“In Shotgun Stories I was struck by the image of a guy spitting on a casket at a graveside service. In Take Shelter I was struck by the image of a man standing over an open storm shelter in his back yard.” “In Mud I had the boat in a tree and for [Midnight Special] I had these guys in this fast car moving down these southern backroads at night. I didn’t know why, I didn’t know what it was attached to, I was just struck by the image.” The title apparently followed swiftly not for its meaning or for the popular folk song in which it appears, but “it sounded cool and it kinda fit this tone and this feeling; kinda like a midnight drive-in film or something like that…like a sci-fi film from the 80s.” Although there have been distinct genre elements to his other work, even just the marketing for Midnight Special suggests it is far more explicitly targeting that particular angle. “This one wears its genre on its sleeve most of all,” Nichols explains, “and that was calculated”.
His 2007 debut Shotgun Stories “just kinda came out, y’know? It was this thing that came out of me and was this thing that I had to do before I turned 25.” After that, he realised that he needed to take a step back and really consider his next steps; making a movie is not enough, he concluded that he needed to say something with his cinema. “Around that time I went to go and see The Hurt Locker. Now I was a big fan of Point Break and when I walked out of The Hurt Locker I was like ‘Holy shit, [Kathryn Bigelow] just remade Point Break but as an art house film.'” What struck him most was how Bigelow and screenwriter Marl Boal had managed to dismantle the narrative to avoid the pitfalls of cheesy Hollywood fare.
There was similar consideration for Midnight Special, but on this occasion the decision was actively taken to shift the weight more towards genre than previously. “Keep it propulsive. Keep it moving. Blow some things up. Have a shootout. Have some crazy effects. Let’s weight this side of it, knowing that [the more personal side] is going to help anchor it. I’ve done this enough times now that I know that plot alone won’t get you there, you have to try and say something about your position in life, y’know, where you’re at with things. I was in my first year of fatherhood so very quickly that became that anchoring theme.”
Fatherhood and family have been recurrent themes in Nichols previous work and its their specific intimacy for him that alerts him to the fact that he’s on the right track. Midnight Special‘s central relationship is one between a devoted father (Michael Shannon) trying to protect and help his supernaturally gifted son (Jaeden Lieberher). “Once I realised this is a movie about having to give up your child, all these emotions struck me; compassion, love, fear. I mean, it makes me nauseous thinking about it. When I felt that I knew I was on to something because I had felt that before. I had felt that when a girl broke up with me in high school, and that became Mud. I felt that when I first got married and was terrified about whether or not I would be a good husband, and whether I could be a provider in a world where the environment was falling apart and the economy was falling apart in 2007. I felt that when I thought about one of my brothers being killed and there’s Shotgun Stories. And so, when I attached it to that severe of an emotion, then it just laid down.”
Nichols go-to actor Michael Shannon also proved a clear choice. Nichols had written the father role of Roy for him. “Roy is me,” says the director, “and so was Curtis in Take Shelter. I was Curtis and Mike was Curtis, so we’d already had that symbiotic kind of dance happen before.” The rest of the cast is rounded out by the likes of Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Sam Shepard, all of whom seem perfectly at ease with the minimal exposition and elevated mystery of Nichols script. “Sometimes I feel like you’re giving them a cool drink of water in the desert. A lot of times I find that I’m on set – and now I’m paraphrasing Mike when he’s asked this – and actors want to remove lines. They’re like ‘do I need to say all that? Can’t I just say this?’ So I just took care of the trouble for them and I only delivered them this and the funny thing is it was very rare for someone to come up to me and say they didn’t understand the context of a line or scene.”
Context also proves to be key to the social commentary in the film which tends to flow organically from the behaviours of his characters rather than being specifically inserted. “For instance, Sam Shepard’s character is questioned about guns and he’s like ‘well, they’re not illegal in this country yet’. People, especially in the US, uncomfortably laugh about that, because they know about that fight. You’re making a commentary with that line – addressing the fact that these are the people that love guns, people that have a reason to use them – but it also seems very appropriate because it’s also kind a jab that he takes, it’s kind of a smart-ass response.”
Shepard’s character is the head of The Ranch, a cult that Nichols agrees is his commentary on organised religion. “Y’know, I grew up Methodist and I went to church on Sundays and I think organised religion can do quite a lot good in this world. But I think we all have to build belief systems for ourselves and religion gives you one. The problem with that is when people start to believe in that so adamantly, that they start to push that onto other people, and that’s when organised religion can become evil, and that’s what it does in the film.”
Midnight Special is in UK cinemas on Friday 8 April. Read our review here.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson