Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Making MIDNIGHT SPECIAL Actually Special

One of the piece of promotional art for MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016). OK, first off, telling me a white kid with glowy eyes is "NOT LIKE US." is hilarious because, well, he's a white kid. He's just like us. He's got glowy eyes? So what? Those could be mirrored sunglasses for all we know! Oh and isn't that cute? He's reading a SUPERMAN comic. MICHAEL SHANNON was IN a SUPERMAN movie! And both that film and this one are not so great! :(
From the director of two films you've never heard of (TAKE SHELTER and MUD), comes MIDNIGHT SPECIAL--a film that dares to tell the story of attractive white people who are the parents of a very advanced and equally white young boy who needs to be protected from an evil (?) religious cult.  Starring Michael Shannon, Kirsten Dunst, the guy who played Uncle Owen in one of the STAR WARS prequels, and the guy who played Kylo Ren in a STAR WARS sequel, this film is one of those movies that will make you wonder if anyone read the script before filming began.

Thus ends my audition script for a job writing for Honest Trailers.


ARG. That first paragraph was filled with the nicest things I could possibly say about that film.  OK, I could add that the cast is great and the effects are fine.  
Okay, now, I can't say anything else positive about the film.  Though, just based on what I said in that first paragraph, does this even sound like a good movie to you?  Parents of a child with special powers on the run from a religious cult?   Sounds OK, I guess, but there's certainly nothing overtly special about it.  Magical child stories are utter cliché in western storytelling.  I mean, remember that one story about a child with special powers from two thousand years ago named Jesus?  His parents thought he was special, too.


This film portrays the religious cult as the most boring religious cult ever.  The movie poster claims that Sam Shepard is in this film, he plays the cult leader, but he's barely in 3 scenes.  His thugs are bland and boring (and also white).  The cult is flat and seems to have no goals, nefarious or otherwise.   The parents are equally flat.  They have almost no past aside from the fact that (we assume) they consummated their relationship in order to give birth to their literally magical child.  And really, what parent doesn't think their child is magical?  In other words, this isn't exactly the most exciting premise for a story. Especially considering no attempt was made to give the parents jobs or personalities outside of their interest in keeping their son safe from the evil cult.

I've seen reviews of this film that talk about the "intriguing mystery" of it.  There is nothing intriguing about this film except for how anyone could find it's flat, uninteresting mystery intriguing at all.  Seriously, all you do is follow along until the boy explains everything that is going on.  Or when Kylo Ren from the STAR WARS sequel explains it to us.

Yes, that's right, this film violates the first rule of filmmaking!  SHOW, DON'T TELL.  Sorry to yell like that, it's just that it seems so obvious to me.  YOU ARE MAKING A MOVIE.  "MOVIE" IS SHORT FOR "MOVING PICTURE," GET IT? IT'S VISUAL. SHOW US STUFF.  UGH...  but seriously, there is no mystery here at all.  This would be a spoiler, except, really, it isn't.  The boy is special.  That's it.  It's just how special ends up being what is revealed along with what it means for him.  So, the movie basically makes you sit there for 100-ish minutes waiting to discover to what degree he is special.

Imagine if the movie JAWS had ended at the point where Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss worked out how big the shark was.   Yeah, we don't see them react even, it's just like "that's a big shark" and then, cut to credits.  No big thing, no "we've got to close the beaches!" no attempt to go get the shark, just that's it.
Don't bother with this film. If people tell you it's good, politely decline from ever speaking to them again.

What's worse for me is that the writer and director of the film is a guy called Jeff Nichols.  Yep, I suppose I'm distantly related to this guy (my last name is Nicholls--with 2 L's).  So, I hate to slam this film or its director, but I just don't get it.  It really strikes me that if he had made a single interesting choice in the film, it would have made it better.  
OK, now we're almost getting to the part where I fix this film.  Normally, I try to figure out a way to fix things in post, by re-cutting and re-shooting as little as possible.  However, it's just not possible here. I'll need to re-shoot the whole movie with a new script with even a new cast.  This is why you should talk to me before you green-light a movie, people.

So, let's fix this thing.  In order to do that, we need to enter the Spoiler Zone which we will do in a sec.  First, I want to talk about the casting.

You've heard of "rose colored" glasses? Well, Hollywood reads scripts with white colored glasses.

Now, I know Hollywood LOOOVES to stunt cast.  If you have an actor with a name or a lot of Twitter followers, that's a great thing.  The thing is, even with that criteria, there is no excuse to have an all white cast.  Don't get me wrong--I really love the people in this film.  Michael Shannon is AMAZING in BOARDWALK EMPIRE and I saw him on Broadway in LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT and he was really good.  Kirsten Dunst is generally 100% in her movies no matter how bad they are.  I like Uncle Owen and Kylo Ren as well, but there was nothing any of these four actors brought to this movie that couldn't have been brought by actors of color.

In 2016, there is no excuse to hire an entirely white cast.  There are PLENTY of brilliant actors of color all around these days, yet still too many shows and movies cast mostly white people.  One day I will have to write a big long post about how utterly bored I am with seeing my people (Caucasians) in so much TV and movies.  A person of color instantly makes a movie or a TV show more interesting to me.  There doesn't even have to be anything about the character that is different, personality-wise, to make me perk up and pay more attention.  But I am getting off the topic.  OK, let's enter the Spoiler Zone!    


Though, to be honest, there's not much to spoil with this film.

The first thing I'd change, would be the casting.  It's so booooring to make these people all white.  If you happen to be friends with Michael Shannon, great!  Cast him, or cast one other white person to play a single white character.  Fine.  But only one white character among the lead characters.  You can't tell me there aren't good enough AoCs for this film, especially since it isn't exactly Shakespeare.  The boy should ABSOLUTELY BE A PERSON OF COLOR.  Another magical white child story is the opposite of a strong choice.  Sorry--I don't mean to sound like I know it all.  This isn't a lot to know, really.  

From here, I'd place the characters in the context of real life, instead of out of context, on the road, with zero going on character-depth-wise.  The child's mother is the lead--she is a person of color, alone and raising her child as best she can while trying to understand why the child is different.  Helping her is a counselor from his school who stumbles upon the child's powers by accident.  This counselor can be played by Michael Shannon or maybe a lady, even.  The key is that they are trying to understand what is happening to the child.  They are not just blindly doing what the child says.  In the original film, the parents had already resigned themselves to the child's divinity, so they had no arc at all.  They were just the same throughout the film.  Part of how my parental characters have an arc is in trying to understand what is happening to the magical child.

One of the things the child does to perplex them is speak to someone who is not in the room--apparently.  In the beginning, the mom thinks he's just got an imaginary friend, but when the child is able to project a hologram over the living room coffee table, they realize there is more going on.  The child explains the hologram is a map that shows where the Gateway is along with two different men, who are coming for him.  One of those men is very close to the center of the map--where the child is now.  The counselor asks the child where this information is coming from.  The response is "from my imaginary friend."

"Yeah, I don't think he's imaginary," the counselor character says.

Seeing that one of the two men coming for him is minutes away, they decide to leave.  However, the first man arrives before they can depart and he tries to shoot the mom and the counselor.   The child causes the bullets to pass through them harmlessly.

One of my big problems with MIDNIGHT SPECIAL, as it was written, was that the kid's powers are kind of nonsensical and uninteresting.  So, he can do this sort of Google Cardboard thing by shooting eye-beams into people's eyes which then allows them to see things (what it is, we frustratingly never see).  This is creepy, sure, but that doesn't make it particularly interesting. The child in my version has powers that are actually powers. Yeah, the kid in the film brings down a satellite, but it's not clear at all that he did that until later when it is explained in dialog (more telling than showing again!). 
After they escape from the gunman, they narrowly avoid running smack dab into the other guy who was seen on the holo-map.  That guy has a chance to stop them violently but doesn't.  They get away and, that night in the hotel room on the road, all three wonder who that man was.  The child doesn't know and can't actually reach his not-imaginary friend.  He does know that the Gateway he showed them on the holo-map is where he needs to go, however.  The adults ask him what's on the other side of the Gateway and he explains that he thinks its someplace wonderful.  Someplace he belongs.  He can feel it. (I know this kind of counts as "telling not showing" but this is minor next to what the original film does, explaining that there is another world on top of ours--ugh--and are there fairies and magic, too?? Why the do his parents trust his word?)

Then the gunman catches up with them.  Once again, the child's powers allow them to escape only to run smack dab into the other guy on the holo-map.  This time, he is able to explain that he is a good guy.  He introduces himself as a representative of those on the other side of the Gateway.  He's never been to the other side because once you go over, it's challenging to come back.  The mom immediately becomes worried, asking: "How can my child go over, then?"

"That's where I come in," the representative says.  He goes on to explain that he can train the child to connect with the other dimensions that he is predisposed to sense.  He can't connect to them normally due to a traditional human upbringing dulling his advanced senses.  The mom is concerned while the counselor shrugs his concerns off.  It's all too weird to try to go against, he explains.  "I mean, think about what we've seen!" 

The mom isn't convinced so she demands to supervise the rep's sessions with her child.  The rep agrees and she gets to watch them meditate and practice martial arts at various places along their drive to the Gateway.  The rep explains that in order to become aware of the extra dimensions, the child must get in better touch with the ones he/she is used to dealing with.  After questions from the mom, the rep explains that he's not sure if any human can learn to perceive these other dimensions. He certainly can't, but he can train people like her child.  Like a paraplegic teaching someone how to drive.

The mom asks if she can see this world to make sure it's safe for her child.  Rep explains that she can't--at least, not in person,  but if the child gets in touch with his abilities, he'll be able to show us the new world.  They continue training and traveling toward the Gateway as the bad guy catches up with them for a fun chase scene where the boy uses his powers to defend them and throw off the bad guy.

At one point, the bad guy is able to kidnap the child but he is quickly confronted by the powers of the child.  The child is able to see (and so we can, too) the bad guy, younger and crying as his boy is taken away by the representative.  We then see the bad guy joining up with other parents who have lost their children to this "next level" of humanity.  After the vision finishes, the child tries to explain that this is the best thing for children of the next level.  The bad guy doesn't care.  He is driven.  The child temporarily blinds the bad guy and escapes, returning to the mom and they continue on.

When they finally get to the Gateway, they find it over a huge chasm (maybe over the Grand Canyon, budget-allowing).  As the child approaches it, a small blue disk appears in front of him.  It then grows larger and larger until it is bigger that the child is.  The child runs back and hugs the mom, shakes hands with the counselor, nods to the rep, and moves toward the disk.  Just then, the bad guy races out of nowhere, guns blazing.  The child stops the bullets in midair and turns, continuing to walk toward the blue disk.  Before he steps into it, he stares at it and speaks.  "I want them to see where I'm going.  And I want to him to see his child again."

Suddenly, the air around them begins to crackle and flash (though nothing damaged from either).  Then reality fades from view, revealing a bizarre and psychedelic space.  They can suddenly see tiny particles floating around and no Earth beneath them.  They seem to be floating in some strange version of outer space but there are spheres and rings floating around them with light refracting everywhere.  Then, they hear an even more strange, ethereal voice:

"Here is your son,"  the voice says as a man in his 20s appears in front of the bad guy.  He smiles and is immediately recognized by his father who immediately begins to cry as they embrace.  The ethereal voice continues:

"It is difficult to make our reality comprehensible to you.  We can only do it for a short time, but we think you deserve it.  Thank you for seeing your child to us.  Your child will prosper here unlike in your version of reality."

"Will I see my baby again?"

"With proper training, it is possible."

The child hugs the mom one more time and then jumps through the disk.  The bad guy's son vanishes and reality returns to normal.  The counselor and the mom hug.


My biggest problem with MIDNIGHT SPECIAL was that there was just no character development at all.  They were all flat and boring and almost none of their actions made any sense nor were they justified--at least not by anything on screen. My outline explains how I would tell the same story while making stronger choices plot-wise, presenting deeper characters, and allowing the audience to make sense of their choices.  Essentially, the audience needs to be brought along for the ride--in this film I felt more like a hitchhiker.

Was MIDNIGHT SPECIAL entertaining?  Well, some people liked it, but you have to admit, if they had done it my way, it would have been better and more special.

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