The American writer/director of Midnight Special on honing his craft and retaining creative control.
He’s directed four films in nine years and has another in post-production. He’s received major honours at some of the world’s biggest film festivals and is regarded as one of America’s most exciting filmmakers. And he’s still just 37. So how does Jeff Nichols do it? We sat down with the ace writer/director of Take Shelter, Mud and Midnight Special to find out.
LWLies: The last time we last spoke, around when Mud was out, you spoke about how each of your films was part of a bigger plan – where does Midnight Special fit into that?
Nichols: Midnight Special is the culmination of this trajectory that I’ve been on since Shotgun Stories. Mud gets a bit of an asterisk simply because Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Midnight Special were all written about how I was feeling in my life right then. Mud was a film about how I was feeling in high school – getting my heart broken. So that films sits to the side. But Midnight Special is kind of like my graduation. I feel like I’ve checked all of my technical boxes. I think I can call myself a capable director at this point.
What boxes had you not checked before?
Well, Shotgun Stories was just about making the thing. Getting it done. Period. On Take Shelter I started to move the camera but in a very controlled way, really thinking about point of view for the first time. Not just to the characters within the scene but the camera in relationship to the characters in the scene. Everything in that movie moves through a slow push in, which is really just indicative of the supernatural power that is the storm. That movement is the pressure building, that anxiety that’s pushing down on Michael Shannon’s character. I’m a big believer that when you move the camera you immediately begin to indicate point of view. So if you’re moving the camera on a character that’s sitting on the couch, you’re putting the point of view into an omniscient place, which worked for Take Shelter.
Before Midnight Special I’d never really moved the camera with the character, other than small hinged moves here and there – because I’d never used a Steadicam before. Mud was the first time I knew I really needed to float the camera with these boys, I wanted it to move like that river. So now, after those three films, I feel like I have control over camera movement as it relates to camera point of view, story point of view and character point of view. But I still didn’t feel comfortable with light.
Midnight Special is all about light. Not just about the boy and the light in his eyes, but the challenge of shooting the film at night. Taking my crew – Adam Stone my cinematographer, Michael Roy my gaffer who’s been with me since Take Shelter – and lighting these things in such a way that was aesthetically pleasing to me but still felt honest and natural and real. I shoot on film and when you shoot film at night it betrays itself somewhat – it loses that organic quality that makes it great because you have to bring in so much light. It’s very easy for things to feel lit. So that’s what we were overcoming with this movie.
There’s a lot more going on in this movie, more gun fights, more car chases, more CGI…
Yeah, the CGI box I had checked on Take Shelter and the shoot out box I checked on Mud, so it was really just the car chases that were left. Shooting in cars sucks. It’s the worst thing ever. This movie required a lot of shooting on real roads, we didn’t do any fake stuff with the cars. We tried also not to use a process trailer wherever possible, meaning the actors are really driving in a lot of the scenes. We had to build some pretty serious rigs to shot the car stuff. So yeah, that was another box checked. Stepping away from Midnight Special, for the first time I feel like I’ve got all the tools that a director needs laid out and I’m confident enough in my ability to use them. All the pieces are finally starting to fit.
What about your next film, Loving, which you’ve already finished?
Loving feels the most directed.
What does that mean?
Well it’s a story that’s based on real people, which I feel separated me from the subject matter a little bit. I think I focused on the direction a lot more. Plus, in every film up to Loving, I’ve really been trying to increase the scope, so each one is a bigger budget, a bigger concept… Loving was the first time we took a step backward in budget and I just controlled every part of it. I felt like I had mastery over the camera – I got every bit of coverage I wanted. Every shot, exactly as I wanted it. I’ve never done that before.
Is that a dangerously addictive feeling to have as a director?
It’s what you want. These things aren’t a mistake. I’m not wandering through the woods wondering what my movie’s about. I know what it’s about, and I want to be given the time and the resources to just go out and get it. I mean, it’s happened on all of the movies I’ve done, but the level of anxiety has decreased with each one because on Shotgun Stories, failure wasn’t an option. It had to be finished.
On Take Shelter, the plane could’ve hit the mountain. If we slipped up, we didn’t have another day. We couldn’t afford it. We didn’t have the actors. My wife was eight months pregnant. I needed to get that sucker shot in those 24 days. It was very stressful. Mud was the first time I started to relax into it, because I had the support system necessary to do so. That was the first time I had the system of the filmmaking process behind me. I had that on Midnight Special too, but we were trying to pull off really big things for more money and time than we really had.
You talk about bigger budgets and bigger concepts – can you see yourself one day making, say, a Marvel movie?
Probably not. Now, I wanna make bigger movies. I wanna make a $100m movie. But unfortunately, I’ve made enough films now in this style, with this process – my team’s process – that I feel like it would be impossible to give that up.
We hope you never do.
Lord knows they keep asking. But it’s mine to give up. It’s mine to fight for.
Midnight Special is released in the UK 8 April.
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