Jeff Nichols has produced four movies so far in his career, but his latest, Midnight Special, opening wide in many theaters this weekend, may be his most personal. The idea for the sci-fi thriller came from Nichols’ own “adventure” with his one-year-old son when the boy was in need of emergency medical attention. As it turns out, the boy was fine, but the fear and panic that Nichols experienced during the short crisis gave the new father quite an insight.
“I realized that having a child means giving up a part of yourself to the universe,” he says in a press release for the film. “It’s like a wound has opened up that will never heal and will always be open to injury. If something happens to that child, you will feel it because you love him so much. It’s a helpless feeling, too, knowing that there is now this person in your life that you would do anything for, but in some ways you really have no control over. That was the basis for Midnight Special.”
Nichols first foray into filmmaking came with the writing and directing of 2007’s Shotgun Stories followed by Take Shelter (2011) and Mud (2012). Each has, in one way or another, focused on a theme about the bonds of family.
“Take Shelter was written by a man who was about to become a father, and all the anxiety that entails, while Midnight Special was written by a man who already is a father,” says Nichols.
Some have compared Nichols to Steven Spielberg, a notion that Jeff tries to deflect. While Nichols admits to being a fan of Spielberg and knows how the legendary director has influenced his work, Midnight Special is Nichol’s own baby, so to speak.
When it comes to this film, some have said that the less you know about Midnight Special, the more you’ll enjoy the film. In a nutshell, the film is about Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), a boy with special powers who is on the run with his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and his friend, Lucas (Joel Edgerton), his parents who are on the run trying to keep him safe from religious extremists and even the federal government.
“I wanted to make a chase movie, a movie about guys moving on back roads through the American South in a fast car, driving at night with their lights off,” says Nichols. “They’re on the run, they’re being hunted and, at the same time, they’re racing towards something important, though we don’t immediately know what it is.”
Nichols compares the story of Midnight Special to the opening of a Russian nesting doll in reverse. Instead of starting with a big film that gets smaller as it goes on, this one starts out small and grows. “[Midnight Special] starts with a kind of indie feel, where you’re on the road with these guys, and then it gets progressively bigger and bigger until it falls off the edges of the frame.” He also says that the mood of the story resembles 1984’s Starman with Jeff Bridges and Karen Allen.
“There’s the suggestion that Alton is meant for something or somewhere else, that his powers are symptoms of what he’s meant to do. As he starts to understand what his abilities are and take control of them, he starts to get healthier and better, whereas when his father tries to control them, for Alton’s own sake, it actually makes him sicker. Roy and Lucas don’t understand his capabilities. And we as the audience aren’t supposed to understand them, either. In one way that’s a metaphor for the fact that our kids are going to be who they are and we just have to have faith in that and let them go.”
Midnight Special stars Michael Shannon (99 Homes, Revolutionary Road), Joel Edgerton (Black Mass), Kirsten Dunst (TV’s Fargo), Adam Driver (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent), and Sam Shepard (The Right Stuff, August Osage County).
[Image via Warner Bros.]