Jeff Nichols Talks ‘Midnight Special,’ Fear-Driven Filmmaking, Adam Driver’s Big Future
Like his 2011 film Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols‘ Midnight Special was born out of fear, specifically the fear of losing his son.
“I think, really, we’re terrified of losing them, so we’re going to try to figure out who they are to try to help them. Help them become the ones who manifest their own destiny,” the director told me during an interview I conducted a couple of weeks back. That fatherly fear is at the core of the film, though the story blossoms into something much bigger, touching on themes of friendship, homeland security, science, and religion, all in the mode of a sci-fi thriller.
Michael Shannon stars as a man escorting his supernaturally gifted son to a secret location, all while evading an armed religious sect and U.S. military forces. Aiding them on their journey is an old friend (Joel Edgerton) and the boy’s mother (Kirsten Dunst); a government scientist (Adam Driver), meanwhile, tries to understand the family’s plight as he tracks their location.
Terrifically thrilling and deeply affecting, Midnight Special is yet another showcase by one of this generation’s very best visual storytellers and opens in theaters this weekend.
Some people consider your movies to be vague or overly ambiguous. That’s maybe the biggest criticism levied against you.
It’s funny how everybody wants to be polite. Obviously, I made the film with an open ending on purpose. It’s like, let’s talk about it! If you don’t like it…maybe, rather than just being entrenched in your position, if we talk about it, you might be illuminated on something. It was funny, I had a good conversation with a lady in Berlin about [the movie]. She had a very specific place where she thought I should end the movie. She was very specific about not liking the end of the movie, and I said, “That’s cool. Where would you end the movie?” She told me, and I thought, that would be a terrible ending! She was like, “Well, it’s right. That’s where you should have ended it.” I was like, I really don’t think you’re right! I didn’t convince her, but it was at least fun to have a conversation.
So you do enjoy those conversations.
I do, yeah.
I do, too. If I meet a filmmaker and I didn’t like their movie, maybe, and I get illuminated by their insight…I love that.
The reality is, making movies is really complex. It’s a strange algebra. There are so many variables that go into them. I would be shocked if you met a filmmaker who said, “My film’s perfect,” you know? I don’t know if I want to be friends with that person.
[laughs] It goes beyond ego. I want these films to be conversation starters, so of course it makes sense that I would want to have conversations about them. As long as people don’t ask me too many specifics about things. It’s cool to see how people’s minds work on them and work on the problems I created. It’s cool to hear how people interpret things, sometimes random, sometimes spot-on, sometimes differently. It’s fun.
In some ways, this movie is like the Superman movie I always wanted in terms of tone and taste, do you know what I mean?
The existential crisis of Superman is something that’s seldom handled well.
That’s very interesting. I think Zack Snyder scratched the surface of it. I think someone—maybe it was JJ Abrams—was talking about [doing] a Superman film and he was like, “I just wonder how he didn’t kill anybody as a baby.” I know that there are other people who have takes on it. I never saw this character as a superhero—I just saw him as a boy. His illnesses I just thought of as being organic, even though they’re supernatural. The same thing happened with
The same thing happened with Take Shelter. To your comment, specifically—wanting to see a certain version of a kind of movie…This is going to sound ridiculous, but Take Shelter was kind of my zombie movie. Take Shelter was my take on all those cool feelings in a zombie film where people are preparing for a disaster or preparing for the zombie stuff. I just wanted to make a movie that lived in that part. Then you start to make it deeper and more meaningful and relate it to your life, but that was very much the case with Take Shelter and here [with Midnight Special] too. I really liked those movies of the ’80s and sci-fi movies from that period. I kind of wanted to live in that world for a little bit, which doesn’t negate, though, my approach to the story or how I broaden its veins into my own life. It doesn’t discount that feeling, that sense you get after having seen stuff like that. I felt that way with Mud, too. I had this notion of what a classic American film was. I couldn’t tell you one specifically, but I can tell you a combination of several. Cool Hand Luke, The Getaway…I kind of wanted it to feel like some of the things I felt during those movies.
Midnight Special applies to that. So many people try to make these one-to-one analogies with these films, especially with the endings and other things. Those are kind of lost on me. That’s not how I thought about them. I just thought about the essence of those films.
Hitchcock’s movies were driven by his personal fears. Would you say you’re the same?
Absolutely. One hundred percent. The interesting thing about Hitchcock is that he chose fear as a predominant format to work in, which makes sense because that’s best for directors.
The feeling of fear is most directly linked to the toolbox that a director has to work with. This shot plus this shot equals this feeling. This music here, this framing here. I’m not going to give you much lead space in front of your eyes, and that’s going to freak people out. It’s different in comedy or drama…they’re not really genres. They’re these feelings. Fear most directly relates most to what a director does. I approach it a little differently. Definitely in Take Shelter, there are some scary moments, and they’re intended to be scary. I was getting to use that toolbox. I approach fear more from the standpoint of a writer. I use fear as a catalyst. Fear makes for a scary scene—“This is going to be a scary moment”—that’s what I’m talking about with Hitchcock. What I’m talking about as a writer…fear is a catalyst for a bigger idea. It’s a catalyst for the thought that you’re trying to convey to the audience, which for me is always an emotion—it’s not a story. It’s not plot. It’s not, “I’m going to tell you a story about what happened to a guy.” It’s, “I’m going to tell you a story about how a guy feels.”
Fear is a great place to start from. Fear is what motivates us as humans to get out and gather the food and build the shelter. It’s like a foundational element of humanity. But fear is only a catalyst. For instance, this film is about the fear of losing my son. That brings up a lot of emotions and other things, but that’s not a thought in and of itself. I can’t just make a movie about a guy afraid of losing his son. What does he do with that? What’s he trying to do with that fear? I think that forced me to think about the actual nature of parenthood. What are we trying to do? We’re trying to, I think, define for ourselves who our children are, in the purest way we possibly can. Sometimes, our own point of view gets in the way and we project that onto our kids. But I think, really, we’re terrified of losing them, so we’re going to try to figure out who they are to try to help them. Help them become the ones who manifest their own destiny. We have no control over that destiny. We have no control over who they become. At best, we can try to help them realize who they are and help them become that.
That became a thought. Fear produced that thought, which became the backbone for this movie. In Take Shelter, I was afraid of the world falling apart. I was afraid of not being a good provider for my family, or an adult, or a good husband. I was afraid of all those things, and there was a bunch of anxiety that came from that. But that’s not what that movie’s about—that movie’s about communicating in marriage. That movie’s about the foundational principles of marriage, which I think is communication. That’s why I made the daughter deaf. I think, in order to get that, I needed to have fear. Shotgun Stories is about the fear of losing one of my brothers. But ultimately that’s not what the movie’s about. It’s about the fruitlessness of revenge, a revenge that was born out of that fear.
I think there’s a huge misunderstanding among moviegoers in this country. People are obsessed with plot. That’s how they critique movies—solely on the plot! From the stunning opening of this movie, it’s clear you’re not interested in exposition. This is cinema, that’s it. We’re dealing with emotions, images, and sound. I wish more people appreciated that. I think maybe they do, subconsciously.
Maybe they do, you know? It depends on what people want out of a film. At different times you want different things. A lot of people—and I’m this audience sometimes—want escapism. Look at the way people use score. Score, even more than expositional dialogue, is the way to telegraph a pass, like in basketball. You never telegraph a pass—you never want the defense to know where you’re looking, because they’ll know where you’re going to throw the ball and then they’ll steal it. You can telegraph so much by having two characters speak, and then you put this music underneath it. Everybody knows they’re supposed to be scared, or they’re supposed to be happy, or they’re supposed to be sad. When you remove score, which I mostly did in Shotgun Stories, it’s very offputting to people. All of a sudden, they’re having to judge a scene on its own merits, not on this feeling that you’re giving them. They actually have to start listening. That’s just an example of my broader approach: If you remove certain things, people have to listen.
Some people don’t want that experience when they go to the theater, and that’s okay. I’ll catch you the next time, or maybe I’ll catch you on a Sunday night, when you’ve got a little more free time. It’s my job, though, to try and understand the nature of how people receive stories. It’s natural to search for plot. That’s how our brains work. I don’t hold it against anybody, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to challenge them through a new type of organization of information. Because that’s all it is—you’re just organizing information in a certain way so that it lands at certain times. My movies have plot. I just don’t think it’s the going concern. I think writers are so concerned sometimes with just making things clear.
I know that studios are. They test these things to make sure that no stone is unturned and that people are getting what they want. But what people want isn’t always what they need. I’m fascinated by story dynamics. I’m fascinated by what works for an audience and what doesn’t, what keeps them engaged and what doesn’t. If you’re not working on the edge of all that, you’re never going to have a situation where someone says, “My nails were dug into the edge of my chair,” and one person writes, “This movie is boring as hell.” I have to be okay with both of those responses. I don’t think I could get either if I was just trying to walk down the middle of the road.
About the opening, again, which I love so much…
I think it’s the best opening I’ll ever do.
Some people might consider it disorienting, but I think, for this story, you get exactly the amount of information you need.
What’s funny for me is, I think it’s so obvious. I’m wondering, like, will people just know that, once he picks the boy up into his arms in the hotel room, that obviously he’s not a kidnapper? Yes, they do, but since it hasn’t been so specifically told to them, they feel it, but they don’t know it yet. That’s a really great place to be. To me, it’s just so obvious. “That mystery’s solved.” But it’s not yet. It’s not totally solved. I have this line of Sam Shepard revealing, “The birth father, Roy Tomlin.” I wrote that scene specifically to be a surprise to the FBI, because they haven’t had the ranch under surveillance long enough to know that he was the birth father. The thing I’m wondering is, is it a surprise to the audience? That’s what I [mean] when I talk about narrative mechanics. I’m just so fascinated. When did you know? Here’s when I tell you, or here’s where I specifically don’t tell you.
Obviously, Joel Edgerton’s profession in the film—that was really specific. I remember giving [the script] to this young girl who was going to be a PA on our film. I gave her the script, and maybe she wasn’t the sharpest tack in the drawer, but she read it and just so clearly was like, “You have to tell us sooner that he’s a state trooper. We need to know that because I was really turned off when he did what he did at the end of the film. If I had known that, I’d have felt a lot better about his character a lot sooner.” She was so earnest in her argument. But it’s like, don’t you understand that you having all these emotions is part of the process? It’s part of the story. It just made me smile, and she probably thought I was a dickhead.
Joel gives you so much.
He’s a great actor.
In that scene in particular, he tells you what you need to know in how he behaves.
There you go! I thought it was pretty obvious. He walks over to the fallen state trooper and speaks in a way that no normal person would speak on the police radio. I was like, well, I’m just letting people know there. That’s what his character would do. A bad version of that writing would be [for him] to go over and say, “Hey, hey, there’s a police officer shot.” That wouldn’t be honest to him either. He wants that guy to get help. That’s why he goes and does it. He did not want to go shoot that guy. You could have Jeff Nichols the writer brain go, “If I have him speak that way, I’ll show my cards too soon.” But that’s as dishonest as having him explain that he’s a state trooper. Both of those things are dishonest. My fear for this movie…any shortcoming is when I might have been to purposefully ambiguous in a scene. I’ve read that critique, and I’ve gone back in and I’ve looked at it, and I don’t know. I’ve been able to reason out why they would behave that way. Point being, character behavior trumps all narrative desire.
I paint myself into corners all the time. It’s like, okay, I have this very strict rule about character behavior and dialogue, but I need this piece of information in the movie. It’s my job to craft a scene that allows that piece of information to come through, or we don’t get it. Then I deal with that consequence. It’s like an austerity to the writing you have to apply. You really have to stick to it. You really do.
Kirsten Dunst’s character is one of my favorite motherly characters in a while. You don’t see this stuff often. Without spoiling anything, the things she does, the way she reacts to things—it feels authentic, it feels real.
I think she’s the strongest character in the film. I think she’s able to do something the male characters can’t, specifically Michael Shannon’s. I’m not just saying this to gain the pro-women’s lib lobby. Watching my son be born and what my wife did and then what she did the year that followed…there’s no doubt in my mind that women are the stronger sex in terms of fortitude and emotions. I was very struck in high school when I read A Doll’s House by Ibsen. It’s about a mother that leaves her children. I came from a home where that would not be possible. But it is possible. That’s why the mother in Shotgun Stories hates her children. She blames them for her place in life. Their existence lowered her, in her mind. I was fascinated by the idea that there could be a mother character that would come to the conclusion first of what the inevitability of parenthood is. It made sense to me that a mother would be the one to understand the cycle of parenthood before the father, who has undeniably committed his entire life to the safety of his boy. It takes the mother to realize the cycle that they’re a part of.
I don’t think Michael’s character understands it fully or is willing to accept it fully until the boy gets out of the car. I think it’s important, but it’s also a big narrative risk. You’ve built this father-son story, the mother doesn’t come in for the first thirty minutes, and she’s tangential. Then you do this physical handoff where she’s the one who physically represents their position to their child at the end of the film. I had no idea if it would work, and for some people, I’m sure it doesn’t. I reason out, character-wise, why it would work out that way. Like I said, she’s the stronger of the two. I’m glad to hear you say you like her…because I like her.
That moment you mention where the boy gets out of the car broke my heart.
Good! That’s the one. David Fincher talks about how every movie should have an emotional punch in the gut. That was mine. I have one in each of my films. I’m glad you liked it.
Sevier (Adam Driver) is great, too.
Adam Driver is, in my opinion, going to be one of the most important actors of our generation, irrelevant of Star Wars. I think he’s that good. He’s that interesting. I want to make a detective movie with him really badly.
Why a detective movie?
Because I want to make a detective movie.
Because I’m a huge fan of Fletch. I just want to make a private eye movie.