Starring Joel Egerton and Ruth Negga, Loving is set for release in the UK on Feb 3. We caught up with Nichols when he was in London recently and began by asking him when he decided to make the film.
Jeff Nichols: As soon I saw the documentary in 2012, I knew I was going to make the movie. Colin Firth, Ged Doherty and Nancy Buirsk (who made the original documentary The Loving Story in 2011) approached me and I saw this story unfold. There was so much archive footage in there and I ended it thinking that has to be one of the most sincere love stories I have ever seen. It was unimpeachable. There was no angle, you never watch it and think that they were trying to get their own reality TV show. They were just the opposite of that.
It felt like a way to talk about race. About marriage equality. We got to walk through the raindrops of those issues to get to something undeniable.
Culture Trip: The film deliberately focuses on the relationship between Richard and Mildred, even though it is the Loving v Virginia court battle that is the best known element of the story. Was it the purity of their relationship that made you think that would be the best way to make the film?
JF: The court case is fascinating, and the two lawyers who took on the case are just as fascinating. The documentary deals with that in detail, but the problem is that it doesn’t include the Lovings. They were the instigators and when I spoke to Philip Hirschkop (one of the lawyers who took on the case), he said he only met Richard and Mildred about half a dozen times. They were arrested and convicted, which was all that was needed from a legal standpoint. Hirschkop was fresh out of law school and technically, couldn’t even go to court and argue for these two people. It’s all very fascinating, but I’m drawn to these two people.
Mildred, in the real footage, is captivating. And also who is this man who flinches every time he is on camera in the real footage, yet has this conviction to never divorce his wife. She wasn’t a civil rights activist but speaks so eloquently about hope and race that I knew I wanted to spend two hours with them.
CT: You also chose not to show us the start of their relationship, their meeting or falling in love, one of the first scenes we see features the line ‘I want to build you a house…’. It’s a devastatingly powerful moment in the film…
JF: Just to talk about that scene for a moment. That happens in the first five minutes like you say, but then it took us 2 hours again in the movie to get back to the exact same spot at the end. That was the point of it.
It was a tricky thing in terms of having all these really well documented aspects such as their arrests and court appearances. What I needed was something else. They had known one another since they were kids, they grew up opposite one another. In my research I found out she was pregnant before they got married. I realised she must have told him and wondered what that was like. You know they have been intimate It’s a life question. You imagine how you would respond, but you can never know until it happens.
You can see he is white and she is black, but also see that it is a period film and so it raises that doubt of how will it end for them?
CT: There is another scene early on where we see the reaction of a predominantly white group of young men to Richard and Mildred kissing. It’s not the outrage or anger in their faces that I was expecting, but something more subtle. Was it a subtle brand of racism they experienced, or something more overt?
JN: For those early moments the film is told from their point of view. It’s really about the time when they were able to fall in love. They fell for one another because it was sincere. It feels like that puts the blinders on what else was happening around them, and that’s what I wanted to get across at first.
Then, of course, you see the pressures in the Deep South of the Jim Crow laws. We didn’t have any specific incidents of bullets or crosses being burned, so I started to think about the punishment of time. That is at the heart of their sentence. They get 25 years (during which time Richard and Mildred were prevented from ever returning to their home state together). It’s ghastly.
In this purgatory, what is insidious is that it wasn’t just the violence but also the blanket they put over everyone. They could come and get you anytime they wanted. Imagine the pressure and stress that puts over you. Richard has the race of privilege but is brought into the Jim Crow south. The psychology of it represents something I wanted to show.
CT: Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga (who has gone on to earn an Oscar nomination for her performance in Loving) bring incredible depth to the characters. How much direction was there on them in terms of where to research the characters?
JN: I actually gave Joel more direction on that than Ruth. We had even more footage in the out-takes from the documentary that we just said, ‘there is your homework’. Ruth had started that process even before she started auditioning for the part.
Joel had the harder task of calculating Richard. It’s obvious that Mildred is the more intelligent and active of the two. She is the one writing the letters and inviting the documentary crews. You have to decide at waht point does Richard understand what is happening, but lacks the ability to articulate what is going on, and when does he simply not get it. There are both of those scenes.
She was elegant and he had a rougher voice. I told Joel at one point, that ‘I want to understand you less’.
Loving is released across the UK on Feb 3