Sci-fi Verité

Jeff Nichols reveals how a personal crisis helped shape the trajectory of his third feature, the enigmatic sci-fi thriller Midnight Special and why he's so militant about the use of dialogue.

© 2016 Warner Bros. Pictures
Jaeden Lieberher in Midnight Special.
March 18, 2016 Written by Dylan Callaghan

It's a common misconception among a lot of writers that dialogue is a tool to help you express parts of the story that you can't show. I don't think that's why it's really there. It's there as an extension of behavior.

In the early minutes of Jeff Nichols’ new film Midnight Special, two men and a boy in an old muscle car rifle down a rural ribbon of highway in the dead of night with the headlights off. To see their way the driver wears night vision goggles. No one speaks, the boy reads comics by flashlight in the backseat, and what’s ahead is not known.

Writer-director Nichols has a fondness for driving his narratives toward the unknown. In his acclaimed previous features Take Shelter and Mud, his stories are propelled by origin mystery. Here Roy (Michael Shannon) is a fiercely protective father spiriting his beloved son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) to a destination only the boy knows. Roy is a balance of laconic Southern father set to kill for his boy and an enlightened modern parent who’s found the wisdom to accept that his son is not like him. Viewers don’t know exactly why Alton is different, just that he wears goggles and, occasionally, brilliant white light shoots from his eyes wreaking all manner of earth-shattering havoc.

Alton, Roy, and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton), the night-visioned driver, are chased by an LDS-like religious cult called Third Heaven Ranch, whose quietly commanding pastor Calvin Meyer (Sam Shepard) has divined Alton to be an instrument of spiritual deliverance. They are also pursued by myriad law enforcement agencies, including, ultimately, agents of the federal government, which sees Alton as an extraterrestrial weapon. Adam Driver plays a newbie NSA agent who deciphers where Alton is headed and is starstruck by what he represents. Kristen Dunst is Alton’s loving mother Sarah, who still struggles to find Roy’s acceptance of the boy’s ultimate destiny.

Nichols metes outs his dialogue like a drought-stricken stream flowing with just enough water to exist. His tense economy offers scant syllables, never faltering from a stark realism that juxtaposes the film’s supernatural center. It’s an old school, cinema verité style approach co-mingling with supernatural sci-fi to make something new.

Nichols spoke with the Writers Guild of America West website about his enigmatic narrative, written from a borrowed, shoebox office in Austin, Texas, his recurring use of the theme of fatherhood, and his lasting devotion to truth.

This film combines your organic, humanistic Southern style with the genre of sci-fi. Was marrying these disparate elements one of the things that inspired you to make this film?

I had the idea to make a sci-fi chase movie, and then I just applied my process to it. That begins with my process of writing, which is to ground things to the places that I know and the types people that I know. I don’t know anyone from a religious zealot ranch, but I know someone like the character that Mike [Shannon] plays in terms of how close to the vest he plays things.

So I just start to apply my aesthetics – and that doesn’t just mean my visual aesthetics, but also my narrative aesthetics – to the genre, which is a good way of starting to dismantle the genre a little bit, and starting to subvert some of the elements that make up the genre. My whole approach is trying to ground things and ratchet [them] down into reality as much as possible. So I pick these kind of fantastical circumstances, but I still just try to ratchet everything down into the way that I see things out in the world, you know, the way people dress, the cars they drive, the motels they stay in, the roads they’re on, the way they talk to one another, their behaviors, the emotions that I feel about my son and all these other things – these are very realistic things that I apply to a sci-fi chase movie. So by the time it goes through that ringer, it comes out the other end undeniably a part of me.

Was knowing how atypical of sci-fi your realistic, organic aesthetic was one of the things that attracted you to this?

Not really. To be honest, I approached this sci-fi stuff the way I’ve approached other things. Even though obviously I’ve never seen a boy shoot light out of his eyes, I started to think, organically, What does that look like and how are we going to do it? Which was certainly was a fun challenge, but I wasn’t like, Oh, I can’t wait to dip that in southern fried batter and find out on the other side what that is…

Close Encounters of the Fried Kind?

Exactly…God, please don’t use that as the headline…

I won’t, I promise. It just came out, it’s terrible…

It’s funny, but even with the boy’s eyes, we labored to make that as realistic as possible. So we actually built these crazy goggles and tested all kinds of approaches to make it look like it really would… because it seemed like the honest way to approach it. So, no, there wasn’t some feeling like, Oh I can’t wait to apply the Jeff Nichols aesthetic to this genre. It just kind of felt that it was always part of me.

You’re a dad and this film centers on a significant depiction of the bond between a protective father and his son. What compels you about this theme and what’s unique about these two here in this story?

[This film] very much zeroes in on the specific spot in the timeline where I was in fatherhood. Take Shelter was written by a person who was about to be a father, so the idea of fatherhood was theoretical, and when it’s theoretical, it’s not really attached to a person, its just this idea of anxiety and stress. Now it’s attached to a physical person and your biology changes when that happens. The chemicals start firing differently. As a writer, I always try to look for something palpable in my life – a palpable emotion to put into these films. And it so happens that [I wrote this] at a time when I’m the father of a two year old. Now I’m a father of a five and a half year old [so] I would probably write this film slightly differently. The relationships we have with our children are constantly evolving – they’re growing up, we’re growing up, and our relationships together grow up. This film very specifically captures this moment when your kids are pretty fragile – that first year in life, you’re watching this neurological system develop in front of you and you see how they respond to the world. They’re very delicate and that produces a lot of fear, you know? You’re afraid of breaking them. You’re afraid of injuring them. You’re afraid of the world injuring them…

That’s definitely alive in this film – there’s a lot of fear and danger. I read in an interview that you had had an incident with your son that seemed to speak to the immediate peril that is present in this film. I don’t want to talk about it if you don’t, but I’m curious…

When my son was about eight-months-old, he had a febrile seizure, which is the body’s reaction to a spike in fever. About one in 1000 kids get it. It doesn’t have permanent lasting effects, and they usually grow out of them by the time they’re five. But we didn’t know about that when my son started convulsing. It very much revealed to my wife and I just how precious this person is and how we have absolutely no control over him. But you can’t make a movie just about fear. I learned that in Take Shelter – fear is a catalyst that causes a reaction. So what is that reaction? Trying to control your children is a negative thing and that was what the Ranch members are trying to do – they’re trying to control him and possess him so that they can benefit from him. That’s not really what the boy needs. As parents, sometimes we react to our fear of what can happen to our kids and who they can turn into, and we try to control their lives and environments, and that’s a negative effect. So, alright then, what are we here to do as parents? The answer seemed to me to be to constantly define and then redefine who your child is, who they need to be, who they want to be for themselves and not some projection of your point of view on them. Who are they really? And how can I help them become that and be the best version of that? That understanding is really what began to shape the trajectory of the film. Even though I knew it was a chase film from West Texas to the Florida panhandle, that didn’t change. The plot didn’t change, but the effect of the plot changed.

What was significant about the religious fanatics for you?

On the face of it all, the Ranch is a red herring. That’s the plot purpose, it’s there just to distract us, and [get us to] think, Well, maybe he is this thing that they say he is. But in our bones as an audience, we know that doesn’t seem quite right. So the movie is really getting at belief systems in general. As a writer you start to build characters, and if you’re going to build a fully realized character, you’ve got to build a belief system for them. Mud was very distinct in his belief system. He operated based out of superstition. When I was approaching these characters, they each had their own belief system that they were trying to build, and rebuild, during the events of the film. Joel Edgerton’s character thinks very pragmatically – he’s a state trooper, and he’s probably come across wrecks in the middle of the road where he’s seen dead kids. So when [he sees] a kid that’s getting sicker and sicker, [he’s] going to take them to a hospital – that’s what we do with children, we try to help them. But at every turn, his very practical approach to things is challenged by these supernatural events that keep kicking out of this boy. He’s trying to apply his belief system to this situation. The same thing is happening for Kristen’s character and Mike’s character and Adam Driver’s character, and the Ranch as a whole. Even the character of one of the bad guys Doak, played by Bill Camp, he’s trying to understand how he can reconcile what he’s been asked to do and what his moral compass is telling him. He doesn’t want to do any of these things, but he thinks there’s a greater thing telling him to do it. We judge him because he’s a bad guy, but it’s the same thing Mike Shannon’s character is telling himself – shoot that state trooper – because he believes there’s something more important out there. So, I don’t think it gives any easy outs to judge, well, that organized religion is bad and this other guy is good. It’s not that simple. It’s really just that, as people, we are constantly trying to construct our own belief system in order to support our moral constitution. And, you know, that’s life.

The dialogue is very spare here. I’m curious if this was more just your tonal aesthetic or not wanting to get into any expository trouble with the looming details of the mystery?

There were certainly some narrative levers I was trying to pull in terms of misdirection and other things – that was part of the narrative flow of the plot. But it goes back to the very first topic in this conversation, which was I was just trying to ratchet these things down into reality. Reality is about behavior. It’s a common misconception among a lot of writers that dialogue is a tool to help you express parts of the story that you can’t show. I don’t think that’s why it’s really there. It’s there as an extension of behavior. What you say is kind of the same as how you act – there’s subtext built into it. So if people are in a scene together and if there’s no reason for them to be talking about their histories, then they shouldn’t, you know? I just wanted the dialogue to play out as honestly as anything else in the movie.

This is how this conversation is going to unfold. I just can hear it in my mind. And when you try to force your characters to do things that are unnatural for them, the audience knows it. So this kind of diet that I’ve put myself on for dialogue is really just an attempt to write honest dialogue.

So you don’t write any B.S. It’s got to have a purpose to be there?

That’s the rule. I don’t always accomplish it, but that’s the general rule.

From your earliest draft of this, did you have to cut it back or did you have to add to it, from a dialogue standpoint?

I had to add to it. I was so militant about adhering to that rule that I just expressed, that this was one of the leanest scripts I’ve ever written. To the point where even I was like, yeah, okay. Because the dangerous path it leads you down is being obviously vague, purposely ambiguous – that’s not where I wanted to be. I just wanted to be honest. So it was weird. If there are any knocks to be made against the film, that can be one – that sometimes in an effort to be honest, I found myself being purposely vague and that’s a mistake too, you know? But I’ve never tried anything so stringently.

Was it hard to find that razor’s edge?

It was a little bit. Not in the writing so much, but that’s because no one questioned me too much on the writing, which was strange. I think that’s both a positive and negative effect of the success of my earlier work. I’m having to be more accountable because less people will stand up and say, “This doesn’t make any damn sense!” It used to be most people would say that. Even when they were wrong, I knew in my heart they were wrong…

At the end of this one, I really did want to know how this experiment was working. You start to show it to people, and you’re like, “Audiences are smart, they’ll get this.” And sometimes they just don’t. There are things you need them to get. Yeah, there was some recalibration. But at every point, you try and stay faithful to the fundamentals of the script, otherwise, again, you’re going to betray it and people are going to feel that. There was some point where Warner Bros. looked at it and said, “Well, this is just what it is and to do any more to it will injure the essence of what it is.” I’m real proud of them for really understanding what it is, and taking a risk on it, ‘cuz it’s a risk, it’s not a four quadrant film.

You have said that you wanted to cast Michael Shannon before you wrote Take Shelter, and you had Matthew McConaughey in mind for Mud as you were writing. How important is it during your writing to have a face or a voice in mind?

It’s very important, even if it’s not an actor. The way I control these things on set, is the specificity in the writing. Ansel Adams the photographer always used to talk about pre-visualization – he could close his eyes and imagine what the photograph was going to look like before he even snapped the picture. He had done the calculations in his mind between film stock and aperture and everything else – he knew what it was going to do. That’s kind of the way I feel like a screenplay should work – that I can close my eyes and I can see how this thing is going to be executed. So on set you’re just constantly working towards this mental image in your mind.

Where and how you write, what's your routine when you’re in the grove?

I've been real lucky. For the past few years a friend of mine has given me an office. He’s in a commercial real estate appraisal business. The walls are real thin, so I listen to people talk about gas evaluations for easy marts and Exxons and stuff. I’m just squirreled away in a little shoebox of an office. All I need is a desk, computer, and a chair. Then I need a big corkboard on my wall – it’s massive. I just go in every day. I don’t type anything in the computer until I have a note card that represents every scene of the film. I try and understand why every scene is there and how every scene transitions into the next. Then you build those scenes into full sequences and you really start to get an idea of the flow of a movie – how you get from point A to point B, you can watch it on the wall there. When you can see it from beginning to end, that’s when it’s time to sit down and actually start typing.

© 2016 Writers Guild of America West

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