‘Midnight Special’ Director Jeff Nichols Dislikes Spielberg Comparisons

If Midnight Special seems familiar, that’s because it draws from the famous sci-fi films from another director, or so say the film critics and moviegoers who have already seen Midnight Special. Jeff Nichols, the film’s director, wishes people would quit comparing his film to Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).

Midnight Special Director Jeff Nichols Was Never Trying To Pay Homage To Steven Spielberg

Admittedly, Nichols has been a fan of Spielberg’s work for as long as he can remember, rushing to the theater to see those much-anticipated science fiction adventures, just like so many others. In that sense, Nichols says he can see how Spielberg has influenced his work, but, even so, Midnight Special was never intended to directly pay homage to the Close Encounters mastermind.

“When I think of movies, I think of those movies,” the Midnight Special director says, referring to Spielberg’s E.T. and Close Encounters. “And so it’s definitely baked in. [But] I never held those films up and said, ‘Okay, this is when a gas station blows up and this is when my gas station blows up.'”

Still, audiences watch Midnight Special, the story of Roy (Michael Shannon) rescuing his son (Jaeden Lieberher) from a cult and taking him on the run, and can’t help but compare it to the adventurous chases seen in both of those Spielberg films. Adding to the uncanny similarities, the boy possesses special powers that very often get them out of hot water, just as E.T. so often rescued Elliott and himself.

“I never was trying to achieve [a Spielberg level],” Nichols said. “It makes sense now with hindsight…But it always hits me like a sideswipe, because I’m like, ‘Wait, I wasn’t going for that. I was just going for a natural progression of this story.’ And you can talk about the merits of that on its own, but when you [say], ‘Does it do this specifically?’ No. Because I’m not Spielberg.”

Nichols Thinks Of Midnight Special As A Metaphor For Homosexuality

“Why can’t you just be normal?”

It’s a question many of us have heard from less tolerant parents at grocery stores, in bowling alleys, and at sporting events. It’s also a theme Jeff Nichols explores with Midnight Special, because, as the director suggests, the theme of normalcy is at the very heart of Midnight Special.

In thinking about how intolerant some parents may be, Nichols says he recognizes that those parents might wish their child were more normal, even if they knew homosexuality is more a matter of genetic predisposition than a social choice. In Midnight Special, Alton (Lieberher) is different due to his abilities, but the comparison is there. Fortunately, the Midnight Special director says the question or wish for their son to be more normal is something Alton’s parents never consider.

“They know he’s not, but they just need to know what he is, what he’s meant for so that they can help him, so they can keep him healthy, and safe, and happy—all the things that we want as parents.”

Even the themes seem reminiscent of some of the ideas Steven Spielberg has tried to drive home with his films, so moviegoers can’t really be faulted for making the comparison. One might even argue that there are far worse fates than to be compared to one of Hollywood’s all-time greatest directors, so perhaps Jeff Nichols should just accept the compliment. For those unfamiliar with Midnight Special, take a look at the trailer and judge for yourselves.

Midnight Special, starring Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, and Joel Edgerton, is currently showing in limited release. Theater showings will expand on April 1.

[Image by Mike Windle / Getty Images]