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Jeff Nichols is nothing if not a thoughtful, and thought-provoking, filmmaker. Although we’d already spoken with the celebrated indie auteur before the SXSW premiere of “Midnight Special” about some of the secrets of the sci-fi drama and how studio notes changed the movie for the better, it became clear there was much more to discuss.
So ahead of “Midnight Special’s” nationwide release on Friday, SPINOFF reached out once again to Nichols, this time for a conversation that delves deeper into the production of the film, which follows a father (Michael Shannon) who flees from a religious cult and the FBI with his 8-year-old son, who possesses otherworldly powers.
We also touched upon what Nichols would’ve brought to Warner Bros.’ “Aquaman,” the calls for greater diversity in Hollywood, and his next project, the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple whose union sparked the Supreme Court case that ultimately brought an end to state laws banning interracial marriage.
SPINOFF: You’re a filmmaker with a distinct style who has won a lot of critical acclaim. What was it like going from the indie films you’ve done to making this, your first studio film?
Jeff Nichols: It really wasn’t different at all, to be entirely honest with you. The way that this project worked out with Warner Bros., there was a script that I already had written. I had already written the [lead] part specifically for Mike Shannon. And we approached Warner Bros. with it with the budget already kind of worked out, and with my crew that’s helped me make my other films pretty much in place, and really a system for how to make these films already established. We really went to Warner Bros. asking for a partner in the process of making this film. Had Warner Bros. said no — which, honestly, is kind of what I was expecting them to say — then we would have gone out to the open market and tried to finance this film independently.
I would have had less money. It would have been a much more stressful experience, and I can’t guarantee that the film would have come out exactly as this one did, which was very similar to how it was on the page. So, in terms of the initial process, it was very similar.I looked around on set — I was surrounded by my friends that I’d been surrounded since “Take Shelter,” and in some cases “Shotgun Stories,” and we were just making my movie, you know?
Every once in a while someone from the studio would show up, and they were always really nice, really friendly. Then we went into the post-production office, and that’s when they started to present themselves a little bit more, simply because they really liked the film, and they saw a lot of potential in it. They wanted to make sure that because I had been so pragmatic about developing the story for this specific budget (there wasn’t more I wanted to add). They were like, “Do you want to try anything else? Do you want to blow anything else up?” And I said, “No, I think this is pretty much what I want to do.”
So then we started showing the film to test audiences; that had its own pluses and minuses. I had never been through that process before. I tried to be really open to it in terms of like how do I read these [responses] like tea leaves? Just because they are asking for something, that doesn’t mean they need what they are asking for. But why are they asking for it? That’s the question you need to be answering, especially for this film, which was designed to be extraordinarily lean when it came to narrative exposition. Are we getting away with the experiment? At what point does the experiment fall in on itself and become muddled or confusing or just non-experiential? Like at what point do people just shut off?
I tried to listen to that as closely as I could. Fortunately, I was with Warner Bros., so there were two instances where I felt I could actually add a little something and it would help make the rest of the movie lay down. They were really supportive and gave me some money and we tweaked those little bits, and then we got the movie you see.
What are the bits you’re referring to?
Specifically there’s a scene with Kirsten Dunst’s character at the very end of the film, her last scene where she’s in a gas station bathroom. It’s a scene that didn’t exist in the script. Originally, she was left in the last place you saw her — I won’t say too much about that …
Sure, but that scene you added that came from test-screening feedback, it gives a stronger sense of her resolution than the scene before would have.
Exactly. I always thought that it was cool that she just kind of disappeared. You hear the characters’ talking about her in the next scene in such a way that you know the government doesn’t have her [in custody]. I just thought it made sense, and it did for about 40 percent of the audience, if you go by the numbers. But there was a large enough part of the audience that that was a barrier for them, that they couldn’t experience the final moments of the movie because they were like, “Where’d she go?,” which is fair.
I think that’s an honest question. I remember I was definitely faced with the question before I had the answer. I was sitting in my backyard in Austin when it came to me: What if she cut the braid off? And then I had the spark of how to answer that question, but in a way that felt like it was in keeping with the style of the rest of the film, and it felt like it was an easy thing to do: one actor, one location. We could do it without having to rip out any deep veins that run through the rest of the film. And I think it solved the problem, and hopefully helps people process the end of the movie.
You mentioned you thought the studio might turn you down. Was part of that because “Midnight Special” is a mid-budget movie?
Yes. In fact, that was an initial conversation with someone at the studio. They said, “Hey, this is really good. But do you have the next one? Do you have the sequel to this? That would be easier for us to make. We’re a big movie studio. We make $100 million films so that we can try to make $400 million. We don’t make $20 million films so that we hope to maybe eek out $40 million. That’s not how the math works for us.” Which is a completely fair answer. I understand that.
They have a certain amount of films they can work on every year. I mean, you should see! I’m sitting at Warner Bros. today, and the amount of people buzzing around handling the publicity and the marketing on “Midnight Special” is a lot of people, especially the week before they release the biggest film of the studio’s history, “Batman v Superman.” So they had to think about these calculations, and I completely understand that. Fortunately, for whatever reason, they saw fit to squeeze me in.
I described “Midnight Special” as “art-house Amblin,” where it reminded me of the Spielberg movies I grew up with with the Jeff Nichols approach that means more making an audience a detective in the story elling than a passive witness to it.
Sure. Well, all humility aside, that’s what it is. This movie is about the experience of watching it. Like when you read Faulkner, for instance, I can just kind of lay out the plot of “Go Down, Moses” for you, but it wouldn’t do it justice. The way he constructed the scenes within those books, and the words he uses to describe those scenes, is where the brilliance of Faulkner is.
Now, I would like to think that the beauty of the film is in the way it’s told. We’ve all seen this stuff before; it’s a sci-fi government chase film. I’m not reinventing the wheel. But the way that I think I make that worth anybody’s time, and hopefully make it feel new or immediate, is to try to be very specific to these people and treat their behavior as I would treat my own, and have it relate to me. And then maybe -- just maybe — inside this framework which is designed to help make movie posters and movie trailers to make people want to come and see the movie, you actually get to experience something, which I experienced from those Amblin films.
I think “art house Amblin” that’s a cool phrase, but I look at “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and his portrayals of suburban American life in the ’70s as pretty spot-on! Like, split-level houses and crazy disorder in the den, I actually think in a weird way whatever we prescribe to art house films, [Spielberg] was doing that as part of those movies.
Speaking of Warner Bros. superhero movies: You were in talks to helm “Aquaman.” I’m curious where you’d like to see the superhero genre go from where it is.
I think it’s already been there. I think Christopher Nolan has laid out a very clear road map for how to make superheroes grounded in the real world. It’s a little tricky because he was doing it with Batman, and Batman is not a superhero. Batman is a real person … I think the way he grounded those films — like, if you look at “The Dark Knight,” that says some crazy things about society and anarchy and nature. And he was able to slip that stuff into a film that was quite successful and sits squarely in the superhero genre.
So when I look at these things, they’d have to find a way to have some relationship to our lives. Otherwise, if they come completely untethered, then they’ll just float away from us, and we won’t need them anymore. I think the ones that are good — like the first “Iron Man” movie is really good — I think there’s a way to do it. I think there’s a way to thread the needle. But you also have to be really specific that you’re writing. Not everybody is Batman.
Looking to “Loving,” starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga from “Preacher” as the historical Loving couple, I wondered about your thoughts on the rising demand for greater inclusion and representation, and how it may have shaping your work.
I think it’s absolutely a valid conversation. Look at the demographic makeup of our society. Why shouldn’t our entertainment content reflect that? That just makes sense, right? I don’t understand the disconnect there. That being said, I’m a middle-class white guy born in 1978, so if there’s a problem, I suppose I’m it. But all I’m trying to do is tell stories that are honest and have some emotional reverberation inside myself. That’s what happened with “Loving.”
I’ve been working on that movie for four years now, or something like that. It’s interesting, when that movie is coming out. We thought it was going to be late! We were hoping to make a film that touches on the topic of marriage equality before the Supreme Court weighed in [on same-sex marriage]. Luckily, the Supreme Court weighed in quickly, though maybe not in the grand timeline of things. It wasn’t quick enough for a lot of people. But they’d already weighed in [before the movie was ready to shoot]. But that’s also not all the movie is about. It’s not simply a political film. It’s a very beautiful film about love. It’s a very pure film about love, and that’s what I was drawn to.
I’m not really talking about your question. I don’t have much to say about it other than I completely support the dialogue that’s happening. And all I can do is not tell you I’m going to be making films with some quota in mind, because that doesn’t seem like the correct approach to making anything creative. But I’m going to keep trying to make things that are honest and emotionally affect me. Hopefully the industry as a whole will start to see more female writers and female directors and minority writers and minority directors that are doing the same thing as that.
Because we could have a bunch more female directors just go direct superhero movies that don’t connect to anything specific to themselves, or we could have a bunch more female directors direct superhero movies that do. And what a great world that would be! So, yeah. Is that an answer?
Totally. I appreciate your candor. I think a lot of people want to see more inclusion, more representation. But the trick is figuring out what do we do now.
I’m just a guy sitting alone in a room trying to come up with a story. I write stories about my life. We need more people alone in rooms, writing stories from different perspectives, because mine is mine. I think going to write some studio film that has no connection to me personally would be just as disingenuous as trying to write a film about a demographic that I don’t have any relationship to or haven’t done any research on or something like that. We just got to keep being honest. That’s the way to make movies that have chance of adding up to something for people.
What drew you the Lovings’ story?
Honestly, it was that they were totally apolitical. I think that when we talk about these political subjects, whether it’s marriage equality or race — which need to be talked about, they might even need to be shouted about — when we talk about them simply in political terms, people become entrenched in their positions. They go back to their fighting corners and get ready to pounce. What the Lovings did, by no design, just by their nature, was to make no political statement. They just fell in love.
They were in a very particular situation that allowed them to fall in love. They did. People told them they could not be in love. They did not want to be martyrs, they did not want to be symbols for a cause or a movement. They just wanted to be left alone to be in love.
I think it is an amazing time when all of this debate is so heated — as it should be — that you have an example, a real-life example of something so pure and so honest. Not cutesy, not cheesy, not silly. They were just real people trying to do this. And that attracted me, because I am a middle-class white guy born in 1978. What the hell do I know? But I can write about that. That I can write about. That’s what drew me to it.
“Midnight Special” opens Friday nationwide. “Loving” arrives in theaters Nov. 4.