best films of sxsw 2016

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.

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