“Midnight Special,” opening March 18, is the fourth collaboration between director Jeff Nichols and actor Michael Shannon. A studio movie made with the resources a genre story demands, it’s a far cry from the shoestring budget beginnings of their first effort, Nichols’ 2007 debut “Shotgun Stories.” But it’s also unusual in that the director maintained an independent writer-director voice within a Warner Bros. system that, of late, is focused on cranking out franchise blockbuster fare. That began right at the top with casting choice.
“There’s a lot of this that is a culmination of a relationship that has grown and flourished,” says “Midnight” producer Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, who represented Nichols as an agent on his first film. “I don’t think there’s been a bigger metamorphosis of a filmmaker from uber-indie and scratching it out, to being able to make a studio movie while not getting stuck in the financing bubble of, ‘I’ve got to put one of seven guys in it.’ He was able to say, ‘I’m going with the guy I believe in, and who believed in me.'”
The first time Nichols saw Shannon’s work — in a Sundance labs scene written and directed by one of his film school professors, viewed on a low-quality VHS cassette — the Little Rock, Ark. native was struck by an authentic Southern voice he had heard only in films like “Sling Blade.” It wasn’t hackneyed or overt.
“That got lodged in my head, and when I wrote ‘Shotgun Stories,’ I wrote it with that voice in mind,” Nichols says.
The seeds of a fruitful collaboration had been planted, but Nichols only hoped he could push through his draft, scrounge together an operable budget and populate the film — which focused on two feuding sets of half-brothers in a small Arkansas town — with similarly authentic actors.
Meanwhile, Shannon, a theater actor who had successfully made the transition to movies, found himself on a promising character actor track. He turned up in big Hollywood films like Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” and Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky,” with Tom Cruise, but felt like he was moving in the wrong direction.
“I pulled away from that and went back to Chicago doing storefront theater again,” Shannon recalls. “That’s who I am underneath, just a storefront theater actor, and I felt like if I floated away into the Hollywood dream, I would disappear or something.”
That’s when Nichols, who had worked up the courage to approach the actor after seeking out his contact information from his old professor, came calling. It was a risky prospect for Shannon, working with a first-time director on a minuscule $45,000 budget, but he was drawn into the world Nichols had created on the page.
“Nobody writes like Jeff,” Shannon says. “His screenplays are so bare and so full at the same time. They have so much potential in them for the other artists involved to make a contribution. Sometimes you get a script and it’s like a coloring book. You go, ‘Oh, I’ve just got to color the apple red and the tree green.’ But Jeff’s scripts aren’t like that. You really have to participate.”
There were none of the usual amenities, either. Nichols’ mother prepared meals for the cast and crew, who bunked up barracks-style throughout production. But the director was still learning, and he was eager to soak up any guidance Shannon could afford.
“I think he used me as a barometer of, ‘Am I doing this right,'” Shannon says. “But of course while there are rules and systems and things like that, the best art is the art that defies those rules and goes outside of them. So Jeff would say, ‘This must be the weirdest movie you’ve ever been on,’ and I would say, ‘Well, that’s a good thing.'”
Nichols was moving swiftly through the shoot, however, keeping a vigilant eye on the cost of production and the resources available. Three days in, he was already ahead of schedule, shooting just one or two takes before moving on.
“I was so worried about running out of film stock,” Nichols says. “But Mike pulled me aside and said, ‘Listen, everybody else on this set just wants to have a lunch break and go home. We are the only ones who are going to have to live with the consequences of what we do here today.’ He was basically telling me that just checking the boxes and getting the shots is not enough. ‘This is it. This is the only chance you have.’ And now I’m starting to paraphrase for him, because he doesn’t talk this much, but that was what was transferred to my brain: ‘We’re the ones who have to live with this. Your name’s going to be on it and my face is going to be on it, so let’s do something worthy of our time.’ He started teaching me how to direct.”
It became a collaboration of few words. Nichols and Shannon even relished the practice of not rehearsing material on set. “I like to keep the juice in the lemon,” Shannon would say.
Nichols sent the actor his script for “Take Shelter,” about an Ohio man afflicted with visions of an oncoming tragedy who obsessively outfits a backyard storm shelter, and got a concise “it’s brilliant” by text message. “That’s all he said,” Nichols says. “And we never talked about what his character was trying to achieve or what his problem was, was his character crazy or not crazy — we never talked about any of that. I think I talked to him a little bit about the research I did on schizophrenia, but not much.”
Nichols had also written the script at a watershed time in his own life, the anxiety of being an expectant father working its way into the DNA of the film. But while the story on the page was laced with existential dread, on set, Nichols had attained newfound confidence.
“He had really earned the right to make another movie,” Shannon says. “‘Shotgun Stories’ was a real gauntlet for him. It was like Odysseus lost at sea. He spent so much time with himself and the footage, trying to put that thing together. I think it was as much an experiment for him as it was for anyone else, like, ‘Is this really what I’m meant to do?’ And I think there were some moments along the way when he was uncertain of that. But it was nice to be with him where he wasn’t constantly looking over his shoulder at me wondering if he was doing the right thing. He just seemed a little more certain that he belonged.”
Nichols assumed earning those stripes would have given him an easier go at the material with Shannon a second time around, but that wasn’t the case. Throughout the production, the star was very concerned with what Nichols was getting out of the actors. At the end of every scene, they would both engage in long conversations and it was almost as if Nichols had to convince Shannon that it was OK to move on. Finally the director asked: Why the third degree?
“Part of it was he really connected to the material, but it wasn’t until later that I understood it was really more pragmatic than that and it shows how smart and experienced he is,” Nichols says. “He was like, ‘Nichols, you’re not covering anything. It’s very hard on me and Jessica [Chastain] to do this. There’s nowhere for us to hide because we see that you’re not doing standard coverage. So we need to get it all in this wide shot because you’re not going to do a close-up to bail yourself out, and I respect the hell out of you for doing that, but you have to know that this is it.’ And it goes back to that same statement he said on ‘Shotgun Stories,’ that we have this very precious moment to get it right. I think that’s his takeaway as an actor. He shows up, gives you everything he can to service the story, and then leaves, and he doesn’t see it again until we’re sitting in a theater premiering it.”
Like many of the duo’s collaborators, Shannon’s “Take Shelter” co-star Jessica Chastain says it was notable how little Nichols and Shannon spoke.
“They can both be shy guys,” she says. “I came in and had all these questions. I wanted to do all this work on the script and the intimacies of the relationship between Samantha and Curtis. The movie takes place over two months and I just wanted to know if this is a couple that had sex in that two months. To me that tells a lot about your relationship, and I remember when I asked that question, both of them were so uncomfortable!”
She compares their relationship to that of brothers: They understand each other really well and there’s a deep love there, but they can also get prickly with one another. “To me, that’s the sign of an honest relationship,” she says.
“Take Shelter” was part of actress Chastain’s big coming out party in 2011, as a number of the films she had been working on — “The Tree of Life,” “The Help,” “The Debt” — were finally hitting theaters. Ultimately it was a hugely fulfilling experience for her, she says, because she learned such a great deal sparring with Shannon.
“You always know to listen, to be present,” she says, “but sometimes you can have your idea of what a story is going to turn out to be, and acting with Mike, you can never assume anything. You have to feel the energy in the room. It’s this intimacy and if you’re not completely open to whatever that is in the moment, then the moment’s passed you by, you didn’t react, you weren’t available and you had some preconceived idea that is not interesting anymore because it’s not what the other actor is doing. Working with Mike really was the perfect example of why you need to do that, because so much of my performance is reacting to what he’s doing.”
When Shannon read the script for Nichols’ 2013 drama “Mud,” which told the story of a love-struck fugitive with a heart of gold, he was naturally eager to play the title character. Alas, Nichols had written it with Matthew McConaughey in mind, way back in film school when he first started pulling the story together, in fact. But he had, however, written the smaller role of Galen — uncle to the story’s young protagonist (played by Tye Sheridan) — for his usual muse.
The film premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival before going on to Sundance in January of 2013 and bowing that spring. It flirted with the awards season (part of the “McConnaisance,” as McConaughey had changed his image with films like “The Lincoln Lawyer,” “Magic Mike” and “Dallas Buyers Club”) and eventually sparked the decision makers at Warner Bros. to Nichols’ work. That’s what started the “Midnight Special” ball rolling in Burbank.
“There were a lot of big fans of ‘Mud’ at the studio and that included Jon Berg, Greg Silverman and [studio production chief] at the time, Jeff Robinov,” Kavanaugh-Jones says. “We were in the midst of putting ‘Midnight Special’ together independently and had a plan to take the movie to Cannes and pre-sell it and had some financing interest behind it. Instead, Greg and Jeff said they desperately wanted to meet him. It was one of those fairy tales where they effectively greenlit the film in the room.”
The studio was also naturally attracted to the producers’ pledge to make the film “economically.” Kavanaugh-Jones pegs the “Midnight Special” budget at “under $20 million,” while producer Sarah Green will only cop to “a modest budget by studio standards,” but it’s fair to call it impressively lean compared to the Warner status quo. (Speaking of which, the studio did tempt Nichols with one of their big franchise properties, “Aquaman,” but he wasn’t interested in leaping aboard the speeding locomotive of a DC Comics cinematic universe well on its way to being fleshed out.)
For Nichols, “Midnight Special” was a graduated form of “Take Shelter” in some respects, i.e. a hybrid form of filmmaking that accepts all the superficial benefits that genre gives you but then subverts them with specificity. The film tells the story of a boy gifted with supernatural powers, treated as a messiah by an entire community, who escapes with his father (Shannon) and is then tracked down by the government. Like all of Nichols’ work, the movie is heavier on visual storytelling specificity than on plot particulars, which don’t begin to really take shape until well into the first act.
The project was inspired in part by films like Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and John Carpenter’s “Starman” — stripped-down, relatable science-fiction. “I love the look of the cars and the motels and the gas stations in ‘Starman,'” Nichols says. “It feels like a real road trip. All those aesthetic choices have a real impact on how your movie plays.”
But there were caveats to such lofty inspirations. Nichols notes that some critical responses to the film, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February, accused it of failing to achieve Spielberg’s wonderment. “That wasn’t a goal, but it was certainly an inspiration,” he says. “The way those movies made us feel as kids, the way those mysteries unfolded and developed into this mouth-agape sense of awe, that’s real inspirational to me.”
However, he concedes, it can be dangerous to lean on such influences. “When you’re using Mark Twain as an inspiration to write ‘Mud,’ I think — critically, at least — people think you’re way more intelligent,” he says. “But you use Spielberg, it’s kind of like, ‘Alright, welcome to that bandwagon.’ So I think you have to be careful not to let it overrun your specificity. It’s not just aesthetics. It’s this larger sense. The same sense I got out of reading ‘Tom Sawyer’ and tried to apply to ‘Mud’ is the same sense I got out of ‘Close Encounters’ and tried to apply to ‘Midnight Special.'”
It all goes back to a quote from the very same college professor who turned Nichols onto Shannon in the first place: “It’s the job of narrative films to get as close to documentaries as possible, and it’s the job of documentaries to get as close to narrative films as possible.” Nichols believes that, and he applies it no matter what resources might be available to him on a given production.
Nevertheless, for Shannon, it has been incredible to witness the director handle a shift of gear to studio filmmaking with such aplomb.
“This is a very different film for Jeff, and there’s no doubt about it, it’s an unusual film,” Shannon says. “The fact that he stuck to his guns just speaks to his tenacity as an artist. If you look at the trajectory of his career, in four films he went from ‘Shotgun Stories’ to ‘Midnight Special.’ And they’re all scripts he wrote and they’re all his vision, 100%. The films were never taken from him or manipulated to satisfy somebody else’s point of view. I have a lot of respect for that.”
“Midnight Special” won’t be the only Nichols/Shannon collaboration hitting screens in 2016. “Loving,” which was recently acquired by Focus Features and set for a Nov. 4 awards season release, will come along at an electric time for race relations, both in America and in the film industry. It tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a couple arrested and banished from Virginia in 1958 for the crime of interracial marriage. Joel Edgerton (who also appears in “Midnight Special”) and Ruth Negga star as the Lovings, while Shannon will play Grey Villet, the Time Magazine photographer who captured their life and times.
“I’ve never been very good at the zeitgeist, but I think it’s an impression of the South that you don’t get all the time,” Nichols says. “It’s a very quiet civil rights film. Bombs aren’t exploding. Crosses aren’t burning. But the tension is all there. They’re just surrounded by a world that doesn’t accept them. And they weren’t politically motivated in falling in love and getting married. He wasn’t trying to make an overt political gesture by marrying his wife. He just genuinely loved her and didn’t understand why that was a problem.”
Adds Shannon: “What it really does is it makes the whole notion of it seem preposterous. Why would anybody in their right mind not want these two people to be together?”
That personal, grounded take on subject matter at its essence has been Nichols’ trademark all along, and it’s what continues to make Shannon — a pragmatic, no-frills performer equally concerned with authenticity — his secret weapon. Maintaining that sense of honesty in a profession that is inherently artificial is, of course, the trick.
“We were just in Berlin and we had the opportunity to kind of sit for an afternoon, just the two of us, and talk, which we never get to do,” Shannon says. “It’s so weird because we work together and we see each other and it feels like we’re old, dear friends, and then we don’t see each other for months or years. He said, ‘We’re probably not as close as people think we are. We’re probably not as close as we think we are.’ But that is the nature of this business. You have extraordinarily intimate relationships with people and then you kind of disappear. Hopefully, if you like each other, you get to see each other again.”