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Indie darling Jeff Nichols’ fourth feature, and his first studio film, “Midnight Special” is a character-driven sci-fi drama that follows a motley trio on a desperate crusade to flee with a super-powered 8-year-old named Alton as they’re pursued by a doomsday cult and the FBI.
Ahead of the film’s screening at SXSW in Austin, Texas, SPINOFF sat down with Nicholas and stars Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst and Joel Edgerton in a pair of roundtable interviews to discuss just how a movie so unique in its mystery was made.
“Midnight Special” marks the fourth collaboration between Nichols and Shannon, following “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter” and “Mud.” When writing the lead role of the enigmatic Roy, Nichols only had one man in mind, the character actor known for his intense roles in “Boardwalk Empire,” “99 Homes” and “Man of Steel.”
“In fact, when I went into Warner Bros. for the first time,” Nichols recalled, “I said, ‘Here’s the script and it comes with Mike Shannon.’ … After the meeting where Warner Bros. greenlit the film, he was first person I called, before my wife, in fact. I called and said, ‘We did it! We got Warner Bros.’ So he was always part of the plan.”
Nichols recounted a talent search that spanned the southeast United States for a young actor who could capture the character of the serene boy with strange powers. He was hoping to cast a newcomer, confessing, “Child actors weird me out. Usually they have the integrity beaten out of them because they are performing for adults all the time. And that wasn’t the case with Jaeden.”
Jaeden Lieberher, who made his film debut in the 2014 Bill Murray dramedy “St. Vincent,” instantly impressed Nichols with his intelligence and talent. “He had an innate understanding of the situation he was in, of his place in the situation,” the filmmaker said. “Once we got to set, that was reconfirmed, which is he was able to understand the subtext of these scenes. And that’s a very tricky thing. There’s a lot of adult actors that don’t understand subtext. He just knew why he was there and what he was doing.”
“Midnight Special’s” adult stars praised Lieberher’s composure, performance and work ethic. “There could have been a real problem if I’d shown up and the kid playing Alton is a pain in the ass,” Shannon said. “It could have been a real nightmare. I think that’s Jeff. He cast the movie well. Time and time again you hear 90 percent of directing is casting. Jeff looked a long long time for his Alton, and he found him.”
A “kid of the ’80s,” Nichols describes “Starman” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” as the “cornerstone of life growing up.” However, there are no overt nods to those seminal sci-fi films in “Midnight Special.”
“You have two different experiences with those films,” he said. “You have the experience of being a kid and watching them, and then you have the experience of being a guy out of film school who goes back and studies them. As a student of film, you go back and realize why they had that impact on you: They are masterfully constructed. I think ‘Close Encounters’ is one of the most beautifully directed films ever, and that is really irrelevant, though, when you start thinking about why you were impressed with them as a kid. As a kid — and it’s not just sci-fi films, it’s other Spielberg films like — ‘Goonies’ — there’s a mystery in them. And there’s this mystery that unfolds to a sense of awe, and that’s a really tricky thing to do. And I wanted to do that. I wanted to do that more than I wanted to make a gas station explode, which I did do [as well].”
“Midnight Special” unfolds methodically, dropping clues that demand the audience’s participation in building its story. For Edgerton, who plays Roy’s right-hand man Lucas, that approach hooked him right away.
“[The script] was a true page-turner in that sense,” he said, “to sit down and read a script and not be able to stop because you need to answer questions. [Nichols] doesn’t spoon-feed the audience by any means. There’s not a sense characters running around expositing information for the sake of over-informing an audience. I like to watch movies like that. Studios often would like to make movies like that, but kind of hesitate and [instead] over-stack the deck on information. So, it’s good to be a part of a movie that doesn’t preach too much.”
Turned off by obvious exposition and sloppy cinematic storytelling, Nichols challenged himself to write a film that trusts audiences to pick up character and plot clues, rather than inundate them with explanatory dialogue and insert shots. “It was part of a narrative experiment I’ve been working on since ‘Shotgun Stories,’ my first film,” Nichols shared.
“The goal is really just to write characters that are honest. In a script you have two things: You have lines of action, you have lines of dialogue, both of which are behavior,” the filmmaker said. “The way your body language is when you move into a room, that’s lines of action, that’s behavior. And it’s really clear for writers, like, ‘Oh, yeah, I would never put backstory in the lines of action because no one’s ever going to see it.’ Well, why would you put it in the lines of dialogue? It’s the same thing. The way I speak and how I speak defines my behavior to you. And so, really, it’s this kind of temperance as a writer. As much as I might want to inject the backstory or the history or some cool anecdote into a scene, I don’t get to if it’s not something you would naturally say. So it was really just a style of writing that suited the genre. That suited the development of mystery. But honestly, that was more about situations that I put the characters in. I would have picked different situations had I needed them to convey different information.”
“The thing I always appreciate about Jeff’s writing is that even though none of the characters have big flowery speeches in which they are able to explain their innermost thoughts, he creates such an interesting and complex situation to live in as an actor,” Shannon explained. “Which is really what I’m more interested in doing at the end of the day, is just leaving and breathing through a story and a circumstance, particularly if I feel it has some deeper resonance with people in general. So, I don’t need it all spelled out for me as an actor. I know that Jeff trusts me enough and trusts my imagination enough that I’ll fill it out. So, in a way it’s a real luxury to work with him, despite that minimalism he’s known for.”
Edgerton agreed, saying of the scant details on his character’s backstory, “It’s exciting for me. You get to kind of define character through action rather than through ‘When I was a kid and I used to go camping’ speeches. There is a little bit of artfully slid under the door exposition in the movie. But it never feels shellacked. Often times in screenplays you read and you go, ‘Oh, that’s going to be a tough day. That’s going to be a tough day.’ … Incongruous behavior for the sake of reporting information? It’s diabolical.”
Dunst was such a fan of Nichols’ previous films that she joked that she only need to see his name on the cover page. “I see Jeff Nichols is directing,” she said, “I don’t even need to read it. I’m like, ‘Whatever, I’m in.'”
Essentially a chase movie, “Midnight Special” has many scenes set behind the wheel of a car on long stretches of dark road. However, Edgerton found this setting inspiring, saying, “Confines create freedom, I think. You just do what you’ve got to do for the scene. It’s more complicated for the filmmakers, how to keep something interesting when you’re in such a small space. But you know, they made that movie ‘Buried’ in one coffin, and they made that interesting. So we’ve got no excuse.”
There’s a moment when her character’s time with Alton has come to a clear end, and it’s both heartbreaking and heartwarming. However, achieving that balance was a feat. “For me, that end sequence was the most takes I did the entire film,” Dunst recalled. “I think in the beginning it was just too sad for Jeff. He was like, ‘We have to have the acceptance.’ Like, I was slowly walking back into the woods, and he’s like, ‘No, we’ve got to have you run back into the woods because we can’t leave the audience feeling sad like this is.’ It still had to have an uplifting catharsis, like we did what we needed to do. I did that a lot of different ways with Jeff so that it could actually end up being [uplifting], and not just have it being heartbreaking.”
When the topic turned to “Midnight Special’s” Superman reference, Dunst asked Shannon, “You were the villain in that movie, right?” Without missing a beat, the actor shot back, “It’s a matter of perspective.”
A reporter teased, “Did Mary Jane just admit she didn’t watch ‘Man of Steel’?” Edgerton joined in, “Spider-Man wouldn’t let her.” Dunst shrugged, “Watch Superman? No, I didn’t watch Superman. Why do I have to watch every superhero movie? Is it required.”
Again, Shannon smirked and responded, “Solidarity.”
“Midnight Special” screens Saturday at SXSW before receiving limited release on March 18. The film expands to more theaters on April 1.