In just three movies, director Jeff Nichols has established himself as one of the most interesting American voices working in film today. His first two films, “Shotgun Stories” and “Take Shelter,” won over art house crowds with their quiet ferociousness, and his newest movie “Mud” (which hit Blu-ray this week) just became the biggest indie movie of the year.
For this next project, Nichols is once again working with his frequent collaborator, actor Michael Shannon, but the project is something all-together new for the writer-director. “Midnight Special,” a sci-fi chase film inspired by John Carpenter’s movies, is Nichols’ first studio film, but as we learned during an interview with him, it will still pack the same emotional punch that made his first three movies so memorable.
How uncomfortable you would be making a movie without Michael Shannon around?
He’s going to be the lead in my next one, so I won’t be able to answer that for a while. I’ve got one after that that he might not be in, so we’ll just see if it crashes and burns. I love Mike, and I love working with him. We suit each other, I feel like. My words some good coming out of his mouth. We get each other, and we like working together. We respect each other. As far as marking a movie without him, I’ll cross that bridge when I have to. At some point I’ll have to, and hopefully by then I’ll have learned enough to take care of myself. Even in “Mud,” I remember texting him on the first day because he wasn’t there. It was the first time I had a first day on a film shoot and Mike Shannon wasn’t there. I was like, “I miss you, man.” We did the lion’s share of this movie without, and then he showed up, and it was like my big brother showed up. He starts making fun of me in front of the crew.
And you’ve got Joel Edgerton lined up for that as well, right?
We’re still working on the contract and everything, but Joel is who we’ve been talking to.
I know there’s been some confusion about what’s next for you. Is this the John Carpenter-inspired chase movie, “Midnight Special,” you’ve talked about?
Yeah, that’s it. It’s a script I took to Warner Bros, and they responded to it, and I’m getting to make it there. It’s the present-day, sci-fi chase film. That’s the one we’re making. We’re scheduled to start shooting in January.
In the past, you’ve said that each of your movies has a specific emotion tied to it. What is the emotion for “Midnight Special”?
It’s really, honestly— I have a three-year-old son, and if “Take Shelter” was the film made by the guy who was about to be a father and all of the anxiety that comes with it and the kind of family man you want to be, “Midnight Special” is the film made by a guy who already is a father. It’s definitely about the way I feel about my son. It is, if you want to talk about an emotional punch in the guy, which is something I refer to a lot. I always want at least one scene in each of my films to kind of reach out and punch you. This has it. In my opinion, “Midnight Special” has it in spades. It’s also from the perspective of a father writing about a son, me writing about my son. That’s the emotional anchor. That’s what the engine is that drives it. It’s still about family, nothing new. [Laughs]
This is going to be your first studio movie. What has the process been like so far?
It’s scary. I’m not going to lie, but they’ve been so awesome. It helps that it’s not the most expensive movie in the world. I’m not making “Pacific Rim.” They’re allowing me my creative control. They’re giving me exactly what I wanted. I wanted a partner. I didn’t want a boss. I wanted a partner with as much experience as Warner Bros. has, which they have a lot. I wanted them upstream. I wanted someone talking to me about release strategies and posters and everything way up from and giving me advice. “Who do you think we should cast?” So far, it’s been a really great creative collaboration, which is what I wanted. I didn’t want somebody to get completely out of the way, but also I didn’t want somebody in the way. So far it’s been really great, and I see no signs of that changing. Fingers crossed.
Now that you’ve got an indie hit and you’re working on a studio movie, is the possibility of a franchise movie in your future?
I’ve always told people that my opinion of success is to have an in-ground swimming pool at my house. If I’m going to sell out, I should at least sell out for enough money to put in a swimming pool. I don’t know. I’m open to anything. It’s just, the confidence I’ve gained from making three films that I don’t think totally suck is to trust my instincts, and if it’s not feeling right, don’t force it. At this point, I’ve actually said “no” to a lot of things. I’ve said “no” to some franchises, and I think I’m going to do exactly what I want to do. If there’s a franchise that fits into that, awesome. It’s not like I’m opposed to it, the idea of it, but it has to be the right thing at the right time. I have to enough confidence in the process. That was the thing about taking the job with Warner Bros. They gave me confidence that I would be taken care of and that I would be listened to and all these others things. If the story is right, if the situation is right, absolutely. I would love to, but they’re few and far between and I read them. I think it would have to be something that I develop. I would be shocked if the script fell in my lap, but even that’s possible. There are some great writers out there.
Has there been anything you’ve been offered that really tempted you?
Nothing other than money. You have to sit your wife down, and you have to open the email. “Honey, look at this number. I’m about to say ’No’ to that.” “Of course you’re going to say ’No’ to that. You don’t want to do it.” I’m really lucky to have that kind of support. Of course, I can’t talk about it because that would be in poor taste. There hasn’t been anything where I was like “Oh yeah!” There was one project that came to me that wasn’t actually a franchise. That I did say “Yes” to that fell apart. That was “The Boy Who Played With Fusion.” It got reported, and that might be the confusion with “Midnight Special” too. It was based on this Popular Science article. It was rad! It was so good, but the deal fell through. That’s the closest I’ve come. In the long run, it was with Fox, and I wouldn’t have been in the comfortable position that I’m in with Warner Bros.
“Mud” is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.