Like every Hollywood studio, Warner Bros. is obsessed with making and releasing franchise blockbusters that can generate billions of dollars in revenue. But, the studio hasn’t totally abandoned smaller movies with indie sensibilities.
“Midnight Special,” which is being released March 18, is an under-$20 million genre movie that marks the fourth collaboration between director Jeff Nichols and actor Michael Shannon. The film, co-starring Adam Driver and Kirsten Dunst, tells the story of a boy with supernatural powers, who’s viewed as a messiah by a cult-like community, escapes with his father (Shannon), and is hunted by the government. Like all of Nichols’ work, the movie is heavier on visual storytelling specificity than on plot particulars.
Nichols, 37, whose previous indie films — including “Mud,” “Take Shelter” and “Shotgun Stories” — were made on shoestring budgets, was able to maintain his independent writer-director voice despite working within the major studio system that is Warners. The studio granted him final cut, and was naturally attracted to the producers’ pledge to make the film economically.
“What I was worried about wasn’t being forced to change something, but just being able to stick by my own guns,” said Nichols, who added that Warner Bros. was very accommodating. “I remember Greg Silverman being really supportive after an early screening and saying, ‘You know, that gas station scene is incredible. If you want to do anything else like that, we’ll pay for it.’ I was like, ‘You want me to blow more stuff up? What a flattering, cool offer.’”
“Midnight Special” producers Brian Kavanaugh-Jones and Sarah Green were in the throes of raising independent financing for their project when decision makers at Warners spoke up. “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 said. “It was one of those fairytales where they effectively greenlit the film in the room.”
Warners even tried to tempt Nichols with one of its expensive event films, “Aquaman,” but he wasn’t interested in hopping aboard an already fully-realized cinematic universe.
The first time Nichols saw Shannon’s work — in a Sundance labs scene written and directed by one of his film school professors — 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.
Meanwhile, Shannon, a theater actor who successfully made the transition to movies, found himself on a promising character actor track in big Hollywood films like Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” and Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky,” with Tom Cruise. But he felt like he was moving in the wrong direction.
That’s when Nichols came calling. It was a risky prospect for Shannon, working with a first-timer on a minuscule $45,000 budget. But four films later, with a fifth (“Loving”) on the way, the actor calls Nichols’ career trajectory “incredible.”
“In four films, he went from ‘Shotgun Stories’ to ‘Midnight Special,’” he says. “And they’re all scripts he wrote. They’re all his vision, 100%. They were never taken from him or manipulated to satisfy somebody else’s point of view. I have a lot of respect for that.”