“Midnight Special,” Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature film after the notable success of “Mud” (2012), hits theaters this weekend. Starring Michael Shannon and Jaeden Lieberher, the film showcases Nichols’ fine-tuned writing and directing skills. The story revolves around a father (Shannon) and his young son (Lieberher) on the run from authorities and a religious cult. The destination appears to be every bit as important as the reason they are running. This high intensity and unusually thrilling film keeps you guessing and attempting to put together the pieces of the puzzle. The picture isn’t truly clear until the very end—and what an end it is!
I had the opportunity to sit down with Nichols to discuss the story’s genesis as well as the process of making “Midnight Special.” With a gravely voice, Nichols admitted to being exhausted after a full week of talking with press. However, his expression and words relayed that he was equally as thrilled that people wanted to discuss this film. Car chases, car choices, religion, and parenthood all find their way into this newest adventure for Nichols.
The story itself is heavily visual with little conversation. But every spoken word is of the utmost importance. Nichols expressed that he is evolving as a minimalist storyteller and “Midnight Special” is “…designed to be the ultimate part of the evolution.” He described it as a “reduction in narrative exposition” and enjoys the outcome of this style. However, he also admitted that he took it to an extreme in this film. In an attempt to explain how this writing style works, Nichols said, “I try to treat dialogue just like behavior. You don’t always say what you mean…and you certainly don’t always speak your subtext. I just try and be real honest about the situations I put my characters in.”
Endings are also generally something important to writers, but Nichols finds endings to be tricky. He related that most screenwriters have an idea of how the plot will resolve itself, but he doesn’t think of endings that way. “I think about them as developments out of character; character feelings, character emotions. I think that’s why sometimes my endings are off-putting for people because I don’t really care about wrapping up the plot.” He continued to explain that this Spielberg inspired film is about “reaching this kind of emotional climax for the characters” and that he wants to have that same kind of wonder and awe that unfolds before you.
Wonder and awe are also an influence in the plot of this film in a very personal way for Nichols. Unfortunately, he experienced a very traumatic event which gave way to the creation of the second level of this chase movie; it’s the heart and soul of the film. During this time period, his 8 month old son had a very high fever which lead to what is called a febrile seizure. Thankfully, now at the age of 5, his son is healthy and doing fine. But at the time, Nichols shared, “It was a really terrifying experience for my wife and I.” As many of us know, being a parent is very overwhelming during that first year and Nichols expressed that he and his wife “…were kind of under water. You’re exhausted. Your social life has disappeared. Your whole life changes. My wife and I refer to that first year as The Darkness.”
As he witnessed the terrifying event of a seizure of his helpless infant, Nichols realized that “this boy could be taken away from me at any time” which would cripple him as a human, he said with gravity in his voice. He also came to the realization that he really has little to no control over whether this being lives, dies, grows into a great person or a bad person. “I can only effect these things in the margin,” he said. He began to question why he was a parent and what his role is in his son’s life. Nichols came to the conclusion that, “As a parent, I must be here in order to try and understand who my son is, what he needs, and as he grows, redefine that…and help him realize his potential.” In addition, Nichols’ intuitive nature and ability to question the deeper meaning of life allowed him to see that he cannot project himself onto his son. This experience and all of these momentous realizations “became the trajectory for Mike Shannon’s character.” To say it is complex, is an understatement.
Fatherhood is just one of the many multi-layered storylines of “Midnight Special.” In addition, religion on various levels enters into the plot as we see the faith that Alton’s (Lieberher) parents have in him as well as The Ranch from which Alton has escaped. Nichols conveys his personal thoughts about religion as he feels “it can become dangerous when you build a belief system for yourself and you start to impose it on other people. That’s when religion can become evil.” He emphasizes that The Ranch has very selfish reasons for believing in this boy which compounds the complexity of the situation. With each character representing different viewpoints about religion, every viewer will find him/herself relating to the questions at hand.
Alton is the focal point of the film and working with young children can be intimidating for filmmakers, but not in this case. Nichols was “immediately struck by [Jaeden’s] intelligence. He continued in a fatherly and proud tone that Jaeden was so honest and pragmatic in his approach that he was able to be keenly and innately aware of what was needed in each scene. Nichols compared this ability and style to Shannon. With no rehearsals and very little conversation about the backstory of his character, Shannon also had that innate understanding of what Nichols needed. He says, “I think that’s why we suit each other. We see eye to eye on things.”
Seeing eye to eye doesn’t always happen in a marriage and Nichols admits that he wrote a chase film so that he could be rid of his wife’s car to which she held sentimental value. Nichols, who is bored by car chases and wanted a different approach to this type of film made a deal with his wife. He hated her Isuzu Rodeo which is the first car she ever bought. “I told her that if I write a movie that destroys that car, will you let me destroy it? And she said yes!” As luck would have it, however, with the damage of a hail storm to the Isuzu, the dings couldn’t be replicated on the other 9 vehicles used in the movie so as we wives all know, we always win. The Isuzu is still in the family’s possession although it parked at his in-laws’ house now.
“Midnight Special” is truly just that—it’s special. And knowing some of the backstory about this film brings it to another level of appreciation. Nichols has created one of his most extraordinary and thrilling films to date. As I was leaving the interview, I promised that I would ask him about the Isuzu after the release of his next film, “Loving.” His response was a chuckle conveying he wasn’t going to hold his breath on that one.