This weekend at Austin's South by Southwest Film Festival, during a panel celebrating the working relationship of filmmaker Jeff Nichols and actor Michael Shannon, the two made a surprise debut of the first footage from their forthcoming studio thriller, "Midnight Special" (one of our 100 Most Anticipated Movies Of The Year). And it was, in fact, some of the most special footage we've seen at SXSW so far.
Before they ran the footage, Nichols said that he first came onto Warner Bros' radar during the filming of his wonderful Southern Gothic yarn, "Mud." Shannon was in the middle of shooting the studio's big-budget "Man of Steel" and was only released for two days to work on his friend Nichols' drama (hence his rather small role). Warner Bros. warned Nichols that if anything happened to Shannon during the "Mud" shoot that caused the production of the superhero saga to be delayed or postponed they would charge the director for the overages. (Nichols joked that he would probably still be paying the studio back.) Still, Nichols was so impressed with the studio's professionalism and the fact that they recognized his creative relationship with Shannon, that when Nichols was prepping "Midnight Special," which he speculates could have totally been financed independently (cobbled together with money from small production companies and foreign investors and distributors), he went straight to Warner Bros. He said that pitching the studio wasn't easy but they finally agreed to back the movie and left him alone. The final product is what Nichols says is the closest one of his movies has ever been to what he imagined in his head, and Warner Bros. even awarded the director, on his first studio movie, final cut.
While Nichols kept coy, both before and after, about the context of the clip or what the larger movie was about (the plot follows a father and son who must evade government officials when they learn the boy has supernatural powers), his earlier comments to us that he wanted to make a movie that looked and felt like an old John Carpenter film certainly rang true. The hallmarks of Carpenter's work — twinkly lights against a jet black night sky, super anamorphic lenses that distort background images into abstract blobs, deliberate camera movements and framing, a glitchy electronic score — were all present, but refracted through the gritty, slightly heightened working class world of Nichols. It was certainly an exciting combination of elements, and the sequence certainly didn’t disappoint. **Spoiler warning from here on out**
The sequence features Shannon and Joel Edgerton riding in a beat-up van up to a gas station. They are typical Nichols characters: blue collar, dirty, and their relationship isn't exactly clear, although they could certainly be criminals. They've got a young boy (Jaeden Lieberher) in the van, and once they pull up they instruct him to stay inside the vehicle while they get stuff from the adjacent convenience store. There's already palpable tension in the scene, but as Nichols cuts back and forth between the goons in the store buying junk food, and the little kid, who wears goggles and is reading a Superman comic book (another perk to working with Warner Bros, no doubt), that tension becomes almost unbearable.
Finally the kid gets out of the car and starts walking away from the gas station. Edgerton and Shannon notice and run out to him, but something strange has already started to happen. A chubby woman getting out of another car to see if the boy is okay approaches him but Shannon shoos her away, telling her that the boy is his son (it's unclear whether or not this is true). As Shannon scoops the young boy up in his arms, the boy says, "I'm sorry," as fireballs rain down from the sky, turning a nearby car into a tumbling inferno. Shannon and Edgerton run back to the van, start it quickly, and take off, driving away from the chaos.
Nichols has always said that the movie was science fiction, but he didn't specify if the child had certain powers that could manifest themselves like in the scene we saw (which, if true, would be reminiscent of the Joe Dante segment of the "Twilight Zone" movie), or if the kid is some kind of extraterrestrial and was calling for help… Either way, it's truly stunning stuff, rich and stirring and very much in keeping with the Nichols' aesthetic while pushing it further and harder. We were floored.
After the footage ran, Nichols said that the goal was to have the movie released on Thanksgiving, but that might change. We thought that he was implying that it was done and that the date might move up but a couple of other people we quizzed afterwards read it that he was running behind and that a 2016 release is more likely. But the point that this footage made abundantly clear is that whenever "Midnight Special" comes out, it will be very much be worth the wait.