It started with a single mental image: Two men in a car, driving down dark Southern backroads in the middle of the night, with no lights on. “I couldn’t get it out of my head,” writer-director Jeff Nichols says, squinting as the sunlight pours through the picture window in his Berlin hotel room. “It was this out-of-nowhere vision of guys going very, very fast, just booking it in a muscle car in the dead of night. It felt cool, you know, but for some reason, I thought: Well, this is a very sci-fi image. I’m not sure why, but that’s what I’m seeing.” Soon, among these two unidentified men, the 37-year-old Arkansas native would add a young boy, sitting quietly in the back seat. The kid would be wearing steampunk-ish goggles. When he’d remove them, an intense blue light would shoot out of his eyes.
Those images are among the first you see in Midnight Special, the independent filmmaker’s first studio movie and his first attempt to make an all-out summer blockbuster-style movie … sort of. Like Nichols’ 2011 breakthrough movie Take Shelter, this story of a father (Michael Shannon) keeping his son (newcomer Jaeden Lieberher) — “blessed” with strange super powers — safe from a religious cult and the Feds feels like a down-to-earth drama with otherwordly elements woven into its fabric. And like his previous movie, 2012’s modest McConnaissance hit Mud, it takes a familiar scenario — an on-the-run chase story — and adds a moody, lived-in feel to it. Set pieces with special effects and adrenaline-soaked action sequences share screen time with quiet, contemplative moments. You can’t really classify it as simply one thing or another.
“There’s actually more of Jaws in here than Close Encounters. Actually, that was a lot more obvious before I took out the part where a giant shark eats Joel [Edgerton].”-director Jeff Nichols
“I actually got pretty far in the writing before I stopped and thought, I don’t know what the hell this movie is about,” Nichols says with a laugh. “I mean, I knew the characters; I knew where it was going, I knew exactly what the plot details were. But I couldn’t say what this movie was about, in a bigger sense.” Meanwhile, he had become a father for the first time, and right before his son turned two, the boy suffered a febrile seizure. “He was fine, but it scared me. And then, right after that, [the shooting in] Sandy Hook happened. And suddenly, I was wracked with fear over my attachment to this little person. I’d be absolutely devastated if anything happened to him.
“When you’re afraid of something, you want to take control of it,” Nichols continues. “But you can’t take control of your kids’ lives — you just have to understand who they are, and where they need to go. That was when I realized, oh, I get it know: I’ve been writing about parenthood this whole time. I just hadn’t quite realized it. And then I knew how to finish the movie.”
He began to fill in the blanks, fleshing out Midnight Special‘s peripheral characters: the ex-cop friend (Black Mass‘ Joel Edgerton) who’s driving the father and son from motel rooms to safe houses; the ex-wife/boy’s mom (Kirsten Dunst), who joins the trio later on; the cult leader (Sam Shepard) who believes the cosmically gifted child may be the second coming of the messiah; and the nerdy NSA agent (The Force Awakens‘ Adam Driver) who feels an odd kinship with the kid his bosses are pursuing.
Assembling that cast, according to Nichols, was a huge stroke of luck — but the role of Roy, the protective parent who’ll stop at nothing to keep his offspring out of the hands of zealots and government spooks, was always going to be Michael Shannon’s. Ever since Nichols saw a Sundance Labs short featuring the future Boardwalk Empire star and cast him in his debut, Shotgun Stories (2007), the filmmaker and actor have forged an impressive filmmaker/actor bond — the Scorsese and De Niro of the moody, atmospheric mid-budget character movie.
“More like the David Lynch and Laura Dern of that set,” Shannon jokes. “And yes, I am the Laura Dern in that equation. We were talking about this the other day, actually. We’ve done four films together, and we’re both from the South; there’s a certain archetype of the stoic, silent Southern man that we both know well. I understand those guys, so maybe that’s why I fit into his work so well.” Asked if he would have played Roy if the part had simply come along — if, in other words, it wasn’t from the mind of Jeff Nichols — the actor instantly replied, “Who else but Jeff would have written this role? I mean, to approach a science fiction movie like this, from such an odd angle … that feels very much like what he does. It’s a big reason I keep working with him. Someone just called this ‘a science fiction movie for adults,’ and I thought, yeah. That’s it.”
Told of that quote, Nichols chuckles and said, “Well, I know that someone asked me right after the premiere [at the Berlin Film Festival] if it was still possible to make a science-fiction movie for adults in this day and age — and I told him, ‘Man, I think we just did!'” He said that, rather than looking at today’s whiz-bang summer-movie spectacles, he went back to the movies he grew up on, namely John Carpenter’s Starman and all of the old-school Spielberg films from the Seventies and Eighties. (Without giving anything major away, there’s a lot of Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘s in the movie’s DNA.) The idea, he says, was to look for movies that dealt with fantastic elements while still have a healthy dose of real-world grit and humanity in the mix.
“There’s actually more of Jaws in here than Close Encounters,” the director claims, before pausing and scratching his head. “Actually, that was a lot more obvious before I took out the part where a giant shark eats Joel in the third act.”
When he’s stopped laughing, Nichols continues: “These aren’t movies I’m mining for genre elements, really; Close Encounters could be a rom-com for all I care, you know? It’s more how those movies were made. Those scenes with Richard Dreyfuss at his house, at the beginning of the movie — that’s the best portrayal of suburbia in the late 1970s as I’ve ever seen. Everyone talks about the aliens coming off the ship, but the good scenes are that four-year-old kid in a baby crib, banging a stick on it. I don’t think of the shark attacking the boat in Jaws; I think of Roy Scheider and that boy sitting at the table, crushing the Dixie cups!
“You don’t see that in big movies anymore,” he adds, before getting up and closing the curtains in his room. “I just wanna bring ’em back a bit.”