Finding salvation

Jeff Nichols on faith, selfishness, parenthood and Midnight Special.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Jeff Nichols: "Who doesn't want to follow Sam Shepard around?"
Jeff Nichols: "Who doesn't want to follow Sam Shepard around?" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Marguerite director Xavier Giannoli told me that on Paris posters for Midnight Special, Jeff Nichols is proclaimed the new Steven Spielberg. At the Warner Bros. tea, hosted by Michael Shannon with Kirsten Dunst and Jaeden Lieberher, I spoke with the director about following Sam Shepard, Adam Driver in Saverio Costanzo's Hungry Hearts and Erin Benach's costumes. She also worked with Derek Cianfrance on The Place Beyond The Pines and his upcoming The Light Between Oceans, starring Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz. I told Jeff that Guillaume Nicloux's Valley Of Love, starring Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu would make for a interesting supernatural companion piece to his film.

Sam Shepard as Calvin Meyer: "Their belief system that they built around the boy is very selfish."
Sam Shepard as Calvin Meyer: "Their belief system that they built around the boy is very selfish."

In a spectacular race against time, often in the dark, Midnight Special takes us on a road trip unlike any other, while the true story slowly unfolds like a gigantic flower nobody knew existed. Not knowing is just as important as knowing here and that goes for characters and viewers.

Roy (Shannon), a quintessential father figure, a storybook hero with calm and dedication, is redefining parenthood. Kirsten Dunst's Sarah, no less devoted to their 8-year-old son Alton (Lieberher) and his mission, makes believable what we can almost grasp through her expressive face. We first meet Alton, Roy and his friend Lucas (Joel Edgerton) on the run from everyone - a cult, the police, FBI and NSA.

Roy is a former member of the Third Heaven Ranch, the cult headed by Calvin Meyer (Shepard). Alton has very special powers and needs to be re-united with his mother, before embarking on a mysterious and urgent quest. Midnight Special embraces contradictory feelings - the cosiness of a nightly ride for a small child, snuggled on the backseat of the parents' car, and the sudden discovery that humanity is not at all functioning the way you thought it would. The unearthly is not presented as other, but is a logical, finely spun extension of the relationships that exist out there in the American South.

Roy (Shannon), Alton (Lieberher), Lucas (Joel Edgerton)
Roy (Shannon), Alton (Lieberher), Lucas (Joel Edgerton)

Anne-Katrin Titze: I loved how you present the cult to us. A lot is said merely through costume. The men could pass for just being...

Jeff Nichols: …a normal person!

AKT: Guys with really bad taste in shirts.

JN [laughing]: Yeah, exactly. Golf shirts and stuff.

AKT: Whereas the women wear long skirts, Peter Pan collars and an Elvis hairdo. You were striking a balance between what to tell and what not to tell. Can you talk a bit about that in connection to the Third Heaven Ranch?

JN: Oh, yeah. You know, the basis for the cult was from these FLDS [Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints] Ranches in South Texas. So I actually had a pretty concrete look into what those people looked like and dressed like. I was originally kind of struck by the fact that the guys - yeah - they don't put any kind of constraints on themselves.

They just look like normal guys so they can walk around and they're completely free. But these women are cloistered in and kind of put in these clothes and their hair is bound and all these other things. A lot of that was directly inspired by the FLDS. But in my particular version, they are kind of the most rational cult I've ever heard of because they actually have an example of a miracle in their midst.

Alton with his mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst)
Alton with his mother Sarah (Kirsten Dunst)

AKT: And they have Sam Shepard to guide them.

JN: And they have Sam Shepard, too. Who doesn't want to follow Sam Shepard around? In fact, I do kind of just follow Sam Shepard around. But, yeah, in a way it's really easy to make fun of, to poke holes in the kind of dogma of a religious cult. But to these people in this particular situation - they had a direct example of a miracle. I think their problem comes, you know, how do they use that information?

Their belief system that they built around the boy is very selfish. I think it's what we do a lot of times with our belief systems is, it's really just all about us. What can we get out of this? How can we experience the rapture? How do we get taken on the spaceship?

AKT: Is that why you named him Calvin?

JN: Yes. For sure. It felt like an appropriate name.

AKT: Have you seen Adam Driver in Saverio Costanzo's Hungry Hearts?

Roy: "Maybe it's belief but it's faith in who your children are ..."
Roy: "Maybe it's belief but it's faith in who your children are ..."

In Midnight Special, NSA agent named Sevier (Driver) puzzles out the data of an unprecedented event in human history with the help of nebulous clues.

JN: I haven't seen it yet. No.

AKT: I thought about his role there as a reason why he is chosen by Alton in Midnight Special. Ultimately it comes down to the question whom do you trust? Your film asks: How do you trust? What do your instincts say? Isn't that it?

JN: Right. I think so. I mean, faith is - the definition of it is believing in something that you can't truly know. That's what I think parenthood is. That's really what I was making a movie about - was what it really means to be a parent, which is to believe in your child, believe in what they can be.

Even though you might not know what that really is. Because that's how I feel about my son. I know I want things for him. I want him to be safe. I want him to grow up happy. But you can't control that. You can try and understand what about them and their personalities makes them who they are. I think, it's really a movie about - you said, truth. Maybe it's belief but it's faith in who your children are and who they can be.

NSA agent Sevier (Adam Driver)
NSA agent Sevier (Adam Driver)

AKT: Every child is a saviour?

JN: I think so. Yeah, that makes sense to me. That's a good way of putting it.

AKT: The first time we see Alton he is sitting under a sheet with the goggles on. It's a beautiful image because it says right away that he is still a little boy who is playing tent. At the same time, he is much much more.

JN: Well, it's really important at some point for him to activate, for him to become aware of his place in the universe. That was a fairly strict calculation that in the beginning we would just kind of mute him to a degree. We would just make him a boy. And then he wakes up. And when you have an actor like Jaeden…

AKT: I never thought about it before, but the sheet in that initial scene is an egg, too. He is hatching?

JN: Absolutely. It's also very pragmatic. He is just sitting under a blanket reading because it's his space. If you're in a hotel room with these two guys [Shannon and Edgerton], you can kind of be by yourself. Movies are at their best when the symbolism isn't too heavy-handed - that it sits in the ether a little bit.

Jeff Nichols on the set of Midnight Special
Jeff Nichols on the set of Midnight Special

AKT: Did you see Valley Of Love, the French film with Isabelle Huppert? I spoke with the director [Nicloux] about your film. It makes for an interesting supernatural parental companion piece.

JN: Oh, wow. Okay, I'll watch it. And you told him to see mine?

AKT: I did.

JN: Well, that's one ticket.

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.

What's in a name for Jaeden Lieberher, Michael Shannon and Jeff Nichols?

Coming up - Derek Cianfrance on his upcoming film, The Light Between Oceans.

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