Midnight Special: Sci-fi with a Spielbergian spin

12 Apr 2016 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

8 mins
Midnight Special
Midnight Special

Midnight Special is the mysterious new sci-fi thriller from American director Jeff Nichols and starring Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, Sam Shepherd and Adam Driver. The plot of Midnight Special should remain shrouded in secrecy to ensure audiences get the most out of the experience, but the film is broadly about a father and his gifted son going on the run together as they are hunted down by a mysterious cult and a clandestine government agency. Whether they're captured or not could have far-reaching consequences that could change the entire world...

With the intriguing character of Alton Meyer at its heart, this is the latest film to centre its story around the enigmatic powers of a young person, playing on the perceived innocence of children for dramatic effect. As the tagline has it: 'He's not like us'. 

In 1999, The Sixth Sense became a phenomenon with its story of a young boy with the ability to 'see dead people'. Continuing the horror theme, The Babadook centred around a boy who could see monsters in his house that his mother was unaware of, while Birth covered darker territory with its story of a disturbed woman convinced that a 10 year-old boy is the reincarnation of her dead husband.

Casting any actor is crucial to a film, but even more so when dealing with complex roles for young performers. Casting directors can find it difficult to find younger actors with the necessary levels of sensitivity and empathy, or to locate actors who aren't overly ingrained with stage-school training. 

For Midnight Special, a nationwide search was held for somebody with the requisite air of mystery and intelligence to play Alton. After a long period of not finding anybody, Jaeden Lieberher walked into the room and the filmmakers immediately knew he was the right person - an instinctive reaction that mirrors Steven Spielberg's casting of Henry Thomas for Elliot in E.T.

This is the fourth time Nichols has worked with actor Michael Shannon, following their work in Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter and Mud - all smaller films rooted in the same low-key, intelligent ambiguity that characterises Midnight Special. Many actors and directors have established working relationships over a number of films, building an instinctive understanding of one another, with the actor becoming a muse like figure for the writer/director, allowing the creative process to flow much more easily. 

The most famous examples are probably Martin Scorsese working with Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio, but other great collaborators include Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart; Pedro Almodóvar and Penélope Cruz; Spike Lee and Denzel Washington; and Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.

Midnight Special is hugely influenced by early Spielberg films, including the aforementioned E.T., and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. These films are centred around a romanticised but recognisable suburban America, and seek to ground the films in people's believable and innocent reactions to wondrous events. As well as Spielberg, Nichols was also influenced by the John Carpenter film Starman, another picture about an alien landing and finding a home in the suburban American heartland. In an age of seemingly limitless spectacle, Nichols is looking to blend the spectacular with an earthier brand of filmmaking to create something more human.  

Sometimes - as is the case with Midnight Special - entire films can spring from tiny ideas. Nichols had an image of Kirsten Dunst sitting on the stoop of a house with a porch bulb lighting the back of her head for years before even conceiving the idea of Midnight Special. It was from this germ of an idea that the entire film developed, so make sure to draw or write down any ideas you may have for a story - however small - as you never know what they could develop into!

The film's increase in scale is characterised through a series of spectacular car chases, but true to form, these chases are included to organically serve the purposes of the story and be intrinsic parts of the narrative, rather than just thrown in to add excitement. The sequences do not scrimp on spectacle, however, and recall some of cinema's classic chases, including Spielberg (again) in his debut feature Duel, as well as those in Bullit and The French Connection.

Continuing the strive towards realism, the Midnight Special filmmakers shot as much of the film as possible in real locations in and around the southern United States. This approach can have practical consequences both positive and negative. Shooting had to be rescheduled due to record breaking low temperatures, while filming on roads could only be done in 3-5 minute bursts, due to traffic controls. 

In order to match the director's vision however, artistic licence sometimes needs to be taken. In this case, crew had to lay down part of their own roads to ensure the action and narrative (literally) travelled in the direction Nichols wanted. Because of the lack of green screen, this required a painstaking post-production process of matching exterior shots, ensuring that switching between locations was done seamlessly. For another scene, Nichols wanted to shoot a group of people leaving a motel room, heading for their car, and driving away, all in one shot. What may sound straightforward resulted in researching more than a hundred different locations before a suitable setting could be found.

The film uses practical special effects in other ways. To achieve the extraordinary blue light that pours from Alton's eyes - showcasing his supernatural abilities - the filmmakers fitted the actor with special LED goggles, that actually lit up on set. Even though the effect of these was expanded in post-production, Jaeden understandably thought they were pretty cool props to be working with, particularly in a scene involving the goggles and an apparently vibrating house, which was also achieved through practical effects. In yet another Spielbergian throwback, the goggles might remind you of the night-vision goggles famously deployed by young Tim in Jurassic Park

Like all of Nichols previous films, Midnight Special is ultimately a story about love - in this case between a parent and their child. It is this universal theme that allows the film to successfully deliver its action with an emotional punch, and combine the fantastical and the mundane in ways that Spielberg himself would be proud of.

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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