Midnight Special: Talking to Filmmaker Jeff Nichols About His Sci-Fi Thriller

The Take Shelter director talks about his transition to studio films and whether he may want to take on even bigger tentpoles in the future.

In 2011, Jeff Nichols’ second film Take Shelter made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival as it revealed the filmmaker to be a visionary new force, gaining attention for the story of a man, portrayed by Michael Shannon, who is obsessed with a coming storm.

Nichols now reunites with Michael Shannon for their fourth film together, Midnight Special, in which Shannon plays Roy, a father of a boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) who exhibits mysterious abilities. With the help of his accomplice Lucas (Joel Edgerton), Roy steals Alton away from a religious commune. As they travel at night, pursued by a number of parties, including the authorities, Alton’s mysterious powers and abilities start to become more prominent.

The movie delves further into genre than Nichols’ last film, Mud, with more action and visual FX work than his previous films, and a last act that’s more ambitious than anything else he’s ever attempted.

Nichols sat down with for this exclusive interview, in which he covers many bases, such as making his type of movie within the studio system, the use of practical vs. visual FX, and his next movie Loving, about Richard Loving, a white man sentenced to go to prison in 1967 for marrying a black woman. Nichols also talked to us about whether he might be interested in directing something bigger for Warner Bros., possibly even a superhero movie.

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Den of Geek: Midnight Special is interesting for a lot of reasons but one is that it feels more in the vein of Take Shelter; they both feel like they’re about belief.

Jeff Nichols: I feel like those two films are companion films. Mud gets removed from this lineage just because I’d been thinking about Mud so long. Mud was about the way I felt in high school, but Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and now Midnight Special, they were kind of written in the present tense. They’re written about what I’m dealing with in my life in a real contemporary sense. That’s why I feel like these are kind of kissing cousins.

Was this an idea that you had for a long time?

I had the original idea back around Take Shelter. That was already written, but I remember thinking, “Man, I’d love to make a bad-ass sci-fi chase movie, call it ‘Midnight Special,’ and have these two guys in a fast car moving through dark roads in the middle of the night.” That’s where you’re just having fun, at that point. You’re just dreaming about the kinds of movies that you could make one day.

Then at some point, you have to attach them to something meaningful and that’s where the relationship stuff comes into play. That’s when the relationship not just between the characters, but to my own life, starts to come into play. That’s obviously when I started to define for myself what it meant to be a father.

As you were writing it or some time afterwards, did you realize that it was going to need a much bigger budget than those other movies and needed to have a studio involved?

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No, I wanted it to be bigger but I didn’t fully take the gloves off. I’ve yet to do that in terms of just saying, “Okay, I’m not going to think about budget at all.” I wanted this to really be a tight sci-fi chase movie, so when you look at the first Terminator for instance. That was a really beautifully constructed film and you could tell that he constructed it with these limitations in mind. I don’t know if I’ve always aimed low or not, but I feel like I’ve always had a really practical idea of what I could accomplish and what I could ask people for.

I felt like at this budget range, they’d give me control and they’d let me do it with Mike (Shannon) and all these other things.  I was aiming for exactly what we got, which was a movie around $20 million that was tight and bad-ass, and also extraordinarily emotional.

I always wonder when speaking to directors who also write their own material how much they’re thinking about the budget…

I think about it a lot.

Obviously, this being your fourth movie, you have some experience getting the money together.

Well, yeah, and to be an independent filmmaker, you have to be able to get movies made, so yeah, you’re constantly thinking about, where’s this one going to land? What kind of budget can we pull off for this?

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I’m also very specific about the casting. I like to cast who I like to cast, and so that has a direct correlation to how much money you can raise. I have to be realistic. If I want to make a movie with Michael Shannon or Joel Edgerton, I have to be realistic about what the market’s going to bear for them.

The nice thing about Michael Shannon, besides this being the fourth movie you’ve done with him, since Shotgun Stories, his rating has gone up and he’s a more bankable actor.

That’s why we went with Warner Bros, it’s one of the main reasons, because I just knew that with the support of him as General Zod in Man of Steel, they knew who he was, they understood how talented he was, because they’d worked with him before and hopefully, at this particular budget level, they’d be willing to take a shot.

At this point while you’re writing, do you just know “This is Michael Shannon’s character”? He had a smaller role in Mud

Yeah, but it was written just as specifically for him. When I write, I imagine actors–not all the time and not for every part—but Mike definitely in Mud and Mike definitely in Midnight Special. Those parts were written specifically for him.

And how did you arrive at Joel to partner the two of them together?

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I had been such a big fan of Animal Kingdom and his performance in it. I had just been keeping an eye on him, and I really liked his performance in Warrior, and he was just one of these guys on my dream list of “I want to work with this guy one day.” You never know because you don’t know these actors. Maybe they’re crazy or you go meet them and they’re total dicks, but that’s not happened with Joel. I gave him the script and went to meet him out in New Mexico for a day, we had lunch, and he was just extraordinarily thoughtful.

Now, the more that I’ve worked with him—because he’s the lead in my next movie—he’s just an extraordinarily bright, creative, nice guy. You just kind of want to be around him.

He’s a great writer, too, and now that he’s directing, he brings even more as an actor.

I thought The Gift was an extraordinarily powerful film and he co-wrote The Rover—the guy’s got some chops.

You also had kids in Mud and found some great talent in Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, and this one is really centered around Alton, so how did you go about finding Jaeden Lieberher, and know that he would be believable?

We did the same thing we did on Mud. We cast a really broad net, especially concentrated on the South and the Southeastern part of the United States, saw a ton of kids. In this particular incidence, it went the way that I wasn’t expecting is that I got an Email from an agent at CAA with this photograph and my casting director had talked about him before.

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I don’t really like the idea of child actors. They seem to get ruined very fast. They lose whatever makes kids special. They want to please you and they’re acting, so I usually went away from that, especially for the casting of Mud. But when I met Jaeden, he definitely had some characteristics a child actor would have—they’re very aware, they are very mature for their age, all those things.

Honestly, when I talked to him, he seemed to have an awareness of the situations that he was in that I thought made sense for this character. I’m not making him an every day kid like the boys in Mud. It’s quite the opposite in fact. He’s been cloistered away in this secret community for a long time, treated in this very specific way, and at some point in the film, he activates. His mind literally turns out to an awareness of what he’s meant to do. You need a kid who is kind of otherworldly in that sense and Jaeden fit that bill.

He also has some scenes where he has to go toe-to-toe with some very experienced actors in tough scenes, like his scene with Adam Driver for instance.

He was extraordinarily easy to work with. He just had great natural instincts, and he understood the subtext. There are adult actors that don’t understand subtext. He just got it. He understood the situation and knew what he needed to do.

The movie is deliberately cryptic, at least the first hour where you’re not sure what’s real or who to believe, but it’s not science fiction with a capitol “s” or “f.” What made you interested in delving into that genre?

Those are the kinds of movies I like. I think when you look at the movies I’m talking about being inspired by. These were because they were made in a period of time when you didn’t have a lot of CGI and stuff, so they were practically executing the special effects and other things, so they have this ratcheted-down feel to them. They’re shooting in real gas stations and they’re shooting on real highways and things like that, and I like the look of that. That’s the look I push for on all my other films.

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Movies are fake, and you try to find antidotes to the fakery. The way they do that is we try to place our scenes in real locations and we try to take advantage of reality as much as we possibly can. That’s just how I make movies period, so it made sense that I would make a quote-unquote sci-fi film in the exact same fashion. I think a lot of the movies that I was inspired by did the same thing.

When we spoke for Take Shelter, I remember being really impressed with some of the stuff you did with visual FX in the dream sequences, and you’re working with the same FX team at Hydraulx.

They came on board for Take Shelter, and did us such a solid, that on this one, I was trying to pay ‘em back. I don’t know if they did very well on this movie either (laughs) but they’re really good guys. Greg and Colin Strause run that company. They were just in it to make it look right. It wasn’t just a vendor that you go to. They try to do good work and they seem invested in it.

Were you able to do any of the FX stuff practically on set, especially some of the visual FX involving Alton’s powers?

The majority of the FX are practical, and that developed out of our camera tests. We were trying to decide whether we should shoot on the Alexa or should we shoot film. Mainly because we have so much night photography and film really falls apart at night. You need to do a tremendous amount of lighting. When we were doing these tests, we had the issue of organically representing the light from the boy’s eyes.

Honestly, it began because I was just thinking, “Sure, we can point it at the point and Hydraulx can create digital lens flares and that other stuff, but when I flip back to Mike Shannon or Kirsten Dunst, or Joel Edgerton, and they’re supposed to have this representation of light on their faces from the boy’s eyes, how do we do that? Do we just have a guy standing there with a light? What are they staring at, what are they interacting with?” 

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We ended up building these special light goggles for the boy that have these extraordinarily bright LED bulbs put on the front of them and they ran a wire down his back to a 9-volt battery, and we had a simmer switch on it. That began as a way for the actors opposite to have something to interact with. It also became important because the boy’s head is on a swivel so when he moved, the light moves.  That we found when we shot on film and turned back towards him, it just created these beautiful, natural organic lens flares, which is what you want. That’s what they were doing in these movies that we referenced.

Even the ones they put in were all practical FX basically. It became a theme for the movie which is what [Christopher] Nolan always talks about, which is try ratcheting everything into reality as much as possible. So try and use practical FX to the nth degree, doing what you absolutely can and then let CGI come in and help you. I would say 80 percent of those lens flares you see are naturally created.

You’d worked with Hydraulx before, so did you have them involved very early on or earlier than you normally might?

Yeah, they helped build the goggle rig. They worked with John McLeod who was our special FX supervisor on set, they worked with him to build that rig and keep it going.

Since doing Take Shelter, Hydraulx has been working on all of Fox’s superhero movies and some of the Marvel movies as well. It’s good they still have the manpower and time to do the FX on your movies.

Yeah, I haven’t bankrupted them yet. (laughs)

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You went from this to Loving which is different from some of your other films since it’s based on a real story. What inspired you to write about that story, which seems very timely to some of the conversations going on right now in the country.

All these things, even the ones I write from scratch, they all have to attach to my life in some personal way. I saw in Loving a depiction of the South and a Southern man and a situation that I hadn’t seen depicted before. I think so many civil rights films are about the most violent parts of the Civil Rights movement, and it’s good that those films exist because those films need to be talked about and shown to the degree that people suffered. I think there’s a psychological anxiety that comes along with being held as a minority and that’s what I saw in this film and that’s something that interested me greatly.

It’ll make sense when you see it, but this idea that these people were told that they couldn’t love each other and suffered for nearly a decade, it seemed very appropriate to be making a movie about that.

Did you realize Joel would be great for that role while working with him on this?

Yeah, I had the script written and we started working together and I just kept looking at him and going, “You know, he kind of looks like Richard Loving,” because that’s what was really difficult when I was writing Loving I was thinking about the real people, so we were out one night, and I think we’d been drinking, and I was like, “Aw, man, you need to be in my next movie” and he was like, “Alright, deal.”

And then it was kind of done… and then I had to call the producers and say, “Oh, by the way, I offered the lead role to Joel,” but it worked out quite well. He’s quite amazing.

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Where are you on that? Post-production? Think you’ll have it out this year? 

Yeah, I’m editing. I hope so.

Are you still able to keep in touch with your Southern roots? Do you live in L.A. now?

I live in Austin, Texas. It’s not the South. Sometimes people there say it is, but I don’t give them that. Texas just gets to be Texas, but my parents still live in Arkansas and I go back as much as I can. I consider myself a Southerner.

I was curious now that you’re on your fourth movie and have gotten used to the business, whether you’re still able to tap into that part of your background while writing.

I think specificity makes movies better, and I think they’re finding that at the studio level, too, even when they’re making comic book movies and stuff. I think the more specific they get, the more universal they are, oddly enough, so I don’t see regionality as a hindrance at all. I see it as a necessity. Things take place in certain places and you have to know these places and write specifically about them. 

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It’s funny that you bring up comic book movies–you seem to be really good at setting up my next question. You just directed a movie for Warner Bros, and from what I’ve heard, they’re really happy with it and are really behind the movie, so naturally there are conversations happening. Do you have any interest at all, after finishing Loving, to maybe direct one of these big movies for them? You love those movies but would you actually want to direct one over your own things?

Yeah, maybe. If you’re a director working on the Warner Bros. lot in the last two years, somebody probably already asked you about a DC movie. I think the trick for me is I’ve had just enough limited success to be given some really great control of the process. I think I really understand how I make movies now, and I feel really confident in that, but the problem with making a movie for 150, 200 million dollars, whatever it is, is that I wonder if that control would be limited.

It’s not just about final cut or final approval, but it’s really sure about making the process is as organic as these others have been. If I could step into a big franchise movie like that and feel like the process is going to be protected, then absolutely, but that’s a hard thing to do. That’s a hard thing to navigate. We’ll see if the stars align. Obviously I embrace genre. I like movies, and so I’m certainly not one of these people who think they’re so intellectual that they can’t make a movie for mass audiences. It’s quite the opposite in fact.  

I was reading in a recent interview that you really want to make movies people would want to see.

I do, which doesn’t necessarily mean I just want to make big movies, because Loving isn’t a big movie but I think a lot of people will want to see that movie and a lot of people should see that movie. Same with Midnight Special

As long as I’m connecting these movies with some personal emotion, that can be transmitted to the audience to watch the film. I think they’re worth people’s time. I don’t want to just dabble in obscurity.

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I would think a Warners exec might see what you did in Midnight Special for a relatively limited budget and think “Maybe he can make a superhero movie for $100 million or less”…

Well, you know, a lot of the guys directing these things, they’ve only directed one or two movies and they’re given a $100 million movie. I think my problem is that I’m not just going to say “Yes” and that makes it tricky. I’ll say “yes” to the right thing at the right time with the right people.

Midnight Special will open in New York, Los Angeles and Austin, Texas on Friday, March 18 and then expand to other cities on April 1.