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‘Midnight Special’ filmmaker Jeff Nichols is telling American stories -- his way

Director Jeff Nichols on set during the filming of "Midnight Special."
(Ben Rothstein)

Most directors build their genre movie by coming up with a story, or at least a concept.

But when the Americana-flavored auteur Jeff Nichols first came up the idea for his new film “Midnight Special,” he paid protocol no mind. The movie is a sci-fi government chase piece; it evokes the pop entertainments that a 1980s-era Steven Spielberg used to make. Yet plot and hook were distant notions.

“The first time Jeff mentioned ‘Midnight Special’ to me, he described it as a chase film where I’d be driving a cool old car late at night — and that was about it,” said Michael Shannnon, Nichols’ frequent collaborator and a star of “Midnight Special.” “He saw the film very clearly even without knowing what it was about.

Nichols smiled when asked if he had tossed story out the air lock.

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“I didn’t create this to have a kind of plot concision. That’s just never been a priority,” he said.

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Nichols, 37, has long been about filling familiar vessels with unfamiliar materials, becoming the kind of accomplished and distinct American voice people like to complain doesn’t exist much in film anymore.

In 2011’s “Take Shelter,” Nichols crafted an apocalypse drama that was less about the disaster and more about the waiting. His follow-up, “Mud,” was a child-adventure movie in the spirit of “The Goonies” — but designed to feel like Mark Twain. Over the course of this work, he has become a kind of unique hybrid, drawing from a long tradition of American storytelling but combining it with a modern independent sensibility that eschews back story and embraces minimalism.

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Yet the writer-director has perhaps never worked in a genre so recognizable, nor ended up with a piece so thoroughly subverting of that genre, as he has in his new work.

“Midnight Special,” which arrives in theaters Friday, begins at a cult, as a possibly prophetic child named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher) is kidnapped. It turns out he has been not so much taken as taken back by his father, Roy (Shannon), and father’s pal Lucas (Joel Edgerton) Soon the chase is on. The trio is joined by Roy’s ex-wife, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), holing up in a motel room as the FBI bears down. Also pursuing them is a government agent (Adam Driver) with his own theory and agenda.

A road picture about a sci-fi exceptionalist, the movie continues to bob and weave, building to a big-canvas, otherworldly confrontation. Echoes of “Starman,” “E.T.” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” are evoked — until they aren’t. The climactic rendezvous not only leaves questions unanswered but also seems to ask the audience a meta one of its own: Why is it so important for you to know?

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At a moment when talented young directors either toil in rarefied indie space or quickly give themselves over to the studio tentpole overlords, Nichols is an anomaly: a populist auteur. Or, perhaps, an anti-populist auteur. His movies form recognizable story patterns, feature known stars and, at least in this case, come from a major studio (Warner Bros.).

But he is agnostic about plot, draws decidedly outside the screenwriting lines of exposition and payoff and generally crafts movies that defy expectation. “Jeff paints half the canvas and then hands the audience the brush,” Edgerton said.

Nichols is not trying to challenge viewers, mind you. Not consciously, anyway. He simply has different goals in mind.

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“All I want to do is convey one palpable emotion and have it sustain itself through the process of filmmaking. The details are window dressing,” he said. “My thought about the third act, whatever the ... that is, is emotional transference. Do you feel something at the end of having spent two hours with these people? That’s all I care about.”

He added, “I think that’s why some people are put off by my endings. Because I don’t really give a… about endings. My stated goal is to transfer an emotion to an audience.”

As the director had lunch, fittingly, at an upscale deep-fried restaurant here the day after his film made its U.S. premiere at SXSW, he was in a state of what might be called activist Zen.

Nichols tends to keep an even keel, a mood that suits his Arkansas upbringing and current Austin home. But he also carries some resentments, especially after the early industry struggles of his last film, “Mud,” and the occasional naysaying on this one.

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“Mud” brought a certain kind of frustration. With two stylized mood pieces (“Take Shelter” and 2007’s rural sibling drama “Shotgun Stories”) already under his belt, he decided to work in a more accessible style. “Mud” premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 — and promptly turned off distributors. The movie went unsold for months.

All I want to do is convey one palpable emotion and have it sustain itself through the process of filmmaking.

Jeff Nichols

“It kind of sent me in to an existential crisis. It was like ‘what if all the fundamental things I believe about storytelling were not true? Do I just not know what makes a good story?’ I felt like I would know if something was total crap. And the industry was treating this like total crap.”

He returned to Austin that summer and began to write “Midnight Special.” “With ‘Mud’ I was checking all the boxes of a classic American story, and no one wanted it. So it was like ... I’m going to write the leanest thing I possibly could. I’m not here to make anyone happy.”

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He added, “There definitely was a chip on my shoulder writing this thing.”

“Mud” ended up finding an audience after a bare-bones deal was made with the indie distributor Roadside. The film took in nearly $22 million at the U.S. box office — more than most English-language movies at Cannes that year. It confirmed Nichols’ desire not to kowtow.

But Nichols once again found himself at odds with a wing of the film establishment once again with his new movie. Reviews of “Midnight Special” were divided when the movie debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival last month. There were raves from the U.S. trades, but also harsh pieces from other outlets.

The Guardian, for instance, wrote that that Nichols was “making a concerted effort to stake his claim as a hit-maker” but that “Sadly, the Spielbergian magic that Nichols so desperately wants to recreate is almost entirely absent from the end product and without it, there’s something disappointingly lifeless instead.”

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Nichols says such assessments miss the point.

“There were these reviews that said the movie has weird limitations,” he said. “That if left in would better hands it would be a better straight-ahead story. That he doesn’t have the ability to realize the Spielbergian vision.”

Then, as he gave a gentle smile, he said. “And for me it’s like … it’s a choice. You may not agree with the choice. But it’s a choice. Don’t assume just because I’m inspired by those films that I’m trying to make them. Give me a little credit.”

Studio executives say that, no matter the conventional wisdom, sharp style is no impediment either within the system or with audiences. In Nichols’ case, they say, it helps him.

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“It’s a little like Amy Winehouse,” he said. “He becomes an original by singing standards,” said Greg Silverman, who runs world wide production for Warner Bros.

Nichols’ desire to riff on the familiar, it should be said. goes only so far. After spending time developing “Aquaman” at the studio, the director eventually opted out. In the interview he said that while he has a strong affinity for Warners, sometimes a studio and a director like him are speaking different languages.

“It bums me out that we’ve stopped striving to build things from scratch. You know, this idea that we believe people say ‘I don’t know anything about this film so I’m not going.’ What is that? I had built something with ‘Aquaman’ that I thought was great. And it was like ‘don’t you want this?’ And they didn’t. They wanted the $100 million dollar thing they can sell. And I’m not quite ready to sign on to that yet.”

Nichols says instead he continues to want to shape movies out of his personal concerns.

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He made some of his earlier work to honor his father, who when Nichols was growing up carried a love of classic westerns — the books of Louis L’Amour, the movies of John Ford. Nichols has in turn also sought to grapple with feelings about becoming a father himself. “Take Shelter” was developed at a time shortly after the director and his wife had a son and he was racked with concern about how to protect him.

And “Midnight Special,” with its underlying dread of a son who might be taken away at any moment, came when Nichols’ own child was ill several years ago and he and his wife had to face the possibility of losing him. (His son recovered and all turned out OK.)

“I think Jeff combines a deep knowledge of cinema with very unique personal experiences,” said Shannon, who has had a role in every Nichols film, including his next, a period interracial romantic drama titled “Loving” that might well upend conventions of that subgenre. “And he kinds of rides on these two tracks, combining genre with the stories of his personal truth.”

After “Loving,” Nichols hopes to make a biker movie. He —of course — has little idea for the plot, but was simply inspired by social truths uncovered in a book of vintage photographs.

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“The scary thing is I’m starting to see a personal style developing that I may not have full control over,” Nichols said, when asked if, four films in and far from the unknown upstart who caught the industry’s eye with “Take Shelter,” he feels like he wants to change his style or has been cowed by a filmgoing culture that still seems polarized between effects-laden blockbusters and austere indies.

“It’s all got me a little intimidated, to be honest,” he said. “But I’m trying to see it differently. I’m trying to see it as every time you make a film that’s not a total failure, it’s a victory.”

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com


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