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‘Midnight Special’ director Jeff Nichols goes for emotion

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From left, Joel Edgerton, Michael Shannon, Jaeden Lieberher and Kirsten Dunst appear in “Midnight Special.” (Courtesy Ben Rothstein/ Warner Bros. Entertainment)

Though filmmaker Jeff Nichols is not interested in sequels or remakes, he was inspired by Steven Spielberg when he made his magnificent new movie “Midnight Special.”

On a recent visit to the Bay Area, the writer-director (who made “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter” and “Mud”) said, “I think genre’s a good thing, it’s a good way to invite people into the audience, as long as you don’t strictly limit yourself to homage.”

So “Midnight Special” is technically a sci-fi movie, about a young boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), with unexplainable powers, whisked away from a religious compound by his biological father (Michael Shannon), and taken on the road toward a mysterious rendezvous.

It recalls “Close Encounters” and “E.T.,” but more subtle, and without overt explanations or exposition.

Some critics have picked up on the comparison, which Nichols acknowledges: “Some of the negative reviews have been ‘Well, he didn’t reach Spielberg levels.’ I’ll accept that. But that’s putting forth the conclusion that that’s exactly what I was going for,” he says.

Nichols wrote the film to process how he was feeling about the birth of his son, having, he says, “this weird fear and this intense love.”

He adds, “You just hope that the audience connects to the personal things. My stated goal as a filmmaker is just to transfer emotion to the audience. That’s it.”

One character, NSA operative Paul Sevier (Adam Driver), was inspired by two Spielberg characters, Hooper in “Jaws” and Claude Lacombe in “Close Encounters.”

Driver — now world-famous as Kylo Ren in “Star Wars” — really brought the character to life: “He just started adding all these details and little physical traits. These little things elevate that character a lot, and I owe that to Adam.” says Nichols.

“Midnight Special” is the fourth collaboration between Nichols and his favorite actor, Michael Shannon, whom he compares to Jimmy Stewart.

“There’s a shot in ‘Vertigo’… it’s a push-in on his face, and he shows this level of emotional pain. You wonder where he had to go to do that,” Nicholas says. “It’s a beautiful shot. And I feel like we got a couple of those on Mike in this one.”

Nichols calls his relationship with Shannon a “gift,” because he now writes roles for the actor. “It makes me a better writer, because I don’t have to put that dialogue in there,” he explains. “You know he’s going to take care of that for you. I just hope I keep producing material that he likes.”

Midnight Special
Starring Michael Shannon, Joel Edgerton, Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher, Adam Driver
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols
Rated PG-13
Running time 1 hour, 51 minutes

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