This week, Jeff Nichols releases his fourth film, Midnight Special, a sci-fi chase film that melds Starman- style meditations on human nature, car chases straight out of Vanishing Point, and Nichols’ own pet themes: the sacrifices made for family and impending fears about fatherhood.
Nichols’ sensibility as a director is a study in contradictions. He’s a fiercely personal filmmaker, yet the work values thematic complexity over sprawling narratives. And while he’s incredibly confident in his own visions (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud), he’s just as likely to admit that he likes the unpredictability that emerges from muse Michael Shannon or idiosyncratic performers such as Matthew McConaughey or Jessica Chastain.
It’s not his ability to build characters so much as his abilities to build worlds that makes Nichols one of the best contemporary American directors. Nichols, an Arkansas-born filmmaker, writes stories that possess a deep sense of the south, evoking literary institutions such as Flannery O’Connor and Mark Twain in his terse, casually funny, and thematically weighty scripts.
More so than any of his previous films, Midnight Special is a love letter to the past, specifically the films of Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter. The Amblin touch is all over the film, from its visual allusions to science fiction standards like Close Encounters of the Third Kind to the story’s dual dialogues between the family’s inner conflicts and large-scale conspiracies. But it’s hard to not also see someone like Jean-Pierre Melville filtered through the American ’80s in the ruthless efficiency of the narrative.
Even more so than Nichols’ other films, Midnight Special feels particularly unwilling to offer easy concessions about the nature of its narrative or the depth of its secrets. The last third especially works in such sharp contrast with the rest of the film that it’s hard not to take it as some kind of commentary on expectations, even as its polarized audiences.
At the tail end of a long week of press events, we caught up with the exhausted but tremendously charming Nichols to talk about his script-writing philosophy, letting child actors do their thing, his love for car chases, and his upcoming period piece — the “great American love story,” Loving, which was recently set for a November 4th release. As a note, this interview was conducted in-tandem with another interviewer. Their portion of the interview has been re-printed with their permission. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: I don’t want to talk about specifics, but that ending hits in a very different way than the rest of the film. Was that the ending you conceived from the very beginning? Or is that something you came up with on the fly?
Jeff Nichols: Nope, that was built in from the beginning. Endings are tricky, and I think, a lot of times, endings are built out of plot. You have an idea of how you want the plot to resolve itself, but I don’t really think about endings that way. I think of them as developments out of character and character feelings and character emotions. I think that’s why sometimes my endings are off-putting for people — because I don’t really care about wrapping up plot. That’s not a going concern of mine. What I care about is reaching this kind of emotional climax for the character. And so that very much was kind of built into the DNA of it. Plus, I mean, obviously this film is inspired by Spielberg films, and he does that quite well. He makes films that unfold in this sense of wonder or awe, and I wanted to try my hand at something like that.
One of my favorite parts of the film is something that’s already seemed to divide people: the pared-down exposition. In terms of recent films, it reminded me of Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive in that it’s a very lean story with strong thematic undercurrents. You’ve talked previously about your evolution as a filmmaker. Was the minimalist storytelling style needed for this particular story, or do you think it’s representative of your goals as a filmmaker going forward?
Well, this story was designed to kind of be the ultimate part of that evolution — this reduction of narrative exposition. This was a good resting place for that experiment, but I think it is always something I’m going to strive for as a writer, mainly because I just think it’s good writing. I will admit that in this particular case, I took it to an extreme. And sometimes it doesn’t totally work, but I’ve been trying to figure out what good writing is, and, in a screenplay, you have two things: you have lines of action and you have lines of dialogue. And, for lines of action, it’s very clear for writers that it’s just about behavior. The character walks in, picks up the coffee mug, sits down. You would never put in lines of action — he also dislikes his mother because she abandoned him at three. You would be a moron for putting that in a line of action, but, for some reason, writers think it’s okay to put that in a line of dialogue in a situation when there’s no reason they’d be saying that other than to give information to the audience, so I try to treat dialogue just like behavior.
You don’t always say what you mean. You don’t always say what you want to say, and you certainly don’t always speak your subtext. I just try and be real honest about the situations I put my characters in, and I try and craft situations where, if I need some backstory, I try to make it organic to the scene. Midnight Special was the culmination of this style of writing. Again, it doesn’t always work. I think when it falls apart is when it becomes purposefully ambiguous. I didn’t want it to be, but I think there are a few places where it might be, where I’ve actually overcorrected. But I think it works for me for the majority of the time. I’ve made another film since this film, and it’s pretty lean as well. It’s pretty sparse in terms of dialogue. At the end of the day, you have to be true to what the story is. There’s a lot of dialogue in Mud, but that was the character of Mud. He had this belief system built on superstition, and the words just kind of flowed from his mouth without much thought for punctuation or anything else. I don’t consider that writing any less because there’s a lot of it. It was appropriate to the character.
I understand that the spark for this entire film came from something that happened with your son. Can you talk about that experience?
I always write on these two tracks. I write on kind of a genre / plot track on one hand — that’s where the fun stuff happens. And then I try to ground these things to my life personally. Oddly enough, I had a lot of the plot in place. I think it’s because it’s a chase movie, there’s a “Point A” and “Point B,” so I could actually lay out a lot of the plot before I could figure out what it all meant. At about eight months old, my son had a febrile seizure, which is the body’s reaction to a spike in fever, and it was a really terrifying experience for my wife and me. If you have kids, that first year when you have a kid, you’re just kind of underwater. Your social life has disappeared. Your whole life changes. My wife and I refer to that first year as the “darkness.” [Laughs]
But eight months in, he had this seizure and it kind of woke me up, and I said, “Oh, this can happen. This boy could be taken away from me at any time. And that’s going to cripple me as a human. And you start to realize that well, ok, now I find myself in this. Interesting.” And it’s this deal where I’m completely wedded to this person, but I have no control over whether they live or die, or whether they grow into a great person or a bad person. I can only affect these things in the margins, and that made me start to question, “Why am I here? And why am I a parent, and what’s my role in all of this?” And I thought, “Well, as a parent then, I must be here to try and understand who my son is, what he needs, and as he grows, kind of re-define that and help him understand it, and help him realize his potential of who he is, and not try to project myself onto it.”
And that felt like an appropriate summary of what parenting might be. And that kind of became the trajectory for Mike Shannon’s character. He doesn’t know what his son is — he doesn’t know what his son is capable of — but he’s just trying to figure it out, and trying to figure out what the boy needs to be happy, safe, productive. That experience of being a new father directly led me to the path of the thematic underpinnings of the movie.
How old is your son now?
He’s five-and-a-half. He’s a riot, and he’s very healthy.
Besides for the theme of family, one aspect that’s really unique in the film is your presentation of faith, although I hesitate to call it faith, because faith is something that you take but don’t see. In the film, you have people who are part of a Doomsday cult who are kind of sympathetic, but you also have people who have seen something in Alton. They have seen a vision, or something else that converts them to become cultish. How were you thinking about the representation of faith, and the characters becoming devoted to Alton’s supernatural aspects?
There are a lot of layers in the script. You try and make it a little complex. The kind of most obvious layer — which isn’t what you’re asking about — goes back to this idea of parenthood. That’s what it is. You have to have faith in what your child could become, and you have to have faith because you don’t really know. That’s Mike and Kirsten [Dunst]’s character. That’s the kind of faith they have. But I built these different belief systems for all of these different characters. When you look at the ranch, it’s a bit of a commentary on the dangers of organized religion. I grew up Methodist. I went to church. I think there’s a lot of great things that come out of organized religion, but I think they can become dangerous at some times. And they become dangerous when you build a belief system for yourself and you start to impose it on other people. That’s when religion can actually become evil. I think that’s what’s happening in this particular case with this ranch. They have selfish reasons for believing in this boy. They want to drink the Kool-aid, ride the spaceship; they want something for themselves out of it, and it doesn’t have anything to do with what the boy needs. So that’s a negative form. You look at Lucas’ character, played by Joel Edgerton. I kind of painted him as an agnostic. We never really talked about it, but I imagine, if you’re a state trooper and you were out on the road somewhere in West Texas and you came upon a wreck… maybe there were kids in the wreck, maybe they were dead. And you’re just pragmatic about it. You’ve seen it. You know that children can die, and there’s no justice, no reason for it. It just happens.
And so his pragmatic mind, when applied to this situation, is like, “This boy is getting sick. And the father is like, no, no, no, he’s meant for something.” And he’s like, “I don’t give a shit what you think he’s meant for. Kids die. It happens. I’ve seen it.” And so he begins this kind of rational voice in the middle of this totally irrational situation. But, like the ranch members, every time he starts to get back to his rational mind, a satellite falls out of the sky. And he has to deal with that. He’s in this constant kind of state of being pushed and pulled between these realities. Honestly, I think it gives some credence to the religious community. They have experienced a miracle. They have something tangible in their midst to believe in, so they’re maybe less crazy than other religious cults. But how they use that is where they get into trouble.
Coming after Mud, where the kids — Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland — were an enormous part of the film’s success, Midnight Special is another film where you’re relying heavily on a child actor. Jaeden Lieberher, who plays Alton, is really incredible. What was it like working with him?
Thank you. He’s a really smart kid. I’m a really big believer, especially when you’re working with younger actors, that you just have to cast them correctly. And if you do that, your job is pretty well done. And when I met Jaeden, I was immediately struck by his intelligence, but he had this kind of innate awareness about the situation he was in. He wasn’t faking it; he wasn’t tap-dancing for attention. He was just telling me the way he felt about things. We talked about movies, we talked about life, and his career and things. He just seemed very aware, and that’s what I needed out of this boy in the second half of the film.
A switch is kind of flicked, and he becomes aware of his place in the universe. And he seemed to have that kind of built-in. I knew that, if he could handle the back-end of the film — which I thought would be the harder part — then I could take care of the front-end. I could just basically just mute him, put his nose in a comic-book, and not have him talk very much. And, at some point, he would wake up. And that was Jaeden. We’ve been on these press tours together, and people ask him, “How do you do this, how do you do this?” And he’s so honest. He’s so pragmatic. He’s like, “I would read the scene and you know, Jeff was really clear about what I needed to do in the scene, and I would do it.” People want these answers, but oddly enough when I talk to Mike Shannon about acting, he has a very similar answer.
Yeah. From the script stage, you try and give these characters behavior that’s something that they would do. You don’t try to force them to do things outside of their character. And if you’ve done that as a writer, they have something stable to work from, so they just kind of need to understand the situation and do it. And that’s the way Jaeden was.
After three films together, is there a shorthand between you and Shannon at this point?
Yeah, you know, but that’s kind of always been there. Mike doesn’t like to talk about a lot of things. Some actors love to sit and talk about where they come from, and all the backstory and everything else. And Mike kind of builds that on his own. I had to give him — in this particular instance — some key details about what happened before the movie started, but, once I gave him those, he was kind of off to the races. But he’s always been that way. We don’t rehearse; we don’t talk very much. He just kind of has an innate understanding of what I’m trying to do. I think that’s why we suit each other. We just kind of see eye-to-eye on things. We start rolling the camera, and he just does what he does.
No, I try not to. I’m so structured in the way I build these scenes on the page, but then, also as a director, I’m very specific about the shot selection and everything else. It’s really nice, sometimes, to have that first, second take where people don’t really know what they’re doing, because even by take four, five, when we get it just the way I wanted it, sometimes I’m wrong. It’s nice to have those first and second takes where there’s something strange happening. It bails you out sometimes. That doesn’t work for every actor, but it works for Mike.
You’ve always been a strong visual stylist, but you’ve never really indulged in big-budget set pieces until now. I was particularly impressed with the car-chase sequences in this film. They have this really natural sense of urgency, but also a visual economy. Were there certain influences you looked to in crafting those scenes, or did the sense of streamlined motion just come with editing and time?
There are a couple of things to talk about regarding that. I feel like we take car chases for granted. They’re in so many movies, and they’re usually really well done. Like those Bourne films, those are masterpieces. The James Bond films, too. I’m utterly bored by them in movies. I just kind of shut down because you just let it wash over you because you know they’re going to get away, and it’s just kind of boring. With set pieces, they’ve become prosaic. I wanted to undo that first off. In typical fashion in Midnight Special, right about the time things were about to get interesting, they hit traffic, and I found that far more frustrating and far more tense. [Laughs] They can’t move, so I thought that was a good idea.
But when it comes to the technical execution of these things… “Yeah, and then there will be a car chase.” But it’s like, “Oh no, I have to really think about this.” I had my specific shots. I want a profile of the tire, I want this shot, I want that shot. And you kind of set about getting those, but I’m not very good at getting extra stuff in case you need it — gas pedals, speedometers, hands shifting, these little things that are sort of editorial tricks. I had a really good stunt coordinator on this film [Scott Rogers], and he had actually done a lot of second unit directing. On these bigger movies, they kind of send these guys off, and they’re the ones that shoot all the chase sequences. The high-paid directors are doing the talky scenes, and these guys get to do all the fun stuff.
Well, I wanted to do all the fun stuff. He was very good at kind of saying, “You might want this part of the shot, or it would be really cool if this happened.” We can do this with that piece of equipment because I had never used a lot of this equipment before. That was really valuable to me. I think he gave me some added pieces that, later on, I found quite useful. That was the biggest technical learning curve, the car chases.
You think Jeep sales are going to go up after the movie’s release?
That’s an Isuzu Rodeo, actually. It’s been taken out of commission; they don’t make them anymore. My wife had one. It was a 1998 Isuzu Rodeo Palacio Red with gray interior, and it was the first car my wife ever paid for on her own, and she loved that car. We still have that car, and I hate that car. It broke down, we had to put a new motor in it, and I just hated it. And I told her, “If I write a movie that destroys this car, will you let me destroy it?” And she said, “Yes, yes, you can.”
And so we start to write this scene, and we’re like, “We’re going to need about nine of these cars.” So they start looking for all these Palacio red Isuzu Rodeos with gray interiors. We found nine of them. We would have used my wife’s, but by the time I’d wrote the scene, and by the time we were shooting the stuff, it had been caught in a hail storm, so it had dings all over it, and they were like, “We can’t use it because we can’t match the dings on all the other cars,” so I still have that damn car. [Laughs] There was this hilarious moment after this car had been through this road block, and we were damaging a car to make it match the other car, and I just looked at this grip, and he had a sledgehammer and was just banging the hell out of this car. And I just walked up and was just like, “Let me see that.” I took a lot of aggression out on it. The funny this is, I’ll say this, we wrecked the hell out of a lot of those cars, and they just kept running. Isuzu Rodeos, they built a good car. [Laughs]
You’re in post-production on Loving, and it’s the first movie you’ve done that’s based on a real-life trial. In this case, it’s Loving V. Virginia. So I know you talked previously, and you said Midnight Special is kind of genre, and this is a little more austere, but was it different to adapt something that was a real-life story? Did it feel substantially different than your other work?
Yeah. It was creatively paralyzing for a couple of months. I missed my first deadline for the script because I just felt like I couldn’t write in these character’s voices. I just felt like a fraud, partly because they were real people, but also because the film is a period film that goes from 1958 to 1967. I wasn’t born until 1978, so I felt especially fraudulent — but, at some point, I just had to take control of who they were. So I said, “Okay, these are real people, but they’re also characters in my movie, so I have to take ownership of them.” And that got me through the process. It’s a beautiful film. It’s just a love story, and it’s the most beautiful love story, maybe, in American history.
You’ve set out a challenge for each new film. What was the challenge for Loving?
Period piece. It’s tricky. It just highlights how fake movies are. All things in movies are fake — the clothes, the cars, everything. It’s shocking, I know. But we try and ground them in reality by shooting on location and shooting these real places. But, with a period piece, you can’t do that. You have to make everything up, so that took a little getting used to.
Midnight Special opens in limited release on Friday, March 18 and expands on April 1.