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Interview: Michael Shannon Talks ‘Midnight Special,’ ‘Nocturnal Animals,’ Herzog’s ‘Salt And Fire’ & Working With Jeff Nichols

Interview: Michael Shannon Talks 'Midnight Special,' 'Nocturnal Animals,' Herzog's 'Salt And Fire' & Working With Jeff Nichols

Continuing our series of interviews with the principal players in Jeff Nichols’ “Midnight Special” (Joel Edgerton is here; Nichols himself is here; Kirsten Dunst is coming soon), next up is the wonderful Michael Shannon, who teams with the director for the fourth time. Here he plays the father of an uncannily gifted child who must evade the clutches of a cult and of the government, to get his son not just to safety but to a place where the mystery of his powers might be explained.

The hardworking Shannon, who will also appear in “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” next week, has impressed us in almost everything he’s done, from his standout turn on “Boardwalk Empire,” to Ramin Bahrani‘s recent, incendiary “99 Homes,” all the way back to William Friedkin‘s “Bug” and beyond. But it’s the increasingly indelible partnership between him and Nichols that has yielded some of his very finest work, and “Midnight Special” could well be the pinnacle of that collaboration to date. 

Talking with him after the film’s Berlin Film Festival premiere (endearing detail: the craggily charismatic Shannon was wearing the official Berlinale hoodie), we got to ask him about the nature and the history of that partnership, as well as about some exciting upcoming titles on his crowded slate.

So it seems like you and this Jeff Nichols guy kind of get on?
Oh man, Jeff feels like a brother to me. We have a kind of rapport that just materializes out of thin air. We can go a long time without seeing each other or talking to each other, and then we meet and it’s like we just saw each other yesterday. 

Why do you think that is?
We both have kind of similar backgrounds and come from the same region of the U.S., and I think we have a lot of common interests and influences. And I think we both share an aesthetic in terms of storytelling: I’ve always appreciated Jeff’s economy and directness in his writing — I’ve always found it challenging to work on. And I enjoy being challenged. 

And it’s that everything Jeff does is from the heart. He’s conscious of cinema and film and he’s interested in exploring genres, but underneath it all is basically a man just struggling with some fundamental questions that I think a lot of people struggle with. It’s very heartfelt. 

And that’s why Jeff’s surrounded by people that work with him time and time again. He’s kind of a natural born leader — you want to make him happy. Nothing feels better than looking over after a take and seeing that he’s got a smile on his face. 

Did you sense that rapport immediately, back on [Nichols’ debut] “Shotgun Stories”?
Well, it was kind of weird, the way our paths crossed, very random. He went to North Carolina School for the Arts — and I happened to do some work with Gary Hawkins, one of his teachers. Gary showed it to his class and Jeff asked, “You know how I could get a hold of him? I’ve got a script I’d love him to take a look at.” And Gary said, “I don’t know if I feel comfortable giving out his info.” He was being protective because I already had some credits under my belt, but Jeff kept at him. 

And I think even that exchange speaks volumes about who Jeff is. He’s fearless. He’s got this great combination of confidence and scrutiny. He’s very hard on himself but when he knows what he wants, when he feels like he’s found the right thing, he will insist on it. And that’s something I respond to. 

There’s so much uncertainty in this business, people that are confused or maybe not even necessarily that good at what they do. And Jeff is not one of those people. 

It could be that’s part of the fellow feeling, then, because as an actor you have an unusual ability to project conviction. 
It could be. I mean, I’m not necessarily interested in how I am perceived or whatever; I’m just trying to have the experience that’s charted out by the script. And I get thrown into a lot of stories where the circumstances are pretty extreme and I’m dealing with big hairy questions that are hard to answer, but I guess I’m not afraid of that either. 

We’re going to see you contend with a lot of those stories and circumstances in the coming year [Shannon’s IMDb page lists 11 titles currently due for 2016 release]
Oh yeah, it’s crazy. I hope — I really hope — it’s not too much. It was a weird year. I had some projects that I’d been attached to but weren’t financed or were kind of nebulous, and then everything materialized at the same time and everybody was like “It’s now or never!” And so I was just like, “I guess I’ll do six movies in a row and we’ll see how that works out.”

But now I’m trying to be a little more — I don’t want to say “picky,” but you gotta be careful. Because when you say even just “Oh yeah, that sounds interesting,” they take that to the bank.

There’s some really great-sounding stuff in there — I’m particularly intrigued by Tom Ford’s sophomore film, “Nocturnal Animals.”
That’s an amazing script. It’s going to be a trippy movie, really unique — because it goes back and forth between two completely diametrically opposed worlds. It’s a real head trip, half of it set in the LA art world and the other half is this grimy crime story in Texas. I’m just in the Texas part, playing a detective trying to help Jake Gyllenhaal‘s character solve a crime.

And you’re also leading Werner Herzog’s “Salt and Fire”?
Yes, I went down to Bolivia — an amazing experience. We shot on the Uyuni Salt Flats and it blew my mind. We even stayed in a hotel that’s made out of salt; it claimed to be “The Premier Salt Hotel in the World.” That was a great script, too: an environmental drama. We were pretending the salt flats are the site of an environmental disaster, [German actress Veronica Ferres] plays a scientist investigating, and I’m the head of the corporation responsible.

You speak often about the quality of the script. Is that what primarily attracts you to a project, or is it about the director?
Hmm…script’s up there. Without a good script, we’re all just hanging out in the breeze, you know? You can have the best director, actors, crew imaginable, but you gotta have something to shoot. And I dunno, I just read a lot of really great scripts recently — they’re not always easy and there’s not always a lot of money for them because they’re kinda out there, but they’re worth doing. 

But it’s also the filmmakers and the people. With Jeff, I’ve basically told [him] that I’ll do whatever he wants me to, whenever he wants me to do it. So if he calls me up, I go, whether I can get the script in advance or when I get there — there’s certain people I feel that way about. Werner [Herzog], Ramin [Bahrani] — there are certain people that you just want to be in business with. 

This will be your third outing with Herzog.
Yeah, I did a little part in ‘Bad Lieutenant‘ which was kind of like my audition for “My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done” But doing ‘Bad Lieutenant’ was a lot of fun because I got to work with [Nicolas] Cage, and man, he was on another planet in that movie. He was having a good time. A good time. 

Hah, it shows in the film too! Can we expect a similar level of insanity from Herzog’s “Salt and Fire”?
“Salt and Fire” is a little more sobering. It really is about the environment and our responsibility to it — it’s very moving in that regard. And Werner is just such a man of the world; I’ve learned so much from him and seen so many things I would have never seen. I would never have seen the Uyuni Salt Flats if it wasn’t for Werner.

You would never have stayed in the World’s Premier Salt Hotel. You’d have stayed in some second-rate salt hotel. 
Heheh! Exactly. The Ramada Salt Hotel.

Let’s get back to “Midnight Special.” I understand that Nichols basically can send up a batsignal and you’ll come, but you must have been in on the development of this film early. 
The first time Jeff ever mentioned it was during “Take Shelter.” He said, “I’m going to write a chase movie for you and it’s gonna be you in an old hot car driving around at night real fast.” It sounded like “Cannonball Run” or something! I didn’t know what to expect. Then when I read it, I was very moved, obviously, by that relationship between father and son. Jeff has continuously explored, in all the movies we’ve made together, that bond between parent and child. Either its strength or its weakness — both sides of it. 

And also just I love to see Jeff playing with this genre. I was curious to see how he was going to do it, what was it going to look like, because it was not his wheelhouse, really. I didn’t know he was so fascinated by the genre until he showed me his script. 

Did this time out feel different because of the involvement of a studio [Warner Brothers]?
It was just more…it was a nice feeling. It made me proud for Jeff that he was gonna get to not worry so much. That he wasn’t going to have to be staring at his watch all the time making sure the sun didn’t set or whatever. That he could have the luxury of making a film the way it should be made. 

I don’t like this current trend of making films as quickly as possible for as little money as possible. It can be done; we proved that time and time again. But you’re making something that’s going to last forever, and if you make movies like that, there are shortcuts and sacrifices that can’t help but diminish the overall product. So why not get a little more money and little more time and do it the right way?  Why put all the onus on the artist to panic for 25 days and hope that it cuts together? 

It doesn’t mean that Jeff still wasn’t anxious about it, because there were more resources but it was also more ambitious. But that’s the thing about Jeff: Every movie he makes is always going to be a challenge to himself to broaden his scope, so it’s kind of a tightrope. But he seems like he’s managing pretty well so far. 

Well, he has some great support. Long may your partnership continue.
Thank you, thank you. I hope so. 

“Midnight Special” opens on Friday.

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