Writer/director Jeff Nichols' priorities, on the surface, are no mystery. The Take Shelter director is interested in the American South, the inner lives of children, a murky sense of mysticism, Michael Shannon. He's not particularly interested in spelling things out for an audience, a tendency that has arguably been one of his virtues as a storyteller. But with Midnight Special, his first film since 2012's Mud, he's jumping right into the colorful realm of '80s-style sci-fi adventure. The film follows Alton, a young boy with unexplained powers, and his family who fight to protect him from the FBI and a cultish religious group, both of whom seek to gain or control his abilities. The premise feels familiar, but Nichols' elliptical style remains fully intact. The result is a film that is as engaging as it is mystifying, a lyrical, impressionistic take on a genre with the emotions left in HD.
Anytime a comparatively low budget genre film comes up on the radar, the film world braces itself for a fresh auteur to be crowned prince of the next multimillion dollar franchise film — at one point, Nichols himself had been in talks to director DC's Aquaman. But he eventually backed out, unable to reconcile his highly personal vision with Warner Bros.' Now on his fourth feature, Nichols is more confident, and less amenable to the wills of a studio. Midnight Special was in post-production so long that he had time to make a whole other feature film: Loving, due later this year, is based on the story of Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple sentenced to prison in 1967. But there's a lot riding on Midnight Special, which is as deliberate a swing for mainstream appeal as Nichols has attempted thus far. The film premiered last night at SXSW; I spoke to the Arkansas native in New York last week.
Emily Yoshida: There's been a bit of talk around this film being your bid to be the next big budget franchise director.
Jeff Nichols: I didn't say it.
But can you see your version of that film? Did making Midnight Special make it easier to see it?
I can absolutely see my version of that film. I just don't know if anyone else can. I've been just successful enough to not be given that big shot too soon. I think had I come out of Shotgun Stories, or maybe if i'd come out of Take Shelter and been given this massive opportunity I would have taken it and I would have given up a lot of control and a lot of connections, my personal connection to the films.
I've now made four — five, with [Loving] — really personal films, and I've been really able to control the process and learn the process, and I'm confident in that process now. And so I don't see myself giving up that comfort anytime soon. And if the stars align and that level of project can be made with that much confidence ... it's got to be the right movie and it's gotta mean something to me. Otherwise, I'm just a director for hire, and there are probably much better directors for hire out there. If you want someone to show up and execute your script for you, seriously, there are a lot of great people out there. Don't call me.
"These are people who I hope to carry with me for my entire professional career."
You now have such an established aesthetic, and really strong themes you are clearly personally interested in. That probably makes it a little harder to be a plug-and-play director.
Yeah, it's going to have to be something I'm [already] thinking about. The good news is I think about a lot of things, so anything is possible. I think the way you make a movie dictates the movie that you make. And it's interesting that when I go through press days and stuff like this, so much [of what I get asked about is] my thought process when I was writing, and how it relates to the final product. But there is this large swath of the movie making process that is about me and my friend Adam Stone — he's my cinematographer on all five films — and the actors that I like to work with and the team of people that I've slowly cobbled together with my producers, Sarah Green and Brian Kavanaugh-Jones. These are my family, and they're the ones that allow me to make movies like this. So it's not just me, and you've got to make sure if you are moving forward into a bigger project that that whole team gets to come.
So I take it you're not out to build a brand as some kind of idiosyncratic indie auteur.
Anyone who knows anything about making movies knows that that's not how it works. I've had Chad Keith as my production designer from Take Shelter, and he did Midnight Special and he just did Loving, and he influences so many things about the way we make films. Adam Stone has [shot] all my films, and now I have Erin Binnick, who is my costume designer on Midnight Special. These are people who I hope to carry with me for my entire professional career. You can't underestimate the impact they have when you [ask their opinion] on set, and they're like, "let me think about that," and they give an honest answer, because they've been with you forever, so they aren't trembling in their boots because "Jeff Nichols The Auteur" is about to squirt out an amazing idea. They get it. I'm just Jeff and we're just trying to make something honest.
Working with a tight-knit group like that, how does it play out when you steer into new, uncharted territory? I don't want to spoil the ending for readers, but I will say there is a massive aesthetic shift near the end.
So, the end of it feels very similar to the end of Take Shelter for me, in terms of its exponential growth from the beginning of the film. I compare it to those Russian dolls that you open and they get smaller and smaller and smaller — it's that in reverse. We start with the small one and it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. And Take Shelter felt like that to me. I'm really proud of it. I was trying to do that, it's not a mistake. But also, it doesn't feel like a big departure.
But also it's really strange when you organically develop these movies from scratch. That's just always the way it was supposed to end. Sometimes I think I must look a little stunted or something when people talk to me about changes [to the script] and I just twist my head like: "What? No, that's the way it's supposed to go, because I built it from the ground."
Also, maybe a smarter way to answer your question is, I don't really care about plot very much. I think plot is very overrated. Plot is obviously necessary, but what I really care about is emotionally affecting the audience. Having a thought myself and then an emotional experience myself, somehow transferring that to the audience. And that's what the ending's about. The ending's about this experience, and sharing this experience in a giant room full of people. That's amazing. The specifics of what happens at the end of the movie, I leave that open to interpretation. I just want to make sure everyone is experiencing the same thing. That's certainly what I wanted to do with Take Shelter.
There is a very experiential aspect of watching your films for the first time, if for no other reason than you literally have no idea what to expect, moment to moment.
That's a great compliment. Because it's funny because I'm such a linear thinker. You know, I think part of it is, I don't think I'm a classically trained screenwriter. I think I picked up that Robert McKee book, and I couldn't get through the first five pages. I remember being in a screenwriting class and they were teaching three-act structure, which you know, there is a reason it exists, but I just felt like ... why do I want to do what everyone else is doing? I'm not trying to build a system here. I'm not trying to build a conveyor belt that spits out these things that we're used to. I understand the comfort of convention. Archetypes are there for a reason. As human beings, they help us communicate more quickly with each other, and they help us build on our collective knowledge. I don't dispose of that. But at the same time, the way I build stories, a scene comes to me not because it's going to do XYZ to the plot but because it's going to show this side of a character. And I guess when you write that way things come out kind of strange. I don't know. It's just the way that I write.
A while ago I talked with a social psychologist about spoilers — he had done a study, that seemed to indicate that people actually enjoy things more when the know what's coming. And I know from personal experience that I enjoy watching my favorite movies for the thousandth time, even when I know every beat. But the degree to which it's fun to watch something that doesn't adhere to any traditional structure, and try to puzzle it together as you go along — that is also extremely fun and engaging.
I remember I gave another filmmaker, a really nice guy and a really talented guy, I gave him a script for Take Shelter, and I was expecting him to love it. And he called me and said "I don't know Nichols, I think you have a problem". I said, "what's the problem?" And he said, "you know, fifteen or twenty pages in, you should know what kind of movie you're in. I don't know what the hell kind of movie you're making." And I remember at the time being struck by that, and thinking "oh, you're right." And then I thought about it a little bit more and thought, that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life. It's the opposite of what we want to do. And that's the problem with most four quadrant films. It's like, "OK, now we are going to have the chase sequence. And now we're going to have this set piece. And I just — my brain shuts off. Because we've seen it so many times.
I was watching one of the [more recent] Bourne films and was like, all right, now is when they are going to chase him. And that sucks, because in the first one, I really loved that car chase, when they were in the Mini, and he was pulling the E-brake, and doing all this crazy stuff. I remember thinking, wow, that's a really good car chase, because I'm not exactly sure where they are going with this thing. Set pieces kind of drive me crazy.
You've cited Close Encounters and Starman as influences, and some of those setpieces have been kind of reinterpreted and recontextualized here. What about those elements was interesting to you?
Well, there are a lot of aesthetic parallels and we can talk about those all day long, because I'm into them, obviously. But really it was about the way those movies felt to me when I was growing up. I'm a kid of the '80s, so going to the movies meant going to see a Spielberg film. And before I understood the mechanics, I understood how they made me feel, and I wanted to make a movie that felt like that, I wanted to make a movie that was mysterious and strange that then developed into this sense of awe. The problem is, you take all those original inspirations and you realize, you have to make them your own, you have to subvert them. You have to actually kill the thing you love. I did it in Shotgun Stories, and I did it here.
I'll use [a scene from] Midnight Special as the example. They get in the car, the chase scene is about to start, and then they just hit traffic. And it's the dumbest chase scene ever. The most anticlimactic thing in the world, but because of the situation you understand how powerless [Michael Shannon's character Roy] is. Then all of the sudden it's not about "how well can Nichols direct a chase sequence?" It's about all of this tension that Mike Shannon has behind the steering wheel — he can't do anything, he's powerless. To me, it's a much more intense thing to watch than a well executed chase scene.
You mention being a child of the '80s. So many of the big blockbusters coming out then were very much told through the eyes of kids, which is certainly something you've dabbled in. The thing that strikes me in your films with child protagonists is that the adult world is completely defined; it exists on a continuous plane alongside the kids'. Was that a principled decision, or a way to differentiate from your inspiration?
I think it has to be. Because I'm making these films for myself. And from my own point of view. It's weird, I never think about ratings. Oddly enough, they give them R's. Mud was PG-13, but we had to fight for that. And [Midnight Special] was going to be R, and we had to fight for it to be PG-13. In fact we took out a couple of edits around the gun fight scenes [to make it PG-13] and it really was upsetting, because they were perfectly edited. Like, you really felt it.
"I actually care about these fictitious people."
I think it's all about point of view. My point of view as a writer, but also the characters' point of view. What Mike Shannon experiences, and Kirsten Dunst's character as well, is kind of the cornerstone, the emotional heart of the film, so obviously you have to build adult characters that are relatable. They have to feel honest. You don't have to be from a religious ranch to understand how they are feeling about their kid, you know. I don't know, I never think about them as kids films or adult films, I just try and make them as honest as possible, and that's kind of been how they turn out.
That's another kind of disarming factor — as an adult, it feels unusual to watch a PG-13 film outside the context of a big franchise film.
I know, that's how we wanted it. That wasn't a studio mandate. That was something we wanted. I definitely thought that for months. Yeah, I want fourteen year old kids to go and see [Mud], because that's what it's about. So they say "shit" and talk about boobs a lot, because they are fourteen year old boys. My characters aren't chess pieces. I don't move them around some big board, I actually care about these fictitious people.