An interview with “Midnight Special” writer-director, Jeff Nichols

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Jim Bridges/FilmNation Entertainment/Courtesy

“I was a father when I figured out what the movie was about,” said writer-director Jeff Nichols about his fourth feature and first studio film, “Midnight Special.” From his days as a film student at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, to his debut film in 2007 “Shotgun Stories,” all the way up to the 2016 release of two Nichols films, “Midnight Special” and “Loving,” the director has been interested in the way families come together or fall apart and uses his own experiences to realize them.

“Midnight Special,” which opens in San Francisco on April 1, follows a father Roy (Oscar-nominated and Nichols regular Michael Shannon) as he travels from Texas to Florida with his young son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), who possesses otherworldly powers. Because of his young son’s mysterious powers, they are relentlessly pursued by the FBI and a religious cult who feels that Alton represents the world’s savior. With the help of a friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), and Alton’s mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), they race against the clock to get Alton to a special location. Throughout the entire film, the father-son relationship stays at the heart, regardless of how big the set piece or the sci-fi reveal.

At its core, the film is about the dedication and sacrifice parents have for their children but also coming to terms that at any point, our children may no longer be with us.

“This genre or plot, whatever it happens to be, I reflect it back to my own life and my own feelings,” he said. “And that’s where the idea of fatherhood — me trying to figure out the nature of fatherhood and parenthood — became the real fulcrum of the story.”

Nichols recalled an intimate moment in his life that heavily influenced the film: when he and his wife saw their eight-month old son struggle with febrile seizures. “It got me thinking very hard about the preciousness of this child,” Nichols said. “And more importantly about my lack of control over his well-being and over who he becomes as a person.”

As with any great filmmaker, Nichols decided to tell his personal story in the medium he has dedicated his life to — film. This gave “Midnight Special” focus, as it was no longer simply a chase film with science fiction trappings influenced by Spielberg and Carpenter. Instead, it’s more in line with an auteur entirely in control of his vision.

The film will hopefully mark the coming of larger yet still introspective films from the 37-year-old filmmaker, as this is the first time Nichols has stepped into studio filmmaking. With a modest budget of $20 million (compared with another recently released Warner Bros. film, “Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice,” with its budget of about $250 million), the film has more in common with Nichols’ other films than a normal franchise starter from Warner Bros. Studios. By focusing on family dynamics, an authenticity to Southern life, with a slow-burning narrative that isn’t too interested in plot (he recently said “plot is overrated”), Nichols was by no means a safe choice for a studio film. Throw in how he always casts the underappreciated Michael Shannon and demands final cut — the ability to determine every shot of the film — and Nichols’ ability to get this film off the ground is a miracle in the Hollywood system.

Yet with the critical success of his films prior to “Midnight Special,” Nichols said, “I think (Warner Bros.) knew what they were getting themselves into. They had seen my other films, they liked my other films.”  

For every Christopher Nolan who successfully makes the leap, there’s a multitude of filmmakers that faced studio intervention and never fully rebounded from their studio hardships. As seen with the flop of Josh Trank’s “Fantastic Four,” a well-respected indie director making the leap to studio filmmaking isn’t always a safe choice.

Luckily, Warner Bros. gave Nichols complete autonomy over the production and editing of the film, something increasingly rare in the modern era of bloated financial titans and disasters. “I think they understood what they were buying,” Nichols said. “That doesn’t mean they didn’t have comments or notes or thoughts. But when it came to the crew and when it came to the production of it, not even a peep. They were extraordinarily supportive.”

When asked if he would dive into bigger budget studio filmmaking, especially with rumors circulating that he was once tied to Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ “Aquaman,” Nichols said, “I would love to make bigger films. … If someone can reason out giving me a bigger budget for a bigger idea of mine, and they’re okay with that, to allow me the same process, then I can definitely see that happening.”

But before he gets his own bigger-budget film, Nichols has one more film, “Loving,” coming this year. With an Oscar-friendly release date of Nov. 4, the historical-biographical film is centered around the interracial couple Mildred and Richard Loving. The couple, who challenged a Virginia anti-interracial marriage law and brought their case to the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia, paved the way to legalize miscegenation.

Nichols seems to have all of his usual ingredients that lead to success in “Loving”: family dynamics, a familiar Southern setting, the use of Michael Shannon (in a supporting role) and the now double-dipping actor Joel Edgerton as Richard Loving. Nichols saw a relevant, real-world parallel as the story of “Loving” will be crucial to both the racial issues our country is currently facing, but also “the social importance … with the debate of gay marriage.”

“They both feel like my movies, but they are very different,” Nichols said. “They are kind of experiments. You drop them out in the world and kind of see what happens. And ‘Midnight Special’ is definitely that way. It’ll be interesting to see these two out in the world.”

When asked on how it feels to have two films released in one year, Nichols had a giddy response. “I’m not going to lie to you, it makes me feel like a badass,” he said.

Surely, the simple comparisons of people’s films that Nichols’ style resembles the most will continue. Yet, with four features — and a fifth on its way — it’s safe to say Nichols is on his way to cementing his own place in cinema history.

Levi Hill covers film. Contact him at [email protected].