Midnight Special, director Jeff Nichols' latest venture, arrives in theaters today. It tells the story of Alton, a boy with remarkable powers, who goes on the run with his father when both a government agency and a fanatic church group make the decision to track him down. It is a remarkable film, full of humanity and depth, and that's all a testament to Nichols, who is perhaps one of the most cerebral, perceptive directors working today. I recently interviewed him about the film, but the conversation, rather than sticking directly to the film itself, quickly moved to bigger ideas about human nature and belief.
Moviepilot: In some ways, Midnight Special feels like a spiritual successor to [previous film] Take Shelter in the sense that they both deal with having visions, but one is from the perspective of an adult and one is from the perspective of a child. Did you write Midnight Special as a companion piece to Take Shelter?
Jeff Nichols: I think you have to go back to the situation I was in during both of those and you have to talk about Mud as a counterpoint. Mud was a film that I’d been writing since college and it was definitely written from the point of view of me, but as a high school student, as a teenager getting my heart broken for the first time, you know? That was the emotional impetus for that film.
Both Take Shelter and Midnight Special were written in the moments that I was writing them. They were written about me and my point of view in the moments that they were happening. Take Shelter is very much a film written by a guy who had just gotten married, who was thinking about what makes marriage work. Will I be a good husband? Will I be a good father? Will I be a good provider? Because my wife had become pregnant and I was thinking about fatherhood in a theoretical sense; I didn’t have anything specific to attach it to. And it was also about 2008 when I was writing it and thinking about the environment collapsing, and the economy collapsing, and all of that happening right as I was starting to put my life together in my late ‘20s and become and adult. It felt like we were about to have another Great Depression, and that movie encapsulated that moment.
Very similarly, Midnight Special encapsulates me in my first year of fatherhood, where it’s no longer theoretical, but it’s still strange. My son is five now, and so I’d write a different version of this movie if I were to write it today. My relationship with him has evolved. I can talk to him and we can laugh and joke and there’s a different perspective. But I was trying to figure out and process these extreme emotions that were coming through as a father in my first year. In the same way that I was trying to figure out marriage for Take Shelter, I was really trying to figure out parenthood. I was just getting knocked by all these really intense feelings. I mean, you know, in your first year of parenthood, you’re basically a zombie anyway. You’re sleep-deprived and your social structure has totally just dissolved and changed. It’s like you’re forming and molting into a new person. And then you’ve got this thing, this little neurosystem developing in front of you and it makes you feel all these things.
And two things happened when I was writing this film and I talk about it a lot, but one of them is at eight months old, my son had a febrile seizure, which was extraordinarily scary and definitely highlighted the lack of control I had as a parent. I developed kind of this, at least for now, my philosophy on parenthood, which went into the trajectory of the film. But also, Sandy Hook happened, the shooting at Sandy Hook. So on a broader, more universal level, I felt the grief of parents everywhere about just how insecure our lives are when you have a child. How susceptible you are to complete and total devastation. Honestly, I couldn’t really put it into words.
That’s why I think this movie is definitely a cousin to Take Shelter. I don’t even know if it’s as effective as Take Shelter. I don’t know. I’m not saying that it’s not. I just know that for me, as a writer, I don’t feel like I could ever fully put my arms around the weight of emotion that I feel with the thing that was the inspiration for the film. But I tried, because that’s my job. It’s not my job to make blockbusters, it’s my job to try and transfer an emotion over to the audience that I’m feeling at the time. And that’s what I was trying to deal with. That’s the heart of it.
MP: It deals with the idea of parents learning to let go of their children but provided a bit of gender reversal. Usually, you see the mother fighting for the child and the father being a little more distant and this was the other way around with the mother being the one who brought up the idea that they might have to let him go and the father fighting to keep him.
JN: It made so much sense to me, not just in terms of mother father relationships, but in terms of these characters, specifically. But women are stronger. And I’m not just saying that to gain points with a female audience. Having watched my wife give birth, and having watched what women had to go through in the first couple of years of raising a child, their relationship to the process is just different than fathers. I just feel like they’re stronger. It made a lot of logical sense to me that the person who was directly, physically responsible for birthing this child into the world would be the one that could understand the necessity of letting that child go out of it.
In fact, it made sense to me that Michael Shannon’s character, his sole purpose, through the whole movie, is to get his son to this one place. That he would actually kind of be incapable of wrapping his head around the ultimate purpose of this [trip], because he’s so singularly-minded in what he’s trying to do. What I think is interesting is, he understands everything that’s supposed to be happening in these final moments: “We’re gonna get this boy here. The boy’s gonna go. I’m gonna let him go.” He knows the plan. And he still betrays himself. He still calls back after him. To me, that’s one of the most heartbreaking parts of the film, but it’s also this moment of transference from his hands to the mother’s hands.
It’s a very strange structure to take the father as the point-of-view character for a vast majority of the film and that’s the relationship we’re following, and then there’s a handoff at the back end of it. I thought, whatever’s narratively correct, let that be damned. This just felt like the way it would go.
MP: In this film, even the "bad" guys are sympathetic. How important was it to you to pull out the inherent humanity in everyone in the film, including the antagonists, and not just the main characters?
JN: Here’s the deal: I don’t believe in bad guys, but I do believe in evil. What I think is representative of these characters is that I tried to build each character with their very own belief system. Like these ranch members who have an organized system of belief – that’s what religion is. They have actually modified their system of belief, which began, at least in my mind, as a sort of LDS, Mormon offshoot kind of religion. When this boy was born into their midst, they started to bend and break that organized religion and wrap it around this boy.
I grew up Methodist and I didn’t really adhere to the religious dogma, but you know, I went to church on the weekends. I think religion can do quite good things in certain circumstances. But I think when you take a religious dogma and force it onto others, when you start to say, "I’ve got this figured out and now I’m going to tell you how it is, and you have to operate on these principles, possibly outside of your own moral compass,” that’s when religion becomes evil. That’s when it becomes really, really dangerous.
If you look at Doke’s character in the film, that man very clearly has a moral compass that is telling him right from wrong, but he allows that moral compass to be trumped by an organized system of belief, and that’s evil. Hence he gets tagged with the “bad guy” line.
If you go to the other characters, like Adam Driver’s character, I wanted Sevier to kind of be a spiritualist in the sense that he is a mathematician, he understands the order of the universe probably better than a lot of people do, but he is also smart enough to know the limitations of his own consciousness. That maybe, his knowing mind can’t do the math necessary to reach every answer, and he believes that there might be an answer beyond what math provides. And I think that’s a really beautiful concept, this guy that is so intelligent that he realizes his own limitations and is looking for more.
And If you look at Joel Edgerton’s character, I definitely cast him kind of as an agnostic. He doesn’t really believe in anything because he’s witnessed, through his line of work, that kids get killed, and car wrecks, and that there’s no real order to anything. “There’s no justice,” he’s saying, “I don’t care what you believe in; this stuff happens. Even though you’re sitting there telling me that you believe your son is meant for something, I don’t really care. Kids die every day. That just happens.” But despite that, he’s confronted with all these realities of [Alton’s power]. And that moves him.