The dreaded studio note. While filmmakers and actors frequently complain about how executives mar creative vision with misguided demands, you rarely hear about the suggestions that made a movie better. But with the new Warner Bros. sci-fi drama “Midnight Special” poised to hit SXSW, we learned about two such miraculous notes, courtesy of writer/director Jeff Nichols.
Sitting down with the celebrated filmmaker in a roundtable interview, SPINOFF heard the origins of “Midnight Special’s” Superman scene, and how “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” star Adam Driver came to take on the film’s “most dangerous” character.
“Man of Steel” actor Michael Shannon headlines “Midnight Special” as a man on a mysterious mission: Dodging the clutches of a doomsday cult and the FBI, he races across the country to spirit Alton (Jaeden Lieberher ) — a strange boy who can shoot brilliant beams of light out of his eyes — to a secret location, the full meaning of which only the 8-year-old understands. Yet along the way, there’s time for tender moments and even a Superman reference that might make audiences chuckle.
As they speed silently down a dark highway, young Alton looks up from his Superman comic book to ask, “What is Kryptonite?” In response, a sneer crosses Shannon’s face. But for those thinking that was intended as a sly nod to the intense actor’s role as General Zod, Nichols revealed the path to this meta moment was more brand-minded.
“They were Wolverine jokes,” the filmmaker said with a grin. “I had originally written it as adamantium, which is the metal that binds Wolverine’s bones; I’m a nerd. And of course, we were at Warner Bros. and they have the DC Universe and everything. I just hadn’t thought of [Superman] before, mainly because Kryptonite seemed too obvious. And I wasn’t even thinking about the General Zod connections or anything else. I looked at Mike and was like, ‘Look, we’re going to have to change it to the DC Universe. And it’s going to be Kryptonite.’ And he was like, ‘I think that’s OK. I think that’s going to be OK.’ But I did discuss it with him, because I didn’t want to be cheesy.”
In a separate interview, Shannon, who previously worked with Nichols on “Shotgun Stories” and “Take Shelter,” recalled, “I just remember that night he kind of got insecure about it a little bit. Like, ‘Should I do this? Is this a bad idea? Is this going to draw too much attention?’ But I think it’s really sweet and innocent. And it’s really good to see Alton, this powerful boy who’s so vulnerable at the same time, asking about Kryptonite. I thought it was really perfect, so I’m glad he left it in there.”
The studio’s other pivotal note urged Nichols to look to rising star Driver when casting an intelligent FBI agent tasked with tracking down Alton. “Midnight Special” shot in the period between when Driver was cast in “The Force Awakens” and when the “Star Wars” sequel began production. But Nichols landed the future Kylo Ren months before, thanks to executives in the know.
“I have to give credit where credit is due,” the director said. “Greg Silverman, the head of [Warner Bros.] studio, recommended him. They’d worked on another film together [‘This is Where I Leave You’]. I wasn’t familiar with his work. I hadn’t watched ‘Girls,’ and I hate to say this, but sometimes you get studio executive notes and you’re like, ‘Ugh. OK, I guess I’ll go check this guy out.’ But in this particular instance, it was an amazing note. It was an amazing idea.
“I remember my casting director Francine Maisler — who’s no joke; she’s the real deal — she talked to me before I talked to Adam Driver on the phone for the first time. And she was like, ‘Don’t mess it up!’ I didn’t understand all the chess pieces that were getting moved around the universal board in the background. I talked to him and he’d seen ‘Shotgun Stories,’ which makes him one of 17 people, and we just had this great conversation about this character. This character that out of the list of them could be the most clichéd, could be the most stock, and he had ideas about that and they were good ideas. And I was really honest with him, like, ‘Hey, look this is the most dangerous character in this film because he could be the most one-dimensional. Help me with this.’
“In one of the first scenes we did together, he has to sit down at this desk, and he bumped into the desk and dropped his bookbag and hit his foot on the chair. I almost called cut because I thought, ‘Well, this is obviously a mistake.’ But it wasn’t. He was beginning to build the behavior of this character. And that’s acting. That is somebody who is really thinking about what they’re doing. And from that moment on I was tremendously impressed with him.”
“Midnight Special” premieres Saturday at SXSW before arriving in select theaters on March 18. The film receives expanded release on April 1.