Out of all the films we’ve seen in 2016 so far, few have topped Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols’ heartfelt chase movie that sees a mysterious young child transported across the United States, all the while pursued by shady government forces.
Featuring such solid performers as Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver, it represents another excellent addition to Nichols’ already exemplary filmography, as anyone who has seen Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter or Mud will testify.
With Midnight Special available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray from Monday, we were lucky enough to speak to the director about his thought’s on the reaction to the film, the process of creating it, those Aquaman rumours and what else he has planned…
Firstly, how have you found the reception to Midnight Special?
Mixed, you know. It didn’t do too well at the box office, which was a little disappointing on my end, and that was a little disheartening. That being said, now that it’s starting to come out on DVD and streaming in the US, I’ve gotten a lot more of a response, which helps it out.
It’s a tricky film admittedly: it’s hard for a lot of people to wrap their heads around it, but once they do, I got what I wanted to get out of it in terms of the feelings that I had as a young father, I think those are getting translated.
So it’s kind of a mixed bag, to be honest – I’m really, really proud of the film, and I think it very much represents the film that I set out to make, but I’m a little bit disappointed that audiences didn’t knock down the theatre doors to go and see it.
But it did well critically…
For the most part yeah, the reviews I read were pretty good! I don’t read them all, but yeah, I think that the critics for the most part gave it their time and attention, which I appreciated.
Throughout the course of production, did the film change much from your initial conception?
There were two big scenes that changed, and this just kind of happens in every one of my films. It’s in a scene about two thirds of the way through the film, and this happened on Mud, Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories.
The scene that, if you asked me at the script stage to cut out, I’d have been like, “Ah, that’s crazy, this is a really important scene, I need that,” and it seemed so obvious when I was in the editing room I was like, “Yeah, that’s got to go,” and that happened on this film. There’s a scene where Michael Shannon’s character has to walk his son outside to watch the sunrise for the first time, which I hoped people would understand was a very dangerous thing. And that scene, as written, went on for another few minutes, and it was totally the wrong choice! [laughs]
It was one of those things where in hindsight it seems so clear – that’s probably the biggest thing that changed, and it’s happened on each one of my films.
And what were your original inspirations for the film?
In equal parts, two things: one was I wanted to write a film about how I felt about being a father; a young father, and this realisation of being powerless in the face of the world and what nature throws at us.
It’s a really physical thing, being a father, to come to terms with: that you just don’t have any control. That feeling gripped me strongly over the course of making this film, and it still does. That’s really the heart and soul of the film.
At the same time, I wanted to make a government sci-fi chase movie. I wanted to make something that had a bad-ass scene at the beginning, with a really fast car moving down a dark road in the middle of the night.
There were these things that I wanted to explore and felt were really cool, and so as a storyteller I start to grasp these things on top of one another, and that’s what Midnight Special comes from.
Nostalgia seems to be a big thing at the moment in cinema, and Midnight Special has been compared a lot with various 70s and 80s movies. Do you think this does it a disservice in a way, or are you okay with the comparisons?
With hindsight, I could have cracked that dialogue a little bit more. I was certainly inspired by films from the 80s, obviously. When it came to the way we sold it though, we sold it like ET, and it’s not ET, it’s not a Spielberg film; it’s a Jeff Nichols film, for better or worse.
It serves as a homage to films from the 80s, but it has a very strange narrative structure, and marches to the beat of its own drum, and so… it’s a tough one to call. There are people who are watching the film wanting to see ET or other Spielberg films from the 80s, and they’re going to be disappointed. If they’re walking in to see a film that was inspired by these films, then maybe not.
Maybe that’s just semantics, but it’s just so tricky when you’re at the front end of these marketing campaigns, and you’re trying to break through all the crud and the noise that exists out there and just make people aware of your film. Maybe that point was oversold a little bit.
Notably, the ending is unconventional in that the lead characters don’t exactly ride off into the sunset: two are in prison, and another a fugitive. What was the thinking behind this ending?
Other than Mud – Mud had a full-on happy ending, and I got knocked for that by some people – some people don’t like happy endings, but I think they’re in a minority – but my other two films, Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories, both had… these aren’t ‘happy’ endings, but I’d like to say they’re hopeful endings.
For some stories, happy endings seem a little too dishonest, but for a film like Mud, Mud was built to be a bit of a fairy tale, and the clarity of that ending made me happy for that kind of film.
Midnight Special is not that kind of film; it’s designed to ask more questions than give answers, and is designed to leave you with strong emotions, and the way I look at the end of that film is you see a father who’s not in a good place. He’s had to give up his son, and he’s in prison, and you see on his face one of two things: satisfied with what he’s done for his son, and all that he’s done for his son, but he’s paid the ultimate price in prison and having to give him up.
But he knows he’s out there somewhere, and that’s hopeful. It’s not clear, nobody knows what the hell’s going on, but it’s hopeful in my mind.
Is the world of Midnight Special one that you can ever see yourself potentially revisiting at any point, or are you satisfied that the full story has been told?
I’d love to. I don’t see – given what it did at the box office – anyone lining up to watch it anytime soon. I designed it to go further, but I don’t think anybody’s getting in the queue to pay for it!
Unless you include Take Shelter, Midnight Special is your first real sci-fi film. Was it always a plan to create a film from this genre?
Yeah, for sure. It’s a genre I’ll go back to, I really like it. It’s an interesting thing about movies, there are a lot of parallels you can draw between them, but one really important one is this sense of mystery, and that’s what I love about the genre: this idea of the unknown unfolding in front of you.
This happens in Mud too; it’s just a different style of mystery: more of a hearty boys’ kind of mystery: who is this man, what’s going on? It’s the same with Take Shelter; there are these narrative questions – I don’t know that you would call them ‘mysteries’ – but there are these questions that are unfolding in front of you.
I’d call Take Shelter a psychological thriller, and Mud a coming-of-age getaway film. All of them deal with this kind of narrative ambiguity, but more importantly narrative questions that they kind of take the audience’s participation in order to unwrap them, and that’s really interesting to me, no matter what genre I’m working in, but I love sci-fi.
It’s kind of funny when you’re looking at moving forward, and I’m looking at the report of my career, like, “Well, I want to make a bigger movie.” I’ve got a comic-book movie I could make, or I could make a sci-fi movie that goes to outer space. There are only a handful of things that allow you to utilise all this technology that’s there, so I would be surprised if I don’t ever return to the sci-fi genre.
You were linked with Aquaman at one point. If the circumstances were right, is a comic-book movie something you would take on?
Yeah definitely. I grew up reading up comic books, and I’m a fan – it’s such a business now though. It’s tricky to find your voice inside that. I’m really interested to see what Ryan Coogler does with Black Panther, and Doctor Strange… I’m a comic-book nerd, so I like to go into the genre, but in terms of Marvel and DC, it’s really hard to jump on that train.
The situation I had with DC with Aquaman: all these moving parts were already going, and it was very hard to find myself in the middle of the machine, you know? But I think it’s possible, and something might show up.
With people like Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks and Sam Shepard, you seem to have quite a solid roster of actors who are ‘regulars’ on your films. Is there anyone from Midnight Special who you hope will join them in this club?
Sure – I’ve already made another film called Loving, and that has Joel Edgerton in it, so Joel is one of them – he made the cut [laughs].
He’s just a great guy, and Adam Driver’s somebody that I would pretty much put in everything. I think he’s that good. And I just worked with this comedian, Nick Kroll, I thought ge was fascinating… there’s a guy called Bill Camp, who I’ve worked with on Midnight Special and Loving, he’s phenomenal… Shea Whigham’s a guy I worked with on Take Shelter who I haven’t had a chance to work with again, but he’s on my list.
I repeat all these male actors, but pretty every actress I’ve worked with, starting from Jessica Chastain to Reese Witherspoon, I’ve found these people massively talented. I like working with the same people again and again, mainly because there’s a shorthand there, and you just know that these people will show up; they aren’t prima donnas. They’re there for the right reasons.
Right now I’m trying to write a script for Matthew McConaughey, because these are people that I really respect, and there’s just something about working with people that you’ve worked with before that’s really fun and comforting.
You also have the, for lack of a better word, ‘bigger-name’ actors like Kirsten Dunst and Michael Shannon. Were they people you had in mind from the beginning?
For Kirsten [on Midnight Special] it was later on – Kirsten lobbied for that part, which I was… I’m always shocked whenever famous people want to work with me… but that was definitely, again, I’m terrified that one day I’m going to show up on set and the actor isn’t going to be as into it as I am.
I’m lucky that I haven’t experienced that yet – it’s one of my greatest fears – but I also think that if you’re talking about really successful actors, famous people, they usually don’t get that way without doing the work, you know. There are exceptions, but that usually outs itself over time. There’s no doubt that guys like Christian Bale and Matt Damon, those guys do the work.
Are your films influenced by stories you’ve already had in mind, or are you ever influenced by real-life events?
I think… a little bit of that is just coincidental, I think it’s a little bit disingenuous to call it luck when you’re talking about something like the racial crisis that’s happening in the United States right now.
But it’s also… I sit down to write these things, I’m thinking, “They need to be important, and they need to be important to me, chiefly.” They need to be important enough to commit 3-4 years of your life to, and I’ve been thinking about Midnight Special since I was in pre-production on Take Shelter, and here we are talking about it, so you have to be ready for a marathon with these stories and these characters.
There are a lot of stories, I’ve been sent a lot of scripts, and they’re really good. People have sent me scripts that I want to work with, and I read the scripts and I’m like, “This is a good story, I understand how to make this, I could make this very well, and it’d probably be more successful than my other films!” [laughs], but they just don’t mean anything to me in the moment.
I’m working on an alien idea right now, and it means something to me, and it has representations in my personal life, but also talks about society as a whole, which the sci-fi genre really is really good at.
You’re able to make these social constructs that represent society, and that allows us to look at it in a different context, and that’s pretty exciting, but I mean, with Loving for instance, I had my own personal reasons for making that film, and you’d have to be a moron in 2012 when I was pondering the choice of whether to start working on that, to think that racism and bigotry wasn’t an issue around the world, much less in the United States, so you’re aware that this has social significance.
At the time in 2012, focus was being put on marriage equality, and that debate was happening in the US, but growing up in the American South, I knew for a fact that racism and racial issues continue to be an unsettled issue.
Midnight Special is out now on Digital Download, and Blu-ray and DVD from Monday 8 August. Read our review of the film here, and watch our video interview with Michael Shannon here. For all the latest movie news, pick up the new issue of SciFiNow.