Sunday 25 September 2016

Midnight mystery of a special child

Midnight Special director Jeff Nichols talks to our reporter about his sci-fi thriller, which touches on the terror of parenting

Anne Marie Scanlon

Published 04/04/2016 | 02:30

Jeff Nichols likes to mislead his audience, but says:
Jeff Nichols likes to mislead his audience, but says: "I don’t do it for the sake of it".

Some critics have called Midnight Special, the latest film from director Jeff Nichols, an homage to Steven Spielberg.

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The movie is ostensibly about a young boy with special powers. While there are superficial similarities to ET - an innocent (8-year-old Alton) being chased and demonised by a world that doesn't understand - the film is far more than a sci-fi flick. It's a thriller, a chase movie and, more than anything, a meditation on parenting and parental guilt.

Nichols both wrote and directed Midnight Special, which is his fourth film and has an impressive cast that includes Sam Shepard as cult leader Calvin Mayer, Kirsten Dunst as Alton's mother, Sarah, Oscar nominee Michael Shannon plays Roy, Alton's father, Joel Edgerton is Lucas and Jaeden Lieberher delivers an extraordinary performance as Alton.

Nichols packs a lot in. Apart from Alton, the very special child, there's a religious cult, The Ranch, and modern U.S. law enforcement with their access to almost supernatural technology.

The film begins with two men quite literally boarded up in a motel room with a young boy. The TV is playing a news report about an 'Amber Alert' for the missing child. The first sign of something being out of the ordinary is that, in 2016, there are no photographs of the missing child.

The early part of the film is hyper-realistic, as Alton is bundled from motel room to car and the men attempt to cross state lines. TVs in the background show news coverage of the search for the kidnapped child.

One particularly nice detail is the inclusion of snippets of Nancy Grace - an extremely well-known 'crime expert' in the U.S., talking about the case as it unfolds. Nichols tells me that Grace was an undemanding hire, as she had seen his movie Mud and was a fan.

"She was funny," the director tells me on a flying visit from Texas, where he now lives. "She asked me 'are these people innocent? People are always on to me about people being innocent'.

"I do like misleading the audience, but I don't do it for the sake of it," Nichols explains about the opening scenes, which lead the audience in the direction of thinking Alton is with some heavy-duty 'bad' men. "If you go back and look at (those scenes)," he continues, "in the full knowledge of who the characters are, they still work. I'm very big on character behaviour."

Nichols was already preparing the groundwork for this film when his then eight-month-old son suffered a febrile seizure (also known as febrile convulsions), which greatly influenced the subsequent script.

Their child's health scare terrified the director and his wife.

"We thought he was dying and it shocked me out of this first-year fatherhood haze that I'd been in," Nichols says. "I think for the first time since he was born I started to think about it seriously. And it scared me. In fact, it kind of paralysed me to a degree. I realised that having a kid is like having a wound that opens up," he says, gesturing towards his side. "It just won't heal and, at any point there, out in the world, if he gets hurt, I get hurt."

Nichols goes on to say that Roy and Sarah, the parents in the movie, "were an allegory of the way I was feeling. They had no control over their child - they have no idea where he's going but they need desperately to understand it."

I tell Nichols that, while I've often heard women discuss the ceaseless worry and never-ending guilt that birth has thrust upon them, it's not a subject I've ever heard a father talk about.

"It's funny," he replies, "because every male reporter I've talked to, who has kids, says 'yeah, I know what you're talking about'. I think there's a reason why it takes a man and a woman to make a child - a mother and a father - because they process it differently."

One overwhelming theme of the film is a sense of 'otherness' of being different and outside. Does the director feel like an outsider? Nichols takes a moment to think, and then says: "Maybe we all do? But I didn't feel that way growing up. I had friends at high school, nobody put me in a trash can."

"I was raised in a kind of Ozzie-and-Harriet idyll," he says, referring to the all-American sitcom of the '50s and '60s. "My dad owned a furniture store, my mom raised the three of us. She put up with a lot, having three sons," he laughs. "She was lovely. I had a really nice upbringing. I've always been kind of dreamy - my mind wanders. Even now, my wife will snap her fingers and say 'Be with us! You're with us now'."

Nichols remembers wanting to be a marine biologist, despite living in the landlocked state of Arkansas.

"My Dad says I said I wanted to be a film director, but I don't remember that, I don't remember having that clear a vision," he says, demonstrating the truth that parents and children often remember their shared past very differently.

He says he enjoyed writing stories from an early age and that, when he was ready to go to university in the '90s, "film school was kind of the thing'. I'd never been on a film set - but it sounded cool."

Despite this, he says he graduated from the North Carolina School of the Arts utterly determined to make films.

Midnight Special has had a mixed response from critics. Like Nancy Grace and current presidential hopeful Donald Trump ("every day it gets crazier," Nichols says, shaking his head sadly) it has polarised opinions.

However, it does keep the tension high until the very end.

Midnight Special is in cinemas nationwide from April 8.

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