Midnight Special director Jeff Nichols: ‘This one started with an image’

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Mar 28, 2016, 1:09 PM EDT

Jeff Nichols has been a darling of the independent film scene since making his debut in 2007 with Shotgun Stories, but he started to get a lot more attention in 2011 with Take Shelter, a psychological drama with eerie apocalyptic overtones. 2012 brought the even more highly praised Mud, a mix of Southern noir and character study, but his latest film, Midnight Special, finds Nichols plunging full-on into sci-fi territory previously mapped out by films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Starman -- and doing it for the first time on the dime of a major Hollywood studio, in this case, Warner Bros.

The movie stars Michael Shannon (who has appeared in all of Nichols’ films) and Kirsten Dunst as the parents of a young boy (Jaeden Lieberher) who possesses strange, inexplicable and possibly dangerous powers. With the help of a loyal friend (Joel Edgerton), they’re on the run from both the religious cult to whom they once belonged -- who see the boy as some sort of savior -- and agents of the government, led by the thoughtful Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), who view him as either a threat or a potential weapon. But little Alton has a mission of his own, as well. 

Midnight Special is not a typical modern sci-fi tentpole; it’s a smaller, character-driven film seasoned with some spectacular images and a lot of big ideas. Blastr had a chance to talk with Nichols recently at the Warner Bros. offices about the origins of the film, his influences from sci-fi cinema and whether those reports about him possibly directing Aquaman at one point were true.

How do films start for you and how did this one start for you? Did it start with an image, a character, a scene?

This one started with an image. Take Shelter started with an image. Mud started with an image. So, yeah, I guess they’re all images. This really began with two guys in a car moving down a southern backroad in the middle of the night at a high rate of speed in a pretty badass car. It was like, “Where they going?” And they only move at night. Who’s chasing them? All these questions just started coming kind of rapid fire. And I started to fill in some answers for those.

I knew I didn’t want to make a horror film, because it could have gone that direction, like they only move at night and I don’t know who they are being chased by. Vampires or something? And that didn’t feel right, so then this idea of this boy and these powers started to kind of bubble up to the surface. It’s a pretty general archetype. It’s a pretty general subgenre -- the sci-fi government chase movie of a kid with superpowers being chased. We’ve all seen that a million times. So, it was pretty easy to let this live in that world. Then, it was just my job to kind of break the back of that and try and make that unique to me as a filmmaker, and as a storyteller, and as a human being. You know, make that all personal. So, it began with that image and kind of grew from there.


You’ve said that being a parent played a role in this. How do your emotions about that play to this story?

I was in my first year of parenthood. I was trying to figure out: What does it mean to be a father? I was experiencing these intense emotions. When you are in your first year of parenthood, you are exhausted. Your social life has been destroyed. Your life is really upended. Then, this thing happened where my son became sick. All that stuff that I was worrying about, the fact that I couldn’t go out and see a movie whenever I wanted to, I couldn’t go have a beer with my friends, that I wasn’t getting enough sleep, and my wife and I were fighting, all those things just melted away very quickly. And I realized, “Holy s**t. This is precious. This thing that has been delivered to us is precious. And I have zero control over it. I cannot control what happens to him.”

That’s the immediate fear. And that’s in the movie, for sure. But then, there’s this bigger fear as you start to think long term as a parent. Like, I have no idea who he is going to grow up to be. I have no idea if, in his 20s, something is going to happen to me and he’s going to start using drugs. I have no idea if he’s going to be a good person or a bad person. I don’t know. With parenthood, all you have is this ability to define who your child is. Try not to project yourself onto them. Just define who they are. And try and help them understand that definition. As they grow, redefine, and check back in, and help them realize their potential of who they want to be.

That seemed like a pure approach to parenthood. And that very much becomes Michael Shannon’s trajectory in this film. He can’t possibly know what his son is. This is where the sci-fi element comes in. It exacerbates the problem of normal parents. He can’t know what he’s meant for, but he has to have faith in this idea that he’s going to be OK, that he can be OK. And that’s what drives the narrative of the film.

You also have the government and a religious cult involved, and to me, the movie is also about sort of letting go of a lot of things that hold us back in terms of preconceived beliefs and notions about where we’re headed as a species.

You try and make these films with all these layers kind of baked into them. At the top of it is this idea of parenthood. But even the idea of parenthood I just described is about belief; belief in what your child should be and is meant to be. It made sense to me to make a film that was about belief, especially if you are dealing with the supernatural or with the unknown. Faith is going to start to intersect with it. Not faith in terms of organized religion, faith in something that you don’t know. That’s the definition of faith, is to believe in something you can’t know.

So, all right. Then we’re going to be circling the drain of faith and belief. But also, I was developing as a writer. This is the fourth film I’ve written. And I started to understand, especially when I was writing Mud, that in order to write a fully realized character, you have to build in a world view for them. You have to build in a belief system for them. So, yeah, there is this much bigger theme going on through the whole film that is kind of like: What is belief? How do we build these belief systems for ourselves? And where do these characters land on that spectrum? 


This film has movies like Starman, Close Encounters and others from a certain period of filmmaking in its DNA. What was it about those that you think you wanted to channel, and maybe what was it that you wanted to avoid, being that we’re in a different era of filmmaking?

Well, I always want to avoid one-to-one comparisons, and I can’t. You are never going to. And I mean, who doesn’t get flattered? What filmmaker raised in the ‘80s wouldn’t get flattered by being compared to Spielberg, right?  And obviously, I mean look at the poster. We’re courting those comparisons pretty heavily, at least Warner Bros. is in terms of the marketing. But I don’t want one-to-one correlations here. I’m not trying to put the two movies up next to each other and say, “Look! Look! Isn’t that neat? Isn’t that neat?”

I think who I am as a filmmaker was...I was shaped by those movies. I was born in 1978. I discovered a lot of those films on video. I discovered a handful of them in the theaters. I can remember the experience of going to see E.T. in a theater. I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas where we didn’t have foreign cinema. We didn’t have indie cinema or anything like that. I hadn’t heard of Terrence Malick and Badlands until I got to college. When I thought about movies and the moviegoing experience, I thought about these films. 

So, they’re just kind of baked into what I think a moviegoing experience should be. Now, that has been, maybe you could say, diluted or filtered through my life experience and my discovery later in life of these great auteur films and different modes of storytelling and other things, so that the essence of what I consider to be a great film has kind of broken apart and gone in all these different directions. And now it is who I am. These movies are mine, for better or worse. I’m really proud that they’re representations of where I am in my life when I write them. But, of course, there are huge kernels of who I am that are defined by The Goonies.

Any obscure science-fiction movies that you picked up along the way that people would be surprised to hear about?

Well, this one is not a science-fiction film, but I talk about Near Dark, that Kathryn Bigelow film with vampires, which I think is amazing. Again, I didn’t make a one-to-one relationship to this, but they are driving around in a mobile home with cardboard up in the windows and duct tape and stuff. I hadn’t thought about it at the time, but when I went back and watched it again, I was like, “Oh, wow. I wonder if I stole that?”

I mean, I like talking about Carpenter in a way more than Spielberg, not just because Spielberg is a lot to live up to, but also...I don’t know. I love Big Trouble in Little China. And I love The Thing. I think Carpenter was firing on all cylinders there for a little while, save for maybe the neon lights at the end of Big Trouble in Little China. But I don’t know. When it comes to really obscure science-fiction films, I’m not as much of a fanboy as I maybe should be...I’m a big fan of Stephen King’s writing, but usually not his horror stuff. That collection that had The Body in it and Shawshank Redemption is incredible.

Would you consider adapting something by him ever?

Oh, no. I just prefer my own stuff. There are no books of his that I’ve read that I was like, “I need to be the one to make that,” because obviously that’s happening right now. Dark Tower is being made. The Stand is being made. And it’s been happening forever. But I remember being tremendously terrified by It. And, of course, they were working on that one, too. I’m not sure where that one’s at. That’s not my job. That’s somebody else’s. 


You were briefly mentioned as a possible director for Aquaman. Is there something about that genre that intrigues you enough that you would look at it for a minute and perhaps want to play with it?

I’ll tell you this: I was at Warner Bros. at a time when they were activating the DC Universe. So, it was hard to be a director on this campus and not have somebody be like, “Just by chance, are there any DC characters you have any thoughts about?” Pretty much they were all talking about it. And I grew up reading comics. That was the cornerstone of my life growing up.
So yeah, I had some thoughts. But what I found interesting, and this kind of gets to the heart of your question, I think, when the Sony email hack happened and some dumb executive was writing some other dumb executive and was like, “I heard Jeff Nichols is going to direct this movie,” they had no clue of what they were talking about. They had enough of a clue that I was in a conversation. But no deals had been made, nothing like that.

But when that came out, that went everywhere, and it was not lost on me, the reach of that type of announcement. And as a person who is just trying to make stuff that people go see, I don’t want to be an auteur filmmaker working in a vacuum for just cool indie film nerds. I want to make movies that people watch, like the movies I watched growing up that we’ve already talked about. It kind of blew my hair back to see the speed at which that moved across the entire world. Of course, there was no substance in it. [laughs] But absolutely as a storyteller that’s intriguing. 

If I could find something that can move like that or that can, even better, be created from scratch and spread like that, to have an impact on pop culture, to have an impact on the zeitgeist like that, now that’s a heavy thing. And it’s possible. It happens. A lot of people are taking a shortcut to it by just attaching themselves to these properties that already exist. But few people, like James Cameron, create this stuff from scratch. And that is impressive. 

People who write sci-fi films or books find it to be liberating because you can talk about current world issues within the context of a fantastical story. Did you have that experience? And is it something you’d return to if another image popped up in your head?

Sure. I mean, but honestly, it’s the same thing I was doing in Take Shelter. Take Shelter was my answer to zombie movies. I was thinking that the best part of zombie movies is when they are in the hardware store getting ready for the attack. Well, if preparation is so much fun, let’s make a whole movie based on it. Then, I made that movie a mediation on how I feel about marriage and communication within a marriage. So, I kind of feel like I’ve been doing it all along. The question is: how big are the moments within the film? Take Shelter, I kept very compact, because I knew I had to make that for under a million dollars. This I knew I was going to make for around 20 million. So, I blew up a gas station. The next one, I don’t know. Maybe I won’t think of any limitations. 

Midnight Special is in theaters now.