If all goes well, 2016 should wind up as a very good year for Jeff Nichols. This past weekend saw the theatrical premiere of his first major studio film “Midnight Special” (our review), and he’s got a surefire awards contender in “Loving” set to be released in November. And with “Midnight Special” coming off a strong box office showing in limited release, hopefully that means it won’t get lost in the shuffle when “Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice” comes out this Friday.
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton and Kirsten Dunst, the film's story follows the parents of a gifted child who must protect him from government forces who see him as a weapon, as well as a cult that believes he's a messianic figure. Nichols' passion for the project was clear when he stopped by The Landmark in Los Angeles after a screening of “Midnight Special” this past Friday for a Q&A session. He talked about everything from the inspiration for the film's story and the casting to the lengths he went through in order to find the right locations for the film. You can read highlights from the 25-minute Q&A below, or you can check out the audio of the entire event at the bottom of the last page. Since the movie hasn’t been released nationwide just yet, be cautious of spoilers.
What was the inspiration for the story?
When I write these things, I work on two tracks at once. For this one, I started on the genre track. I had this idea of these two guys and this really fast car driving through Southern backroads in the middle of the night. That was the first thing I was struck by, and that quickly became a sci-fi government chase movie. In fact, I had a lot of these plot points laid out before I knew what the movie was actually about. [But] we’ve all seen that movie before, so we don’t necessarily need to go see it again. The only thing that’s gonna make it worth my time and hopefully worth your time is if I attach it to some emotion in my life that’s palpable. I tried to do it on my other films and I tried to do it here. I feel like my job as a storyteller isn’t obviously to wrap-up endings and convey plot details —my job is to really just transfer an emotion to you all.
And when I was in my first year of fatherhood, my son was about 8 months old and he had a febrile seizure, which is the body’s reaction to a spike in fever. He’s fine, it all turned out fine, but we were terrified for this moment. I started to realize that I have no real control over the health and well-being of my child. And I have no control over who or what he becomes. And so I had to ask myself, “Why am I around as a father?” And the answer to that question, I think, is just to try to understand who my son is, to try to help him understand who he is, and try to help him become who he’s supposed to be and be happy. That’s what fatherhood is about, that’s what parenthood is about, and that became the trajectory for Mike Shannon’s character and Kirsten Dunst’s character through the film. Then all of a sudden, this kind of silly, sci-fi chase movie starts to feel a little less silly.
What’s your process for working with the actors?
Mike Shannon and I have worked on every one of my films together and we just started this methodology back in “Shotgun Stories” —we just don’t rehearse. I’m really calculating when it comes to these scripts —I’m really calculated about character behavior and dialogue. I like to think that when I give a script to an actor that the behavior’s there. They might not agree with it all. We might be on set and they might say, “Why am I doing this? What’s going on?” But I have a reason for it. So what I really like to do is show up on set, the actors all know their lines, they’re all amazing actors, they’re very well-prepared, and I say, “Well, this is kind of how I’m seeing this scene: you’re gonna be over here, you’re gonna be over here, and I’m gonna cover it this way… is everybody ready?” And then we start rolling, and basically you’re just rolling on rehearsal, but because I think so methodically about the way I design these shots and these scenes, sometimes the plan doesn’t work and I have to go back to those first and second takes where everybody’s still kinda figuring out the mechanics. And you find some of the most honest stuff and it helps bail you out.
Were these all the actors you had in mind when you were writing the script? Do you think about actors when you’re writing those roles or do they kind of come to you after you’re going through the pre-production process?
Well, I wrote this for Mike. And since we’ve worked together so much, that was easy. I wrote the religious leader with Sam Shepherd in mind, we worked together on “Mud.” But the others, Joel, I’d just seen him through “Animal Kingdom” and “Warrior.” Even in films like “The Great Gatsby,” I felt that he just stood out in those films. So I have this, kind of, running list of actors that I keep under my pillow and hopefully one day I’ll get to work with them. Even more than that, hopefully one day I’ll meet them and they’ll be cool, and then I’ll work with them. And that was sort of the case with Joel. I gave him the script – he was shooting another movie in New Mexico and I went and just spent the day with him and we just hit it off. I mean, he’s Australian so it’s hard not to like him. But he was very thoughtful and he was right.
But Adam Driver, for instance, I have to give credit to Greg Silverman, who’s the head studio for Warner Brothers. They had worked with Adam...and they said, “So what about this Adam Driver?” and usually, no offense to studio executives, but you get their notes and you’re like, “Yeah, ok…” But this was an amazing note, and so I flew to Brooklyn and I met him and I still didn’t really know about him to be honest. I just didn’t know how he fit in this part, but we gave it a shot and he immediately showed up and started making interesting choices.
We took a character that could’ve been the most clichéd in the whole movie, and maybe still is, but I think it was Adam who started to ask the right questions about that character. Why does he have this ridiculous tape recorder when people are standing behind him with camcorders and computers, typing all this stuff up? Why does he write on yellow legal pad and use post-it notes and dry-erase boards? And it’s because that’s the way his brain works. He’s an analog guy in this digital world. He’s so damn smart that he’s working the math out in this tactile way. And he started to bring all this stuff to life. I remember in one of the first scenes we did, he sat down at this desk and banged his leg on the table and dropped his bookbag. And I remember thinking, “Oh, that’s terrible, should I call cut?” And I realized, “Oh no, he’s being Paul Sevier. That’s how Paul Sevier enters a room.” And it just made it better and I’m quite impressed with Adam Driver. I think, the whole “Star Wars” thing aside, I think he’s probably gonna be one of the most important actors of our generation.
Your stories always seem to have forces that are greater than reality, but played out very real and I wonder, what is it about those kinds of stories that attract you?
Well, one, I want people to come to the theater and watch these things and I think if I was just making personal dramas, this theater would be much smaller and there’d be less of you here. So, part of it really is, I grew up in the ‘80s, I grew up watching movies like “E.T.,” “Close Encounters [Of The Third Kind],” and “Indiana Jones.” I really love those kinds of films and I want to make films that give people that experience. That being said, I’m not Spielberg. I don’t make films like that, I make films like my films. So there’s this weird, hybrid child that comes out in terms of “Midnight Special.” It’s that kind of movie. But I think, more than that, what gets to the heart of your question is just my worldview: I don’t like really depressing movies. I don’t think they’re a fair representation of how the majority of people see the universe. Sure, there are a lot of cynics out there, but I don’t like hopeless films. And that’s not the way I wanna live my life and that’s not the kind of stuff I want to put out in the world. Now there’s a lot of tough stuff in this movie. There’s a lot of dramatic stuff and there’s some heavy stuff. But at the end of the day, I like to think it leaves you with a greater sense of things. And that’s important.
Talk about casting Alton [played by Jaeden Lieberher].
I had a lot of luck casting these two boys in “Mud” [Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland]. I also had great luck casting this young deaf girl in “Take Shelter” [Tova Stewart]. I’ve been really lucky when it comes to casting kids and I don’t particularly like child actors. Too often they just show up and they’ve had whatever real innocence that’s in a child just beaten out of them. They start to perform for you and you can just see it coming. It’s no good. So we cast this big net through Texas and the southeast and I saw all these kids. And they were all real kids, but Alton is not a real kid and that’s when Jaeden came to me through CAA. He showed up and he didn’t have the honesty beaten out of him. What he did have, though, was this tremendous sense of awareness of the situation he was in. And I’ll try and explain that. It wasn’t just that he was highly intelligent, which he was, but it’s that he understood who he was talking to and why he was there and what we were doing. That’s really hard to put into a kid’s face and eyes, an understanding of the situation at hand. And he had that and I knew that in the back-half of this film, he was gonna have to wake up. He was gonna have to wake up to his place in the universe. And I knew that if he had that built into him, and had it in an honest way where he wasn’t tap-dancing or telling me what I wanted to hear, that I could mute him in the first half of the film. I could put his nose in a comic book and give him very few lines, and then at some point, pull the sheet off and reveal who he really is. And that would feel like a boy who’d become aware. And that’s why we cast him.
How long did it take you to find the right locations?
A long, long time. Our location manager was really nice, but she didn’t like me very much. And we were based out of New Orleans. The west Texas parts we shot in New Mexico, the end of the film we shot in panhandle Florida. Most film productions when they’re based at a place, they get like a 30-mile radius, or a 30-minute radius to get out of the town. And once you go past that, your day starts to become shorter and you have to start paying your drivers more and everybody just gets paid more and you have less time to shoot and everything costs more. So it’s really stupid to go more than 30 minutes away from your homebase – which is dictated by where your production office is. On our first day of shooting we shot the first motel that they walk out of and that was three hours away. It was in Mississippi. New Orleans has a lot of crappy motels next to highways, but it just didn’t have the right crappy motel next to a highway. And it’s more pragmatic than that, even. I needed a position of the door to the Interstate so that when it starts in this profile shot and turns around, the Interstate reveals itself to you in that direction. And the location of the car to the front desk was there, and these are all little things that seem really easy [to find], but they’re surprisingly hard. And, a lot of motels, they look like La Quintas or other things, and it just needed to look like the right kind of crappy. So that’s just an example.
How did you decide on the look of the alien architecture?
There’s this really great short film, and you guys should go find it online, it’s called “The Third & The Seventh” and there was this kid from Spain who worked at an ad agency and he got burned out so he quit his job and he locked himself in his apartment and he made this short film. Completely CGI. He made a beautiful short film with no dialogue where he took these architectural landmarks and put them in weird places… He’d take this beautiful sculpture in put it in the middle of a wheat field. And he ripped off some music from “The Piano” and it was really nice. When I first saw that, I started thinking in terms of architecture for this world, I had this idea of this world built on top of another world. And I’d been reading a book about multi-verses and all that stuff. And I started to develop a very loose concept of how these people might live, who they are. If they’re advanced, then they probably have a very light footprint. A lot of their buildings are stilted, a lot of things are kind of connected to these walkways. A lot of these structures have kind of a glass, see-through feel to them. They’d obviously have some idea of solar energy, wind energy. They’d have a light footprint in them because they’re advanced and they wouldn’t be running off of diesel engines or anything like that. But also, if they’d been observing us, they’d have all these decks, they’d have all these ways to look at us. So you start to take broad concepts like that and I worked with a guy named Alex McDowell at a company called 5D, based here [Los Angeles]. He previously worked with Spielberg on the futuristic cities in “Minority Report.” And he cut us a really good deal and was willing to help me design some of these buildings.