MID­NIGHT SPE­CIAL

How in­die wun­derkind Jeff Ni­chols crafted a block­buster-ri­valling sci-fi thriller with­out com­pro­mis­ing his vi­sion

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS DAMON WISE

No, it’s not a se­quel to 2013’s Af­ter­noon Delight. It’s Jeff ‘Mud’ Ni­chols’ trib­ute to 1980s sci-fi road movies.

Jeff Ni­chols likes to com­pare Mid­night Spe­cial to a ma­tryoshka doll — those wooden Rus­sian nest­ing fig­urines that open up to re­veal smaller and smaller ver­sions of them­selves. Ex­cept this one goes in re­verse. “It starts with a kind of in­die feel,” he ex­plains, “and then it gets pro­gres­sively big­ger and big­ger — un­til it prac­ti­cally falls off the edges of the frame.”

Af­ter three ru­ral dra­mas set in his home state of Arkansas, the last one be­ing the Matthew Mcconaughey-star­ring Mud (2012), it’s about time Ni­chols, 37, en­tered the big league, and his lat­est is his most am­bi­tious movie to date. A smart, sci-fi-skewed chase thriller, it aims for the throw­back vibe of the films he grew up with and loved. It has the warm synth fuzz of John Car­pen­ter’s ro­man­tic sci-fi Star­man and the retro lens flare of vin­tage Spiel­berg. But Mid­night Spe­cial not only speaks the lan­guage of the mod­ern block­buster, it also fits snugly into Ni­chols’ ex­ist­ing fil­mog­ra­phy; while there are shoot-outs, car chases and strange alien el­e­ments, he made sure, ev­ery step of the way, to never for­get his roots.

“YOU HAVE TO FILL UP THE TANK”

While fin­ish­ing his last movie, Mud, Ni­chols found him­self with no ideas in re­serve for the first time since grad­u­at­ing. As Mark Twain, one of his he­roes, used to say, “You have to fill up the tank,” so, look­ing back, he no­ticed a theme run­ning through his projects: love. His first, 2007’s Shot­gun Sto­ries, about a deadly small-town blood feud, “is about love be­tween broth­ers — a deep love, and when one is taken away it’s painful.” The love in Take Shel­ter (2011), about a de­pres­sive fa­ther tor­mented by vi­sions of the apoca­lypse, “is about mar­riage and com­mit­ment”, while Mud is about “fleet­ing teenage love” and the cycli­cal na­ture of heart­break. “I’m deal­ing with all these per­sonal feel­ings in my life,” he says, “and I use the films as a way to ex­or­cise them.”

The in­spi­ra­tion for Mid­night Spe­cial was another kind of love. “My son, when he was about a year old, started to have a seizure, and my wife and I flipped out. We threw him in the car, I was hold­ing him — no seat­belt — and we ran through red lights as we drove to the hos­pi­tal. We were runnin’ through the hos­pi­tal and I was yellin’, ‘My baby can’t breathe…!’” It turned out to be a febrile seizure, not life-threat­en­ing but scary all the same. “What it very point­edly made me un­der­stand,” he says, “is that my life is no longer my own, and now that I have a child, there is a piece of me out in the world that I have no con­trol over. So as a film­maker I thought, ‘I gotta talk about that.’ Be­cause that’s the most in­tense fuckin’ feel­ing I’ve had in my en­tire life.”

“IT’S ABOUT BE­LIEF IN SOME­THING YOU DON’T UN­DER­STAND”

Ni­chols was a child of the ’80s, a boom time for sci-fi, but in par­tic­u­lar the sub­genre in which The Man was the bad guy. “I re­ally looked at those films — specif­i­cally govern­ment sci-fi chase films like Star­man, Close En­coun­ters and E. T. — look­ing struc­turally at how the nar­ra­tives un­folded, and also the aes­thetic of those films, the colours, the lens flares, the gen­eral feel­ing and tone,” he says. “I also no­ticed that the aliens weren’t nec­es­sar­ily malev­o­lent crea­tures. These sto­ries are to do with us try­ing to un­der­stand an out­sider.”

When it came to cast­ing the lead, Ni­chols’ first in­stinct was to turn to his reg­u­lar lead­ing man, Michael Shan­non, who claims the di­rec­tor ini­tially skipped the sci-fi bit of the pitch. “Jeff just

de­scribed it as a chase movie,“Shan­non tells us. “He said, ‘I’m writ­ing this thing with you in a car, be­ing chased.’ And that was it. He didn’t even men­tion the boy.”

The boy is Al­ton Meyer (Jae­den Lieber­her), a child with spe­cial pow­ers who has been snatched away from a cult by his fa­ther, Roy (Shan­non). The cult wants the boy back, but the govern­ment, which fears his ex­plo­sive su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers make him a threat to na­tional se­cu­rity, is al­ready on the case, in the form of Adam Driver’s in­tu­itive NSA agent, Se­vier. Mean­while, Roy, aided by his friend Lu­cas (Joel Edger­ton) and Al­ton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), be­lieves the boy has a se­cret des­tiny that they must help him to ful­fil — even though they don’t know what it is. “It’s about be­lief in some­thing you don’t un­der­stand,” says Ni­chols. “What would you do if you knew your child was bound for some­where you couldn’t fol­low?”

“MICHAEL SHAN­NON IS A RAW NERVE”

In the flesh, there seems lit­tle to con­nect Jeff Ni­chols and the ac­tor who has ap­peared in all his films so far: where Ni­chols is gar­ru­lous, lit­er­ate and boy­ish, given to grin­ning from ear to ear, Shan­non projects the in­ten­sity of a hu­man storm cloud, tall, tac­i­turn and darkly fore­bod­ing. Nev­er­the­less, Shan­non has be­come the di­rec­tor’s un­likely al­ter ego.

“Y’know, I be­gan writ­ing these parts not know­ing Mike real well,” Ni­chols says. “I was just writ­ing ver­sions of my­self, and then for some rea­son cast­ing him as me. I’ve al­ways seen Mike, from Shot­gun Sto­ries on, as this hard-toread, tough per­son who is ex­tremely sen­si­tive and ex­tremely emo­tional. Oddly enough, that’s how I see him as a per­son in real life now, the more I’ve got­ten to know him.”

He de­scribes Shan­non as “a raw nerve. It makes all the sense in the world that he’d play this part, which to me is very emo­tional. He’s just a guy who wants to pro­tect his fam­ily, which seems to be a re­cur­ring theme for me. I know ev­ery­one’s al­ways gonna look at Mike as the bad guy, ’cause that’s the easy play. But he’s great at that too. Mike Shan­non can pretty much do any­thing.”

Cast­ing Shan­non also gave Ni­chols ac­cess to the cof­fers of Warner Bros., home to in­die-turned-a-list di­rec­tors like Christo­pher Nolan and Tim Bur­ton, which ac­tu­ally bankrolled the film for the bar­gain bud­get of just un­der $20 mil­lion.

“There were a cou­ple of rea­sons I went to Warner Bros., but one of the main ones was be­cause I thought they’d un­der­stand Mike,” Ni­chols says. “They’d al­ready, to a de­gree, in­vested in him, in terms of mak­ing him one of the main char­ac­ters in Man Of Steel, so my hope was that they’d get it. Luck­ily they did.”

“I’M A SUCKER FOR FLAT­TERY”

Although Mud came in at an even more eco­nom­i­cal $10 mil­lion, Ni­chols’ last film landed a peak, pre-os­car Matthew Mcconaughey and post-os­car Reese Wither­spoon in two of its lead­ing roles. This one com­bines stars from Man Of Steel, Spi­der-man, Ex­o­dus and The Force Awak­ens. Ni­chols has proved a mas­ter of draw­ing in big-name casts on small-scale movies.

The se­cret, says Ni­chols’ long-time pro­ducer Sarah Green, is a mix­ture of two things. “Firstly, the ma­te­rial speaks for it­self,” she says. “Jeff is an ex­tremely good writer and the scripts read re­ally well. And then, when you meet him, you im­me­di­ately feel com­fort­able. You know you’re talk­ing to a guy who un­der­stands film­mak­ing and knows how to talk to ac­tors. If they have any ques­tions, a meet­ing al­ways does the trick.”

Ni­chols puts much of his suc­cess in at­tract­ing A-list casts down to luck. “I’ve been re­ally for­tu­nate not to en­counter any bad ac­tors, in terms of prima don­nas,” he says, “and I re­ally re­spond to that. One, be­cause I’m a sucker for flat­tery. But, two, be­cause they wanna do the work.”

He cites Dunst, who au­di­tioned for Roy’s es­tranged wife Sarah, her­self a fugi­tive from the cult. “She put her­self on cam­era and we were like, ‘Wow, that does not look like Kirsten Dunst.’ She had no make-up on, she looked kinda rough, and she looked like the part. She just re­ally wanted to do it — and that goes a re­ally long way with me.”

Adam Driver, he ad­mits, was another happy ac­ci­dent. “That was a role I couldn’t fig­ure out. I wanted to com­bine Richard Drey­fuss from Jaws and François Truf­faut from Close En­coun­ters to cre­ate this weird char­ac­ter. We were at Warner Bros. when some­body men­tioned Adam, and I didn’t know much about him. I hadn’t seen much of Girls, so I started look­ing into him. We got on the phone and, very sur­pris­ingly, he knew about my films, and he just said yes. I didn’t know this guy, but I think he is go­ing to be one of the big­gest movie stars in the world. I feel like we are a small blip on a very large radar for that guy.”

“I THOUGHT, ‘HOW WOULD THAT RE­ALLY LOOK?’”

De­spite tack­ling a cin­e­matic genre that tra­di­tion­ally de­mands big bud­gets, Ni­chols took the same fac­tual ap­proach that he did with his low-bud­get dra­mas. “I tried to take the same care, even with the fan­tas­ti­cal el­e­ments,” he says. “How would that re­ally look, how would that re­ally play out?”

Putting re­al­ism first meant there was lit­tle temp­ta­tion to go crazy with CGI. Shan­non, an ac­tor who’s worked with ev­ery­one from Werner Her­zog to Michael Bay, de­scribes the process of mak­ing Mid­night Spe­cial as “or­ganic”.

“We were never on a green screen or any­thing, we were pretty much al­ways on lo­ca­tion,” he says. “We were out in na­ture, in the el­e­ments, and it was beau­ti­ful. Even though it has that sci­ence-fic­tion el­e­ment, it’s still very much of the earth, which is one of the things I love about Jeff and his movies and work­ing with him — he has a very strong con­nec­tion to na­ture, which I ap­pre­ci­ate.”

While watch­ing the pen­nies (or cents) was pri­mar­ily Sarah Green’s re­spon­si­bil­ity, she says Ni­chols was “mind­ful” that he needed to be care­ful about how they were spent. And with the bud­get they had, he couldn’t rely on his VFX artists to do ev­ery­thing dig­i­tally. As a re­sult, the ef­fects are partly com­puter-gen­er­ated, partly in-cam­era. In pre-pro­duc­tion, Ni­chols metic­u­lously planned out his car chases with stunt co-or­di­na­tor Scott Rogers, us­ing toy cars on a desk­top. And for the blue light that pours from Al­ton Meyer’s eyes, he took an equally prac­ti­cal ap­proach.

“We had these gog­gles with high-pow­ered LEDS in the lenses, that were made be­tween the prop guys and the vis­ual-ef­fects folks, that ac­tu­ally lit up on the set,” Green tells us. “Of course, they were en­hanced in post-pro­duc­tion. But it cre­ated the ef­fect on the set suf­fi­ciently for the whole thing to work.”

En­list­ing the La-based Hy­draulx VFX team, run by broth­ers Greg and Colin Strause, who cre­ated Take Shel­ter’s apoc­a­lyp­tic night­mares, Ni­chols also con­sulted ‘world builder’ Alex Mcdow­ell, a new me­dia artist who, among other things, helped con­cep­tu­alise the world of Mi­nor­ity Report. Their work helps take the film into its overtly fan­tas­ti­cal fi­nal act, al­beit with ef­fects that re­spect the naturalism of Ni­chols’ orig­i­nal in­tent. “There were cer­tainly mo­ments

when the ac­tors had to re­act to things that weren’t there,” says Green. “But we were in prac­ti­cal lo­ca­tions, so ev­ery­thing else was there. The ground un­der their feet was there, the thing they had to pos­si­bly es­cape into — that was all real. It was a good, straight­for­ward mix.”

“I NEVER KNOW HOW MY MOVIES ARE GO­ING TO DO”

Ni­chols seems very re­laxed for a man fac­ing po­ten­tially the big­gest box-of­fice hit of his ca­reer, a movie which you would imag­ine other di­rec­tors anx­iously treat­ing as their big stu­dio call­ing card. In­deed, rather than hold­ing out for any of­fers to come his way, Ni­chols has al­ready shot and wrapped his next film, Lov­ing, the story of a mixed-race cou­ple (Edger­ton and Ruth Negga) who chal­lenged the racist laws of Virginia in the 1950s by get­ting mar­ried. In con­trast to its pre­de­ces­sor, it is de­fi­antly non-main­stream. “It’s not a big ca­reer plan,” says Green, who doesn’t rule out a re­turn to stu­dio work, “we just work on a case-by-case ba­sis.”

Ni­chols says he never knows how his movies are go­ing to per­form. “With Take Shel­ter, I was anx­ious about the world and anx­ious about the film. I just kept wait­ing for the bad re­views. Luck­ily not too many came. But Mud did great. It made money. Real peo­ple liked that movie, not just the film Il­lu­mi­nati, and for what­ever rea­son, they keep talk­ing about it.”

Re­gard­less, he’s proud of Mid­night Spe­cial. De­spite the ex­tent of his am­bi­tion and the size of his bud­get — not to men­tion the in­volve­ment of a ma­jor stu­dio — he stuck to his re­solve and didn’t com­pro­mise.

“They do these screen­ings — they call ’em ‘friends and fam­ily screen­ings’ — at the stu­dio, where you try to get some feed­back,” he says, “but it’s kind of in­su­lated to the com­mu­nity at Warner Bros.. I saw a note card from one and it said, ‘I can’t be­lieve Warner Bros. is mak­ing this film.’ I think they mean it as a com­pli­ment! But they’ve been great, man. They let us do our thing and sup­ported us ev­ery step of the way. So if peo­ple don’t like the movie — which is en­tirely pos­si­ble — they’re not likin’ a Jeff Ni­chols film. It’s not be­cause of some weird out­side in­flu­ence.”

He laughs. “That’s the foot­ing I wanna be on.”

MID­NIGHT SPE­CIAL IS OUT ON APRIL 8 AND WILL BE RE­VIEWED IN THE NEXT IS­SUE.

Michael Shan­non’s Roy with his su­per­pow­ered son Al­ton (Jae­den Lieber­her).

Top: Jeff Ni­chols on lo­ca­tion, di­rect­ing Joel Edger­ton and Shan­non. Above: Adam Driver’s Se­vier and Edger­ton’s Lu­cas. Right: Great power comes with great stress for Al­ton.

Clock­wise from top left: Al­ton with his gog­gles; Un­leash­ing his su­per­pow­ers; With on-screen par­ents Shan­non and Kirsten Dunst.

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