Jeff Nichols’ guide to crafting a movie ending

The writer/director of Take Shelter and Midnight Special offers his take on an essential filmmaking skill.

As told to

Adam Woodward

You’ve got a great idea for a movie, you just don’t know how to end it. It’s a common problem many filmmakers face. Yet for Jeff Nichols, endings aren’t something to lose sleep over. At least, a good movie shouldn’t live or die on the strength of its final scene. Ahead of the release of his brilliant new film, Midnight Special, the writer/director reveals how he approaches endings and explains why the journey is just as important as the destination.

“It’s important to have a clear idea of how you want to wrap things up. I can’t think of a situation, on any of my movies, where I haven’t had the final moment in my mind right from the start. The same way as I have the opening moment in my mind. My advice with regards to writing and directing endings would be to not focus all your time and energy on it. The more important thing to talk about is the journey – how you arrive at the destination.

“I come up with the final moments, that I think will be satisfying enough, but I’m not trying to satisfy people with my endings. I’m not trying to provide a satisfying conclusion. That’s not really where I put my focus. My focus is on emotion, transferring an emotion to an audience. In each film I’ve made I’ve had a scene that feels like a pressure point. It’s the scene where – whatever that emotion is – the movie really starts to work.

“In Midnight Special it’s where the boy jumps out the back of the car and Michael Shannon turns around and yells after him. That to me is the most important scene in the film. In Mud it’s where that girl in the parking lot tells Ellis he’s just a kid after he tells her he loves her. In Take Shelter it’s actually not the moment where he flips the table over a screams, it’s the moment right after when he looks down at his daughter and breaks. In Shotgun Stories it’s when Michael Shannon’s brother is killed and he’s in the backyard taking this tent down. These are the moments that matter to me. Honestly, that’s that I build the whole movie around.

“For me the important part is making sure that emotion is arrived at, in a fully realised way. You can throw a puppy dog on the interstate and you can feel fear and and anger and joy, but they aren’t earned – there’s no deepness to those feelings. It’s just kind of these reactions to the situation. What I’m talking about is trying to craft a whole movie that brings you to a pretty deep feeling at some point. Everything else is just the details.”

Midnight Special is released in cinemas 8 April.

Published 5 Apr 2016

Tags: Jeff Nichols Michael Shannon

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