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Kirsten Dunst in Jeff Nichols’ new film ‘Midnight Special’

Talking to the director of Kirsten Dunst’s new sci-fi film

Jeff Nichols is the visionary mind behind ‘Midnight Special’, the beguiling new spectacle about a child and his parents on the run from a religious cult

Jeff Nichols has conquered the system. The visionary director, best known for Mud and Take Shelter, enjoyed the luxury of a studio budget and complete creative control for Midnight Special, a mesmeric sci-fi oddity that’s low on handholding exposition and high on beguiling weirdness.

Two fearful parents (Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst) have a secret: their son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), is not a typical 8-year-old. On the run with a mysterious figure (Joel Edgerton), they must protect the goggled child from a religious cult (led by Sam Shepard) and panicky FBI officials (assisted by Adam Driver as an NSA agent). From there, it gets even stranger, illuminating a beauty that’s out of this world.

In part an allegory for parental anxiety, Midnight Special is a shimmering spectacle with emotional depth, all dreamed up by a filmmaker at the top of his game. We spoke to Nichols about the story’s traumatic inspiration, the methodology of religious cults, and the art of ditching dialogue.

Even though this is a sci-fi chase thriller, I gather it’s somewhat autobiographical?

Jeff Nichols: Yeah, I actually had a lot of the plot details laid out from the beginning, but I didn’t know what the movie was really about. I knew there was a father and son, but what does that mean? You can’t just have characters. It has to add up to something bigger than just plot.

Then I was struck by this very severe emotion. My son, about eight months into his life, had a febrile seizure, which was terrifying for us. I was struck by this idea that my son could die, and that I have no control over whether or not I lose him. I wanted to talk about that because the emotion is so palpable for me. If I put that in the film, it resonates with people. Really, the heart and engine of the movie is about building to this emotion of having to leave your child.

Why is there the assumption that Alton is going to a better place? Is it just looking around at Earth and guessing somewhere else is more advanced?

Jeff Nichols: I think it has to do with worldview – my worldview as a storyteller, my worldview as a human, and the parents hoping that that’s the case. But they don’t know for sure. Who knows? But that’s what being a parent is about. You have to have faith in this idea – not a religious idea – that your child is going to do what they need to do for themselves.

How do you pitch something this idiosyncratic to a studio and get final cut?

Jeff Nichols: You don’t. You just write the script. And then you take the script to them and say, “Here it is. Mike Shannon’s playing Roy. Call me if you want to do it.”

Is that the only way?

Jeff Nichols: I think so. Plenty of people pitch movies. The problem with pitching a film is it’s going to be developed by that group of people. And I don’t like developing films. I really don’t. These things are too damn complex. There’s going to be plenty of cooks in the kitchen eventually. You don’t need that at the writing stage.

You need someone with a singular point of view that is making clear, concise decisions about what this film is, what it means, and where it’s going. To have nine executives talking about what they experienced as kids? I don’t give a shit about that. That’s going to ruin the film.

“I do notecards first. I see every scene on my wall before I start to type – the dialogue comes out through the typing” – Jeff Nichols

I know you left Aquaman early on because there wasn’t enough creative control. So is something like Midnight Special the biggest film you can make that’s all on your terms, with your usual crew and final cut?

Jeff Nichols: We’ll find out. I hope not, because I have bigger films I’d like to make, and I really don’t want to give that up.

I had a theory that Midnight Special is your subconscious fear of losing Michael Shannon to the Superman franchise – and that’s why Alton shoots lights from his eyes. What are the wildest theories people have brought to you so far?

Jeff Nichols: That’s pretty wild – but Superman kills Mike Shannon at the end of it, so I didn’t have to worry about it too much. People think of all sorts of crazy things. And that’s good. I mean, that’s what they’re supposed to do. You build these films in such a way that people come into the theatre with their own belief system intact, and they apply it to your movie.

That’s really exciting. With the end of Take Shelter, you can really figure out if you’re a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty person. Everybody’s viewing the same thing, but they view it differently. It’s so funny. Some people are like, “Obviously the end of Take Shelter is real. And that’s such a mistake.” And others are like, “Well, obviously it’s not real – it’s a dream. And isn’t that a beautiful ending?” Or vice-versa. It’s fascinating to me.

“My son, about eight months into his life, had a febrile seizure, which was terrifying for us. I was struck by this idea that my son could die, and that I have no control over whether or not I lose him. I wanted to talk about that because the emotion is so palpable for me” – Jeff Nichols

How does it change the story that these characters left a religious cult? Could it have worked without a cult?

Jeff Nichols: I don’t think it could have. I researched this FLDS cult in south Texas. I realised they don’t keep birth records. It seemed to be the only way you could get an advanced child to the age of eight without being on YouTube or discovered by the government. You’d sequester them away on this religious ranch.

So it serves a really important plot function. But it’s also this great red herring for people to think, “Well, maybe the kid’s the messiah? Maybe the ranch is right?” Which is not true. And then it also gives a commentary on religious dogma and belief systems. So the ranch checks a lot of boxes, and it provides us our bad guys.

The film doesn’t have that much dialogue or exposition, but it’s still riveting. How do you get that balance right? Does that come early when you’re writing it on Final Draft? Or later in the editing?

Jeff Nichols: No, this is one of the leanest scripts I’ve ever written. Too lean, arguably, in some places. I do notecards first. I see every scene on my wall before I start to type – the dialogue comes out through the typing. Every once in a while, I’ll write an idea for a line in a scene. But I know what each scene is for. So the shape of the movie is there before the dialogue – other than maybe a line. Like, I’ll write: “I’ll always believe in you. That’s the deal.” That’ll be on a notecard because it’s pivotal and why the scene exists.

If the plot’s already there and I’m going to reveal something through visuals, then all I have to think about within a scene is the character behaviour. What would they do in that moment? Well, they’re being chased, so they’re not going to sit around and talk about something. They’re just going to talk about: are they OK right now? Where are they going? When do they need to get there?

As a writer, you have to be really disciplined and not give into any indulgences in terms of: “Hey, it’d be really great if they talked about growing up together, because man, that would give you so much knowledge of their relationship.”

But do people really want that? Do they? Isn’t it better to leave the audience going like: “How the hell are these two guys related? Why are they there?” At some point, it’s going to get naturally explained. You don’t feel the scope and understand it until the very end, because they’ve been through this thing together. And I like that. That’s a style of writing I aspire to.