Loving Is a Love Story
Director Jeff Nichols explains the emotional approach he took to the famous Supreme Court ruling in the new film.
Im quite ashamed to say I did not know the Loving story,” says Jeff Nichols, writer and director of Cannes darlings like Mud and Take Shelter—who was introduced only a few years ago to the tale of a mixed-race couple that famously fought anti-miscegenation laws in 1960s Virginia.
Nichols ended up directing Loving, which follows the eponymous couple: Richard Loving, a white bricklayer, and Mildred, his African-American and Native American wife. As a result of their interracial marriage, the pair was banished from their home state. Their civil-rights case, Loving v. Virginia, went all the way to the Supreme Court; in 1967, the judicial body invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
In 2012, when the fight for marriage equality was at its height, the director was approached by producers eager to turn filmmaker Nancy Buirski’s Peabody– and Emmy Award–winning documentary feature about the couple into a feature film. “I watched this beautiful documentary, and was emotionally floored,” says the director. “This is a foundational part of our American history. Why don’t we know this one?”
The director sat down with Vanity Fair to speak about the process of bringing the Lovings to the big screen and the relevance of their struggle today.
In your opinion, is Loving a love story, or a civil-rights drama?
It’s a love story. And I would argue that beyond that, it’s a story about marriage and commitment. A lot of people have come up to me [and said,] “You know, they never told each other they love each other in the whole movie.” And it kind of depends on how you tell people you love them. The whole movie is the act of that. Anybody that’s married or been in a committed relationship for any period of time knows that love is defined by the mundane times and the hard times. That’s where commitment starts to deepen.
Unlike the rest of your films, you didn’t come up with the idea for this movie; you decided, initially, just to write its screenplay. Why dip your toe in the water, before committing to directing?
A big thing for me is making sure that everybody’s making the same movie. You hear all of these horror stories, because there’s maybe a lack of clarity on the part of some people involved. So since I hadn’t done this before, I just said, “Look. Let me write it. And if we all agree that that’s the movie we want to make, then, absolutely, let’s talk about directing.”
Was there a point while writing the script that you felt that you needed to direct it?
Yeah, about the time I finished it. I was stressed out during the writing, because these are real people. And I’m moving them around on the page, and sometimes putting words in their mouth that I couldn’t a hundred percent verify. It was an odd, at times, awkward relationship that I had with a screenplay that I’ve never had before. I would always call [longtime collaborator and producer] Sarah Green and say, “You know, it’s really good. Like, the lawyer’s coming in at the right time. And it’s really emotional.” We just kind of looked up at some point, and were like, “This is something we really have to do.”
When you’re hired based on producers’ appreciation for your previous work, are you worried that will dictate how you make your next film?
It worries me with actors as well. As flattering as it is that people say, “I want to be in a Jeff Nichols film,” it’s kind of like, “Ah, I just want you to want to be in this film.” No one cared about me when I sent Mike Shannon Shotgun Stories. Matthew McConaughey didn’t particularly care about me when he read the script for Mud.They responded to the material. And that’s ultimately what I want. I remember specifically Kirsten Dunst before Midnight Special being like, “I just want to be in a Jeff Nichols film.” And again, as flattering as it is, you’re like, “I don’t want you thinking about that. I want you thinking about, do you want to play this part in this story?” So maybe there’s some overlap with the producers.
But they just said the right things. Like, when I first got on the phone with [producer] Peter Saraf, the first thing out of his mouth was, “It’s a lifelong ambition to make a Jeff Nichols film.” I am easily flattered [Laughs]. And that one got me.
There’s very little melodrama in this film. How did you figure out its pacing and tone?
A lot of that’s dictated from the script, which is dictated from an initial idea about point of view. I harp on point of view a lot as a storyteller. When you commit to a point of view, it cuts through and clarifies all these things. So I decided that I’m going to stick with Richard and Mildred. And they were very quiet people. They were people that just were trying to go about their daily existence. And as a result, you have a film that plays out that way.
There were a few creative decisions I made about how to handle time. We had nearly a decade to deal with. This was an idea I had before the Loving story came to me, that if you were in an agricultural community or rural community, it would be very interesting to show a long period of time just through seasons and not necessarily think about years. I definitely jumped to apply that to this, because I think one of the most insidious parts of their exile and of their punishment was that time was taken away from them.
How did you end up casting an Australian actor and an Irish/Ethiopian actor in the lead roles?
Well, Ruth [Negga] came first. She came in and did the four or five scenes that we had, and they were amazing. And it wasn’t until after we were done that she started speaking with me, and I noticed she had an Irish accent. [Laughs] And so that wasn’t part of my calculus at all when I was watching her. But I didn’t know her, so she walked in, and it just allowed me to see Mildred.
Then, you’ve got Joel [Edgerton], who I’m working with on Midnight Special, and I’m watching him tackle a Texas accent in this film. And I’ve got to say, when I wrote Mud, I wrote Mud for Matthew McConaughey. When I wrote this, I wrote it for Richard and Mildred, so I’m looking for people that can embody these real people. And I’m not just looking for an impersonation, but it starts with that mechanical work. I was watching Joel do that mechanical work on Midnight Special, and I knew that if I gave him all this resource material, he would just nail [the role of Richard]. So it wasn’t really a question about what relationship do you have with the real American South, or what relationship do you have with race in America. For me, it was more like, do you know how to do the mechanical work to pull off this very specific dialect, and accent, and voice, and body language, and everything else?
What do you feel is the relevance of this story to the time we live in now?
It’s about equality. I think equality is not something, as a society, we ever achieve. It’s something we constantly redefine for ourselves. There are continuing debates, arguments, a lot of dialogue about the subject of equality. Whether it’s marriage equality or racial equality or social inequality, in terms of socio-economic status, I think Richard and Mildred are a guidepost of how to have these discussions. They show us the humanity at the center of it. And they show it to us in a way that’s beautiful in that it has no agenda. It has no motive. You can’t argue against that.