Interview: Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols has built the beginnings of a potentially fantastic career over the past decade blending genre elements with deep-rooted character work and subtle social commentary. When CineVue sat down with him to discuss his new science fiction thriller, Midnight Special, it seemed natural to ask whether his films begin with notions of character, message or genre. “I guess the genre comes first because an image usually comes first, y’know?” Relaxed in a flannel shirt and jeans, the Arkansan native seems perfectly at home in discussion of his films and his process, always thoughtful and generous.

“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’s a scene in The Hurt Locker when he’s starting to find a signature in the bombs that he’s dismantling. Now, in the Hollywood version of that, he starts a search for the bomb-maker and he drops him off a building and the Middle East is solved, y’know? Of course, that would be ridiculous. She went the other way with it and I remember thinking ‘Okay, that’s a good model. Let’s do that.'” Nichols concedes that he was not the only other filmmaker to crack that particular code and that the idea of elevated genre was widespread – but it directly informed his decision-making when it came time for his sophomore feature. “I remember specifically with Take Shelter thinking ‘the first line of defence for this is going to be Sundance and those programmers that did not accept Shotgun Stories. Well let’s make a genre film, let’s make a psychological thriller but let’s make it more art house than genre. More personal, slower, more methodical.'”

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.”

Hearing Nichols speak about these acutely distressing sentiments makes it very easy to see how he manages to convey such poignant relationships and emotional drama in his cinema; his empathy and compassion radiate. With Midnight Special being his first studio film, though, was there ever a concern that his handle on the personal, grounded side of the film might slip away from his control? “No, but that’s about the approach, y’know? I walked in the front door with a script. I wasn’t asking for notes. I wasn’t asking for a development process which is what – bless their hearts – a lot of people have to go through. They have this idea and then the studio starts chipping away at it and then some guy who’s an executive wants it to be his movie and says ‘well, but this is how I feel about fatherhood’. It’s like ‘I don’t really give it shit how you feel about fatherhood because you’re not the one making this movie.’ So I fortunately didn’t have to go through that process. Fortunately, [Warner Brothers] were amazing and they understood what I was trying to do from the get-go and they just supported it.”

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