To hear Jeff Nichols tell it, the Austin director’s excellent new science-fiction movie “Midnight Special” started with an image. (And yes, it is entirely possible the following will contain spoilers for said movie.)
“The kernel of the idea was just these guys moving fast through dark Southern roads in the middle of the night,” the 37-year-old Arkansas native says in an almost whispered drawl. “It wasn’t connected to any genre at the time.”
Nichols started asking himself questions: Are these guys being chased? Who is chasing them? “Very quickly you add these little details and it started to make sense,” he says. Soon, he had what he calls “pretty specific details pretty far into the movie.”
Then he did the thing he has to do for every movie he makes. “I need to attach it to some emotion that is palpable enough to make it through the gauntlet of the film-making process,” Nichols said. “By the end of the film, some of that emotion needs to be transferred to the audience.”
“Midnight Special” is a sci-fi movie starring Michael Shannon as Roy, the father to a son named Alton who mysterious powers Roy cannot quite understand. It has chases and explosions (well, one big one) and powerful rays of light pouring out of an 8-year-old’s eyes.
But at its core, it is about a father and his son.
“I looked at my son (who is now 5 years old) and my fear of him potentially dying or being hurt,” Nichols say. “As parents, we are afraid these bad things will happen to our children, we’re afraid of not being able to control who they are going to grow into. We have influence, we don’t have control. I think my job as a parent is to help my child define who he is. Not project my wishes on him, but just try and understand the nature of him. Mike Shannon’s character is just a parent trying to understand his child.”
That said, Roy is not an ordinary dad. We soon learn that he and the mother of his child (Kirsten Dunst) are part of a cult who live on what is simply called “The Ranch.” With his jeans and shirts buttoned to the top and Dunst’s long braid and prairie dresses, the two look like extras from HBO’s “Big Love.”
Nichols says the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, was, in fact, the inspiration for their looks. The church also provided a key plot point.
“My wife (Missy Nichols) used to work at Texas Monthly and we are friends with some of the writers there,” Nichols says. He became fascinated with Katy Vine’s stories about the FLDS’s Yearning for Zion compound near Eldorado.
“The government guys started interviewing the kids there, and they were really having trouble figuring out how old the kids were who happened to be born on the compound,” Nichols says. “It dawned on me that there are places like there where you could be born in the U.S. and there would be no birth record of you. A boy who had these kind of special abilities could be cloistered away, and you could get to 8 years old and nobody outside your immediate community would know about it. His existence would be unknown to the larger world.”
Nichols laughs a bit when I mention that his small-for-a-blockbuster-type-movie budget (reported various places as between $18 million and $23 million) didn’t give him the the option of falling back on splashy CGI to get plot points across.
“If I had written (a hundred million dollar) movie, I think it would have been easier to get it made,” he says. “In one of the earlier conversations I had with Warners, an executive said, ‘We are really good at making $100 million movies that make $400 million. You’ve written a really good film that could maybe cost $25 million and be lucky to make us $60 million. That’s a lot of work and a lot of effort and a lot of risk for not a lot of payoff when we can put the same amount of effort into a $100 million film and have a much bigger payoff.’”
While he understands that logic, Nichols says he didn’t think he could walk in the door with a script for a $100 million film and have the studio give him final cut.
Indeed, the studio was ready for as many big set pieces as Nichols desired. A pivotal scene in “Midnight Special” takes place at a gas station. A few massive (and plot-centric) explosions later, the gas station is a pile of rubble. The studio loved it.
“They said, ‘If there is anything else like that that you wanted to do that you thought you didn’t have money for, you are welcome to it,’” Nichols says. “Now, that’s incredibly generous and it’s amazing to have that kind of support, but unfortunately, that one scene is threaded though the whole movie. There just wasn’t a spot for another one.”
“I actually thought I was being pragmatic and then of course that made it a little harder to sell,” Nichols says. “In a way I wanted this to feel like the first Terminator film — something that’s very tight and contained and has all these amazing emotions in it but also has all these genre elements and could serve as a jumping off point.”
So a sequel is already in mind? “If the audience spends enough money on tickets, maybe Warner Bros will give us another shot,” Nichols says, adding that early in the contract phase, Warners was requiring sequel rights for the actors. This was a sticking point for a few actors, and Nichols was worried he wasn’t going to get the cast he wanted.
“I said to one executive, “You know, I created this world, I am totally in charge. If this thing is a wicked success and an actor doesn’t want to be involved, I can figure out a way to work around them in the script.’
“The guy says, ‘Actually, you’re not in charge of this universe, the audience is in charge of it and if the audience wants somebody we’re gonna have to go pay to get ’em,’” Nichols continues. “I thought it was a very realistic view. There is a point where you give up control of stuff you create.”
Even with final cut.