By Iain Blair
The acclaimed indie auteur Jeff Nichols made his debut in 2007 with Shotgun Stories, a revenge tale full of menace and foreboding. He followed that up with 2011’s Take Shelter, another dark tale that danced around themes of love, madness and the apocalypse. Then came 2012’s Mud, a coming-of-age story starring Matthew McConaughey as a fugitive.
Now, after those three ultra-low-budget films, the writer/director has upped the ante with an ambitious new film, the smart sci-fi thriller Midnight Special. A provocative film, as supernatural as it is intimately human, it follows a father, Roy (Michael Shannon), who goes on the run to protect his young son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy with mysterious powers (cue the VFX!) that even Roy himself cannot comprehend. And what starts as a race from religious extremists and local law enforcement quickly escalates to a nationwide manhunt involving the highest levels of the federal government.
I recently spoke with Nichols about making the film.
What kind of film did you have in mind when you started out?
A sci-fi chase movie, but I knew going in that that would only get me so far, and that at some point this ridiculous concept — and we’ve all seen that construct before — would have to attach itself to my life in a very personal way in order to make it through the whole process. That’s when my sci-fi chase movie became a metaphor for my relationship with my son.
So, it’s fair to say that the themes of family and light and darkness are central to the film?
How hard is it for you to decide how much to give away and how much to leave ambiguous and unspoken in a film like this?
It’s easy and quite natural for me. This is my fourth film and I started to make aesthetic rules for myself — for better or worse — as a writer and that took care of a lot of stuff about ambiguity. A lot of it’s pragmatism in writing. Dialogue reveals character, and these people don’t talk about certain things because that would just sound stupid. So a lot is left unsaid. These people behave this way and speak this way because of who they are. So part of it is that and part of it is the mechanics.
That can be painful in that I would have written these tremendous back stories for these characters, and sometimes you desperately want audiences to know about all that stuff, because it will help them understand the characters better. But I still had that nagging rule — I can’t let them talk and explain things they already know, and make the actors say lines that they know aren’t organic to their behavior at that moment.
The film was shot by your usual cinematographer Adam Stone, who shot Mud and Take Shelter. What did he bring to the mix?
We shot on film and talked a lot about using natural light. Since we shot a lot at night, the use of light was crucial. In Mud I was trying to get over my fear of moving the camera; I overcame it, but I hadn’t come to grips with my fears about light and the fact that film just falls apart in very low light. So we knew we would have to use lights and make them mimic real light. We had to really think hard about light sources in each scene, and Adam did an amazing job. He has this incredible natural eye, and I rely completely on him and his skill. If you gave me a camera and a film magazine, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.
Do you like the post process?
I do, a lot, but this was a very grueling post. But it’s fun as the whole thing starts to come together, and the plan you came up with by yourself in a room at the script stage starts to pay off —especially if you’re given the time and budget on set to execute that plan.
Where did you post?
I always do all my offline editing at home in Austin, in my home office, and then we moved here to LA to finish post on the Warner lot. That’s where it began to get quite arduous. There was a lot of testing while we were still in offline mode, and I was ready to be in online edit mode and start locking the film. But it wasn’t quite ready, and now all these comments and questions began coming in from test screenings, and we had to address any negative reactions.
You edited the film with Julie Monroe, who cut Mud and who has cut a lot of films for Oliver Stone, including Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. Tell us about that relationship and how it worked.
She wasn’t on the set. She got the dailies and I just left her alone. That’s not my cut; it’s hers, and it’s the only time it really is just hers. So she plays around with the footage and she may call and say, ‘I’m a little worried about this scene and how you’re going to put it together. I think you need another shot here. I’ll either agree or tell her it’s covered the way I’m going to do it.
I’m very specific in my script and then in the way I direct each scene and shot. Cutting this was a little tricky, because it’s hard to cut scenes that are incomplete and you’re still waiting for all the effects shots – and it wasn’t just the missing VFX but all the sound effects and music, especially in this film. It’s hard to imagine what they’ll all sound like and how big it will sound by the end of post. So all of that made the online difficult; how do you pick the timing of a shot when only 20 percent of it exists? Luckily, we didn’t have too many scenes like that.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film? The classic car sounds are amazing.
Sound is so important, and I’ve been very fortunate to work with Will Files, the supervising sound editor, who began at Skywalker. We went to college together, and he’s a phenomenon. He really understands my aesthetic. He knows what sounds real and what doesn’t, even in a sci-fi movie. And he knows that I never want sound to be dishonest. For me, it’s easy to make something “too hot” in the mix, but he never does that… and stuff like the car sounds are just right.
This is not a VFX-driven piece, but the VFX play a big role — Alton’s eyes, the spectacular meteor shower and the entire sequence at the end is crucial. Can you talk about that?
Hydraulx did all of them, and the big thing for me was, “How do we make all the VFX tactile?” I really pushed them on that, and we worked hard to blend them seamlessly with the in-camera stuff. For the scenes where Alton’s eyes activate, we probably did 80 percent of it in-camera by using these light goggles we built with very bright LEDs that interacted with the camera lens and gave us these natural flares. We were then able to edit the lens flares and the VFX in realtime. I wanted all the VFX to be very realistic, and Hydraulx was very good at working through the physics involved. They weren’t just a vendor, they were a creative partner.
How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?
It was very important, and we did it at Efilm with colorist Mitch Paulson (working on Lustre), who really understood the look I wanted. It’s a sci-fi film, but I wanted it to look as natural and real as possible, and he got that look perfectly.
Loving, a drama about an interracial couple set in the ‘50s. It comes out at the end of the year; Julie Monroe also cut that one. I would love to have a bigger paintbrush and do a big studio movie, but I’m also quite an idealist, and I like making my films the way I want to. It would be really hard to step away from that way of working.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.