Interview: 'Midnight Special' Director Jeff Nichols On Trusting The Audience

With his fourth feature film to date, Midnight Special, writer-director Jeff Nichols often asks audiences to connect the dots. The filmmaker behind Mud and Take Shelter isn't exactly making filmgoers work during his sci-fi drama, which stars Michael Shannon, but simply asking them to lean in, watch, and listen. The exposition is sparse, as is typically the case with Nichols' dramas, and according to the director, he wanted to experiment with Midnight Special in that regard.

Below, read our Jeff Nichols interview (mild spoilers follow).

You've made a $20 million movie about parenthood and faith. When you started writing Midnight Special, did faith naturally evolve out of the story or did you want to comment on belief systems?

Well, I outline these things really heavily before I start typing anything into a computer. That's kind of like the last step. I use notecards. I've got a big piece of corkboard up in my office. And I end up having a notecard for every single scene in the movie and every transition between scenes and everything else. What that allows you to do...I'm not genius. I have a very linear mind. What it allows me to do though is kind of make passes through the film before I've locked anything in, in words on the page. Words on the page can be very limited. When it's in this conceptual phase, even if it's just on notecards scene to scene, it's like, "Well, now I'm going to make a pass that's just about belief systems."

I remember I had a card that said 'systems of belief'. That was a separate card that was just kind of ideas that I wanted to fold into this film, and they aren't the main ideas. The main idea here is parenthood. What's it mean? What are we doing as parents? That's what the movie is about. But hopefully these movies are more than just a one note idea. And you start to kind of fold in all these other concepts.

I realized it on Mud, actually, that what you do as a good writer when you write a character is you build a belief system for them. We all have them. We are all developing them constantly as we grow and mature. A lot of people have a belief system that is strictly based on religious dogma. It's handed to them down from their parents or their church and they go, "OK. Well, I'm going to pick this side. I'm a Methodist and this is how I think the world operates. And I'm good with that. And that takes care of that side of my personality enough to let me go ahead and function in the rest of the world."

But I think most people are a combination of things where they say, "OK. Here are the things I was taught as a kid. I start to see that some of that's not true. I'm going to start to think on my own for it." Some people have to take more of a severe break than that. Some people are like, "Nope. Atheist. Boom. Hate it." You know, through some experience in their life or whatever.

But point being, we're all trying to triangulate our position in the universe. We all build a belief system on it. And in Mud, I built a character with a belief system built purely out of superstition. He had no religious dogma. He had no formal religious training. He was out in the woods hearing stories from old fisherman and built this crazy system of belief, and I really loved that about that character. It makes me love that character a lot. I thought I would apply that to this in a more serious way, to a degree, in that I would certainly make a comment on organized belief systems, which is the ranch. I would make a comment on what I think is an agnostic belief system, which is Joel Edgerton's character. I would make a comment on a belief system that I think is probably the most spiritual, which is Adam Driver's character, which is born out of math and science, but a desire to know that your mind possibly can't consciously wrap itself around all the numbers. There might be higher math and you are smart enough to know the limitations of your own mind and desire something more. That's kind of the closest to true spirituality that I've been able to figure out in the world.

Then you have these parents who have no choice but to have blind faith in the progression of their own son. They're just trying desperately to understand what he is and believe in that for him. I think as parents we project our own wishes onto our children, and I think that's a negative. I think because of the situation that these two parents find themselves in, they can't do that because it doesn't do any good. It's so obviously ludicrous for them to say, "I just wish he'd go to college." That's an absurd thing...

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Or, "Why can't he be normal?" Roy never says anything like that. 

Yeah. I think if parents are confronted with a homosexual child, for instance, it's absurd to me that they could say, "I just wish you'd be normal." It seems ridiculous to me, but parents do it all the time. Even if they know that homosexuality is genetic and it has nothing to do with a social choice, they still might secretly wish that their child hadn't turned out that way.

In this particular instance, I think these parents, because of the situation, they don't have even the mild luxury of saying, "Well, I wish he was normal." They know he's not, but they just need to know what he is, what he's meant for so that they can help him, so they can keep him healthy, and safe, and happy—all the things that we want as parents.

So that belief system for them, their life is dominated not by: Is there a god? Their life is dominated by: What is my son? So they believe blindly that he is meant for something more than they understand.

The first hour of the film is surprisingly bleak. In the scene where Roy and Alton's mother are holding hands and watching Alton, that's as close as they are going to get to being a normal family — with Lucas cleaning his gun in the background.

Yeah. My wife never liked the line that Joel delivers in a hallway. Kirsten [Dunst] says, "Tuck the boy in." And Joel is making his first kind of argument for, like, "Maybe we should take this kid to a doctor," which Mike's character doesn't allow. And Kirsten agrees with Mike. And Joel says, "It's a shame. I don't know if there's a way out of all of this for you all, but it's a shame because you'd make a nice family otherwise." My wife never liked that line, but I really liked it, because it's true. It's like if these people hadn't been confronted with this situation, I think they were good people. I think they would have tried their best in the situations they found themselves in to love each other. And they aren't allowed to do that.

Like you said, you made a very thorough outline. Some of the characters, like Lucas, reveal themselves over the course of the story. Say, in the case of Lucas, did you make any discoveries about who he was in the writing process? 

It develops at some point, but not so much on the script page. Definitely when you give a script to an actor, it's like dropping a capsule in water and the fizzing starts. That's when the thing starts to live and breathe. And Joel just fleshed out the parts of that guy that I really wanted.

Not that he ever would have done it, but you go to these studio meetings and they're like, "Who do you guys want to have play Lucas?" I had a list of people and Joel was at the top of that list. They're like, "What about Tom Hardy?" You're like, "OK. That would be a much darker portrayal." Tom Hardy is a great actor. He can do anything he wants. But what Joel brought was this likability. You want to be Joel's friend. Just as a person you want to be Joel's friend. That comes through in his acting as well.

Kind of what I wanted, it's the same as what I was just saying about the family unit. If Joel wasn't in this situation, he'd be having a beer and cooking a burger in his backyard and watching football and being a pretty normal, good guy.

I think, though, to go a little bit deeper into that and that character, I've got a friend that's a police officer. They just see horrible shit all the time. Like that's just their job is to go clean up horrible shit. I just imagine being a state trooper being out on the road coming across a wreck, nobody else involved, it's a minivan. It blew a tire, flipped over. And he's the first one on the site. He leans in there's a family that's been killed and he's looking at them, and this is it. There's no reason to it. There's no justice in it. There's no good in it. There's no bad in it. This is just...this is it.

I think that would start to form a worldview. That would start to form a system of belief where you are confronted with this guy who is like, "My son is meant for something. He's meant for something." Lucas is like, "I don't give a shit what you think your son is meant for. He can die right there on the grass. That can happen, because I know it can, because I've seen it." That to me felt like an interesting kind of foil to throw into his mix, because you've got, from Joel's point of view, a very right, a very rational mind.

But at every turn he is confronted with this crazy image of this boy. You know, light, and satellites, and all this other stuff. And so, Joel is kind of the audience from that perspective. He is constantly having to debate with his own rational mind about continuing along this journey.

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Narratively, you don't make the audience work, but you definitely sometimes play your cards close to your chest. How much information can you withhold from an audience? 

This was certainly an experiment in that. You know, how far can I get? But I can explain to you how the approach developed kind of pragmatically as a writer, because I think that's really what started the equation; it laid the equation out, the mystery equation.

What that is, is you write this massive timeline. By write, I mean you just think about it. None of it's on paper. But I know Mike and Joel's characters as kids. I know what their characters were doing. I know what Kirsten is doing in high school. I know when the boy was born and what that night looked like. I know the first time Sam Shepard came by to tell them that he was taking their son as his own.

You have all of this story built. The characters behave a certain way at certain times in that story because they know different things. So when that child was first born, the parents were asking questions that, as an audience, we're asking at the beginning of the movie. But they're not asking those questions anymore. They asked those questions eight years ago when that boy was born.

So what I'm trying to do is build this massive timeline and then take a very clean cutout from the middle of it. I'm trying, as a writer, to be really honest about what I've just taken out and not overly try to fold in all this back stuff. Like, try and say, "No, if I really just was to cut out this section of time and present it to people, this is how people would behave in those scenes. This is what they would talk about. They wouldn't say this, this, that, or that because that's how it is."

Now, obviously you are going to have to help out along the way a little bit. But my answer for that was this cross-cutting action, to go back to Adam Driver's character, to go back to the ranch. And you start to get other little pieces of information from those places that you wouldn't get from Joel's character, or Mike's character, or Kirsten's character.

It was kind of this writerly approach of how to remove this piece of the puzzle and just show you the piece. I had faith in the audience's ability to make those connections. I think we're so advanced when it comes to watching narrative material. I mean it's all we do is consume content all day long. So when a character walks onscreen, you immediately start making connections for that character: Is that a good guy? Is that a bad guy? Is that person sleeping with that person? We just start asking those questions immediately. I just don't think people need very much.

You get one sideways glance from a glance and you know something is up. And that's fun. That's exciting if people are willing to pay attention.

Before our time runs out, I have to ask about David Wingo's score. What sort of mood did you two want to establish with the music?

David Wingo has done my scores since Take Shelter. He lives in Austin. He's just a badass. This was really in his wheelhouse. He's in a band called Ola Podrida, which is kind of more of like a folk band, just singer/songwriter kind of stuff. But he's always liked electronic, kind of synth things. So I knew when we were going to do this movie, it made sense to have a John Carpenter-esque score.

But we talked a lot less about Carpenter, actually, because sometimes Carpenter's stuff can get a little cheesy. We talked a lot about Tangerine Dream. Like, there's this amazing score for that Kathryn Bigelow film Near Dark. I think Tangerine Dream did that score. We were listening to that and thinking about it. But we didn't have to do too much. David just got it. He knew exactly where I was going from the minute I mentioned it.

We were in the middle of production and David just sent this theme, the theme that you hear at the beginning of the film, at the end of the film, all through it. I just was like...I just thought it was perfect. It very nicely walked the tightrope between paying tribute to where we were coming from, the kinds of movies we liked back in the '80s, but also feeling completely contemporary, like it could have just been written for a modern film. But it very nicely balances things, not to mention tone-wise. It was ominous without being, like, horror movie music. I just thought it was great.

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Midnight Special is now in limited release and expands in theaters soon.