Midnight Special is an edge-of-your-seat sci-fi thriller. It follows a father’s journey to protect his supernaturally gifted son from the federal government and a zealous religious group who thinks the young boy is their savior. It may be a paranormal plot, but the story behind the script is one that is all too real for Director Jeff Nichols. In an exclusive interview with Townhall, he shares how his own relationship with his son inspired his newest – and most ambitious – film yet.
Being a director means he is “narcissistic” by default, Nichols jocosely said.
He kind of has to be. Whether it’s telling the actors where to stand or pointing the direction of the cameras, there is a clear designation of roles that gives the director a powerful sense of control. In essence, he owns the movie set.
That is, until Nichols became a father and realized not every aspect of life is quite as orderly as that.
“When I compare that to being a parent, obviously those roles are totally blurred,” he admitted. “Sometimes I feel like my son’s in charge. Whose job is what? The clarity that comes from a film set is not in my everyday life.”
Fatherhood, Nichols shared, is “a complete role reversal” from directing. “You stop putting yourself in front of everything.”
“I was pretty floored by the experience of fatherhood,” he shared. “I still am. My son is five and half now and I think in that first year, my wife and I were just zapped. We were sleep deprived, thinking a lot about ourselves, how much our lives had changed. We could no longer leave the house to see a movie.”
Then, a medical emergency that brought his 1-year-old son to the hospital changed his whole perspective.
“Within that experience then this thing happened and it kind of shocked my system and pulled me out of this kind of selfish mode of thinking and I think I woke up thinking just how attached I was to my son and it really scared me,” he recalled. “It scared me because I realized how little control I had over the bigger picture and that how devastated I would be if something truly serious ever happened to him.”
With the fear, however, comes a tremendous amount of love, of joy, fulfillment, and hope for the future.
“When you try to inject that into a film, it becomes even harder,” Nichols said. “Getting away from the fear, putting it through these filters and despite all that, that was the goal to try and get some sense of what happened, what this feeling is.”
Nichols’ newfound emotions that come from being a dad are clearly visible in Midnight Special. In the film, the young boy, Alton Meyer, does not seem to fear the future. His dad, however, played by Michael Shannon, a consistent presence in Nichols’ films, is obviously terrified throughout the two-hour chase. Not only is he worried for his son’s safety, but he’s terrified of disappointing him.
Nichols’ personal connection to his films has become his signature style.
“It’s become kind of an operating procedure of mine,” he said. “To turn them back on to my own life…You have some entertainment value, but also something more personal to attach themselves too.”
Nichols had more resources to work with than previous films to make his ambitious sci-fi idea reality. Midnight Special is his fourth film, but the first in which he used a studio. The use of a studio, coupled with a budget that double his last film, proved to be both daunting and freeing.
The financial freedom gave him the opportunity to film those thrilling car chases and shootouts, but the upgrade really started to kick in when he glanced at his surroundings.
“Here I was every day going to the place Clint Eastwood makes movies,” Nichols said. “I would get goose bumps going to the Warner Brothers gate.”
As for the person who inspired his new film, he may not be an audience member for some years yet. His son needs to get through The Good Dinosaur first.
“He’s five and a half and there’s literally no filter between him and the thing she sees on TV,” Nichols shared. “We watched The Good Dinosaur. He asked when the dad dinosaur comes back and when I said he wasn’t, he just put his head on my shoulder and sobbed. So, we’re not ready yet. Not for Midnight Special.”
It’s not just in his directing Nichols has found inspiration in his son.
“It is a complete kind of role reversal in my life,” he said. “You just stop putting yourself in front of everything. It’s not about a future of your own trajectory – it’s about the trajectory of his.”
“It just resets your lens,” he added. “My eyes were looking out five years ahead, now they’re looking out 50 years ahead.”
Nichols beamed about his son one last time before we ended our phone call.
“The way he sees the world is really beautiful and I think that it starts softens the edges of the cynicism.”
Midnight Special is in theaters now.