As far as first films go, Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud are not a bad way to start. Writer/director Jeff Nichols has returned with Midnight Special: a tense, Amblin-inspired yarn that sees casting mainstay Michael Shannon joined by Nichols newbies Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton and Adam Driver. We sat down with the Palme d’Or-nominated director for the Empire Podcast and talked helicopters and car chases, the global domination of Adam Driver, and how to keep the super, well, natural.
In the way that Jaws isn’t about the shark, Midnight Special is about parenthood, not the supernatural. Is that a fair thing to say?
Oh it’s definitely true for this film. I’ve kind of always had this balance between genre and personal dramas. It almost feels like the two help each other. If I was just to make a genre film, maybe it would be hollow and soulless. If I was just to make a personal drama, maybe it would be melodramatic and nobody would ever go see it. Working in both at the same time kind of allows me to push both further in a strange way. It allows me to have fun with the genre elements and to have two guys in a car with night vision goggles on, which is kind of absurd because I know at some point you're going to get to know who those guys are and hopefully feel something very personal about them. There's something about that balance that helps make it possible.
It's just so easy to write for Michael Shannon because he's so good.
Trailers often force-feed too much information. 10 Cloverfield Lane and The Force Awakens avoided that trap recently and Midnight Special achieves the same. How much of a say do you get in the marketing?
I was absolutely involved. [Warner Bros. and eOne], more than on any other film I’ve done actually, wanted to know what I think and am I happy. I remember the first trailers they sent, they tried to explain the whole movie in two minutes and I called them and said, "guys I can't explain the movie in two hours, there's no way you guys can do it in two minutes!" I said, “I know you have to show something blowing up, something happening with the kid, I get that. So let’s make this rule: don’t show anything in sequence. So if these three shots coordinate and are all really cool shots that need to be in the trailer but are back-to-back in the film, let’s break them apart”. And then there was this very specific list of, “you can’t show these things”. They really listened to that. I was quite shocked! I was ready for them to tell me the same thing I got told on Mud which was, “you’re just a director, this is our job, let us market the film”. Which I found really offensive, to be honest, because I’d lived with that movie for 10 years. But they didn’t want to hear. Warner Bros. was quite the opposite.
Was there a moment where it really hit you that this was a bigger budget film?
When we were making this [my son] was about three and I was ready to become the coolest dad ever. I said, “Sam, look. Daddy’s going to make a helicopter land right there”. And sure enough, 10 seconds later, a helicopter fricking comes out of the sky and lands right where I say it’s going to land. And I look over and my son’s in the ditch playing with a crawdaddy that only had one claw and he was fascinated with that and couldn’t care less - and he had his hands over his ears because the helicopter was too loud. So that kind of backfired on me (laughs), but I was impressed! We were standing in the middle of this giant highway that we closed down and brought in all these humvees and guys in soldier uniforms, and I landed two helicopters right in the middle of the road and it was just like, “alright, I like this, this is big movie making”.
I think Adam Driver's going to become one of the important actors of my generation.
The trailer teases an amazing scene that takes place at a gas station. You balance a lot of realistic stunts and CG, so what was the biggest technical challenge?
The car chases were something I’d never really dealt with before. We really take car chases for granted I think these days, because they’re kind of perfunctory. When I watch them in movies usually I just kind of turn my brain off and you forget the amount of artistry that goes into making a car chase work. There are a lot of people involved in it and it’s a shame that this thing that is technically really awesome I just don’t really care about in movies. It almost seems like in some of the later Bourne films you can just see in the script, ‘and the chase happens here’. But it’s kind of superfluous to the whole movie - you don’t really need it. Not in the first Bourne film, that car chase is really good when he’s pulling the e-brake and all that stuff in the Mini. But that was a technical thing. And shooting at night. Shooting so much footage at night was difficult.
Talking of people you surround yourself with, is it impossible to write a script without thinking of Michael Shannon?
I wouldn't say it's impossible, but it's just so easy to write for Mike because he's so good. There's some pretty heavy lines in this movie that could be pretty darn cheesy. You write them and you're like, "ahhhhh I don't know if I can get away with that”, because I keep it pretty close to the vest in terms of cheesiness. I like to think so, some people disagree. But when you know that Mike Shannon's going to be the one delivering the line, you know it's going to be better. Like you know he's going to make it sound good, and he does. There's one scene in particular that I'm thinking of for this film (“I like worrying about you”, as seen in the trailer) that could have been a whole grilled cheese sandwich. But with Mike doing it, you're listening and you're affected by it. Mike just delivered it perfectly.
Did Adam Driver find out he’d won the role of Kylo Ren on his first day?
He didn't find out, but the trade announcements came out. So he already knew, but we were the morons, the lemmings running around going, "ohhh Star Wars that's amazing"! And he was kind of just like, "yeah, yeah, yeah, we're here to do this movie" (laughs). I think he's going to become one of the important actors of my generation. It's easy to say that with the Star Wars component, but I think there's going to be more than that. I think you're going to look back on his career and you're going to say, "wow, that guy was putting up some of the most important work of that decade, of those two decades, three decades". Hopefully he works for a very long time. I'm quite impressed with him as an actor.
Jaeden Lieberher has a massive weight to carry as Alton. Jessica Chastain helped you find Tye Sheridan for Mud after working with him on The Tree Of Life, but how did you find Jaeden?
We did a search very similar to the one we did in Mud [where] we had to search for Neckbone, and that was a big wide search. That movie would have fallen apart without that character and I thought Jacob (Lofland) nailed it. But what I learnt through that process is that you have to really understand a character trait. You really have to understand what it is about that character that makes them tick. And then you need to go try and find that in a kid, because they’re not going to be these shapeshifters like Joel Edgerton and Mike Shannon, they're going to have to embody that personality trait walking in the door.
And so we did another huge search through the southeastern part of the United States - and the funny thing was [Jaeden] was just sitting there all along. My casting director had already been talking about him, and I was reluctant because I don't like kids that have been in other films, partly because they sometimes get ruined by the process [and] start to really perform for you. They think they're doing a good job but really they're just tap dancing for you. But that wasn't the case with Jaeden, he walked in and I knew the personality trait that I was looking for was an ‘awareness’. An awareness to the situation that you're in, and he had that in spades. He seemed very wise beyond his years and he seemed very aware of what was happening around him, and I knew once I saw that that we could make the film work. I'm a big believer that kids kind of come out pre-programmed with their personalities and things. He just seems like somebody that stepped into the world kind of fully formed.
There’s often a fine line between force-feeding an audience and staying ambiguous. How hard was it to tread that line when writing this script?
Well the script is the leanest script I've ever written, so it was designed this way from the beginning. There was actually one instance in particular where Warner Bros. allowed us to go back and shoot an additional scene. but that's the only one that we really tweaked. It's a scene with Kirsten at the end of the film where she cuts a braid out of her hair. That was never in the script originally.
When you start to show these films to people, you have to judge their responses in a really specific way: it's kind of like reading tea leaves. People don't always ask for what they need, they ask for what they want, but just because somebody wants more information or less information that doesn't mean that that's the right answer and that I should go out and supply that for them. But in this particular case with this scene with Kirsten, it really was this kind of barrier between the end of the film. In my original version she just turns and walks into these woods and I was completely fine with that - I thought it was kind of elegant. But nobody else did (laughs), people just kept on saying, "where’d she go?".
Luckily I came up with an answer that didn't feel overly expository or anything like that, it felt like something that made sense within the film. But there are a lot of things that people asked for. That answer either never came or was never desired for me. And that's just a risk that you take. It's a style of filmmaking that I find interesting, and some people like it, some people don't.
You’ve cast Mary Jane Watson, Zod and Kylo Ren in this film, and Tye Sheridan is now an X-Man. Is this your superhero film in a way?
I don't know what my superhero film would be, but this isn't it. This is a movie about my son - the fact that the kid shoots laser beams out of his eyes isn't really of great concern to me. I designed this film to be a taut, very compact sci-fi chase film that feels out of the 80s, kind of like the original Terminator or something. This film that has big ideas in it but is kind of compacted by its resources almost, you know? I wanted it to feel like that. And that’s different than setting up to write a superhero film. If I wrote a superhero film it would be a lot different.
I haven't taken the gloves off yet. I took like one glove off.
Would you go bigger?
Yeah! I haven't taken the gloves off yet. I took like one glove off.
So would you ever direct someone else’s script or let another director take on something you have written?
I used to be more open to it, but the older I get and the more I do this, the less open I am. I've got a pretty good idea how I do things and it doesn't mean I make successful films or even good films, but I know how to make my films and that's hard to walk away from. But at some point the industry will probably force it, you know. These movies won't make money, these movies won't get as well reviewed. At some point it will be my time to get off the ferris wheel.
We’ll soon see you reteaming with Joel Edgerton for Loving. What can you tell us about that?
I'm very excited about it. I rarely say that movies are important: I dare say this is an important film. I think it's a film that people need to watch and need to think about. Especially in the US, but I think probably everywhere. It's a very, very honest love story in my opinion and it's worth people's attention.
Finally, and now a little more time has elapsed, can you tell us whether the end of Take Shelter was a vision or reality?
Midnight Special is released in UK cinemas on Friday April 8.