Director Jeff Nichols faces his biggest obstacle yet this upcoming weekend: the general public. Reviews for his fourth feature film have been largely favorable so far, with a very warm SXSW debut reception, but Midnight Special launches the Arkansas filmmaker into the spotlight in a big way. With a considerable marketing push behind it and general critical support (the film is “certified fresh” at a lofty 86% on Rotten Tomatoes as of writing this), the cards look good for Nichols’ biggest picture yet.
I sat down with the Take Shelter director to discuss his working relationship with Michael Shannon, getting the most bang for his buck when using special effects, his hit list for creating tension, good writing v. bad writing, the common threads of his filmography and personal nature of his films, his next film Loving, and making Midnight Special “like an independent film.”
Let’s talk about your relationship with Michael Shannon, this is your fourth film together, and you’ve already done a fifth film with him. You’ve worked with him every time in various capacities. Here, he’s back in the leading man position. Can you talk about the evolution of your guy’s collaboration together and how that’s changed through the years? When you write a new movie, do you always have a part with him in mind?
JN: For Loving, the film that’s coming out next, it’s based on real people, so no. But it was kind of one of those things where you’re writing this thing and go, “Yeah, Mike could probably play that.” You know? So, that one is a special scenario. With Midnight Special, I obviously wrote it for him. Shotgun Stories I wrote for him. Take Shelter, I really didn’t write with him in mind but it was very obvious that he was the one that needed to play that part.
JN: Our relationship really– the details haven’t changed that much. Obviously, we’ve become slightly more comfortable with each other. I think we understand how each other works so that takes some of the pressure off the situation. You know, there’s a shorthand, I suppose, in that I don’t need to prove myself to Mike in terms of I know what I’m doing, and he doesn’t need to show anything to me, you know? Not that he ever did. So, really, the process hasn’t changed that much. We kind of set the rules, the working rules, I feel like during Shotgun Stories and just kinda stuck to those. But at the same time, he’s a pretty hands-off kind of actor. You give him the material, he reads it, you ask him if he has any questions and he doesn’t. Then you show up to set and I never see him with a script in his hand and he knows the thing backward and we start doing it.
I think, yeah, as we’ve grown together through these films, I’ve got more money, I’ve got more time. I’ve been able to be more exact in the terms of the way I cover these scenes. We just have time to do more shots, which is something I’ve always wanted, you know, as we visualize these things. Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories were so stoic in their coverage of these scenes that I think that’s helped too. I remember Mike used to get very intense about a specific shot, and he’d come up to me after a shot day: “What did you see?” And I would have to explain to him this is what I think you were doing, this is kind of what I got out of it. He’d go, “Okay, let’s do it again.” I think it’s because he knew that I wasn’t covering that scene, we didn’t have time to cover it nine different ways so there was really no edit for the entirety of the performance now.
That puts a lot of pressure on actors like Mike and Jessica. I think that tension has evolved, and has lessened, simply because one, there’s more confidence in the fact that I’m going to tell him when I don’t like something. It’s difficult with Mike because every take you really enjoy, so it’s hard to go up and say, “I didn’t write that!” You know? It’s hard to give him feedback when you’re like, “That’s pretty good.”
Yeah. “You’re a phenomenal actor but…”
JN: Let’s do it again, because you’re going to do it a little different. Because you’re good. We’ll do it four or five times, and maybe we’ll move on ‘cause that’s cool. Now that we’ve advanced, I think the scenes have become more complex because I have the time to make them more complex. That gives them more edits, and takes some of the pressure off them too.
So, in speaking of this idea of escalation in your career, every time you’ve made a movie, your budget has pretty much doubled. That brings us to Midnight Special where the reported budget is 18 million dollars– which for you is a lot more than you worked on with Mud, which was around 10, and Take Shelter, which was around 5.
JN: Take Shelter was eight hundred thousand dollars.
Take Shelter was eight hundred thousand dollars? Wow. Box Office Mojo has it recorded as 5 million.
JN: Yeah, incorrect. Common misconception.
That’s pretty far off. So, obviously you’re getting a lot more money to work with. On this one, 18 million for a quasi-sci fi blockbuster of this nature is still not a lot of money though.
Can you talk about the special effects and how you stretched that dollar out as much as you did?
JN: Well, you know, I worked with Hydraulx, which is the same company that did the effects on Take Shelter, so we had a working relationship together. The Strause Brothers are in my company and they are super great, smart guys. Honestly, we built this budget very much like an independent film. Had Warner Bros. not said yes, in fact, that was how we were going out to the marketplace to make it. In fact, I remember when we were talking to Warner Bros., who would usually go out and make those deals with effects companies and other things, we were like, “Let us make those. Let us make the actor deals. Let us do everything.” Because the studio gave us, you know, a lot of rope and freedom, creative freedom, in the reproduction process, but it was kind of, “If you get it in this number.” And when Warner Bros. goes to negotiate, people have a different number in mind.
JN: So, we had to be very honest and open with everyone, and say, “Yes, we’ve got distribution at Warner Bros. and that’s really great, but this isn’t– it’s not a blank check.” And, so, Hydraulx was really great at understanding that because they’ve worked with Warner Bros. on other stuff, you know, they do giant movies. So, they understand the mentality of like, “No, we’re going to pay you until you get this effect right.”
JN: There’s a difference between that and saying no. Here’s this flat fee. That encompasses– you know, they did a budget and they told us, “This is the fee we can do this for. This is how we’re going to make it work. We’ll do some of the work in Canada. We’ll do this. This is how we’re going to be economical with the work that’s on hand.” And so, that was very similar to the work we did on Take Shelter, even though Take Shelter— we just paid them such a ridiculous amount of money that they basically became equity partners.
That’s what it seems like.
JN: And so, the approach though was very much like every other movie we’ve made. It was my group of my people, my producers, Brian Kavanaugh-Jones and Sarah Green, my cinematographer, my production designer. We had 40 days, which on the one hand was great, but, you know, we had thirty-five on Mud, so not that far off and we had a lot to do. This was a very difficult shoot. It did not feel like, you know, luxurious trailers and other things. We made it like an independent film.
I love the structure of this film, and I think one of the ways you’ve described it is “reverse Russian nesting doll” in that it starts out very small with kind of an independent nature and then it blooms into this sci-fi epic. I loved the structure of that, but one of the things you’ve very adamant about throughout the film is not answering every question that has been raised throughout. You don’t descend to a lot of exposition and explanation. There’s like this grand mystery to the whole thing. Can you talk about why you think leaving questions is much more interesting than just going out and saying, “This is this,” and being very clear cut.
JN: I think when you don’t tell the audience, it activates their minds. You know, it turns them on to the experience. Now, not everyone wants that experience. Some people want to go to a film and have it wash over them, you know, and I understand that. There are a lot of movies I like to go to and have that experience as well. This is not one of those movies. So, you know, I think it is a way to engage the audience. I think it’s more interesting to raise questions than answer them. I mean, there are also some basic, fundamental filmmaking things like show the barrel, not the shark. Spielberg taught us that. Those just seem like foundational, you know, solid, foundational filmmaking principles. But for this film, I think it really starts to show itself in my writing style, you know? It is a style that I’ve been developing since Shotgun Stories, and it’s one in where I give far more credence to character behavior in scene than I do to plot, you know. I think it’s very easy as a writer to see your characters as chess pieces you move around on a board, and say, “Now, I need him to go here and do this, because my plot that I have in my mind that has nothing to do with that character, I need it to get there.” And I think that’s weak writing.
JN: And I think it’s up to me to build these situations for these characters and then watch how they behave. Sometimes you want a character to do something in a scene and they just won’t do it. You have to be really honest with yourself as a writer. Am I forcing the hand of this character or does this really feel like something they would do in the moment? Would they say anything right now or would they just want to run? Or would they just want to pack up and leave? Like what do they really need? I think that writing style is a big part of why there’s a lack of exposition. It’s not simply a calculation about mystery, although that’s a big part of it, but it’s also like– it’s just how they would behave.
So, that’s kind of one of the things that is defining about your filmography up this point, it always somewhat starts in immediate ways where there’s no, “Oh, we’re going to establish the characters.” They’re just right in it.
That’s especially evident in this where in the get go they’re in a hotel room, and they’re throwing their stuff in the car and racing off down the dark road. That scene is just extraordinary because right from the get go, you’re so invested, you’re so curious. You just build this momentum in that opening that’s sustained throughout. Can you talk about filming that scene in particular? Did you start out shooting that or was that somewhere in the middle?
JN: Our first day of filming was them exiting the hotel. Because of all of the constraints we talked about, you know, this film was all shot in different pieces. But it was connected so tightly and purposefully in the script, whether you like it or not, it was you know it was plotted that way. You know we connected our puzzle pieces across those 40 days and that’s how we got done. I think, you know, these things are supposed to represent life. Even things with supernatural elements and other things, they’re supposed to represent life. That helps the audience to suspend their disbelief and get drawn into the story if it accurately represents life and people. Life doesn’t begin, we’re not around for it really. We don’t turn on until we’re about four or five, you know? So, it makes sense that stories would begin in the middle and you have to do the homework, you have to do the work as a writer and story teller to make sure everything is built before. And that’s really fun. It’s really exciting. I love it when a character says something, one line and it hints to something in their past, it hints to their life. It’s not an expositional dialogue, it’s just how they would say it. And they don’t say, “Hello, brother,” you know? But the way they say hello is specific to a brother, you know? Like so the bad writing version is, “I’m so glad you’re my brother. Let’s get some breakfast.” But the good version is like insulting him right from the start or something, like something only brothers would do. Whatever that relationship is there’s something specific to that, and if you’re true to that, people are super savvy. They’ll pick up on that. Like oh that’s how you talk to a brother, that’s not your boyfriend.
Another theme that I’ve seen ripple through you filmography and your work is that of an intense interest in the family unit, and the breaking dynamics of family, and especially a paternal figure trying to keep everything together as it’s going to pieces. Can you talk about instances from your own life that have motivated you to tell these stories of dysfunctional families that aren’t dysfunctional in the way we’re used to seeing them in other films? Where there’s this impetus to come together and rise to the occasion?
JN: Yeah, it’s strange, you know. I came from a beautiful family, like idyllic. I really don’t have much family strife to draw from. That being said, it seems just really natural that if I’m going to write these characters and make them seem as real as possible, everybody’s family comes into establish who they are, what their worldview is. Like how do you build a character, a complete character, without addressing how they feel about their parents, if they believe in God? You’ve got to build a worldview for them. If I’m making movies about “normal people,” whatever that means, then at some point I have to come into contact with their families. Whether it’s their wives or their mothers or their brothers– sisters, husbands, fathers– those are the most important relationships in our lives. So, it makes sense to me that my stories, you know, lineup with familial bonds ‘cause it seems to be how life works. To get more specific about it, I mean, I really try and focus on my own life. How to find– kind of look at my emotions and my feelings and how I’m feeling about the world right now, you know? Take Shelter was very much this sense of dread. The world was falling apart and it almost did, more completely than we probably know, in 2008. And with this, it was very much my first year of fatherhood and it was like, “Alright, how do I feel about this relationship with my son? It’s not what I thought it would be.”
JN: So, what is it?
Do you think of your films as kind of time capsules of where you were emotionally and mentally in a certain time and place?
JN: It’s a great way to put it. Certainly stands true, yeah, for all of it. Mud is the kind of unique one, because Mud is the first one where I went back in time and thought about something I felt as I was a teenager and wrote that film from that. Everything else has been pretty immediate, you know. But yeah, these movies– you go back in the charts and they reflect where I was in life unquestionably.
That being the case, I’d say the metaphorical through line of Midnight Special is that of a father who is willing to do anything for his child but must come to the difficult realization that the best thing he can do for him is to let him go into the world. So, is that something you’ve taken from your own life?
JN: Yeah. Like it’s the natural cycle of things for our children to leave us. So, what’s my job in the meantime? That’s kind of what I’d take away from this. It’s like I can’t control whether they live or die. I can’t control who they become, so then why am I here before they leave? I think I’m here to understand who they are. I think I’m here to help them understand who they are, not to project my opinion about what I think they should be, what I hope they can be. But just to figure out what they need and help them realize that. So, when they do leave, and they will leave, they leave intact. They leave with a sense of themselves. Like that seems to make sense, that’s what parenting is. That’s all Mike and Kirsten are trying to do in this movie. It’s just understandable what he is, what he needs. Now, this is an extreme example, but sometimes that’s what parents need in order to have a realization.
Sure. Of course. It’s made so much more challenging I’d say that Alton is played by an 11 year old boy. That’s not typically the age we think of as the normative separation time. It’s even more challenging.
JN: And he’s written as age 8, so.
I’d be interesting in hearing a little bit about the pivot that you’ve taken in order to make your next film, Loving. Because this is your first time you’re taking a foray into telling a true story, or at least a Jeff Nichols’ adaptation of a true story. How much different has that been than writing “fiction” from your own experience?
JN: It took a little while to get warmed up to it. I was kind of creatively paralyzed for the first couple months, and just kind of doing as much research as I could. There wasn’t much research to be found beyond the things that existed in this one documentary. But I just watched that stuff over and over again, and at some point, I just had to take ownership of these characters, which felt really, really strange. But what I tried to do was just understand the essence of who they were. Because I think there was a very strong heart at the center of that story. That was emotional for me, but I didn’t understand. So, like the thing that I talk about– the emotional connection to my life– that I felt very severely, that got to me every time. In fact, I watched it a couple of weeks ago and it just floors me at the end of it. So, I had the emotional part. Now, I just had to make sure I got the details right.
Usually, I’m comfortable with the details because they’re right there in front of me and I’m a pretty good, you know, I’m pretty good at observing life and its state in front of me and being honest about that on the page. Since this was a period piece, that’s what gave me trouble. I wasn’t alive in the 60s, so again, that’s where the research came in. But the emotional core, I love it, it’s very identifiable not just to my life but to anybody’s. Like once you see it, you’ll understand. And then the style in which I wrote, that comes through I think. I think it feels like that in the movies.
As we discussed, your films kind of sum up where you as a filmmaker and father and family member are in your life. So, how does Loving contribute to that?
JN: That’s a good question. It’s a topic that I was just… I was kind of pissed off. I was just pissed off. When I was growing up, a buddy of mine was gay and I was the best man at his wedding. His husband was from Texas, and they couldn’t get married in Texas. I don’t think they wanted to get married in Texas, but it just kind of pissed me off, you know? This movie isn’t a movie simply about marriage equality, but it seemed like in these discussions that are very severe political discussions, very severe social discussions that we’re having about race–
Especially right now in the election cycle. As crazy as it is.
JN: It’s huge. It’s insane. I think people when they talk politically they get into a different type of language, they get into a different mode. They take their political stance, they go into their corners and they get ready to fight. What the Loving story offered in my mind was a completely apolitical approach to a completely political story. These people did not want to be political martyrs; they didn’t want to be symbols for the Civil Rights movement.
Right. They just want to be married.
JN: They just wanted to be left alone. And people wouldn’t leave them alone, and that pissed me off. I think we need to talk about that right now, and I think we need to see that example right now.
JN: So, no, I was allowed to marry my wife, you know? Our life is great. So, the one-to-one correlation is not there. But as a citizen, I was angry and I saw in the Loving an antidote to that. And maybe if there was an antidote for my anger, there’d be one for others too. That’s worth making a movie about.