INTERVIEW: Director Jeff Nichols on Midnight Special

From the time he burst onto the scene with 2007's Shotgun Stories, filmmaker Jeff Nichols has blazed a unique trail of quirky projects that draw on his preternatural grasp of concept and character to create some of the most rich and rewarding film experiences in recent memory. For his latest film, Midnight Special, the writer-director has created a meditative fantasy film that draws equally from early-era Spielberg and his own particular fancies.

The film follows the journey of a frantic father (Michael Shannon) as he attempts to rescue his supernaturally gifted son from the forces that are out to ensnare him. With an impressive roster of supporting players including Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, and Adam Driver, this is a movie that manages to be both surprising and (as promised by the title) special.

I had a chance to discuss the film, his first major studio release, with Nichols on his recent visit to San Francisco, and in addition to giving a sense of where this idea came from, he also dove deep into his creative partnership with star Shannon, his personal preferences as a filmmaker between indie and studios, and why he was never actually attached to the Aquaman feature adaptation despite what you may have read. Read on for the transcript of our chat:

Can you talk about the genesis of this project?

It actually just kind of started as a fun, silly little idea. I was just struck by the idea of these two guys driving in a souped-up car really fast through southern roads in the middle of the night. "Wouldn't it be cool, having these two guys, moving from town to town, they can only move at night. We can call it Midnight Special. Wouldn't that be cool?"

And I'd actually gotten pretty far into the process of writing it before I knew what it was really about. Of course, that's when I started to turn kind of inward and look at my life as a new father. I was in my first year of fatherhood, when I was really working on the mechanics of this thing, and I was examining what I felt like as a father, what that relationship made me feel like and kind of what my purpose was in my relationship as being a father.

Like, why am I really here if I have no control over my son, if I have no control -- real control -- over whether or not he's safe, or whether or not he's grows to be a happy, productive person? Then why am I here? And I figured that being a parent was really about trying to define who your child is and help them understand who they are, so that by the time they leave you, and they definitely will leave you, that when they do, they have an understanding about what they want out of life and what they're doing.

And that became a direct trajectory for the character of Michael Shannon and the character of Kirsten Dunst. That's what they're trying to do in this film, and that's kind of what I'm trying to do as a father. So now, all of a sudden, this sophomoric, silly sci-fi chase movie idea that I had started to feel worthy.

I appreciated how such anguish was reflected in Michael Shannon's performance. Given that you've worked with him before, what is it about Michael Shannon that you like inflicting anguish on him?

I think Mike's pretty anguished on his own. I think we line up in a lot of ways in how we feel about the world and how the world affects us. He's a parent, too, and I just try and write these things real honestly. One, I try and really look at my life and feel something, see what I'm feeling, and I try and craft stories that have characters that represent those feelings, and they act in such a way that it's straightforward and pragmatic and just truthful to whatever those circumstances are, and what those feelings are.

I think Mike appreciates that. I think it lines up with how he likes to work and what he's feeling out in the world, and I certainly know what he does as an actor makes what I write better. I don't like a lot of dialogue. I write these men that are kind of like men I knew growing up, which were guys who, I think, felt a lot of things. I think they had a lot of opinions about things, but it just wasn't their main concern to express those things. Maybe they were incapable of expressing those things properly, or maybe they just didn't give a shit, and Mike and I are like that.

So, a lot of stuff unsaid, but you convey it through action?

Through action, through circumstance, but also through Mike's face.

Picking up on that, there's that conversation in the car where he's asking what Kryptonite is, and he says it kills Superman, and Michael Shannon says, "It's not real!" Is that a little bit of meta-commentary there?

We thought about it. Originally, the line was written to be Adamantium. And we got into it, and Warner Bros. was like, we can try and license Wolverine comic books. It'd be a lot easier if you just wanted to make it a Superman comic book. I went so far as to look -- there was actually a Marvel/DC crossover comic that came out in the eighties, I think -- maybe early nineties -- and I found a page that had Superman and a comment of Adamantium on it. Needless to say, that was fool's errand.

Mike and I talked about it. We were on set, and I said, look -- because we needed to decide before we shot it. A lot of these clearance issues, you deal with it in post, but this was one we knew we had to work out. And Geoff Johns, who runs the DC Universe, he was great. He emailed with me, and he's like, "Well, we do have promethium, which is the DC equivalent of adamantium." I was like, yeah, but nobody knows what that is. If there's going to be a substance from the DC Universe that would be ironic that this kid wouldn't know about because he's been cloistered away on this religious ranch, it'd be Kryptonite.

Everybody in the audience knows what it is, and it's funny that he doesn't. So, it was really the only option we had in terms of making the line work. I thought Adamantium was even cooler because a few people wouldn't even get that, but a lot would, and enough. So, we just found ourselves in that situation. I remember talking to Mike, though, because I was like, do you think it will be distracting?

Because it's coming from him.

Because it's coming from him. And he said, "No. It'll be kind of funny, and I think it'll be okay." Because the scene's supposed to be kind of funny. Even the part where the boy speaks Spanish, it's kind of humorous. So, we waited, and we thought it worked out.

Well, if it means anything, that question didn't occur to me until just now as I'm sitting here talking to you, so it was not something, as I was watching, that was...

I'm glad it didn't take you out of the movie.

Not at all, yeah.

Because sometimes it's good to make meta-comments, but sometimes it's not.

The thing I did notice, to be honest, is the comics he was reading were from the eighties. I noticed there was a George Perez Teen Titans in there.

Yeah, and there was a Starman.

And those are Joel Edgerton's books.

That's what we figured. It would make sense. They're grabbing stuff at Joel's house, Lucas's house, and they're grabbing Kevlar vests, and guns, and weapons, some supplies, and he's got this stack of old comics in his closet. He just grabs them for the kid because he's trying to relate to the kid. He just had this weird experience with him where he "communed" with him, and it would make sense that he'd be like, "Here, I got these for you," because that's the kind of guy Lucas is. He's a nice guy, and he's a friendly guy even though we find him in a situation where you don't get to see that side of him.

And I think just the relationship between the two of them is so interesting -- Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton -- in that he shows up at his door, he's like, "I need your help," and they haven't seen each other in however long. He's like, "I'm coming," and I was just thinking about the kind of friendship that is.

There's an important step in-between those two things, though. It wasn't, "I need you." "I'm coming." I think it speaks more to the power of the boy than the power of their friendship. Now, their friendship is what makes it be more layered because maybe they could have gone and knocked on anybody's door and gotten some help, but I think Mike's character was very calculating in who he went to for help because who's going to have two Kevlar vests in their closet?

Good point.

And Mike's thinking about these things, you know? And who's going to have a Chevelle that they've been working on on the weekends that's very, very fast? That's going to be that guy. So, I think Mike's character makes a very calculated decision. Plus, it was one person who, he could knock on their door, and that person's not going to call the police immediately because they do know each other.

They did have a relationship, but their relationship is not known by the ranch because he knew him before he lived on that ranch. So, it's kind of like the only game in town because he couldn't go to any friend that had a relationship with the ranch or the ranch would find out about it through another family member or something, you could imagine. So, he had to go to his previous life, and that's where Joel was.

Now, in terms of the ranch, not specifically, but in terms of the way they were cloistered and whatnot, I got kind of a Scientology vibe from that -- at least, aspects of it.

No, it's FLDS. There's this great series of articles by a writer named Katy Vine at Texas Monthly Magazine, and I was reading those. There was a ranch outside of San Angelo, Texas, in Eldorado, and it was one of Warren Jeffs' ranches. FLDS is an offshoot of the Mormon Church. Way back, they had a break, and they think Warren Jeffs was the Prophet, one of them. He's insane, and he rapes kids, and he's a terrible person.

So, it's an extreme offshoot of the Mormon Church.

Yeah. I don't think the FLDS really has any connection to the Mormon Church, but I'm no expert. You'd have to look that up yourself. But when I was reading these articles, they were talking about a federal raid on the ranch, and I was immediately struck by the tenor of the raid. Because of Waco and the Branch Davidians, the Federal government was walking on eggshells to not repeat that experience.

So, they reached out to local law enforcement and made kind of this handshake agreement with the elders of the ranch to come on the ranch and begin interviewing kids. But there was this fact: as they were trying to figure out the kids' ages to see if they were of legal age to be married and have sex, they couldn't discern who was who because the kids who were born on the ranch had no birth record. That made me realize, well, if I had a kid that was born with these supernatural powers, and he was born onto a ranch like this, he could actually make it to the age of eight, and no one would know about him because there's no birth record of him.

So, that's how he could get this old without being on YouTube. And it also informed -- you know, what a cool setting to begin a movie with, with the dresses and the hair and everything else. But in this film, they aren't FLDS. Maybe they were before Alton was born, but since then, they have completely converted themselves to build their religious order around the existence of the boy, which would make sense if you were already leaning toward religious zealousness, so much so that you would be living away on a ranch, and you have the presentation of a miracle in front of you. It just made sense to me.

With your background in indie film, there's very much an indie sensibility here, and I mean that in the best way. What made you go to a studio with this?

It felt like a fanboy movie to me. I mean, it felt like a weird fanboy movie. It felt like my kind of fanboy movie, but it felt like a movie people might want to actually see, and it felt like a movie I didn't want to necessarily have to take through the film festival gauntlet. Knowing we've gone to Berlin and South by -- it's different when you go there with distributor. I was really hoping not to have to make this on the independent market.

There are great advantages of making things on the independent market. There's freedom and control there, and kind of a cleanness to the process that I like. My next film, Loving, was made in that environment, but I felt like this needed -- not just money. I really wanted the support of the company financing the film to be the same company making the posters. I wanted there to be that kind of support, and when I looked at studios that supported really great filmmakers that I admired and made really exciting marketing materials, I came to Warner Bros.

They had a very good reputation for supporting things like this. Also, they had made Man of Steel. They knew Michael Shannon, and my hope was that they might be willing to make a film with him in the lead, and I don't have to explain that. They would just understand that, and all those things did, basically, work.

We don't see this type of thing from studios these days. This is a rare thing to have an original, high-concept idea being put out by a studio because it feels like this kind of content is getting marginalized more and more in favor of the big blockbuster stuff.

It has to be. It's just the math. In fact, when I first brought the script to Warner Bros., one of the initial reactions was like: we love it, we love you, but this isn't what we do. We have so many films that we can fit into the slate a year, and we spend $100 million on those films in order to make $400 million dollars. We don't spend $20 million in hopes of eking out $40 million. The math doesn't bear out, and they're right.

I've watched Warner Bros., over the course of the last five months, build this marketing campaign, build this distribution strategy, which is unlike what they typically do, in terms of: this is a platform release, and they are really trying to craft a release that allows this film a path to success.

It is very specific, and it's taking every bit of their time and attention to do this, and they are not working any less on it because it's a smaller film. So, it makes sense, just from a pragmatic business standpoint, that they just can't make a ton of these, or else they won't be around. So, I feel very, very fortunate that they allowed me to play in their sandbox for a little while. It's been fun.

For you, having played in the studio sandbox and seeing all the toys at their disposal, at your disposal, and I think you mentioned in a previous interview that you were briefly talking about being involved with Aquaman at one point. As a fanboy, does your fanboy fervor lie in that big blockbuster direction, or is that something that's not of a lot of interest to you?

I'd love to make one, but it has to be the right one. My connection to Aquaman came out through the Sony hack. It had no relationship to reality. I was not on that film. I was not hired to work on that film. I had been talking to Warner Bros. about it.

So, it was just, "Hey, how about...?"

Yeah. They were like, "Look, we really like what you do, and we're looking for writers right now and directors to work on all these DC films we're trying to activate, if there's a character you're interested in." I was like, you know, I'm interested in Aquaman. I have some thoughts. Cut to the Sony hack happening, and all of a sudden, I'm attached to it.

The thing that I realized, though, through looking at that and googling "Jeff Nichols Aquaman," that "news," it went everywhere, every language. It was an international news topic with my name attached, which is insane because who the f**k am I? And I realized very quickly the power that these library titles have, the impact that they have, and who wouldn't, as a storyteller, want to step up to that kind of microphone?

The issue is that I've now made five films, because I made another film after Midnight Special. I have gained a lot of confidence in my process of making films. It doesn't mean I'll make a successful film or even a good film, but I know how to make my film.

One you can stand behind.

Exactly, and when presented with the process of making a library title like that, and not just Aquaman specifically -- I've been offered lots -- the train's already left the station. The script's done, the casting's done, all these different things.

So, you're not developing from scratch.

No, I haven't been presented with that opportunity, and I think if I was presented with that opportunity, and I could find some piece of myself in the story, I think it's very possible, but I might be too far down the Jeff Nichols path for that to ever be kosher with anybody.

Well, it's not a bad path to be on, right?

No, I'm quite pleased with where I'm at, yeah.


Many thanks to Jeff Nichols for his time. Midnight Special is in limited release now. For more movie talk, including an extended conversation on Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, check out the latest MovieFilm Podcast at this link or via the embed below: