‘Midnight Special’ Director Jeff Nichols and castmembers Kirsten Dunst, Jaeden Lieberher attend SXSW Film premiere

By Jane Kellogg Murray, Special to the Statesman

One thing South by Southwest Film Festival organizers continue to remind its attendees: They are confident the local film scene is worthy of its attention. Director Jeff Nichols, who lives in Austin with his wife and young son, is a prime example of that confidence paying off.

Three years after he premiered Matthew McConaughey crime drama “Mud” at SXSW, the writer-director returned to the festival with his fourth film, sci-fi flick “Midnight Special.” While Nichols could probably write a novel on how to build a successful independent film career (another hit includes apocalyptic drama “Take Shelter”), he partnered with Warner Bros. for this release — and it’s his most ambitious project to date.

The film follows a father (Michael Shannon, a familiar face in every one of Nichols’ films) who discovers his young son (Jaeden Lieberher) possesses special powers, and as a result they go on the run. Adam Driver, Kirsten Dunst and Joel Edgerton also star.

Joel Edgerton as Lucas, Michael Shannon as Roy, Jaeden Lieberher as Alton and Kirsten Dunst as Sarah in director Jeff Nichols sci-fi thriller "Midnight Special." (Ben Rothstein)
Joel Edgerton as Lucas, Michael Shannon as Roy, Jaeden Lieberher as Alton and Kirsten Dunst as Sarah in director Jeff Nichols sci-fi thriller “Midnight Special.” (Ben Rothstein)

It received rave reviews at the world premiere in Berlin last month. The Austin festival, however, holds a different kind of meaning for Nichols: jury by peers.

“When you come to a place that has been established by Richard Linklater… you immediately feel connected,” he said. “It makes you feel like you’re not in the doldrums of L.A. or New York where you’re constantly inundated with people rating you based on how your movies are doing. You’re just surrounded by other people who are trying to do what you’re doing — who are really creative and really good at it.”

While on the red carpet, Hollywood starlet Kirsten Dunst admitted she has a soft spot for Austin’s film community, especially after working this year with screenwriter and Austinite Noah Hawley on the second season of “Fargo” in addition to Nichols. “I should have bought property here a long time ago,” she said. “I’d love to live here.” Her “Fargo” costar Jesse Plemons (Austinites first met him as Landry on “Friday Night Lights”) showed his support by accompanying the group for the premiere, but skipped the red carpet parade.

Midnight Special releases in theaters March 18. Read Joe Gross’ review from the festival screening, with more on Friday in Austin360 and online.

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