A Thoughtful Conversation About Midnight Special With Filmmaker Jeff Nichols

By  · Published on March 22nd, 2016

Midnight Special, the latest sci-fi/drama from writer/director Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter), is a story of fatherly love and sacrifice at its foundation. Knowing that his son –who could be an otherworldly wonder or an alien- possesses special powers, Roy (Michael Shannon) embarks on a journey in the deep south with the young prodigy Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) and his childhood friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) in order to protect him from the government and the mysterious leader of their religious cult, to ultimately save his life and set him free.

With Midnight Special, Nichols wrestles with themes around religion, spirituality and doubt with a magnificent sci-fi canvas that nods to beloved classics like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Working in the studio system for the first time, Nichols credits his Warner Bros collaborators for allowing him to keep his own voice, instead of pushing him to go big on visual bombast and spectacle. “During the first meeting I had, they asked, “Is there’s anything you didn’t do in this story that you wanted to do, but you were worried about money?,”” Nichols recalls. “And I honestly said “No. This is designed exactly the way I think it should be designed. If you want me to write a bigger movie, I have to write a different movie.” They were cool with that.”

Below is edited from our recent conversation, where he talked about Midnight Special, fatherhood, spirituality and his hotly anticipated upcoming film, Loving.

Tomris Laffly: I took Midnight Special as a story of love and devotion. The length one would go for loved ones and the anxiety that type of selfless devotion generates. And I see this as a recurring theme in your films. Would you say that’s a proper reading?

Jeff Nichols: I certainly think that’s a proper reading for this film. It gets a little tricky when you start to lay them across all the films, which I know is a fun thing to do. But I think there’s a different reason for why those films have similar connections and it’s not because of a conscious attempt to connect it to this kind of selfless love. I would place it someplace else. Now to talk about Midnight Special specifically for a second: It is about parenthood, when it is selfless. I think a lot of people would just say “Well of course, you’re a parent and going to love your kid” and most parents do, but they don’t always do it in a selfless way. I think there are a lot of parents out there that actually project themselves onto their kid. And that’s kind of what my first film, Shotgun Stories, was about.

I think there are a lot of parents that want their children to be something and push their children to be something without really listening to the core nature of what their children want and maybe what their children really should be for themselves. And for me, that was kind of the epiphany of young fatherhood was realizing I have no control over my own son. I don’t have any control of whether he lives or dies. I don’t have any control over what he grows up to be. All I can do is try to genuinely understand who he is. And whom he’s turning into, who he’s growing into and try to help him realize it. And that seems to be to be parenthood. To use your terms, that seems to be fairly selfless but it has to be. If you’re going to embrace what parenthood is, then you’re going to have to give up control, which seems to be the first step going down the road of being selfless.

How that relates to my other films, I think you can certainly take that back and apply it. Kind of reverse engineer that into the films. As the writer, I was really just trying to triangulate myself to the world around me. I was trying to position myself to how I felt about the children, how I felt about my wife, how I felt about marriage, how I felt about the idea of being a father, because at that time I wasn’t. So at each point I’m kind of dealing with personal relationships in my life right at the time that I’m writing.

I just love what you said about selflessness. You let your kid become who he is. I see that children are very crucial for your films and they bring a level of innocence, putting a mirror to the face of the adults.

There a Japanese word for child, I can’t remember it right now off the top of my head. I think it specifically translates to the word “flower” or something. And I know it now more than ever. To be honest, I know this now more than I knew it when I was writing Midnight Special. My son now is 5 years old and he is so genuinely sweet. He’s a sweet human being. It’s very rare that you see a moment where he has malice. Sometimes even as a parent, you think he’s doing something where you know he’s being bad. And you’re like “Okay, I’m going to go do my parent thing and I’m going to go scold him.” And you start to figure out and talk to him about what he’s doing and you realize he genuinely didn’t know what he was up to. That’s not always the case. I’m not saying the kid is perfect in every moment but there is this innocence that’s real. I think there is a purity in children that is precious and I think it’s necessary as adults to try to connect to it. Because like you say, I think we could see a better version of ourselves in them. You’ve got two sides to that. On the one hand, kids are the natural extension of ourselves. When we pass away, we hope that our children take these pieces of us out further into the future. That seems to be the natural order of things. Why we want to continue our bloodline and all that stuff. But I think there is something else that’s more immediate during our lifetimes: children teach us or at least remind us of a very simple idea of what it means to be good. I think children are inherently good. I believe that and, not to be too schmaltzy about it, but that’s a really important thing.

A lot of people, myself included, talk about Midnight Special in the way it revives that really beloved feeling we used to see in Sci-Fis like E.T. and Close Encounters. Did you indeed have those movies in your mind as you were writing Midnight Special?

I don’t know if I had them in my mind. I think I just had them in my life. I have them in my DNA. I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas and in the 80s, we didn’t have anything other than what was at the local cinema. We didn’t have foreign films. Independent cinema hadn’t developed the way it did later in the 90s. So when I thought about movies, I thought about movies like E.T. I thought about movies like Star Wars and Close Encounters. These were the films that I equated with movies.

When I kind of woke up in my 30s and had been given this amazing opportunity to make movies, I was kind of like “Well, let’s make a movie like that. Those movies are great.” That’s an oversimplification but they’re definitely baked into my movie-going experience. When you look back on those movies there’s, an amazing amount of craftsmanship and artistry put into them. Everybody just talks about the supernatural side to them. That’s not really what I had taken from them as a filmmaker. The main parts are how Spielberg approaches life in suburban America. His depictions of that in Close Encounters are phenomenal in my opinion.

Even if you look at the aesthetics of John Carpenter’s road movie Starman and just the way people dress and the cars they drive and the gas stations they stop at. It felt very authentic to me when I first saw those things. There’s a tier on some modern films that I just don’t relate to as well. That’s kind of where I start to see connections to the Spielberg films. Not really in the one-to-one specifics of “Are there aliens or bright lights?” It’s more like “How do we ground these really big ideas into some realistic situations?”

You’ve made independent movies before, but this is a studio film and you have all the resources allowing you to go really big on spectacle. But I felt like the effects were restrained and minimalistic. They took a back seat and you let the story take over.

I’ll give you a very pragmatic answer: it’s just the process of how the movie got made. Had Warner Brothers not said “Yes” to this movie, we would have gone out to the open market, probably raise less money than we were given at Warner Brothers, and I would have made it independently. And then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But, Warner Brothers doesn’t change the nature of what it was. I had the script written, I had Michael Shannon in the lead and I brought it to Warner Brothers and I was very fortunate that they said “Yes”. What an exciting company to be apart of, especially for this kind of film.

It’s not like when I stepped foot onto the Warner Brothers’ lot to start talks with them, that the film started to grow a third eye and an extra leg and get pumped full of steroids. That was offered to me as an option. I think they would have liked it to be bigger just because that’s easier to sell but they went into this with their head up in their eyes. It was going to be the movie it was going to be, no matter who made it. I’m just really lucky that I got to make it at a place that I think does amazing marketing and makes movies people really want to see.

There is a profound spirituality in Midnight Special and maybe in a lot of the genre film. I see that to a certain degree in your other work, too. I’m wondering if you would say you are a spiritual person? I don’t mean “religious”, but just having a spiritual angle into life.

I definitely am. This is the most overt film I’ve made about belief systems. Which is about religion and sometimes a lack of religion. If we set that aside for a second, yeah I am a very spiritual person. Spiritual in the sense that I’m just trying to figure it out. What you guys are watching and what you’re witnessing in terms of this progression of films that are coming out of me is: you’re watching me grow up. You’re watching me deal with becoming a man, becoming a father, becoming a husband and also just becoming a more developed human. I’m trying to figure out where I fit in this world and where I fit in the universe and how the universe operates.

What’s funny is, now that I have a son, that conversation is getting far more intense because he’s starting to have more questions about all these things. Like, “Why did the goldfish die?” and what I’ve been fascinated by, and this isn’t that special at all, it’ll probably come out in some other film, is how quickly we run back to the dogmas of our own childhood and how we were raised just in order to get through bath time. Your kid looks up and asks you “Well where’d he go?” And you have to have an answer for this and it’s very easy like “He went to heaven and it’s in the clouds.”

But it’s really interesting that once you add a child into the mix, you start to grasp even more desperately for some language to place yourself in the world. And Midnight Special is definitely that. You’ve got this group of people that are on this religious ranch. If you show up to a religious ranch, you’re looking for something. Maybe you find what you need out of what’s there but really, probably you’re just looking for some help to center yourself and the universe.

I would argue that our main character did not find that there. They didn’t find it in the kind of organized belief system that was present to them. They had to go searching for it and the place where they found it was in their son.

I’m really, really looking forward to Loving.

I can’t wait for the world to see it. I’m extraordinarily proud of it.

The thing that’s so beautiful about it is that we are in a political climate that is more charged than I’ve seen in my entire lifetime. And it deserves to be. These issues of race, marriage equality…these are important issues that people need to be as heated about as they are. I think what’s beautiful about Richard and Mildred Loving’s story is that they were apolitical in their aspirations. They did not want to be political martyrs. And what their story represents to me is kind of the center of what I think everyone should actually be talking about.

It is very easy when you get into political conversations to back up into your own fighting corner and get ready for an attack and that’s not what these people did. These people, they just loved each other. It was beautiful. It was honest; it was not easy. I think now is an appropriate time to show that to people and to try and have them see this topic for just a brief moment outside of the conversation of politics and just for what it is, which is very pure emotion. That’s what I’m hoping people get out of this movie.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.