Director Jeff Nichols On ‘Midnight Special’ And The Lessons Of A Movie Like ‘Fantastic Four’

Jeff Nichols is one of the best filmmakers today who is still, sort of, flying just under the radar. Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and Mud were not huge box office draws, but they all found critical acclaim and a healthy life after theatrical release. As Nichols himself puts it, “I’ve been just unsuccessful enough.” That’s an interesting self-observation: meaning, basically, his movies haven’t been so successful that he’s now working on huge studio films that he has little control over. (Though, Nichols was in conversations for Aquaman.)

It’s at this point in the conversation that we start talking about Josh Trank, who, the weekend before Fantastic Four came out, tweeted that what audiences were about to see wasn’t his cut. (A tweet that was quickly deleted.) For Nichols, who is so meticulous with his stories and directing, losing control over a film like that is what he fears most – so I get the sense he kind of likes being “just unsuccessful enough.”

His new film is Midnight Special, a film he classifies in the “sci-fi government chase movie,” genre that, on the surface, is accurate. Michael Shannon plays a father whose son has supernatural abilities and who takes him on the run from many forces who want the young boy back, for a whole host of reasons. Midnight Special is one of those films that the less you know about it going on, the better off you are.

And that’s the thing with Jeff Nichols’ films: He doesn’t fill you in right away with everything going on because he hates exposition. (As someone who also hates exposition, this is probably why I’m so attracted to Nichols’ work.) Ahead, Nichols explains his approach as a director and why Box Office Success comes with a lot of baggage he’s been lucky enough to avoid.

I went into Midnight Special knowing nothing.

That’s a good way to do it. It’s hard to break through the noise and bubble up to the surface of public consciousness when you’re not telling anyone anything about this movie.

People who know who you are like your movies, but how far does your reach go now? You haven’t directed a superhero movie or anything, even though there were Aquaman talks…

No. I don’t know. I always hear from people’s moms. People’s moms really like Mud. That movie, I think they’ve all had lives after the theatrical release. Shotgun Stories obviously, because no one saw that in theaters.

And Take Shelter.

Yeah, Take Shelter, too. It’s weird, I wasn’t in the DGA or WGA for that film, so I don’t get residuals.



Why weren’t you in those guilds?

I was young and didn’t have any experience or any credits. They have to invite you. And it costs money, too, and I didn’t have any money. I was broke back then.

So, if Take Shelter airs on TNT, you don’t get anything for that?

No. [Laughs.] But that movie doesn’t air on TNT, so that’s not a problem. But I say that because that’s a metric for, “Oh, wow, I think this is getting out there.” Mud felt like that and I was in the DGA and WGA for that.

You’ve compared this movie to Starman, which is an interesting comparison. You don’t hear that movie too often.

Well, it very neatly fit into the subgenre of “sci-fi government chase films.” It’s probably the neatest one-to-one comparison. Not that it’s my favorite film out of the genre – Close Encounters I’ve studied far more – but it has all the hallmarks of the kind of film I was trying to make. It’s got inky blacks with the blue lens flares and it’s got the kind of road movie feel where they’re obviously not stuck in L.A., but out in the world.

Do you remember they made a Starman television series?

No, I don’t.

It starred Robert Hays from Airplane!.

Really? That’s interesting casting.

It didn’t do very well.

Oh, no. I can imagine.

You mentioned how you were in discussions to direct Aquaman, but it didn’t work out.

Yeah, yeah, we talked about it.

Was there ever a discussion of, “We’ll do your Midnight Special if you direct a superhero movie for us?” Is that how it works? Are deals made sometimes?

I’ve heard stories like that. But I don’t think I’m at the level – it’s not like they’re just handing those things out to anyone.

But if your name were attached to a superhero movie, people would be very intrigued.

It was a cool conversation, you know? But the more I do this, the more I realize what situation I need to have in place to look someone in the eye and say, “I think I can make you a really good film here.” One, I need to write it. And, two, I need to have some control over the casting of it and the budget and scheduling of it. And, ultimately, the way the cut works.

But if you do a “bigger” movie, doesn’t that allow you more freedom later?

I haven’t had any trouble getting my stuff made, you know? As arrogant as that sounds. That doesn’t mean the world knows who the hell Jeff Nichols is or cares or is going to rush out and see one of his movies this weekend. And maybe by raising my profile by making one of those films might help the other films I make. Maybe.

You’re almost doing the impossible these days: Making a mid-budget studio movie.

That’s why they gave me this control over it: It’s a gamble worth taking. Yeah, I don’t know why they did it. I know there was some talk inside the halls of Warner Bros., “Look, we don’t make $25 million movies to maybe eek out $50. We make $100 million movies to make $400 million.” And I understand that math. I get it. They’re taking time and attention away from Batman v Superman in order to promote my film.

Whatever you have to do to keep making these types of movies, I’m all for.

Me, too. And I’ll fall out of fashion at some point. It’s bound to happen.

Why do you say that?

That’s just the way it goes. At some point, people will just not be as interested in what I have to say. I hope that happens when I’m in my sixties. But I’ll look up at some point and it will be harder to get a movie made. I had lunch one time with Peter Weir, who I respect immensely. And he was talking about working on getting another movie financed. It was before I made Mud and I just thought, that’s one of the greatest filmmakers in the world

And he’s having trouble.

And he’s having trouble, so that’s just the way it goes. The only thing I can think of, if I project out into the future, what would really injure me is having someone mess with one of my films, edit one of my films, then it comes out and fails.

Did you worry about that when you signed on with a big studio this time?

I had contractual final cut. But contractual final cut is like the nuclear option. You don’t want to use it if you don’t have to. You want the company that’s paying for and releasing your movie to like it, so you listen… but I’m not going to all of a sudden start writing huge monologues to plug into the end of the film.

I would never expect that to be in one of your movies.

It would be bad. I can’t promise you a blockbuster weekend, but I promise I can deliver you a sincere film.

When you mentioned being scared of losing final cut, I can’t help but think of Josh Trank tweeting the weekend before Fantastic Four comes out that basically “This isn’t my movie.”

It’s pretty heartbreaking – because you’re going to be judged on it no matter what.

And your name’s attached.

And your name is attached and it will be forever. And XYZ studio executive, he has an accountability to some higher ups, but his name’s not on it. I’ve been joking today that I’ve been just unsuccessful enough to keep a reasonable amount of control over these things.

That strangely makes sense.

I mean, yeah, look at the situation there. He made Chronicle, which is a remarkable film and then, very quickly, got swept up into a situation that obviously, by his own admission, he lost control of. And that’s what you want to try to avoid. Nobody wants to make a bad movie, on any side of the table, but I’m a big believer that you have to have one person controlling this thing from the top down.

I admire there’s very little exposition in your movies.

What’s funny is, I think writers, exposition is an attempt to make the movie deeper. And it does the exact opposite: it turns people’s minds off.

“Hey, sis, ever since our parents died, it’s always great to see you.”

No one would say that. Dialogue is behavior and no one would behave that way. So, how can we put something on screen that is inherently dishonest and expect people to accept it and not be taken out of the film? So, I just try to write dialogue that’s honest. It challenges you as a writer to say, okay, how does the narrative reveal itself?… I think this is mass-market storytelling and I think people can receive stories told this way. We’ll see if that’s true.

Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.