Interview: Jeff Nichols Talks Making ‘Midnight Special,’ Working With Warner Bros., The Trouble With Final Cut, And More

Interview: Jeff Nichols Talks Making 'Midnight Special,' Working With Warner Bros., The Trouble With Final Cut, And More
Interview: Jeff Nichols Talks Making 'Midnight Special,' Working With Warner Bros., The Trouble With Final Cut, And More

Last week we ran a little nugget on “Aquaman” as a sneak preview of our Jeff Nichols interview from this year’s Berlin Film Festival. And now, as the release day for his thoughtful, questioning sci-fi “Midnight Special” draws near, we’re ready to unleash the rest of it on you. To recap, the film stars Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver and Sam Shepard, and follows Roy (Shannon) as he attempts to flee the cult he had been a member of, with his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). Alton has mysterious powers that are coveted both by the cult and by the government, but Roy, his best friend Lucas (Edgerton) and Alton’s estranged mother Sarah (Dunst) believe his destiny lies elsewhere.  

In the course of discussing the film, its themes and why Nichols brought it to Warner Bros., we’ve excised anything that could be considered a major spoiler, but hints as to the course of the film’s narrative do abound, so the hyper-spoiler-sensitive should maybe come back here once they’ve seen the film. (But you really should — Nichols has some typically thoughtful and illuminating insights to share about his deeply-felt movie).

Avoiding those spoilers was made even more difficult, however, by the fact that Nichols, having only just begun at the time to get a feel for the response to his film, disarmingly mentioned that he’d read our review and asked, with unusually genuine curiosity (for a director in this position), for clarification on the section critiquing the film’s ending. This kind of never happens…

The ending? Oh, well, I think I just meant that I felt it showed too much, the very last section.
You’re funny — so many people want more clarity, more definitiveness around the ending. You’re one of the few who wants less. But that’s a good thing.

You know, I really don’t care about plot. I really, really don’t. I care about narrative structure, I care about how stories unfold. But the specifics of plot and specifics of endings just aren’t really where I put most of my attention. And on this film I was really trying to figure out how to be a father, and how to process all this fear and all these feelings, and that are apparent in the film.

What I find interesting is I don’t really have an answer to it. I really don’t know how to tell you what it feels like to be a parent… “Take Shelter,” I feel like I had my hands around the idea a lot more. This one — I’ve told the story about my son having a febrile seizure and that specifically made me have to experience what it would be like to lose him. But also Sandy Hook happened while I was making this which kind of put this shockwave impression through me.

I know what it is, but it’s hard to enunciate — this film is about is what to do for your children. When you’re afraid of something you immediately react by wanting more control over that situation. But that’s the opposite thing that a parent really needs to do. The more we try to control our kids and create who they are and where they’re going, the more that will fall apart, that’s a dangerous thing. So you need to actually manage the fear and figure out who your kids are. Who do they want to be and how can you help shape that, but not control it.

Facilitate it.
Yes, exactly. So for me, the kid had to go someplace, someplace that the parents couldn’t fully know or understand and they at some point had to accept that. And that to me is the trajectory of the thing. So the details, the specifics, the plot, that’s just window dressing.

I think it’s very clear that the heart of the film is not the who-goes-where-and-does-what. And to clarify, for me ending is not thematically definitive, but it is on kind of on a plot level, which is what didn’t quite gel for me.
Yeah, of course. I just couldn’t figure out how else to end it! If you have an idea… Seriously! How would you end it? Where would you end it?

[This really never happens. But I put forward my own suggestion, and Nichols is very nice about it while remaining politely skeptical.]

That would have been a crazy ending.

Yes, people would have been really, really annoyed about it. It’s good I’m not in charge. But I really feel like that moment is kind of the sublimation of the theme of fatherhood. 
I’m so glad you mention that one moment, but that’s really kind of a subtle moment and…I was worried you wouldn’t understand what was happening. But I’m glad that people are getting that. Those are the things I worry about.

It worked on me so well that most everything afterward felt superfluous.
It’s an odd hand-off, it’s a really odd hand-off. It goes against the grain. And I’m not saying this as like, “Look at me! I’m a badass because I did something different.” [Nichols’ soft-spoken manner is such that it’s actually funny to hear him worry that people might think he’s trying to be badass] It really does go against, like, a good idea! But the way I reasoned that out was [it’s] fulfillment for Roy. He’s already come to terms with the things that he didn’t want to talk about in that motel room, with Kirsten’s character…

Who, incidentally is one of the most unusual mother characters I’ve seen in a while.
Oh yeah. Have you seen my first film? The mother in “Shotgun Stories” is unusual too, but just basically wicked! She hates her sons, blames them for the dissolution of her marriage. She’s an evil woman. But I remember reading “A Doll’s House” in high school and thinking, “A mother that abandons her children, what a strange idea.” And that’s not what happens here, by any means.

But there’s actually this really amazing scene that I wrote — well, actually I never wrote it down on paper — for the beginning of the film. That’s the moment where Sam Shepard’s character [who plays the leader of the cult] comes to Roy and Sarah and tells them that he’s going to be taking their son. It was a really good scene. Basically he comes in and is just like, “Well, I spoke to God and Alton’s going to be my son” and before she could help herself, Sarah just sits up and goes, “That’s not right. That’s not true.” And Sam Shepard’s character just sits back, and these women come in and start packing up the boy’s things and then Doak and Levi [cult member heavies] come in and take her outside. And she’s looking at Roy for help, but he knows if he says something, he goes too.

She becomes an apostate, for her spontaneous reaction to someone trying to take her child away.
Absolutely, they exiled her. So she has to deal with all this and be separated from her son which she doesn’t want. She did not abandon him — that’s a false statement [from a character in the film], which I think you understand as soon as you watch her see her son for the first time.

I mean that scene is really damn good! And I needed to know about it, and Kirsten needed to know about it, but it was this experiment, this idea that I could have that scene exist [but not shoot it] and just feel some strange subtext from it all.

So, it’s taken a long time to get to here with it, with delays and changing release dates. Are you happy with the decision to come to Berlin?
With hindsight yes. It was pretty — crushing is not the right word, but yeah. You have this thing and you know that it’s a strange thing, and part of me was just ready to get it out into the world. So what if people like it or love it or hate it or whatever, just get it out there. I’m tired of thinking about it, I’ve been thinking about this thing for four years, I’m ready for other people to think about it so I can stop.

And now you just have to talk about it for the next two years.
Exactly. But that part’s easy. Because people already have the answers…I just fill them in! But with hindsight, just as a business strategy, I took this film very purposefully to Warner Brothers, because I thought they made films that people really want to see. They make fanboy films you know, but they also make really smart films like “Her” and Clint Eastwood‘s films and “Inherent Vice.” They seemed like a really interesting studio.

And having been through the independent film business, I really wanted the company that was going to release the film to be the same company that paid to make it. I want them invested from the beginning. And, although I didn’t know the particulars of it at the time, I was really drawn to Sue Kroll (President of WB marketing division) and all of her marketing. I love the way they market films .

And so I really put all of that in their hands. And then they came to me and said “we don’t think we should use the date that we picked for this film.” The original date they’d chosen was before we even had a cut — the dating of these films is this crazy strategy that these people are doing.

So when they came to me and said, “we’ve seen the film now, it needs space, it needs space to breathe, ‘Star Wars‘ is coming out a week after, it’s going to be crushed,” you know that was tough to hear, but I think it was very true.

That doesn’t mean it’s not about to be crushed anyway, by ‘Batman v Superman,’ but I think there’s more space there. And time will tell if it was a good or bad decision. It was certainly a tough decision to have to wait, but I respect them for making it, and I’ve put it in their hands because I trust them.

So the relationship with WB is good, but this is your first studio film. Are there things that would have been different if there had been no studio involvement?
Yeah, there’s one thing. So, obviously they tested the film. And I never tested “Take Shelter,” I just showed up to Sundance and showed it to people. Had we tested that film it would have been ripped apart. Just ripped apart. And I don’t know if I would have had the courage to not dismantle it. At this point though, I’m pretty stubborn. And Warner Brothers, from the very beginning gave me final cut. So I had this confidence.

But final cut is kind of the nuclear option, you know? You don’t want to use it. Because you want people that are helping make your film, to like your film.

So I was very open to listening to notes, but it was nice to know that no one was going to force me to do them. Because this is mine. I created this. It’s not some book they brought to me or some library title that they had. This was mine and I’ll be damned if they were going to tell me how to do it. But luckily that attitude got to stay in a drawer!

And then what it does actually, is it makes you responsible for the film working. And so we start showing it to people. And 90% of the audience was completely opposed to your position [on the ending]! And the studio keeps coming to me and saying “Look, Jeff, we keep showing it to people and they want more. Here are the questionnaires.” And I was like, “Of course, what else are they going to write? That’s what everybody’s going to write!”

So there is one scene that didn’t exist in the original film… I thought [I had a] really elegant ending, where you just didn’t know [the fate of a certain character]. But people were really bothered by it. They couldn’t get over it. So I was sending it around to friends and saying, “No, I’m not going to address it, I’m not going to address it” and then I had this idea [that was] pragmatic, but it also felt thematic. So they allowed me to go back and shoot an additional scene for that and put it in. Does it make the film drastically better? I don’t know.

But you like it.
I like it and I think it makes the film at the back end lay down a little bit more. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.

“Midnight Special” opens on Friday.

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