In 1958, a white construction worker and his pregnant black girlfriend traveled to Washington, D.C., where they could be legally wed. After returning to rural Virginia, police raided their home. The marriage license hanging on the wall was cause for arrest. A legal battle ensued, all while the couple tried to evade the authorities and live in peace.
Richard and Mildred Loving’s case, filed by the ACLU and heard by the Supreme Court, ultimately overturned bans on interracial marriage. In 2011, Nancy Buirski made a documentary about the proceedings. That inspired “Take Shelter” and “Midnight Special” director Jeff Nichols to craft a feature film, not about the case itself, but about the reserved couple at its center, the ones who never sought to be heroes.
Having screened at the Toronto Film Festival this week following its Cannes premiere in May, “Loving” is a remarkable character study. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga play Richard and Mildred, operating off of a delicate script, written by Nichols, that doesn’t require a showy proclamation to graft its emotional center. It also, of course, has a brief appearance from Michael Shannon, who has been in each of Nichols’ films.
“Loving” will make a viable play for Oscars in the coming months. It wrecked me. I sobbed through the final half hour and emerged from the screening worried my face was too splotchy for the streets of Toronto. I can’t wait for the world to have this movie in its hands on Nov. 4, especially after this conversation with Nichols about his approach to the story.
When “Loving” was first announced, I remember thinking there’s no way Jeff Nichols is directing a historical biopic. It seems so unlike what we know of your work, at least until you actually see the movie. Did you receive similar responses while developing the project?
No, from that standpoint, everybody was pretty excited. We still had to navigate and find the right financier and all that, but that’s more an equation of dollars and the variables of the project. Honestly, there was a bit of a personal process on my part of “How do I fit into this story?” and “Why is it right for me?” Those questions started to get answered very quickly, though, when I started to watch the documentary.
A lot of people attribute the pace of this film and the aesthetic of the film to the way that I make movies. That’s flattering, but it’s also a little limiting because I feel like the pace of this film, and the true nature of it, is dedicated to Richard and Mildred. It represents who they were. I think the fortunate part is that falls very neatly into my wheelhouse as a filmmaker.
But that being said, I remember thinking, much like you were thinking, that this would be the most conventional film I had made. And I was sitting in the editing room with my editor, and I was like, “Ya know, this thing really doesn’t have a climax in any traditional sense.” There is no three-act structure at work here. I never work along those lines anyway, narratively. I just find it too limiting. Now, there is an emotional climax. That’s just something I try to put in all my films. But by the time it was all said and done, I kind of stood back and said, “Well, I’ve gone and made another film that was not conventional.” I’d like to think it’s just what the story needed to be. It’s what Richard and Mildred demanded of it.
We don’t see the actual Supreme Court hearing, so the film ends rather quietly, considering how towering the results were. Did you ever think of giving us some galvanizing, rah-rah moment?
No, I picked up on that right from the start in the documentary. There’s this amazing scene where [lawyer Bernie Cohen] is recounting the victory. It’s really joyous. It’s hard to watch and not feel an exuberance with him as he’s recounting it. But then Nancy Buirski, who made the documentary, is offscreen and says, “So, how did you tell the Lovings?” And he says, “Oh, I think we called them on the phone.” And that just struck me right to the core. What was that phone call like? Which obviously becomes an important, very quiet scene in the film ― one of these things that feels like an ordinary thing: You pick up the phone and your life is changed. But that’s what the Lovings felt like, these very ordinary moments that had extraordinary consequences.
When I first talked to the producers ― this was back in 2012 ― we weren’t far off the heels of “The Help” making $200 million and being what it was. I told them, “Guys, there’s a feel-good movie in here that could probably make a lot of money, and I’m probably not going to make that film.” So as much as I was surprised on the back end by the fact that it wasn’t as conventional as I thought it might be, there was an element on the front end of saying, “I know for a fact, though, just by benefit of sticking to the point of view of the Lovings, of not going the route of the court case, this is going to counter what I think might be financially responsible for a story like this.”
So you’re saying you aimed to make the antithesis of “The Help.”
[Smiles] I’ll let you say that. I did not say that. That is your quote, not mine. No, I wanted to make a film that represented its people. [Nichols pauses, then chuckles.] In order to do that, it’s kind of like a sweater with a loose thread, meaning the court case. The more you start to pull it, the more it unravels, and you need to incorporate that in the film. So it was very important to really have this narrative temperance when it came to the Lovings’ point of view.
We were really lucky ― Martin Scorsese was a friend of the project because he was a friend of the documentary filmmaker. I got to speak to him about the script. There was a question: Should we play up the lawyers a little bit more? He was like, “No, no, no, it’s very delicate.” And I kind of took that as permission to stick to my guns. You saw that note coming, and it was really nice to hear from him that, no, the balance of this was correct.
In what fashion does Scorsese give notes on another director’s script?
It was a pretty brief phone call where I’m just fumbling over myself and trying to listen. I remember I was trying to bring up some of the other producers’ points, and he just kind of kept saying, “No, you’ve really done a nice job with this ― don’t mess with it.” It was a pretty short, simple conversation.
Would you agree that you are drawn to small movies about big topics? “Take Shelter” is about apocalyptic visions, “Mud” is about children without parents, “Midnight Special” is about supernatural paranoia, “Loving” is about a landmark legal case.
Yeah, I think that makes sense. I actually don’t think the movies are that small. They feel odd, and they feel oddly placed. We are used to seeing stories told a certain way, and for whatever reason, I don’t tell narratives that way. A lot of people don’t like that. A lot of people watch my films and say, “He’s missing something” or “That’s not a satisfying way to receive the story.” That’s their prerogative. But it’s just in my nature to lay out narratives as I see the characters needing them to lay out. So many people think about plot. I’m really just thinking about character behavior, and I’m letting that lead the narrative.
Regardless, and this gets to the heart of your question, I really want there to be an emotional conveyance to the audience. I want them to be affected by these things. Each film that I’ve made, there’s specifically one scene that I can point to, and it’s a pressure point. If you’re not there with me, I haven’t done my job, or you’re not paying attention, or some sort of combination of the two, and this is where you’re going to feel it. That’s more important to me than some plot twist or contrivance. I just want people to feel things, and in order to do that, they have to identify with the characters.
How did you arrive at that scene here, knowing it would have to come from the Lovings, who opted not to attend the Supreme Court hearings?
The back half of the film was a real question mark for me. In the documentary, the back third of the film downshifts into the court case, as it should. And it’s fascinating. But since I made such a strict decision to stick to their point of view, I wanted to see their lives in hiding.
There’s not a lot of information about that time period. I’m sure there were more harrowing details that happened to them that I’m just not aware of, but I didn’t want to contrive things, so I really focused on the psychological threat that they had to be living under in hiding during this period in this very dangerous place. I read this quote from Mildred before she passed away that’s at the end of the film: “I miss him. He took care of me.” It seemed like such a beautiful thing to say because if you really look at their relationship, and if you look at the fact that Mildred is the more active of the two characters in terms of getting the case in front of the Supreme Court, ultimately, she is the active character. But she says he took care of her. I think Richard ― and this speaks to the cult of domesticity in that period ― felt an obligation to take care of and provide for his family, like so many people do. He was emasculated in that effort. He was not allowed to do that. I thought how frustrating that must have been for a man like that and how heartbreaking that must have been.
You see that it’s not just about “he can take care of her” ― it’s about “they take care of each other.” What a beautiful idea. As soon as I had that quote at the end and that moment there in the back third of the film [where Richard tells Mildred he can take care of her], I felt like I had something.
I don’t think we see Richard and Mildred say the words “I love you” to each other. Then there’s that scene on the porch ― and this isn’t a spoiler, since it’s in the trailer ― where Richard says to the lawyer, “You tell the judge I love my wife.” There is such power in that because of the muted affection they display. How conscious were you in building to that moment?
It was not a conscious effort. There wasn’t a “love” removal pass on the script. But I’m married. I’m seven years in. When you start to add time, you start to understand where the real love comes from, and it’s not from platitudes. Everybody needs to hear it. I tell my wife I love her all the time. But it really comes from these examples of love, these demonstrations of love in very small moments.
I think marriage is a lot about commitment, and they very much had the opportunity to just divorce one another and quote-unquote solve this problem. They made a conscious choice not to. They made a conscious choice to stay committed to each other through this process. That was the ultimate thing. I guess as I was laying out scenes, there was an innate approach to what I would consider the real examples of “I love you,” which are these smaller ones. To just have them say it, maybe that’s not good enough for the audience, and maybe not fair enough of a representation of how they felt about each other. And then you have the fact that it’s Richard Loving. That guy probably doesn’t walk around saying “I love you” a lot, even though he feels it.
Just a couple of days ago, it was announced that you’re directing a reboot of “Alien Nation” for Fox. Given all this talk of small movies, how comfortable do you feel stepping into the territory of a blockbuster-ish remake?
My hope is it goes back to your first question about when you first heard about “Loving.” The hope is you will feel the same way about that. But that project is in its infancy, so TBD.
“Loving” opens in theaters on Nov. 4. This interview has been edited and condensed.