With his film Midnight Special opening wide this weekend, Jeff Nichols is bringing his sci-fi exploration of fatherhood, government surveillance, and really bad commune haircuts to the national stage. In the past, Nichols's films – indie dramas Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud – have been acclaimed by critics, and, as he would be the first to admit, ignored by audiences. But with Midnight Special, he hopes to have found a sweet spot that can appeal to more than just the usual art house crowds. The movie stars Kirsten Dunst and Nichols stalwart Michael Shannon as parents fighting for the future of their superpowered son as government patrols hunt them, religious sycophants worship them, and the boy’s own health begins to deteriorate. To prep for the big open, he talks to MTV about road movies and sci-fi classics, movie stars who feel like family, and making personal films in a commercial environment.
What drew you to this story, thematically or cinematically?
Jeff Nichols: I’ve been working on this for years, and that’s to say before even Take Shelter. I was like, Wow, man, I should make a sci-fi chase movie. I had these two guys and a fast car moving down these roads in the middle of the night, so I’d been carrying at least the genre concept and developing the plot for a long time. It wasn’t until after Take Shelter but before Mud that I started to really figure out what the film was about, which is also when I started to look at my own life and my first year of fatherhood and my relationship with my son. That’s when the heart of the film started to take shape. This sci-fi chase movie that I’ve been developing in the background all these years seemed like, oddly enough, a good place to put these ideas that I have been having about fatherhood and the feelings that has evoked.
Were there any movies that you looked at as preparation for Midnight Special? Watching it, I was reminded of Two-Lane Blacktop and things like that.
Nichols: Those films are kind of baked in. Two-Lane Blacktop and Sugarland Express — you got every film Adam Stone, my cinematographer, and I have ever worked on together. We sat down and watched No Country for Old Men, which has no direct relevance to this sci-fi genre, but we just think it’s such a beautifully lit, beautifully shot film. We kind of always go back and reference that one. We looked at the aesthetics of films like Starman and Close Encounters, and were drawn to how dark those films are, visually. The inky blacks and the way the light drops off — that was very important to me. It’s just sheer aesthetics.
Speaking of Adam, you’ve kind of been working with the same collaborators from film to film: Michael Shannon, of course, Adam, and then David Wingo, your composer. But you are working with some new faces, too, and I was wondering what you look for in collaborators?
Nichols: You know, I like people who respond to the material. It is very flattering to have people say, “I just want to work on a Jeff Nichols film.” Adam Driver and Kirsten Dunst said that on these press tours, and that was once flattering, but it is also kind of scary because I really just want people to respond to the material. I just want to write these scripts and have people read them and say, “Oh, I respond to this character. I respond to the story that is happening.” So what I am really looking for in a collaborator is someone that identifies with the story that I am trying to tell, first and foremost. Then, you know, when it comes to actors, you kind of just ask around. I’ve come to the point where I got friends in this business and you can find out if somebody is cool or not. You didn’t have to go very far until you start hearing amazing things about Adam Driver and Joel Edgerton. Even Kirsten I met socially before I worked with her.
Yeah, I am a big fan of hers.
Nichols: Yeah, these are the kinds of people you want to spend three months of your life making something with. My crew is so important to me and I’ve worked with these people on all of these films — they are like my family, and the last thing you want to do is invite someone into your family who is going to disrespect them or isn’t going to put the same priorities up front as your family does. That is the way I feel about all of these actors that I’ve added.
Speaking of family, there’s a sort of a Southern literary tradition that runs through your work. The dynamics between the characters in your movies are similar in some ways to the way a Flannery O’Connor story would play out. What made you choose to tell these stories through film?
Nichols: Film was the one medium that was available to me at the right time of my life. I think film is the most important medium for communication that we have right now. At some point that might evolve, and people will be wearing VR headsets and this thing will change.
Nichols: Yeah, exactly. But right now, and growing up, film was the popular form of communication and artistic expression. It seems to wrap together writing, with visual aesthetics, with music. It seemed to take all of these things I had interest in while growing up and wrap them all into one package. It is fun.
Not many movies are made at Midnight Special’s price point anymore. What are some of the challenges and rewards of mid-budget filmmaking, and how did this project come together?
Nichols: I think the risks are, and always are, the studio, so I really hope they make their money back. As a filmmaker, I have to say the experience really didn’t separate itself too much from Mud. Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories were made on such small budgets that the process would be affected. You were making decisions strictly on the economy of time and money. Mud was the first film I made where I didn’t feel particularly rushed. You never feel like you have more time than you need; you always feel like you have just enough, though. That’s a gift on a film set. Usually, you just don’t have enough time, but I felt like on Midnight Special and Mud, I had just enough time. It was really big for me to jump from a 10 to a 20 million dollar movie, mainly because the Midnight Special script called for so much more. For Mud, we had that big shot at the end of the film, and I remember every weekend we would go with our creative team and kind of plot out how we were going to execute the two or three nights we had to shoot that. It felt like on Midnight Special we had two of those a week.
So this movie premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival. Do you think that there is a boundary between art film and commercial film? You were just talking about on-set pressure — do you ever feel pressured by the market when it comes to your aesthetic interests?
Nichols: It definitely crosses my mind. It crossed my mind after Mud, but I wrote Midnight Special in the summer.
So when you were in development?
Nichols: Not much in development. I think I have found a place where I like to blend genre films with art house films. That’s a really simple way to reduce it, but sometimes you dial up the genre elements more and sometimes you dial them down. I dialed them down for Take Shelter and I dialed them up for Midnight Special, but that doesn’t discount the other side of things. It’s fine if you want to relegate them to an art house idea, but it’s really these kind of personal and specific things that seem to make the film feel more independently minded, even if they are made by a studio. They are still made by this one person sitting in a room writing something. After Mud premiered in Cannes, it took us several months to sell that film. It is not like people were like, “This is genius. Let’s rush and put it into theaters.” So that summer is the summer that I started really sitting down to put pen to paper on Midnight Special, even though I was thinking about it for years before.
Mud did not work and it didn’t sell, so I was writing from the point of view of, well, man, maybe my barometer is off and maybe I do not know what is good. I look at Mud and I think it is good — maybe it’s not great but I know it is not bad. I know it is worthy of having a place in the market, which is what your question was. That was a strange time to be writing, and in a weird way I wrote Midnight Special as kind of an answer to that to a degree. It was definitely floating around in my mind, which is strange because my answer was to not necessarily to make a more mainstream film. In a lot of ways, Midnight Special is less mainstream than Mud. There is some strange plotting happening here. There is some weird character development happening here. But, for some reason, that was my answer to the process. It goes beyond just trying to please everybody. I don’t think you can sit and think about what people want. I think you just have to think about what you want. What emotionally affects you? What gets you excited? What do you think is cool? And hope that when you put it together, other people will see it, too.
Right. It goes back to the nature of film as a communicative medium. You are just trying to find a way to communicate through images and sound and design.
Nichols: Right, and how do you know to communicate to someone you are not having a real conversation with? You’re just having an idea of what you think people want. That might be a studio’s job, but that is not my job.