Midnight Special Director Jeff Nichols Speaks Apr07

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Midnight Special Director Jeff Nichols Speaks

For director/screenwriter Jeff Nichols, the idea for his critically acclaimed new film, Midnight Special, harks back to a profoundly traumatic moment when his year-old son had a sudden medical emergency. The event plunged Nichols into a panic, as it would any parent. The situation was resolved and the boy was fine, but that agonizing experience brought a flood of fears and insights to the first-time father, some of which Nichols sought to express in the film. “I realized that having a child means giving up a part of yourself to the universe,” he says. “It’s like a wound has opened up that will never heal and will always be open to injury. If something happens to that child, you will feel it because you love him so much. It’s a helpless feeling, too, knowing that there is now this person in your life that you would do anything for, but in some ways you really have no control over.”

hMIDNIGHT SPECIALBuddyHollywood.com’s managing editor, Mike Parker, recently had the opportunity to chat with Nichols about Midnight Special.

Parker – In an age where fathers are often portrayed in popular media as incompetent buffoons, emotionally distant workaholics or simply absent from the family altogether, you’ve created a film that focuses on the incredibly strong bond between a father and his child. Why?

Nichols – It reflects what I deal with in my life. I try to make movies that connect through emotion. The only way I can transfer emotion to the audience is to find some emotion in my life that is palable, that gives me goosebumps, the kind of emotion that makes it through the gauntlet of filmmaking. At any moment I can drop into the movie and feel those emotions. When I write a film, I hold that emotion very close, and it becomes an anthem. That is the anchor that everything builds around. There is usually a scene where it really lands for me, that is the culmination of that emotion. If I don’t have you at that point, that’s my fault. I haven’t done my job as a filmmaker.

Parker – At some point Roy (the father) realizes that Alton isn’t like other children. In some sense Alton might be classified as a ‘special needs child.’ How do you think this might resonate with parents of children who are ‘different,’ who perhaps perceive the world differently than most folks?

Nichols – During the film process, I worked with a dialect coach, and at the end of the call, she said, ‘Your script was difficult for me. It’s been a number of years since I lost my son, and this was very difficult.” She didn’t say she didn’t like it, but she was affected by it. And I was very affected by that conversation. I think it points to the idea that people bring their own experiences to a movie. I have to say I’m quite pleased that I’ve made a film that allows people to do that, to draw their own emotions from it. I don’t have a special needs child, so I’ve never dealt with that in my life. But I would think that a parent who does could certainly bring that perspective into their movie viewing experience. All of the children are unique and all are special in their own. Every parent will feel it differently.

Parker – You directed your own screenplay, which can be a challenge. As a director, were you able to bring the vision you had in your mind as the screenwriter to life, or did the screenwriter in you argue with the director on set?

Nichols – The director in me knows that the screenwriter is always right. The only person who trumps that is the actor. The actors come on board and they have a very difficult task. They are the face of the film. They have to interpret in the moment what’s written. They get to control the film, until the editing process, then I get to take control back. As a director, my job is to facilitate the process. As the writer and director, I had more time to consider and process the story. If something isn’t working, I always go back to the source material.

Parker – Nobody goes to the movies to be preached at, yet filmmakers are storytellers at heart, and every great story has a message it is trying to get across. Is there a message in this film that you hope viewers walk away with?

Nichols – 100%. And the message is, if you are lucky enough to be a parent, I want you to go home and hug your kid. I want you to think about how precious this moment, right now, is. If you don’t have children, I want you to go home and call your parents. In either case, you don’t know how much longer you will have them. No one is guaranteed tomorrow.

Midnight Special opens in wide release on April 8, 2016.