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Berlin 2016 Interview: Jeff Nichols & Michael Shannon on “Midnight Special”

What marks Jeff Nichols’s films is that you feel them when you watch, deep in your bones—grief at losing a brother, fear of an unknown menace, heartbreak at lost love. His voice is both uniquely masculine and deeply emotional, and in his latest, “Midnight Special”—which premiered in competition at the Berlin Film Festival on February 12—that perspective tackles a new genre: science fiction, in another story about a father (played by Michael Shannon) ready to protect his uniquely gifted child at all costs.

Nichols and Shannon both spoke with in Berlin about their working processes, the film’s take on faith and spirituality, making unconventional science fiction, and how being a parent changes the way you make art.

I loved the film.

JEFF NICHOLS: Good to get that out of the way.

It kept making me think of “E.T.,” which I re-watched recently.

I haven't seen it in a while.

Sci-fi often feels like it has a mystery it wants the audience to discover the key or secret to, but “Midnight Special” definitely doesn't want you to do that. Were you tempted to do that at any point when you were writing it?

No, not really. It was designed this way from the beginning. That being said, the movie has to be about something. Things have to happen. And that's tricky. You just try and hold it and sustain the mystery as long as you can until you have to give somebody an ending, which is inevitable. But endings are always strange for me anyway. Things don't ever really end. So how do you wrap things up without it being too clichéd or too sweet? 

But yeah, it was designed from the beginning to hold that mystery. 

So does it start with the characters for you, in this one?

It honestly started with the genre. The very first image or idea was just two guys in a car, traveling at night through Southern back roads. I don't even know if the boy was in the back seat at that point. But oddly enough, I think I'd built the outline fairly significantly before I even knew what the movie was about. I remember talking to friends about it and going, "What's it about? What's it about?" I knew there would be a father-son element, but you can't just say, "It's about fathers and sons!" What about fathers and sons!

And you've made a couple of those, too. 

And I've made a couple of those. That's territory that I'm familiar with. And so it took me really looking at my relationship with my son and figuring out where it was at then. Now it's been a year and a half since I've seen the film, and I would make a different one today, because of this ever-evolving relationship. But at the time I made this, it was very much when I was getting to know my son. He was going from two, to three, to four, and it was like oh, he was becoming this little person -- this little person that you know, that has its own personality and everything else. When he was a year old, he had a febrile seizure. It was a terrifying moment for my wife and I. And it just made it very palpable and clear that I have no control over what happens to this boy. Your reaction when you lose control in a situation is to try and hang on tighter. And that's not the thing we're supposed to do as parents. So that's what I was really figuring out -- okay, what is the role of a parent. It's actually not to control the child, because you can't. It's a fruitless endeavor. It's to try and understand who they are and help them be who they are supposed to be. And so that's what the movie ended up being about. 

I heard an interview with you in which you said that you were interested people who have strong systems of belief that they're working from. Obviously that's happening in this film—and it's very present. 

Yes—faith in the unknown. And then you have faux-systems of belief. You have either the government's belief in the boy or this religious group's belief in the boy. They all come from the wrong place—they come from what that group wants out of the boy. It has nothing to do with the boy himself. 

Those are all set up as antagonists. They don't understand the true nature of the thing I just explained. The only ones that are even attempting to try to understand are his parents, and this group of people with them. 

So it's a movie about the nature of belief, what's real belief and what's this fake, dogmatic belief that a lot of times we're raised with. 

Did you discover anything about that while you were working your way through this story?

You know—I don't know. In terms of my personal spirituality and everything else, it's ever-evolving. I have a desire to want more out of the universe. But the older I get, the further I get from any specifics about that. It's just this sense of how things work. For me, I'm always asking that question, and I'm sure that dusts off in the films. 

But this isn't a film specifically about me trying to figure out the nature of God or anything like that. It's less about that. But it can't help but be about how the universe works. 

Having said that, I was struck by the way the cult in particular was portrayed. You see that portrayal as a cliché a lot. It felt not like that.

I'm glad to hear you say that. A couple things: number one, they're, like, the best religious cult in the world, because they have something powerful in front of them. So you can't really blame them. They might not actually be crazies. They have something really tangible to look at and focus on. I think that was part of grounding who they are. That's real easy to beat up on—that would have been really easy to just objectify: Ahh, these people are stupid. But they're not stupid. Especially in this case. 

But also, though, I'd been doing a lot of reading about the FLDS [Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints], the group out of San Angelo. The raid there was such a fascinating thing to read, because originally I was like, I'll open this movie with a big FBI raid! Windows will explode! and all this other crap. But when I started to read it, there was an exchange there that happened on that ranch that was negotiated. I think everyone was so freaked out by Waco, both the FLDS members and the government, that it's like the local sheriff, who knew the people, went to the front gate. They were like, Okay, we've heard about some sexual abuse here; we are going to come and investigate. And they were like, okay.

So they started doing interviews there on the ranch and they would call these people in. But they could tell people were lying about their birth dates, because they didn't have birth records. One person would come in and say they were one age and say they were other names. They didn't have any public records to check against these people. It was this cloistered community.

Eventually they said, "We can't get the information we need, so we're going to bring buses in and load up all your kids, and take your kids away." And the government did that. As much as they should have done that, given the circumstances and what we found out about Warren Jeffs and everything else—the government still drove buses onto these people's property and loaded these kids up and took them away. But they did it in this almost civilized way: okay, we'll be taking your kids tomorrow at 3

And that influenced—well, it made me kind of feel sorry for these people. It directly affected how this scene would go down. They definitely brought weapons. They definitely were prepared for something bad. Especially in the context that I give this group in this film. But the way they did it, they just walked in and said, Okay, we're going to put you on buses

I'm kind of proud of that. I felt like I actually did the homework and it made the movie better.

Did you see [Amy Berg's documentary] “Prophet's Prey”?

No, I hadn't. That script's floating around, “Under the Banner of Heaven.” Somebody will make that at some point.

I also felt like “Midnight Special” had a feeling of grief and loss interacting with faith and doubt. There's one way to read it as a mother losing her child to an illness or something like that.

Yeah. Of course. I was talking to a woman who was going to be one of our dialect coaches. We were talking about the dialect and all my crazy needs and demands for that. We finished the conversation over the phone, and she said, "By the way, I just want you to know how affected I am by your script." She paused, and then said, "It's been seven years since I lost my son." 

And I was floored. I had no response other than I kept saying, "I'm sorry." But it's interesting: at the time I was making this, obviously the story of my son specifically—but it's the same time that Sandy Hook happened. I remember pulling over on the side of the road, and I just wept. I can't remember the last time I cried. I think as a country, as Americans, we never even dealt with that. It was so bad, it's so horrific, that I think we just kept moving. I think it is a deep wound that is not close to being healed. And of course we have all this other shit going on, but it's like—that permeated my being. It seemed to influence the fear that I felt in relationship to my son in that one experience, but any experience. You don't have to have the febrile seizure in order to witness the details of Sandy Hook and just say, Oh my god! I could just send him to school and he could be gone. It's a paralyzing fear. 

But it's a kid! He's getting up at 6am and wants to watch cartoons and you gotta make him breakfast and get him dressed. So you have to function. So how? How do you wrap your head around it?

To be honest, I don't really have an answer. In the movie, if it's faulted for being ambiguous for anyone—they're right! It's because I don't fucking know. I don't know how to answer. All I know is that I have these really intense feelings about it and I wanted to make a movie about that. So honestly, earlier today I read a bad review of the film that was talking about ambiguity and it was like, "Nichols doesn't know what he's doing." And I was like, Man, they're kinda fucking right. I don't. I don't. But we need to talk about it. We need to think about it. Maybe I've done a disservice to the subject by placing it in such a heavy genre wrapping. But it's a serious idea. I know I'm going to keep thinking about it for a long time.

Putting it in a genre wrapping removes it from the realism just a little.

I think you have to. I know there was that Sandy Hook documentary [Kim A. Snyder's “Newtown”] at Sundance. I don't even think I can watch it. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but it's the way it is. I haven't seen “Room” yet. People tell me “Room” is such an amazing film, but ever since I had a kid, I just can't. I can't do it. It's not fun. It's not a place I want to be.

I'm sure “Midnight Special” had a lot of kinship with “Take Shelter,” in that it's dealing with issues as a fable, about anxieties that we have a culture. Do you feel like you're always making movies about American social anxieties?

It makes sense. It's a smart question, but really I'm just making movies about myself. But I'm an American, and I'm in my thirties, and I'm trying to figure it out like everyone else. It can't help but somehow resonate in other ways. But that's also kind of this trip that I've learned through these films: the more specific you can be to yourself and your own situations, oddly enough, the more universal the thing might be. That's proven true. I didn't know what I was doing when I made “Take Shelter,” and I definitely saw it resonate. 

The funny thing about “Take Shelter” is that a lot of people talk about how it was allegory for the economy and things that were happen. And that was so on the nose in the movie for me. I was like, that's obvious. It's the other stuff about marriage and commitment and those other things that I spent the most time thinking about. This is similar. It's very similar.

Michael Shannon has been collaborating with Jeff Nichols since his first film, “Shotgun Stories” (2007). Since then, he’s appeared in each of Nichols’s films, including his latest, “Midnight Special,” which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on February 12. Shannon’s great strength in Nichols’s films is his face, which doesn’t telegraph emotion so much as enfold it and let us feel it too—a key trait for an actor working with a director whose work is both subtle and charged with feeling. In “Midnight Special,” he once again plays a father consumed with the desire to protect his child.

Shannon spoke with in Berlin about his long collaboration with Nichols, the role of nature in the films, and shooting “Midnight Special” after the birth of his second daughter.

You've been working with Jeff [Nichols] a really long time, so I wanted to ask you about that collaborative process and how your relationship or creative process has developed over that time.

MICHAEL SHANNON: It started out with “Shotgun Stories.” Jeff was just out of school, and I had worked with one of his teachers in school, a fellow named Gary Hawkins TK. Gary called me up one day and said, "I have this student that's pretty special. He wants to send you a script. I don't expect you to say yes or anything, but he's pretty adamant about it." And I said, "Why not?" 

So Jeff sent me “Shotgun Stories,” and I read it, and I just thought it was so original and startling. It was a very unique voice, unlike anything I'd ever read. So I went down to Arkansas and Jeff was still figuring out what it mean to make a movie. He kind of was looking for some guidance from me along the way. I was really the only one down there that had actually done a film before. 

But I thought right off the bat, even on his first film, even though he felt like he was stumbling along, that he had a very mature sensibility already.

It feels like a fully-formed filmmaker already.

Yeah. And he's a tough guy. I always respond to that—people that are willing to work that hard. It was hard for him to get that movie finished. When we were done shooting, the film wasn't even developed. He didn't have dailies; he had no idea what he had done. And he didn't have the money to develop the film. He had to go out and get it. He spent a long time trying to put it together, editing it. It was kind of a lonely process for him, I think. But he wound up with something that's pretty remarkable. 

And then, you know, with each project exponentially, his ambitions grew. He never got comfortable. He was constantly trying to push himself, working with larger budgets, larger casts, and just getting more and more ambitious. The fact that he went in four films from “Shotgun Stories” to “Midnight Special” is pretty—from basically making a movie for a bag of pennies to having the support of a major studio behind him says a lot about who he is and the kind of filmmaker he is. People naturally fall into line for him. He's a good leader in that way. People respect him and they want to make him happy. 

And that's not something you can learn. It's something you either have or you don't.

Having done all four of those films, do you feel like there's something that marks each of them, for you?

To me there's a continuity thematically with the films. Each of them deals in a way with the relationship between parents and children—every extreme from something like “Take Shelter” to “Midnight Special,” where you have fathers obsessed with the safety and protection of their children to something like “Shotgun Stories,” where you have a father who's just disappeared and left those boys to fend for themselves, or something like “Mud,” where you have these two boys that are kinda looking for guidance. It's interesting, how he's returned to that in different permutations. 

I mean, Jeff and I have walked a similar path in life. We both come from the same neck of the woods… 

Which is where?

The South. He's from Arkansas, and I'm from Kentucky. We're both very much of those places, from those places; as much traveling as we've done since then in other places we've been, we're rooted in that. It's weird: Jeff's an interesting combination of confidence and self-doubt. I guess that's kind of common in the arts, maybe, but he's very rigorous when he writes a script. He spends a lot of time on it and really thinks everything through. When he's finally at the point where he's willing to show it to other people, he commits to it wholeheartedly, without trepidation. But while he's making the film, he doesn't take anything for granted. Every single shot, every single frame, he's still mulling it over. When you hear him talk about it, he's always wrestling with his approach to narrative, his approach to storytelling. He has a lot of rules that he imposes on himself in terms of what do I let people know, what do I leave to people's imagination. He's really trying to embed his films in people, to get under the skin. How do you do that? It's not necessarily by holding the audience's hand all the time or telling them what to think, but leaving some of that responsibility in their lap. 

Does that affect the way you prepare for those roles, since there's not that much in the actual script about the character?

Well, yeah. We all try and get on the same page, particularly as it pertains to relationships between the characters, where we need to have some agreement that this is what it probably is like. But we don't beat it to death. That's the other thing I really like about Jeff's movies: they're very in-the-moment. They're about what's happening right now. There's an urgency to them. You're not seeing something that's pre-supposed; it's happening as you're watching it, as it's being filmed. Even though his camerawork is very elegant and stately—there's a lot of locked-off shots and beautiful compositions and all that—it's juxtaposed with a real organic way of moving through the story as the actors and in the performances.

I notice he uses a lot of shots of trees and skies and waters, more than I would expect from those stories. They're used to establish things, but it's more like a mood that's being established than a location. 

Yeah, and Jeff's very earthy in that regard. The environment is as much a character in the story as any of the people. These films have to take place where they are. That's part of the character of the film. 

And “Midnight Special” shot in Louisiana?

Yeah. We were headquartered in New Orleans; most of our sets were honestly pretty far away. We did a lot of driving. But yeah, we were down there. Most of it was done on location, in the middle of nowhere.

It felt like it could be anywhere—very located in the South, but a story that could be happening most anywhere.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Alton asks Roy to take him out in the field as the sun's rising. I think that's an example of what I'm talking about: the sun is a character in the movie. It's a scene between Roy, and Alton, and the sun. That, to me, is very beautiful and moving. I like the fact that Jeff's films remind us of our relationship to nature. 

I have to ask about Jaeden [Lieberher, who plays Alton in the film]—he was so great. How was it working with him?

I can't say enough about him, really. 

His face is great.

His face! But it's also something that comes from within. A lot of times kids in a movie don't really know what they're doing. It's just kind of a happy accident that they're charming in some way, or they're just so unaware of what they're doing that it works. But Jaeden's as thoughtful as any grownup I've worked with. He's thinking about the story, and he's thinking about his character. He's thinking about the other people he's working with. He's very conscientious. He's a good scene partner. 

It's a hard relationship to pull out of thin air, you know? We didn't spend a lot of time together before we started shooting, because I was coming from the birth of my second daughter. She was born like a week before we started shooting. So I was in full flush of paternal instinct, I guess. So that's also something I think about when I watch the movie: it reminds me of that time. 

But Jaeden is beloved by lots of folks, not just us. Every film he's worked on, people just think the world of him.

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