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Nichols and Stone Take to the Road for Midnight Special

  • January 18, 2016

The director-cinematographer team of Jeff Nichols and Adam Stone has produced four films over the past nine years - Shotgun Stories, Mud, Take Shelter and now, Midnight Special. Over that period, Nichols has quickly earned a reputation as a deft and original filmmaker. Mud, which starred Matthew McConaughey, earned a Palme d'Or nomination at Cannes and took home the Robert Altman Award at the 2014 Independent Spirit Awards. Take Shelter also won three prizes at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and was nominated for five Spirit Awards.

Nichols, who first met Stone at the North Carolina School for the Arts, credits the DP as a key part of his success as a director.

Sitting (l-r) Stephen McBride (A cam 2nd AC), Darius Shahmir (2nd unit director), Kenneth Neil Moore (2nd unit DP). Standing (l-r) David Regan (A Cam 1st AC), Matt Gaumer (B Cam 2nd AC), John David Devirgiliis (loader), Steve Early (B Cam 1st AC), Alex Nystrom (camera utility), Dylan Conrad (2nd unit 1st AC), Matt Petrosky (A Cam operator/Steadicam), and Adam Stone (DP).

"We have a tight-knit crew that works on all our films; they are truly great artisans and most importantly great friends," says Stone. "We have a lot of fun together. Everyone contributes and we all learn from one another."

Midnight Special has a measure of writer/director Nichols' trademark poetic realism, but as his first foray into the sci-fi thriller realm, it differs from the previous films in its darkness, both literal and figurative, and in its technical complexity - there are more than 300 visual effects. It was also Nichols' first studio production, with a budget under $20 million. The cast features Kirsten Dunst, Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver, Michael Shannon, and Sam Shepard as the leader of an extreme religious sect who hunts down a uniquely gifted child.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.

The 44-day shoot was based in New Orleans but stretched from west Texas to the Florida panhandle. The weather was often uncharacteristically wintry, with sleet and cold temperatures working against the filmmakers. Much of the action unfolds at night, in old motel rooms or on drab and desolate stretches of road. In keeping with the story, the look includes a camera that is almost constantly on the move. Steadicam operator Matt Petrosky played a crucial role.

Jaeden Lieberher, Joel Edgerton, and Michael Shannon in MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. Photo by Ben Rothstein. © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.

The filmmaking duo prefers to shoot film, often in a widescreen format, as they have on all their previous collaborations. Midnight Special was no exception. Stone shot the majority of the picture on 35mm anamorphic film, using Panavision XL2 cameras and G Series lenses. He says the format did not slow them down.

"The first film we did together, Shotgun Stories, was anamorphic," explains Stone. "The crew was me, Jeff, a few friends, and his parents. Shooting on film is second nature to us. We feel comfortable in the medium. It's beautiful and mysterious. It contains gorgeous aberrations and has an intrinsic beauty digital has yet to replicate. If it were up to us, we'd shoot on film forever."

Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures. © 2016 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. All rights reserved.

The vast majority of Midnight Special was filmed on two stocks - KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 and KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207 - with a few scenes shot on digital cameras for technical reasons. Stone spent a week and a half of preproduction testing various lenses in every scenario, but settled on the G Series glass. They tested some digital formats as well but, "Film always wins," Stone adds.

One scene that plays out in a 1970s ranch house bedroom was filmed partly in a practical house and partly on a built set. The ceiling of a dimly lit bedroom separates through a marriage of practical and visual effects, and a strong beam of light, representing the sun, smashes through the exposed ceiling joists illuminating the darkness.

"We shot the scene wide open on 5219," says Stone. "It was a big practical effect and we had only a few chances to capture it. The camera burst into the bedroom, lit by practicals, and the ceiling rips away allowing an array of M-90s to light the room. There was a 5-stop difference from the beginning of the scene to the end of the scene. We never adjusted the iris. The end result is amazing. The look could never be replicated by a digital sensor. The areas that are blown out fall off gracefully. Film is very similar to how the human eye sees the world - realistic and elegant."