In nomine patris

Jaeden Lieberher, Jeff Nichols and Michael Shannon on what's in a name in Midnight Special.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Kirsten Dunst, Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher with Midnight Special director Jeff Nichols at the Warner Bros. 21 Club tea
Kirsten Dunst, Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher with Midnight Special director Jeff Nichols at the Warner Bros. 21 Club tea Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

When I commented on what's in a name to Jeff Nichols, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher and Michael Shannon during the Midnight Special discussion moderated by Derek Cianfrance, Shannon, who plays Roy, was keen to respond, bringing up the poetics of Jean-Luc Godard in comparison to the down-to-earth director of Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud, whom he knows very well. Adam Driver, named Sevier, enters the picture and Sam Shepard as cult leader Calvin Meyer is not mistaken for Leonardo DiCaprio's Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino's western of the south, Django Unchained.

Jaeden Lieberher: "He is a pretty normal boy besides …"
Jaeden Lieberher: "He is a pretty normal boy besides …" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Midnight Special features a sermon entirely made up of numbers and an NSA agent (Driver) puzzling out the data of an unprecedented event in human history with the help of mysterious clues. As is the case in many aspects of Nichols' filmmaking, names work perfectly on two planes of storytelling. They are average enough not to be noticed, but once you do, a new map of constellations emerges suspended above the world we know - where the Bible meets global warming.

Earlier at the tea, I spoke with Jeff Nichols. Following the discussion, Jaeden Lieberher gave me some insights into his character Alton - spelled backwards "Not LA".

Anne-Katrin Titze: Great performance! Could you relate to Alton? Parts of him?

Jaeden Lieberher: Yeah, I could definitely. He is a pretty normal boy besides the superpowers and everything. He is just a normal boy reading comic books and being taken care of by his parents. I can definitely relate to him. You know, he is quiet and then later on he gets a better understanding of the world and he knows he has this purpose.

AKT: He wants to "stay awake during the day," which is a good start. The scene at the start has you under a sheet. Did you ever build tents like that?

Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), son of Roy (Shannon) and Sarah (Dunst)
Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), son of Roy (Shannon) and Sarah (Dunst)

JL: Yeah. I used to make tents. I used to love that. And read comic books.

AKT: And wear goggles? Are you a diver?

JL: No, I don't know how to dive. But I like swimming!

Anne-Katrin Titze: Your [Michael Shannon] name is Roy in the film and your performance is very royal - a royal love and trust and faith in your son. You [to Kirsten Dunst] are Sarah, wife of Abraham, if I am correct, and your [to Jaeden Lieberher] name backwards reads "Not LA". Did you have any thoughts about your names while you were working on that or am I abducted by aliens?

Michael Shannon: That's a question to beat the band. That's beautiful.

Kirsten Dunst: Yeah, it is. Not LA is great!

Michael Shannon: "I find Jeff's films very poetic. And not like a Godard film …"
Michael Shannon: "I find Jeff's films very poetic. And not like a Godard film …" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

MS: It's funny, you know, I do think the names mean something. The first one of Jeff's movies I was in [Shotgun Stories], I didn't even have a name. Just "Son." And now my parents started to name me. You know, it's interesting, I always imagined Roy, particularly before he had his son, he spent a lot of his life struggling with his identity. I don't think he really felt like he belonged. His family brings him to this ranch, not necessarily against his own will, but I don't think they asked him if he wanted to go. It's kind of like he says in the movie, "I didn't really believe in it", I was just there and did my chores.

I think he really struggled with a sense of meaning or purpose. And then he and Sarah fell for each other and they had this kid. And the second he has his son, this hole that he basically had his whole life is filled with Alton. I don't think it's something that he could have even anticipated. But the fact that he finally has a son of his own, it imbues him with this identity and then of course when he finds that people try to take it away from him… Again, it's so funny to me because I find Jeff's films very poetic. And not like a Godard film or something where you are like - this is like straight-up poetry because I can't possibly understand what's going on.

Jaeden Lieberher on Alton: "He gets a better understanding of the world and he knows he has this purpose."
Jaeden Lieberher on Alton: "He gets a better understanding of the world and he knows he has this purpose."

You can understand it because it seems very matter-of-fact; on the the surface it's very natural and honest or whatnot. But underneath it, even the smallest gestures - there's so much poetry in that. I think it's a very common experience that when people do somewhat find their identity that they have to fight to hold on to it. I don't think Roy has ever looked at himself as noble or royal but I think his effort to protect his son and to serve his son has a nobility in it.

AKT: You explain it perfectly well, that Roy's nobility lies in the love for his child and the sacrifice.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I liked a lot how you were playing with the names - there's Luke and Paul and Sarah. You don't use them in an obvious way but as a touch that makes us think more.

Jeff Nichols: Oh, thank you. That's the goal of the whole thing. And the reduction of expository information and everything else - that was the point of this thing. If it were just me laying out my own belief system and trying to force that on the audience , then I don't think it would be an enjoyable experience.

Michael Shannon and Jeff Nichols on the Midnight Special set
Michael Shannon and Jeff Nichols on the Midnight Special set

Hopefully, you can reduce information to the point that you make people apply their own belief systems to it. I think if you are Christian, if you have some other organised religion or not, or just a spiritualist - you come to the movie and you apply that to what you are watching.

Read what Michael Shannon had to say about working with Jeff Nichols, Joel Edgerton, Paul Sparks, Sam Shepard and Werner Herzog, being dressed by Erin Benach and his upcoming films - Salt and Fire - Nocturnal Animals - Elvis & Nixon.

Coming up - Jeff Nichols on following Sam Shepard, dressing a cult, defining faith and parenthood in Midnight Special and Derek Cianfrance on his upcoming film.

Midnight Special opens in the US on March 18 and in the UK on April 8.

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