Berlin: Why 'Midnight Special' Director Wanted More Michael Shannon, Less Dialogue Onscreen (Q&A)

Courtesy of Jim Bridges
Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols, returning to the scene of his first festival, talks to THR about being a new father and what he thinks of the McConaissance since his film 'Mud.'

Jeff Nichols’ first film festival was the 2007 Berlinale, where Shotgun Stories, his directorial debut, premiered. So it’s fitting that the writer-director is returning with his fourth film — and most ambitious project to date — the sci-fi chase film Midnight Special.

In the years since that inaugural Berlinale, the Little Rock, Ark., native has continued to create critically acclaimed films, including 2011 apocalyptic drama Take Shelter and 2012 Southern crime drama Mud, which kicked off Matthew McConaughey’s career rebirth.

Along with Midnight Special — which follows a father (Nichols’ consistent collaborator Michael Shannon) who tries
 to protect his young son, who possesses special powers — Nichols also will release another film this year: Loving, which is based on the true story of an interracial couple who were imprisoned for getting married in 1958.

Ahead of his Berlin return, Nichols, who lives in Austin, Texas, with his wife and son, spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about what inspired Midnight Special, why Shannon is his muse and what he thinks of the McConaissance.

You premiered Shotgun Stories in Berlin. How does it feel to come back?

I just remember the Q&As immediately snapped me into attention because I had to be on my game. The first question I was ever asked was, "Obviously, the film you’ve made is an allegory for vicious political policy ... ." I think I was 25. I was struck by the intense nature of the audiences. I’m excited to have that type of audience be the first to watch Midnight Special. It’s a sci-fi based movie, and it’s also about this kind of intense emotional feeling that I have toward being 
a father and toward my son.

Where did the idea for Midnight Special come from?

I had the idea of two guys driving a car only at night through back roads of the American South. There also was this desire to make a film like the ones I loved growing up, like
 Close Encounters 
of the Third Kind,
 Starman and E.T. I 
always work on two tracks, so on the one 
hand I’ve got genre 
and plot and on the 
other, I’ve got these 
thematic connections, these personal connections. My son
 was one when I started writing, so Midnight Special became about this newfound position of having this little person that was so fragile and could so affect the trajectory of my life, and I had no control over it. I think part of the trick of being a parent is giving up all of this control to this new being.

Why do you use those Spielberg and Carpenter films as inspiration?

The thing that I carried with me since first seeing them was the sense of mystery. It’s the tone of them, this kind of bluish-black aesthetic and of the light being this kind of blue. They did wonderment really well. I don’t do wonderment the same way, my scores don’t operate the same way as John Williams’ scores do, but I do appreciate awe and mystery.

How much of this film was shot at night?

A fair amount of it. That was part of the technical challenge. I like to shoot on film, and when you shoot at night, it completely loses all of the beautiful organic qualities that happen in daytime. It was a real challenge, and I think it’s one we overcame. It doesn’t necessarily feel like a film shrouded in night when you watch it, but certainly making it, it felt that way. We were outside in the cold night quite a lot.

Not much was revealed about the movie until the release of the first trailer. Was that intentional?

Definitely. I think once you see the film, you’ll understand. As
 a writer, I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative structure. I don’t adhere to typical plot, things you’re supposed to do in order to make a good movie, which is why some people think my movies are really slow and boring. (Laughs.) I think this movie is the culmination of something I’ve been trying my hand at for a long time, which is removing expositional dialogue and information. I might be cutting it to the bone on this one. I think Warner Bros. has been smart about it. If you try to cut a trailer that explains what was going on — good luck, this movie barely does it in two hours.

Shannon has been in every one of your films. What is it about him that keeps you coming back for more?

He makes my writing better
 and makes me a better director. Especially in a film like this that removes so much dialogue and removes so much information in the traditional sense of exposition. He fills all that in just with looks on his face. I can watch Mike Shannon literally do nothing, sit on a park bench and pick at his fingernails, and I would be intrigued by it, and I think a lot of people could, too. He is able to carry the weight of a character through very quiet moments better than anybody else I know.

How hard was it to take on a true story with Loving?

I was creatively paralyzed for about a month. I just felt like a phony, but you get over it and you start to just absorb as much information as you possibly can from the real-life circumstances. It’s drop-dead gorgeous — it’s going to knock people on the ground. I challenge anyone to watch this movie and not cry.

Mud is considered the start of
 the McConaissance. Do you deserve all the credit?

I’d like to think I’m a key player in it, but when he came to us, he’d come off the set of Magic Mike and I think he’d already done Killer Joe and The Paper Boy. He was already starting to pull levers, to make adjustments in his career, and we were very pleased to find each other at that time. I just saw him this weekend. I want to work with him again.

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