Michael Shannon is coming off a remarkable year.
2015 saw him in three wildly different fall releases: Peter Sollett’s lesbian drama Freeheld (where Shannon plays police partner to Julianne Moore’s civil rights-seeking Laurel Hester), Jonathan Levine’s Christmas comedy The Night Before (which he stole from stars Seth Rogen, Joseph Gordon Levitt and Anthony Mackie via a hilarious turn as a drug-dealing Christmas angel), and Peter Bogdanovich’s screwball ensemble piece She’s Funny That Way (for which he provided a memorable cameo).
Those consecutive triumphs would be enough to satisfy most actors, especially if you’re the good-in-everything sort, like Shannon. But his greatest performance in 2015 was opposite Andrew Garfield in Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes, a devastating combination of tragedy and social commentary. As ruthlessly pragmatic real estate entrepreneur Rick Carver, Shannon both invites and earns comparison with Michael Douglas’s classic performance as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street; he takes what could have been a simplistic villain and turns him into one of the most complex and unsettling characters to grace the screen in years. The performance garnered Shannon Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for Actor in a Supporting Role. (He was previously nominated in 2009 for his supporting turn in Revolutionary Road.)
Of course, Bahrani and Bogdanovich are just a couple of the many great directors the 41-year-old Shannon has worked with in his 20-odd-year, extraordinarily rich career (fans may be surprised to know he made his feature debut in Groundhog Day). He’s collaborated with Oliver Stone (World Trade Center), Sam Mendes (Revolutionary Road) and one of the actor’s personal favorites, Werner Herzog, with whom he worked on My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. The actor is partial to Herzog’s blunt approach.
“Herzog is loving and kind, but after a take he’ll say to you, ‘Mike, that was quite lame,’” Shannon laughs. “I really appreciate that because there’s no beating around the bush. And when he’s happy, he’ll say very nice things. You know you can trust him.”
Perhaps Shannon’s most cherished working relationship, though, is with the Arkansas-born, Texas-based writer-director Jeff Nichols. Since his debut with Shotgun Stories in 2007, Nichols has quickly built one of the most distinctive filmographies in contemporary international cinema. The 37-year-old director pushes himself in new directions with each project, while deepening certain core themes: fathers and children, the economic anxieties of the American South and Midwest in the 21st century.
2011’s existential disaster-thriller Take Shelter and 2012’s Matthew McConaughey-starring Mud solidified Nichols’ position as a singular voice, but he takes a leap to a whole new level with his latest, a science-fiction opus called Midnight Special. Painting on a much larger canvas, Nichols has created his version of a chase film: Two men (played by Shannon and Joel Edgerton) race from West Texas to the Florida panhandle with a young boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), whose supernatural powers are desperately coveted by both a religious cult and mysterious government agencies. The cast is rounded out by Kirsten Dunst, Adam Driver and Sam Shepard.
To give away much more would be to rob the viewer of one of Midnight Special’s greatest pleasures, which is its consistent ability to upend the audience’s expectations. Those expectations are formed in the movie’s early scenes by its superficial resemblance to films such as Starman, E.T. and even Firestarter, but it quickly becomes clear that Nichols is up to something less literal and more poetic—and every bit as idiosyncratic as his previous work, in spite of the larger budget and ostensible genre trappings.
One thing that makes Midnight Special instantly recognizable as a Jeff Nichols film? A spectacular lead performance by Shannon. The actor has appeared in every one of the director’s films to date and feels that the two are kindred spirits in ambition and desire to experiment.
“Jeff has basically gone from making a movie on a wing and a prayer to a project at Warner Bros.,” Shannon says, “and he’s done that without making any concessions to anyone. He’s not imperious and he’s not a bully, he just has a real drive to test himself and further his own scope. I think he approaches everything with a combination of confidence and terror—like, ‘I think I can do this, it’s what I want to do, but I don’t know if it’s going to work’—which is what any valuable artist is doing.”
For Midnight Special, Nichols had a 40-day shoot based out of New Orleans, during which he and his crew traveled to Mississippi, Florida, New Mexico and, in Nichols’ words, “all around Louisiana” to depict the characters’ interstate chase. That chase, in Nichols’ hands, becomes the starting point for a profound meditation on the terrors of parenthood, though it began as something more traditional.
“I typically write on two different tracks at the same time,” Nichols explains. “One is focused on plot and narrative and aesthetics, and the other track is purely thematic. On the plot side of things, I really liked those sci-fi chase films from the ’80s so much that I wanted to make one. I wanted to do my version of Starman or Close Encounters.”
Shannon remembers when Nichols first told him about the idea, during the making of Take Shelter. “He used to talk about this chase movie he had. It would be me and some other dude in a car,” Shannon recalls. “I thought it was going to be like Smokey and the Bandit or something.” Once the actor saw the script, he realized that Nichols was up to something more thematically ambitious. “Jeff takes a superficial genre structure and injects it with a great deal of gravity,” he says. “The movie is about parenthood, much like Take Shelter.”
Nichols agrees that on his second, thematic, track, Midnight Special is that earlier movie’s companion piece. “I wrote Take Shelter when I was about to become a father, and it reflected my anxieties about stability,” he says. “What would become of my life?” By the time Nichols began to write Midnight Special, his son was a year old and suffered from a febrile seizure after a fever that spiked. “It didn’t have any long-lasting negative effects, but it freaked my wife and I out and really opened my eyes to the meaning of fatherhood,” Nichols says. That epiphany, that you have no control over what can happen to your child once it’s out into the world, found its way into Midnight Special’s genre framework. “The idea of a father and son on the run at night came from those movies I loved, but I had to make it personal and unique. Otherwise it’s just a simple homage, and that’s not enough.”
Narrative-wise, Midnight Special is Nichols’ most audacious and risky film to date, as it marries its emotional and thematic undercurrents to dramatic events that are, to put it mildly, open to interpretation. It continues an experimental approach to plot that began in Shotgun Stories, for which Nichols removed material from the script that explicitly stated backstory. Since then, he has continued to strip as much exposition out of his scripts as possible. “My theory is that by excluding information, you can activate the audience’s mind and draw them into the story in a deeper way.”
That said, Nichols and the actors created explicit histories for the characters and situations that are felt, if not literally known, by the viewer. For Shannon, the ambiguity lends itself to greater audience identification, not less: “A broader, more open field of vision allows the audience to relate to the story regardless of their specific circumstances, because they carry their own personal form of the narrative throughout the movie.”
Of course, it’s one thing to play with ambiguity in a little Sundance indie like Take Shelter, but applying that approach to a major studio production is something else entirely. Financed under the auspices of Warner Bros., Midnight Special is Nichols’ first studio movie (though he jokes that “while it was the biggest budget of my career by far, on their spreadsheet it probably cost less than two weeks of advertising for American Sniper”). Keeping the costs relatively low allowed Nichols to set the movie up in a very specific way: “There was no development,” the director explains. “I went in to Warner Brothers with the script in hand and said, ‘This is how much money I need, Michael Shannon is going to play the lead, and I need to have final cut. I love you guys and want to be in business with you, but if any of that doesn’t work for you, I totally get it and I’ll just go someplace else or not make the movie.”
Why WB? Nichols admired their relationships with serious moviemakers like Clint Eastwood and Ben Affleck, and for the most part his instincts were proven correct—the studio left a lot of creative control to the new auteur. Shannon claims that the director’s approach was unaffected by the jump in resources and pressure. “Maybe his way of working with the crew changed a little on the technical end, but in terms of the actors, he hasn’t changed,” Shannon says. “I think he really trusts me, so our presence reassures one another and makes us feel like no matter how big things get or how high the risks become, we’re still basically Jeff and Mike, just like we were on Shotgun Stories.”
The increase in scale did allow Nichols to fully realize his dream of emulating the 1970s and 1980s work of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg. This he largely achieved by shooting on 35mm with a Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2 equipped with anamorphic Panavision G Series lenses. “We tested the Alexa, and while it was beautiful, there was just no comparison with film in terms of the effect we wanted to achieve,” Nichols says. “This film was all about light, and obviously you can buy a digital lens flare online for two cents, but that’s not what we wanted to do.”
Indeed, Midnight Special is distinguished by a seamless blend of analog and digital technology, perfectly combining old-school celluloid techniques with more modern effects (used sparingly). “Everything had to blend together,” Nichols says. “You couldn’t have this organic approach to locations and set dressing and shooting on film, and not have an organic approach to effects.” Even when digital effects had to be employed for a recurring effect involving light emanating from Alton’s eyes, Nichols and his crew shot plates on set with a light rig so that the digital effects artists would have a reference point.
Shannon had a vastly different experience with effects in 2013, on Zack Snyder’s CG-heavy Man of Steel, in which he played General Zod. “To the filmmakers’ credit, on Man of Steel they did try to build as many of the sets as possible, but it was still difficult,” he says. “On Midnight Special, we were never in front of a green screen. We were always out in the woods or in the elements, and you could feel the cold. Ironically, the only times we were ever on stages were a motel room, and a cave set.”
Sound effects, on the other hand, presented particularly abstract, science-fiction-y challenges. “We needed to represent the sound of light,” Nichols says. “We decided it felt like electricity, with a lot of hums and things that had a low end to them.” Nichols reunited with Will Files of Skywalker Ranch after previously working with the sound designer on Take Shelter and Mud. Nichols and Files then synthesized the effects with the score by another longtime collaborator, David Wingo. “His digital sounds, drones and things, blend in with the effects to the point that sometimes you weren’t sure if you were listening to score or effects. It was a nice little dance.”
Nichols’ facility with effects actually ran him into trouble. “When we showed the film to Warner Brothers, they were like ‘That gas station scene with all the effects is great—do you have any more of those? If you want to do more of those, we’ll give you more money,” Nichols chuckles. “I said, ‘I’m so sorry, but I don’t have any more.’ That set piece—which I never even thought of in [commercial] terms—was threaded into the narrative and the fabric of the film, and that’s why it was effective. You can’t mess with that. You need to remain faithful to reality. Movies are so totally fake on every level that it’s our job to minimize that wherever we can.”
Ultimately, Midnight Special is Nichols’ most delicate balancing act to date: between music and effects, poetry and action, literalness and ambiguity, indie sensibilities and studio scale. He’s still not sure how people will respond, given the movie’s boldly open approach to narrative. Although some test audiences wanted the story to be more explicit, Nichols says Warner Brothers supported his vision. “They could have screwed me over, even with my final cut—easily. But they didn’t. They said ‘This is what you wanted to do. You will reap the benefits and the consequences.’”
The film represents an important step in the director-actor collaboration. “My writing syncs up with his acting,” Nichols says. “We actually don’t talk a lot. He just understands all of the things I leave off the page.” Shannon adds, “I don’t like to be entirely left alone, and I want to feel supported by my director. At the same time, you also want to feel like there is a critical eye there. A lot of takes are ‘good enough,’ they can work. But I’m always interested in getting beyond that to a point that is truly remarkable, and I want to know that the director feels that way too.”
Actually, Shannon considers Midnight Special one of his easier jobs. “I’m reluctant to say this, because maybe it’ll expose me to be a fraud,” he laughs, “but I didn’t find the role to be particularly challenging. It made so much sense to me; there wasn’t a day where I felt lost or struggling. Sometimes you feel like you have to fix a script, or hope someone fixes it for you, but I’ve never felt that way on one of Jeff’s movies.” MM
Midnight Special opens in theaters March 18, 2016, courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2016 issue.
Picture credits: Featured image photographed by Jeff Vespa. Michael Shannon at The Night Before L.A. premiere, courtesy of Sony Pictures Entertainment. Andrew Garfield and Shannon in 99 Homes, courtesy of Broad Green Pictures. Shannon with Seth Rogan in The Night Before courtesy of Columbia Pictures.