Everybody's been calling Midnight Special an homage to Steven Spielberg. But director Jeff Nichols didn't plan it that way, which he was keen to make clear the moment we sat down to talk about the film. Sure, Midnight Special, which expands wide this weekend, owes some of its DNA to Spielberg's work like ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind — but Nichols was not aiming for that.
"Those films are part of the DNA of who I am as a moviegoer," Nichols told io9. "I think a lot of people are like that. When I think of movies, I think of those movies. And so it's definitely baked in. [But] I never held those films up and said, 'OK, this is when a gas station blows up and this is when my gas station blows up.'"
Even so, he admits the comparisons make a certain amount of sense. Midnight Special stars Michael Shannon as Roy, the father of a mysterious boy named Alton (Jaeden Lieberher). Roy, along with a friend played by Joel Edgerton, kidnap Alton from a cult to bring him to bigger and better things. Alton has special powers, can't go out at night, and occasionally shoots blue light from his eyes. Nichols admits the movie's science-fiction chase structure is in the mould of those Spielberg films (as well as John Carpenter's Starman) but he's frustrated by reviews that say the film either fails, or succeeds, in hitting that Spielberg sweet spot.
"I never was trying to achieve [a Spielberg level]," Nichols said. "It makes sense now with hindsight. You're like, 'Well, of course that's what people think you're setting out to do, so if you don't do that then you've somehow failed.' But it always hits me like a sideswipe, because I'm like, 'Wait, I wasn't going for that. I was just going for a natural progression of this story.' And you can talk about the merits of that on its own, but when you [say], 'Does it do this specifically?' No. Because I'm not Spielberg."
In fact, Nichols' intentions were much simpler at the outset. He dreamed up a very simple image and tried to figure it out. "I had an idea of two guys driving in a very fast car down these dark, southern roads in the middle of the night," he said. "And I was wondering why they were moving at night? Why they had to move at night? That idea interested me." He then put a boy in the back seat of that car and wondered why he was there. That's when the science fiction came in. "The scifi chase movie is kind of a sub-genre unto itself," Nichols said. "Especially the government scifi chase movie is a unique sub-genre unto itself, and that just felt like an easy answer."
From there, the film was not about easy answers. Nichols, a new father, began to write the movie as a way to deal with his own insecurities and fears as a parent. "Well it's really kind of a metaphor for parenthood, not to get to hifalutin and cheesy about it," he said. "It seems like you're on this journey as a father and you just don't know where your child is going. You don't know if they're going to make it….And that felt oddly in line with the scifi chase movie. It felt like an opportunity to do what I really love to do, which is blend genre elements with really intense, kind of personal feelings."
Scifi is almost always built out of personal feelings, but it's sometimes about universe-building too. Midnight Special sets up a big, interesting, universe, but is very careful as to what information we actually learn about it. Nichols swears he has those answers, because he outlined the entire history of the movie from the birth of the adult characters and past the jaw-dropping ending. But once that was all plotted out, he sliced out a single sliver of a story to tell. It's his preferred method of storytelling.
"I think, as a writer, you're compelled to want to bring all this other stuff from earlier back into the film. Like, look at all this cool stuff I built. But I think that's weak writing," Nichols said. "I think too often you say, 'Well we'll just let the characters explain it.' And that's not how people behave. So, what I was really trying to do was take this chunk of out the timeline and try and keep it as intact as possible. Now, you make decisions as a writer which parts of that to show. And you hopefully create situations that are organic enough that people know what's going on, but it still stays true to the way people behave if you were just looking into the microscope of this particular part. So I think that writing style is kind of what creates this mystery. It's certainly created the rules that I've applied in terms of what to show and what not to show. What to tell and what not to tell."
One thing he will tell us? A moment that feels like a nod to another new scifi movie is unintentional. In the film, Adam Driver's government agent character says the words "Red Saber." Of course, it sounds like a nod to his Star Wars character Kylo Ren, who carries a red lightsaber. Nichols swears that's not the case.
"I have a book of code words from the US government. And I think I pulled [Red Saber] out of there? I might have just made that one up," he said. "So no, it had no comparison to Star Wars. We didn't know he was going to be in Star Wars until we were actually off set shooting. So the universe was just being ironic."
Midnight Special is in select theatres now. It expands on April 21.