as the two men and the boy’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst) attempt to keep him alive long enough to reach the destination that may have the answers.
With Sam Shepherd (returning to the Nichols fold after “Mud”) as the cult leader and Adam Driver as a sympathetic NSA agent in pursuit, the film is typically well cast. Nichols rejoins many of his regular collaborators behind the camera, including cinematographer Adam Stone, production designer Chad Keith, editor Julie Monroe and composer David Wingo. In conception, on the screen and in the making, his films are very much family affairs.
‘Midnight Special’ premiered in competition at this year’s Berlinale, where we sat down to interview Nichols and three of his stars.
Are you particular sci-fi fans?
Jeff Nichols: I am. These were the first movies that I encountered as a kid that made me feel a sense of mystery in the movie theatre. And at home watching them on video, or whenever they came on TV. And these are the movies where I first felt that energy in your gut – “I don’t know what this is doing, I don’t know where this is going, then it goes to this place that’s kinda magical and amazing.” I certainly wanted to try my hand at it.
“Starman,” “Close Encounters,” “E.T.,” obviously there’s an aesthetic connection that I have to those films. I love the way they look, the way they feel, the blue lens flares, the inky blacks, the texture is something that we really wanted to emulate, and I think that’s where the connection is most on the nose.
Michael Shannon: I’m not a huge sci-fi fan. But Jeff refers to one of his influences as being “Starman,” and I do have a connection to that movie. I very vividly remember seeing it when I was a kid, about 10 or 11. It was the first time I watched a movie and thought, “This is actually really, really good, and these people are really good at what they’re doing.” I remember being aware of the artistry that was involved in making a film. It had a profound impact on me.
Kirsten Dunst: I’m not a genre fan generally. I do love “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” the original. And “E.T.” is one of my favorite movies. Actually, this reminds me of some of the Amblin films that I liked when I was younger. And what Jeff does, which I love, is that he pays homage without copying anybody. That’s really hard to do.
Different viewers will make different, personal connections – some will feel the John Carpenter vibe. For me, it was “Close Encounters,” and that was underlined by your lead character also being named Roy. A coincidence?
JN: These things sneak into your brain by osmosis. Everyone’s been talking about “Close Encounters” in relation to my ending, but what I love in that film is Spielberg’s portrayal of suburban life in the ’70s. Those early scenes with Dreyfuss in the house are incredible – not just him building the mash potato mountain, but him with the kids, all this clutter, the model train set, banging on the piano, it felt like real life to me. His films felt very grounded in realism, really well thought out and very specific. I don’t think he was respected for that at the time.
At the time much of what Spielberg was doing was under-valued. And of course many dismissed him as sentimental.
JN: I’m protecting myself from the same critiques; I don’t want it to be overly sentimental or anything like that. So you have to ratchet it down. In doing that I separate myself from Spielberg a lot – not purposefully, that’s just how it turns out, because his movies had more magic in them. I don’t think I’m a more cynical person, it’s just my personal style.
The two Roys are both everymen, in extreme and strange situations.
MS: Yeah. I feel that way about both Curtis and Roy. People always say, “your character in ‘Take Shelter’ is crazy, right?” Not necessarily. There’s that possibility, because his mother has been troubled by schizophrenia, but when people talk about Curtis as some lunatic, I say no, he’s a regular dude, he works at a sand mine, this strange stuff just came out of nowhere and he’s trying to deal with it. And the same thing with Roy. There’s nothing exceptional about him, really. I imagine before he had his son he was kind of lost and confused, he found himself in this strange religion, this cult, and I don’t even know if he entirely believed in it but he was just there, as people are sometimes in life. And then something extraordinary happens and awakens this side of him that he didn’t know existed.
Jeff, you’ve spoken about how you write scripts on two tracks – the idea of a genre, mixed with a more personal impetus.
JN: I try to make these films resonate with me personally, that’s how I feel connected to them. In this case, when my son was a year old he had a febrile seizure. It was a very scary moment for my wife and me. I was afraid he was dying. Fortunately, everything turned out to be fine, but it made me realize that I would forever be linked to this human being, and if anything happened to him out in the world I would be devastated. And I had no control over that. I think “Midnight Special” began as a way for me to process that fear.
Would you say you’re an anxious person?
JN: I am. My dad describes it as “free-floating anxiety.” As a family we just wander around being worried. But fear is a great motivator for my films. With “Shotgun Stories” it was the death of one of my brothers. My brothers aren’t dead, they’re alive and quite well. But at the time they were the closest people I had in my life, other than my parents. I thought about the worst thing that could possibly happen and I wrote a movie about it.
In “Take Shelter” I’d just got married and I was afraid about being a good husband, I was thinking about what makes a marriage work. “Take Shelter” was also written by a man who was about to become a father, with all the anxiety that entails, while “Midnight Special” was written by a man who had become a father.
Joel Edgerton: Jeff is a real family guy. And his film has the DNA and fingerprints of family all over it. It’s quite profound.
MS: My second daughter was born a week before we started shooting this movie. Honestly, I’m just glad it was before and not during the shoot. I certainly showed up to make this in a parental, paternal state of mind, which maybe helped fuel the performance somehow. It was hard to be away from her, but then I got to pretend that Jayden was my son for a little while, and that was fun. That’s a relationship that’s hard to pull out of thin air.
JN: It’s funny. I once heard Spielberg say, “I would never make ‘Close Encounters’ today.” He was talking about Roy getting on the spaceship at the end, alone, and saying, “I didn’t have kids when I wrote that. I would never leave my kids.” It’s a great point. And you don’t even think about that when you’re watching the film. Where are the kids?
I thought about that a lot with “Midnight Special.” It took so long to make, and now finally getting it out to the world, that my son went from being two years old to five and a half, and I have a much different relationship with him, now, then I did when I was conceiving this movie. My opinion of fatherhood now is different to what it was then.
I was wondering about the title. It’s the folk song, I assume.
JN: That was perhaps another example of osmosis. Creedence [Clearwater Revival] did probably the most famous version of it, which is great. It was rolling around on my playlist since before there were playlists. I’ve always had it in my head, and there are certain ideas about light and other things in that song that crept into my subconscious. But honestly, it started just because I thought it was a cool title. It felt like the title of the kind of movie I wanted to make, where guys were driving in a fast car at night down back roads in the American South and this boy is on the back seat with light coming out of his eyes. It felt like a midnight movie, it felt like a drive in, it felt appropriate to the tone of the movie as much as anything. So you can go looking to the song for specifics, but they will all be reverse engineered.
You were talking about mystery. As so often, you’ve very economic with the information we’re given.
JN: This film is a culmination of a narrative experiment that I started with “Shotgun Stories,” to try to remove as much exposition as I possibly could. Which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist; I built character backstories for all these people, and an entire story for this place Alton wants to get to, and then I made a rule – no character can speak about something that the other character already knows about.
JE: There are some directors who shoot miles of footage and work out what their film is in the edit suite, and that’s a very valid way to make a movie. And then there’s the kind of director who has a clear vision in their mind, and is very specific about the pieces that they’re collecting to suit that vision, and Jeff is one of those.
MS: Many characters in the film have as many questions as the audience does. I don’t think Roy necessarily knows what the hell’s happening. All he knows is that he will do anything to save his son, to protect him, and it’s that simple.
KD: Jeff told me such a lot about Sarah that isn’t discussed in the film at all. That she probably got into drugs or something as a young girl, fell away from her family, then found this ranch, this cult and got help, got sober, and met Roy there and had this child. Then the leader of the ranch wanted to raise their son as his own and Sarah wasn’t having it so got ex-communicated. But she didn’t call the police because she knew her son had something unique about him, powers, and she’d be afraid that people would want to do scientific experiments on him, or who knows? So for two years she’s been living a solo existence.
This really reminds me of the Bible story, of Mary, Joseph and Jesus, with Joel as a disciple. That was my interpretation, although I don’t think Jeff likes it. To me Sarah is a very saintly woman. Often the people who have been through so much pain are the ones who have clarity about life. And I think Sarah’s one of those people. She has a lot of grace.
She’s certainly been through hell. It’s written all over your face, but at the same time it’s a very restrained performance.
KD: That’s Jeff’s aesthetic with acting. He likes restraint.
Michael has said that it’s Lucas, not Roy who is the real hero of the piece.
JE: Lucas has a choice that Roy doesn’t, in a way. There’s something naïve and simple about him, and yet he has the strength and conviction to leave behind his own life, knowing that he’s risking everything. He’s a blue-collar guy, and they’re my favorite people, they’re not too high-brow, they’re not highfalutin in their thought process, there’s a practical nature to their minds. He’s willing to protect and serve others, on the smell of a glimpse of something out there, something bigger than him.
And Lucas has some idea of what this boy can do.
JE: That’s right. He talks at one point about “that thing he does with his eyes.” He’s communed with him. That’s where Roy has been cunning. He needed Lucas’s help, so he’s sat the child in front of him, and Lucas has experienced the rapture. He doesn’t know everything, but he’s saddled up for the journey.
In some ways Lucas is the audience. He’s caught a glimpse of something special and powerful, but he’s obviously not as familiar with the boy as Roy is. When Alton makes the earth shake, Lucas experiences it for the first time, just like the audience.
The special effects around Alton are pretty amazing.
JN: We went to great lengths to create the beam from the boy’s eyes. We shot anamorphic, using a very specific lens built by Panavision that gives off natural flares if you point light right down the middle. And we built Alton’s goggles with high-powered LEDs in the lenses so that whenever his eyes light up we were aiming very bright light down the barrel of the camera lens.
What was it like stepping into that working relationship that Jeff and Michael already had? Michael doesn’t like to rehearse, for example.
KD: I don’t either. This whole crew represented my style of acting. We don’t need to talk about things, everyone knows the character they’re playing, everyone is responsible and does their homework. I work separately on every project I do, I never need to talk much about the character. I should know the person better than anyone else at the end of the day, better than the director.
Most of those scenes are intense. So you’re suggesting the cameras would roll and you’d all just dive in?
KD: We’re prepared. But yeah, right in it. The set’s quiet, everyone’s respectful. Though it’s funny, for the scene where I see my son for the first time in ages, Joel didn’t know we were rolling one of the takes and was just standing there, happily talking about hot dogs. But Jeff creates an atmosphere on the set, with the locations he chooses and an environment he creates, so that when you get on set you feel you’re right there, in the scene, it immediately has the vibe that the scene needs.
We would literally drive for two hours just for a stretch of highway that could have been anywhere, but Jeff loved the feeling of it. He was particularly discerning about where we shot on this film, because so much of it was in New Orleans, which has been way overshot lately – our production office was part of the set for the first series of “True Detective.” And he didn’t want anything to look like something he’d seen before. So we stayed in funky little hotels off the highway, just to be near different little pieces of land for this and that.
Whatever the genre, it always feels like a Jeff Nichols film. Why do you think that is?
MS: There are a lot of thematic consistencies. In terms of his exploration of the parent/child relationship. And I feel that nature is always very much part of what he does, the landscape and terrain is a huge aspect of the story, the sky, the sun. What is so fascinating about “Midnight Special” is that there’s definitely a connection to nature, but also the notion that there might also be an entirely different nature, coinciding with that.
Why do you and Jeff have such a strong bond?
MS: We kind of travel similar paths in life, we have similar points of view and perspectives and experiences that are common. Like our upbringing, where we come from, the South, our experience of being parents. I feel there’s an archetype that Jeff summons me to do, which is the inarticulate man who’s full of thoughts and feelings and emotions and yet not really capable of expressing himself. That’s something that I can recall from growing up, being around people like that.
JN: It’s different with the smaller roles he does for me, like “Mud” and the next film, “Loving.” But in these lead roles he allows me to write more efficiently. He carries so much subtext on his face. He’s able to fill in all of the things that I want to purposefully leave blank, he understands the character and the situation and the context, and is somehow able to present all that without saying a word. And that’s a very unique quality. It allows me to write this way, because I know Mike will be there for me.
“Midnight Special” will have it U.S. premiere at SXSW on March 12 and will hit theaters on Friday, March 18.