Written by: Julia Siegel
Over Spring Break, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to attend a media screening and media day for the new film Midnight Special. As an aspiring film critic, it is my dream to be able to attend screenings and media days that help promote new films. This was truly an amazing opportunity to get an inside look at how entertainment journalists work in the field per se, as I was able to participate in the round table sessions with the actors and director/writer.
Before I get to the super fun stuff, here’s a little insight on the film. Midnight Special is written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter). This is Nichols’ fourth feature film, all of which have starred Michael Shannon (Man of Steel, 99 Homes). The film centers on a young boy, Alton, with special powers, played by Jaeden Lieberher (St. Vincent, Aloha). His father Roy (Shannon) “kidnaps” Alton from the religious cult ranch they live at, which starts this crazy, cross-country adventure to avoid the FBI and get Alton to an unknown location that he says he needs to get to. Roy enlists the help of his childhood friend Lucas, played by Joel Edgerton (Black Mass, The Gift), and Alton’s mother Sarah, played by Kirsten Dunst (Fargo, Spider-Man).
Midnight Special sets itself apart from most films because it starts off in the middle of the action and never slows up. The story seems to start before the film does, which made it a little difficult to catch up. It is definitely a film that you have to pay attention to from the beginning until the end, or else you will miss something that may be a piece of the puzzle. The best comparison I can give is that you have to give Midnight Special as much attention as you would Inception. When watching Inception, if you stop paying attention for a few seconds, you will be lost for a long time and won’t be able to catch the meaning behind certain sequences. It is similar with Midnight Special because there is very little backstory or details given, leaving the viewers to decide/determine the meaning of the dialogue, action, and story. The more you watch, the more you can pick up, which may very well change your view and meaning of the film. Even though the film as a whole is ambiguous, it is an extremely intriguing concept.
To not spoil the film, I’ll stop there and get back to the media day. The event was held at the Langham Place Hotel in New York City. There was a hospitality hour before the round table sessions, which was a great networking opportunity. Networking is very important for everyone, and having the chance to talk with some big names in the industry is always super helpful and invaluable. For instance, I was able to talk with media professionals from CBS, Rotten Tomatoes, and Cinema Blend.
After the hospitality hour, I participated in the round table sessions. Round table sessions are small groups of media professionals interviewing a few key people from the film for 15-20 minutes. The first session was with Nichols and Lieberher, and the second session was with Shannon, Dunst, and Edgerton. All the participants were very nice and were thoughtful with each answer they gave. They were able to give some extra insight into the film, which helped me understand it more. Nichols said that “this is the leanest script I have ever written.” He called the film a “narrative experiment” where “the goal [was] to write characters that are honest.” Edgerton described the script as “… a true page turner in that sense, you know, to sit down and read a script and not be able to stop because you need to answer questions. And he [Nichols] doesn’t spoon-feed an audience by any means and there’s not a sense of characters running around expositing information for the sake of over informing the audience.”
Shannon felt similarly to Edgerton: “The thing I always appreciate about Jeff’s writing is that he creates a situation, and even though none of the characters have big, flowery speeches in which they are able to explain their innermost thoughts, he creates such an interesting and complex situation to live in as an actor…. In a way it’s a real luxury to work with him, despite that minimalism that he is known for.” Nichols’ style is to make everything as natural as possible. He wanted everything from the script, to the visual effects, to the costumes and locations to be natural and grounded in reality. He put a lot of time and effort into creating practical visual effects that would represent reality, “It just has to represent reality even when reality, in this particular instance, is a boy shooting laser beams out of his eyes.” He created a goggle rig for Lieberher to wear to give the actors something to work with.
Besides the praise for Nichols, the cast also praised Lieberher. Both Shannon and Nichols said that Lieberher is very different from other kids that they have worked with because he was very focused on the story, always took notes into account, and was very aware of the subtext. Nichols thinks Lieberher is intelligent and understood more of the script than most adults would have. Lieberher gave some very intelligent answers to questions he was asked. I noticed how smart he is right away when I asked him what his favorite part of playing Alton was. He responded with, “Of course I love the superpowers and everything, but I just love his character. Although he has these powers, he’s just a normal boy. In the beginning, he seems like a normal boy being taken care of by his parents. And then I loved his growth, when he was just this normal boy and then he then understood the world in a different perspective and became more of a leader. He was determined to get to this place because he knew he had this purpose.”
I also asked both Nichols and Lieberher what they thought the title of the film meant since it is just as ambiguous as the rest of the film. Nichols said, “For me, it felt like a midnight drive-in movie. When I hear that title, I think of colors. I think of dark blues, purple-blues, blacks, inky blacks. I think of blue lens flares. I think of fast cars. I think of things like this, and it just sounded tough. It just sounded like a cool title. Obviously, I was a fan of the song forever, but that’s what it means for me. It evokes these kind of tones.” Lieberher responded after Nichols with a similar answer, “When I think of Midnight Special, I think of all those colors. I think of that opening shot. When you [Jeff] display ‘Midnight Special,’ I think of that car. When that song is playing, I think of them in the car.”
During the second round table session, I told the other actors that we had discussed the meaning of the title and how Nichols enjoys the song. I asked them if they had any music in their libraries that they used to get into character. While they didn’t give any specific songs away, Edgerton commented, “I like to listen to music on set sometimes to create space for yourself when you can’t actually find actual space, you know what I mean? Just to block some stuff out.” Dunst seconded that by saying, “Yeah, [it’s like] a do not disturb. If you have headphones, no one is going to bother you.” Edgerton then went on to say that he likes when directors play music on set before shooting a scene to help set the mood. He also added that “music means different things to different people. I do like movies with song titles.”
The final question that I asked was to Edgerton and Dunst about their characters’ roles. Both have supporting roles in the film that feel more like leading roles. Edgerton answered for both of them by saying, “Jeff has paid very careful attention to drawing these characters very carefully, and I think because of that, even the small characters in his films you feel like you know them. And because you know them, they feel more abundant and significant as people then sometimes the hero of a flimsy movie.”
Overall, attending the Midnight Special screening and media day was a lot of fun. It was great to meet new connections and the stars and director of the film. Midnight Special is an intriguing film that takes a while to digest, but winds up being pretty cool when you accept it for what it is. Midnight Special hits theaters on March 18th.