On the Run

Published March 19, 2016

JOEL EDGERTON, MICHAEL SHANNON, JAEDEN LIEBERHER, AND KIRSTEN DUNST IN MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, 2016. PHOTO: BEN ROTHSTEIN.

Strange things happen in Midnight Special, the fourth feature film from Jeff Nichols. Little is revealed about Alton’s (Jaeden Lieberher) background, but the urgency of the situation is clear: This 8-year-old with special powers is sick. He is getting weaker by the day, and his father (Michael Shannon) is desperate to save him. Along with his father’s best friend (Joel Edgerton), Alton and his father go on the run, pursued by members of the cult in which Alton was raised, the NSA, the FBI, and the U.S. military. Nichols cites sci-fi films of his youth, like Starman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and E.T., as sources of inspiration for Midnight Special, but ultimately, the film is not about the supernatural or extraterrestrial; it is a love story between father and son. “When my son was a year old, he experienced a febrile seizure,” Nichols says. “It was terrifying. It forced me to think about what it means to have a sick child and what it means to potentially lose a child. Midnight Special is my attempt to process those feelings and an expression of how I feel about my son.”

EMMA BROWN: In the past, you’ve talked about Take Shelter representing your “very serious, very anxious side” and Mud as “a depository for a little more nostalgia and something that’s not so dark.” What side of you does Midnight Special represent?

JEFF NICHOLS: These films always represent several sides of my personality. In part, Midnight Special represents my love for this genre, but it mostly deals with the fear that goes hand in hand with being a loving parent. From a technical standpoint though, Midnight Special represents the culmination of an experiment with narrative structure that I’ve been playing around with since Shotgun Stories. I had a desire to try and remove almost all unnecessary narrative exposition from this story. I spent a lot of time building histories for all of these characters, and then I made a rule to never talk about any of it within the borders of the film. I wanted to see how much subtext would break through between the characters without trying to explain it all. It’s a risky move that I’m not entirely sure will satisfy everyone, but my hope is that raising these narrative questions will activate the viewer’s imagination.

BROWN: Michael Shannon has been in all of your films, did you always have him in mind for Roy? You’ve said in the past that you wrote the part of Son in Shotgun Stories for Michael Shannon before you’d met him, and that you did the same thing with Matthew McConaughey’s part in Mud. Were there any parts in Midnight Special that you wrote specifically for actors you’d never worked with before?

NICHOLS: I did specifically write the role of Roy for Michael Shannon. In fact, that was part of the initial deal with Warner Brothers. It had to be Mike in order for me to make the film. I also wrote the role of Agent Miller with Paul Sparks in mind. The only role written specifically for a person I had never worked with before was the character of Doak, played by Bill Camp. He is one of the ranch members tracking Alton and Roy. I saw Bill in my friend Craig Zobel’s film Compliance. I heard he was a great person to work with from friends like Craig as well as our casting director Francine Maisler, and they were correct. He’s an exceptional actor. He’s on my list now for sure. I keep a list of actors I think are amazing.

BROWN: How did you find Jaeden?

NICHOLS: We did a fairly exhaustive search throughout the southeast for the character of Alton. I was hoping for a result similar to what happened with Neckbone’s character in Mud, where we found an amazing talent through an open search. However, Jaeden came directly from my agency at CAA. It felt too easy. I tend to resist “proven” child actors, but Jaeden is the real deal. He is so smart and intuitive that he seems almost otherworldly. It was the right fit for this particular part. I think he has a very bright future ahead of him.

BROWN: What made you choose Texas as the setting for Midnight Special?

NICHOLS: Technically, the group does stop off in Arkansas. Elden, the ex-ranch member they visit early on in the film, is scripted as living on the Arkansas side of Texarkana. So I was able to tag my home state base. However, I’ve lived in Texas for more than a decade now, and it was only a matter of time before it found its way into one of my stories. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to shoot the West Texas portions of the film in Texas. New Mexico stood in for West Texas, which I thought turned out to be really beautiful. They have wonderful sunsets. Also, in regard to the Texas of it all, it seemed like the logical place to begin a chase film that ends in the panhandle of Florida. It allows the chase to stay in the Southeastern part of the United States, which makes me happy.

BROWN: Do you see Midnight Special as an optimistic film?

NICHOLS: I do. I like to think all of my films are hopeful. I’m hardwired to think that way. With Midnight Special, the remaining connection between characters at the end of the film is what is most important to me. In this way, it feels like a companion piece to Take Shelter. If Take Shelter is a film written by a man about to become a father, Midnight Special is a film written by a man who has just become one. From that perspective, how could it be anything other than optimistic?

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL IS OUT NOW.