Loving is the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a husband and wife whose interracial marriage in 1958 was viewed as an abomination in the eyes of the state of Virginia due to its anti-miscegenation laws. Forced to leave the state or face imprisonment, the two journey to the Supreme Court to fight for their right to love one another. Shakefire sat down with director Jeff Nichols, whose previous works include the critically acclaimed Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special, to talk about adapting the Loving's story for film.
Shakefire (SF): This is the first film you’ve done that’s based on a true story. Why did you decide on this particular story?
Jeff Nichols (JN): One, I was struck by the love story. I think that’s probably at the heart of the whole thing. I believe it. We live in pretty cynical times, and I’m the first one to be pretty cynical, but when I looked at Richard and Mildred they reminded me of my grandparents who were married for 50 years. They remind me of my parents who are still married. I do believe marriage doesn’t always equate love, but in its best cases it does. This is an example of that. I wanted to show that in a film. But also beyond that, it’s not hard to sit down with the documentary, which was my first introduction to the Loving story and be drawn into the parallels to what we’re doing with today in terms of marriage equality and racial equality, how Richard and Mildred kinda cut through the noise and the static because they were not trying to make a point. They were not trying to be examples of something. Their existence was just about them loving each other. Their existence was abhorrent to people in Virginia at the time, and they were persecuted as a result of that. That was an undeniable element, but also the South as a whole. I’ve made five films now that were all written to take place in the south, and I never dealt with race head on. This felt like a story that needed to be told and one that felt like I could tell. It felt like something I could do.
SF: How were you introduced to their story? You mentioned a documentary.
JN: They sent me a trailer for the documentary first. And this is Nancy Buirski's documentary, The Loving Story that was on HBO. I was floored by the trailer, but then I sat and watch the documentary. All the pieces were there to then get in the phone with the producers and say, “I don’t want to make a courtroom drama. This is not a film that is really about the Civil Rights movement. If you want to make that film I think you should find a different story. And there are many harrowing ones that are incredible. But this is a story about two people that love each other, and I want to make a movie about them.”
SF: In writing the script, did you approach it at all differently than your previous films knowing that these two people were real?
JN: Certainly. I did a massive amount of research into them and their lives. It took me a beat before I really was able to start the typing simply because, I don’t know, I just felt wrong moving them around the page. I just had to embrace that and get to work. That was kinda the hardest thing; doing all the research in which you validate their existence and you try to understand the essence of it and then going to write a screenplay out of it. It took a little getting used to. Plus I was born in 78, writing detail about sets and props in a film from the late 50’s to the late 60’s. That I didn’t feel very comfortable with either.
SF: I spoke with Ruth Negga and she mentioned that she auditioned two years before the film was made. In those two years did you work closely with Ruth in getting into character?
JN: No, not at all. Ruth came to us fully formed. She had been watching the documentary before she even came in to audition. Obviously she did more work from there, but she had Mildred built. She had the voice built, she had the posture, the countenance; everything was pretty much in place. I think what happened over those two years is I went and made Midnight Special and we looked for financing. Unfortunately for her, I didn’t really want to tell her she had the part, even though it was undeniable when she walked in the door and performed. I didn’t want to tell her she had the part until we had the money. I didn’t want to bother her with it. She was just kinda out there floating, unaware of my opinions. Yeah, it took us a while to get all the ducks in a row. Then I was finally able to take her out to dinner and offer her the part.
SF: And then Joel Edgerton was in Midnight Special so I imagine that naturally flowed from making that film into this.
JN: It did. We were making that film, and this film had been written. He knew about it. I think he even read it. If not read it, then he knew about it. We were out actually having a few drinks after one day of filming in New Orleans and I just blerted out, “You should play Richard Loving,” which obviously he and I had been thinking about but not talking about. He was like, “Yes.” So yeah.
SF: What was it like filming in Virginia? You used the courthouse. You used the actual jail cell they were in. What was it like getting to have that real atmosphere?
JN: It was a reminder of how responsible we needed to be with this story. It was a reminder to focus and pay attention because this is important. What these people lived through was a foundational part of our American history. And we need to do right by it. I think it reminded everybody, not just the actors and me but the crew. It’s easy for a film crew to just stand around and wait for lunch, but my film crews are the best in the world, and I think I would venture to say they were all affected by the realities of what we were doing too.
SF: So what was the atmosphere like on set?
JN: I keep a pretty quiet set. I don’t like to yell. I think it’s counter productive. Even though sometimes you feel like it. But you know, it’s pretty light-hearted. The content in my movies isn’t such that everybody’s laughing a bunch, but everybody hopefully feels comfortable and feels free to just do their jobs. That’s really what I’m trying to create in terms of atmosphere on the set. It’s just a comfortable place for everyone to work.
SF: Do you allow room for improvisation in your scripts?
JN: I’m pretty fixed to that script. But the script is just an outline for behavior. Dialogue is behavior. Character movement is behavior. The way a character moves inside a room is very important. It says a lot about that person in the moment that they’re in. And so if the room on the page doesn’t line up with the room that we’re actually filming the scene in then things have to evolve and change. You have to be open to the realities of the situation in front of you, especially in independent filmmaking. But I don’t think that releases the obligation of creating a plan, and that’s what my screenplays are. They’re pretty strict plans.
SF: Do you have any desire to direct a screenplay that you haven’t written?
JN: I don’t have a desire to, because I’ve never done it and it would be a challenge. But it will probably happen one day. When the right script comes. Though I might have to completely retype it, if not rewrite it, just so I can feel every word. It’ll happen one of these days.
JN: I hope so! I think he’s one of the greatest actors in the world, and you could do a lot worse than Mike. I love him; he’s like a big brother.
Loving is now playing in theaters nationwide. For more, read our iterview with stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga.