Jeff Nichols interview: Midnight Special, sci-fi, big films

Director Jeff Nichols talks to us about the making of his sci-fi gem Midnight Special and moving onto making a big-budget movie...

A boy with extraordinary powers. Government agents and other sinister forces pursuing the boy and his family across America. Such a story might imply a noisy, aggressive chase thriller, but director Jeff Nichols’ Midnight Special offers up something far more thoughtful and intelligent. Sure, there are guns, stunts and some quite breathtaking images courtesy of those otherworldly powers possessed by the young Alton (Jaeden Liberher), but Midnight Special is also as dramatically involved and delicately crafted as Nichols’ earlier movies, which include the superb Take Shelter and Mud.

Midnight Special’s subtlety might explain why, despite its almost universal appreciation from critics, didn’t quite enjoy the box office success it deserved. In a multiplex landscape increasingly dominated by grand spectacle, Nichols’ sci-fi seemed almost drowned out by bigger films with bigger marketing budgets. But like John Carpenter’s Starman – a film the writer-director has cited as an influence – Midnight Special has a new chance to find an appreciative audience on its home release, and indeed, we suspect it’s going to be one of those films that people keep discovering and raving about in years to come.

As Midnight Special arrives in the UK, Nichols kindly took the time to chat about his experiences of making the film, and talks candidly about how its muted performance in cinemas affected him, his personal approach to storytelling, and whether he’s ready to make the jump to a really big, $80m-plus movie. 

Science fiction can sometimes be an exposition-heavy genre, but your movie tells so much of its story visually. Was that a challenge you set yourself from the beginning?

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It was, actually. It was kind of a culmination of a narrative style that I started with my first film, and in this film I feel I pushed it to the limit in terms of paring down the exposition. It’s a style that’s an acquired taste for sure. I think there are people who’ve been turned off by it, but it’s a narrative style I like in general, but I think it’s specifically suited to this – simply because it’s a mystery. It’s a bit of a puzzle that is working itself out right in front of you. It involves the audience. It suited the story – not necessarily the genre, but the story, specifically. It’s really tricky, because people – especially, as you mentioned, in the sci-fi genre – are thirsty for detail, and this film might be a frustration, for sure. 


Do you think it’s important to bring that back into science fiction movies, though, that sense of mystery?  

I think so. I think it’s an interesting mode of storytelling. It’s important in storytelling at large. We’ve gotten to a point where it costs so much money to make a movie that directors and filmmakers feel they have to make sure that everybody gets it. And that’s an unfortunate development, I think, in a lot of narratives floating around in the film industry. I think it’s good for an audience to be challenged. I think, too, there’s such a thing as a diet of the mind, and the more we make films that challenge people, the more they get out of it, you know? The more they like it. Yeah. And also I think there’s a tendency these days, because we have so many prequels and spin-offs, there’s a tendency to demystify stories and explore every nook and cranny of something rather than leave it to an audience’s imagination.  

That’s a great point. That’s a great point. It’s kind of like, “Yeah, I wonder what Han Solo was like as a kid.” And it’s like, “Here you go!” The funny thing is, I’m a culprit, because I’m an audience member as much as I am a filmmaker, if not more so. And sure, I want to know that, I want to have that information. Yeah, I think it’s really difficult to start out, particularly on my current trajectory. Where is the place for original storytelling? It’s not like Midnight Special just blew away the box office in the UK or in the United States – despite eOne doing a really amazing job selling it. It’s hard to get people to invest in something new and something original. I don’t know. It’s a conundrum I’m trying to sort out on my own! [Laughs] 


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Well, when you see even something like The BFG, which is by one of the most famous filmmakers on the planet – when that still struggles, it’s a real surprise.  

I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse! [Chuckles] It’s like, “Everybody’s putting up with it”, you know? I think you could argue… [Sighs] I think you could argue that huge swathes of people went to see Guardians Of The Galaxy. It’s not like that comic book was a bedside read for that many people. So there’s obviously ways to do it. And Clint Eastwood, I thought was really good, when he talks about his films, about giving them up to a degree. Where you say, “This is it. I’ve done it.” No matter how well it does or whatever. The great thing about this kind of film, though, is that it can be discovered on DVD and on VOD. Just like Starman was – it wasn’t a big hit, but it’s lived on as a cult movie.  

Right. It’s so funny, because I fashioned my film after a sleeper hit, and lo and behold, it’s gone the same way! Form follows function. But the emails and calls I’ve been getting since it’s been release have been really positive. I mean, it might sound like arrogance or bravado, but I’m very proud of the film. I think that it really works, and it does what I originally intended it to do, which is represent how I felt about becoming a father. And I’ve been there, in a major way. I’ve talked to some people who’ve seen that in it, too. It’s a rather narrow audience to make a film for, but I know it’s there, and I’m proud. It’s about that dilemma that all parents have where they want to shield their child from everything the world has to throw at them. But then they have to reach a point where they realise that children can also be strong in their own right.  

Sure. It’s a bit man-versus-nature, or man-versus-the-world, because you have to realise how powerless you are in the face of adversity and what it throws at you. You have to do what you can, shelter them as best you can. That’s something that you have to accept as a parent. I don’t know if you really get better at it or not. It’s more in the background I think. The film definitely communicates a sense of that. I read an interview you did on Midnight Special’s theatrical release, and you said “There’s only one right place to put the camera.” I thought that was an interesting phrase; how do you know when you’ve found the right place? Is it instinct? Storyboarding?  

Gee, that’s a bit of an arrogant statement. But it is true in the way I make films, and part of that is because what I make I write myself. So I’m sitting down at my computer and visualising things, and even though I haven’t found the locations yet, I’m building it in my mind, the way the room works, the way the hallway works. A really great example in Midnight Special is Elden, the old creepy guy – the way that man’s house is laid out is very important. There are a million houses like this, it’s not like I designed it or that it was a needle in a haystack- it was this ranch-style house with a garage. You walked through the kitchen under the garage door into a gym, and then through a hallway into a bedroom on the other side of the house.

I’ve been in a million of these. But that being said, when we looked for a location, this house that we found, they had done a remodel to it. They’d cut a big hole in that living area to open up to the front of the house. It was really nice and modern. But it didn’t really work for us, so we sealed up that hole [chuckles], because it was very specific to the flow of the scene. Joel Edgerton’s in that front room looking out of that front window, and Michael [Shannon]’s character’s in the kitchen. They’re only divided by a wall, but we needed that wall there to make all that make sense.

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I’m talking about location and I know you asked about the camera, but it all has a trickle down effect when you get on set. You’ve dreamed about not just these locations but the way the characters exist in those locations and move through them. And so because each scene has a character point of view – some scenes are built only from one character’s point of view. A lot of scenes are just from Alton’s perspective. But then sometimes it’s Joel, sometimes it’s Mike, sometimes it’s the boy, and you’re kind of moving around. But the scene is dictated by the point of view that was written in the script. That really tells me, “Well, the camera really needs to be right here.” That’s the next piece in my mind, where the camera has to go. So I have to put it all together like a jigsaw puzzle.

It’s not something where it’s just, “I don’t know what this scene is, so I’ll set the camera up there in the corner and get a shot, then I’ll go and figure it out, then I’ll go in for some close-ups and detail.” Sometimes it ends up looking that way, but it’s not built that way. I’m directing on the page while I write and then taking that forward to the location scouting and then to the camera placement. Sorry, that’s a technical answer. 

No, that’s great. It’s interesting, because that’s an intimate, specific kind of filmmaking. I get the impression on some very big films that directors have a few unit crews and they get lots of coverage from as many different angles as possible. Do you think you’d be more like Christopher Nolan, say, if you took on a huge, $150m, $200m film? Would you retain the same approach?

It’s tricky. It depends on what you’re doing. I worked with our stunt coordinator, who’d been on the Bourne films. I think he was a little surprised at how much I micro-managed the shots within the stunt sequences. I think in general he was kind of used to being sent off with a crew, and they go and capture shots. But he knows all these tricks, and they’re extraordinarily valuable to someone like myself who hasn’t been through a lot of these big stunt sequences. It’s very helpful to listen to these people.

There’s a great chemistry between the actors in Midnight Special. So what’s the key to perfect casting? 

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Well, obviously I wrote this part for Michael Shannon, and when I went into Warner Bros, I already had Michael in the lead. So those kinds of decisions are easy as long as the people financing the film agree with you, and fortunately Warner Bros did. Then we had somebody like Joel [Edgerton], where he was just someone who was on my radar. I’d seen him in Warrior and The Great Gatsby, and he just felt like a guy who was doing good work, you know? I asked around and he was a pretty cool guy. I made him an offer while he was in Mexico on the set of Jane Got A Gun. When he got the script, the questions he asked were really intelligent. 

With Adam Driver, I wasn’t really familiar with his past work. But several people had told me about him. “This is the guy. If this guy says yes, just go.” I said, “Well, I don’t know…” She went, “Trust me, this is the guy.” 

We got on the phone, and part of it was flattery – he’d actually seen my earlier films. We immediately hit it off; there was this sense that we were making the same movie. So those are three different examples of how it goes. You have actors you’ve worked with previously, and you have actors you haven’t worked with that you’ve seen in things where you know they can work in these parts. And then there are actors who blow you away, who surprise you.

A big part is locals casting. We had a tremendous locals casting director on Midnight Special in New Orleans. They had a tremendous pool of actors, local actors, to choose from. Because with local actors you might assume that they’re not as up on their game as some of the bigger names, but that was not true in this case. David Jensen played Elden, the creepy old guy they visit, and he’s great – a strange kooky guy. He came in, we didn’t have any notes for him – we just talked to him a little bit just to make sure he’s not full-on crazy – and you get this sense that they immediately understand the character. That’s really what you’re looking for – you pick out people that just… maybe they’re acting, maybe they’re not. I don’t really care. When they’re in front of me, reading these lines, they embody the part without much correction, without even talking to them. I was struck by David Jensen – we got him from Virginia to play the part. And there were several parts in Midnight Special that were like that. 

I heard about Scorsese once – I don’t know where I heard it, but I think it was on Mean Streets – that during takes he wouldn’t even watch what’s going on, even if they had monitors back then. He’d just put his cans on and listen. I think there’s a lot to be said for that. There’s a rhythm and a cadence in a scene, and when an actor understands without any real direction from you, then that’s a very valuable gift. And some people get it and some people don’t. 

It’s making sure there’s that sense of family between the main players as well. 

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A lot of that came from Jaeden [Lieberher], the boy. He was such an astute young man. But at the same time, being aware of the situation he was in, aware of his place on set and his place in the film and everything else – he wasn’t this crazy kid running around. He had this other-worldly maturity that he came to us with. It’s rare to find that coupled with… you just like him. He’s little and you want to take care of him and help him. So Mike and Kirsten [Dunst] and Joel and even Adam, I think when they interacted with him – in between takes they enjoyed being with him. And so when the camera started rolling, it was easy to emote with him, I think. He was this kind of glue that really made the film come together. You’ve got great actors, but he helped it all, because Alton’s character is the one everyone’s sparking off of.  

It is a great performance. Loving isn’t actually out in the UK yet, but that’s your latest film. So where can you see things going next? Do you think you’ll do more science fiction, more contemporary drama? 

I think I will do more science fiction. And I think it will have drama in it! [Laughs] If you want to get down to the nitty gritty of it, this is the first time in a long time that I  haven’t specifically known what’s next. I’ve got a lot of things cooking, a lot of things floating around, but I’ve been making movies back to back, really, since Take Shelter. On Shotgun Stories, I didn’t have another script. But then I got into this pattern where I wrote Take Shelter and Mud at the same time, so those movies were made back-to-back, and in between those movies, I was writing Midnight Special. And then in between those movies I was writing Loving.

And so it was pretty much bop, bop, bop, bop, bop! You know? It’s been great. It’s been a really great beginning as a filmmaker, because I see now the impact that the world has on what we do. The way they accept it or reject it. Does it make money, does it not make money? Was it reviewed or not well reviewed? All these things – because I’m a person that cares about these films very deeply, all of these things really affect me. I feel really great when something gets a good review; I feel really bad when a film gets a bad review. I feel really great when it makes money, I feel really bad when it doesn’t. I’m tremendously affected by these things.

They’re my films were not made, really, with any trajectory in mind, other than this is cool stuff I want to make, and I want to keep challenging myself as a filmmaker. Not necessarily to make bigger and bigger films – Loving cost about half of what Midnight Special cost. But it was the challenge of making a period piece and making a very quiet, almost silent film in terms of how it plays out. But that wasn’t a calculation made on the heels of the success or failure of Midnight Special – it was going to be made, no matter what. 

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So the nitty-gritty part is, okay, here I am now. For better or worse, I’ve established myself as a filmmaker. Now what do I do with that? I’ve got a lot of actors who want to work with me, which is a really valuable gift. I’ve got a lot of companies that want to work with me. But I haven’t made a movie that has completely blown the box office away. So now, is that something I’m going to try to pursue? Is it something I even need to pursue? Am I going to be granted the same amount of freedom creatively if I don’t check that box? These are really big questions, and it’s a decision I think I’m going to make over the next few months. 

I’m kind of over – not that I really had it, but – questions of whether I’m a sell out. That doesn’t really affect me [Chuckles]. Because I’ve made bigger movies, I’ve made smaller movies. I just think I’m in a really lucky position where, for a little bit longer, I can do stuff that I want to do. And then I’ll check back in in ten years and see if I can keep doing that or at some point I have to say, “Alright, I’m just making movies to make money.” 

I could tell you the five plates that I’ve got spinning right now in the air, but I haven’t settled on anything yet. It’s all really exciting, and it’s all stuff I want to do. God knows if anyone’s going to care. 

It’s interesting, because there’s the general accepted trajectory for filmmakers that they make a few indie movies and then a mid-budget movie, and then they’ll go on and make a superhero movie. But it doesn’t have to be like that, does it?

Not necessarily, no. At some point – I don’t know when the financials kick in. I think I could probably make $5 to $10m movies for a very long time, and live a perfectly good life doing it. I’d probably get paid as well as a surgeon, which is pretty damn remarkable for a guy who went to film school. And maybe that’s what I need to do. 

I have a bit of a competitive spirit, but also I just want to see… I want to make a big movie. I want to see what it’s like. And maybe it’ll just rip me to shreds, you know, emotionally? And maybe critically, who knows. Because once you start to move up to bigger films, you have to start taking into account the point of view of the investors and the studio. But I also know I’ve made five films in a very specific way. These are choices that have been made, the craftsmanship behind them, I suppose, if that doesn’t sound too arrogant. 

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I think I maybe have an opportunity to talk to people about spending more money on a film that has the right cast and idea and all those things, and maybe be trusted a little bit. I think maybe I’ve earned that – I’m not sure. People get weird when you start talking about $80m or more. But there’s something in me that wants to try, and it might destroy a lot. Or it might be awesome, I don’t know. But I’m thinking about it!.

I’d love to see what a big movie from you would look like! Jeff Nichols, thank you very much.

Midnight Special is out on DVD & Blu-ray from August 8th.