jeff nichols interview

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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