If Terrence Malick ever made a science-fiction film for a major Hollywood studio, it might resemble Midnight Special, which is the latest effort from Jeff Nichols, the writer-director of such acclaimed movies as Mud and Take Shelter, films that have earned Nichols comparisons with the brilliant but reclusive Malick.
Although Nichols has described Midnight Special as a “sci-fi chase film” inspired by elements of such genre classics as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and John Carpenter’s Starman, genre is secondary to the director, who places his main emphasis on character and plot and was inspired to write Midnight Special – which tells the story of a father, played by Michael Shannon, who discovers that his eight-year-old son possesses special powers – by his own experiences as a father.
Before Christmas, we had the chance to talk to Nichols about Midnight Special, his genre influences and his inevitable progression to big studio filmmaking.
Check out what he had to say below and enjoy!
What genre influences did you bring to Midnight Special?
Jeff Nichols: Some of the aesthetic aspects and the structure was inspired by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, as well as by some of the science-fiction films I grew up watching in the 1980s, especially John Carpenter’s Starman. I love how Close Encounters and Starman are both cloaked in mystery, and I love how they leave you with questions at the end of the film, which is the approach I wanted to take with Midnight Special – to give the audience the answers to the questions they have at the start of the film but leave them with many more questions when they reach the end of the film.
What was it about Carpenter’s direction in Starman that influenced you when you made Midnight Special?
Jeff Nichols: I loved the use of blue colors and light in Starman, and I loved the music in that film. Midnight Special is, like Starman, a government chase film – in the government chase film genre – about a boy who has special powers and the government agents’ quest to find him. I also wanted this film to be very fast-paced, so the boy in the film can only move at night, which makes the story fast-paced and sets the story mostly at night.
What influenced the characters and the story?
Jeff Nichols: One of the influences, besides my love of genre films, was my son, who inspired me to write this story. He was about a year old at the time and was experiencing seizures, a very rare kind of seizures that only affect a tiny percentage of children. I didn’t know what was going on, like Roy in the film, and it was very frightening for me to go through this, as a father.
How would you describe the relationship between Roy and Alton, father and son, in the film?
Jeff Nichols: Roy and Alton live on a religious ranch in West Texas, which some might consider a cult – and has some elements of that – but isn’t really. The boy has special powers – his eyes emit blue light. Roy, like the audience, doesn’t know what to make of his son’s amazing abilities.
What is the source of Alton’s powers, what are his powers, and why does the government want him? So the film opens on this ranch, and it feels like this is going to be a very contained story, a small character drama. But then the story expands, and the world of Roy and Alton expands as they’re forced to flee their home and are chased by the government agents.
How would you describe the look of the film?
Jeff Nichols: I loved, in Starman, the use of anamorphic lenses, the creation of blue light, and Carpenter’s use of the widescreen format. We shot on film and relied on natural light whenever possible, like when Alton’s eye flare and emit the blue light, which we were going to film by using CGI but ended up creating the effect organically, rigging glasses with LED lights and placing them on contact lenses. I want all of my films to be grounded in reality, and I think Midnight Special is the most grounded film I’ve ever made, in spite of its genre.
You’re from Arkansas, and the South has played a pivotal role in all of your films. Why did you choose to film Midnight Special in Louisiana?
Jeff Nichols: Roy and Alton are chased from West Texas to the Florida Panhandle, so it made sense to film in New Orleans, Louisiana, which is right in between those two points and has lots of great back roads. Roy and Alton are going south in the film, at night, so we go through Louisiana.
This is your first studio film. What kind of transition was this for you?
Jeff Nichols: It’s a studio film, and it had the biggest budget I’ve ever worked with, but it’s not a big budget film by Hollywood standards, and it didn’t affect my approach. Although, I was able to do things I never could’ve done before, like use a helicopter, another staple of the government chase genre. The main goal I’m striving for with my films is to emotionally affect the audience, no matter what genre I’m working inside of, and that will never change.
That concludes our interview, but we’d like to thank Jeff very much for his time. Be sure to check out Midnight Special when it hits theatres this Friday!