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