Loving, the new film from writer-director Jeff Nichols
(whose impressive filmography of indie hits includes Take Shelter, Mud and Midnight Special), dramatises the historic case that invalidated local state laws in the American South prohibiting interracial marriage. Nichols spoke to STACK about bringing this landmark civil rights story to the screen.
Were you familiar with the Loving v. Virginia case prior to making the film?
I wasn’t, and that became one of the reasons I wanted to do it. I was in shock that I hadn’t heard about it before. There are a lot of things you can hold up as staples in American history, and I felt like this should be one.
How much research was required? Was Nancy Buirski’s 2011 documentary The Loving Story a starting point?
It ended up being more than that. Nancy’s documentary was a true gift – the four years of research that she had done was basically put in my lap. I didn’t just have the film… she gave me a hard drive with everything that she had and the interview that she had recorded. It was all right there in front of me and all I had to do was absorb it all. One of the first things I did was travel to Virginia and go to the places where the Lovings had lived, and had been imprisoned. I also spoke to Peggy Loving, the only surviving child, and one of the lawyers – those sources and the documentary gave me a lot to go on.
It’s surprising that such a historic civil rights case hasn’t been dramatised on film prior to Loving…
I think it says a lot about American culture in terms of the stories we’re willing to carry forward. I think interracial love was something a lot of people didn’t necessarily want to talk about.
From a screenwriting perspective, is it more challenging to adapt a true story – more responsibility involved?
Certainly more responsibility. I was kind of paralysed at first because I felt like a complete imposter for lots of reasons. One of them was the fact that I didn’t live in the ‘50s and ‘60s, so when you’re putting pen to paper for the screenplay, there’s all these little details that I’m used to including, because I’m usually writing about the South I grew up in. I was constantly calling my father, who grew up in a very poor southern cotton town, and asking ‘How would this work? What did the cars look like? How would you store groceries?’ Little things like that made it much more difficult. I just wanted to get their lives right and try and build as much fact as possible – that’s why I lifted so many lines from the documentary, as foundational anchors for the rest.
Your films display a great love for America and Americana. Did that make the process easier?
It certainly made it comfortable for me. There’s a voice in the American South that I feel very comfortable writing in, and certainly these characters fit into the role, even though the actions were different from anything I’d written before.
Telling the story from Richard and Mildred’s viewpoint and not the legal machinations gives the story a very human face. Was this a decision you made right from the start?
It seemed the right way to go. Partly because I’m not a lawyer and that’s not what I wanted to spend my time researching, even though it’s fascinating. The court case was really somehow separated from the daily existence of Richard and Mildred. As soon as they got married and were arrested, that’s what they needed to try their case. They didn’t need witnesses or to go down and investigate things – it was really straightforward and I think as a result, the legal process is separate, even though the result certainly affected them.
Was Ruth Negga your first choice to play Mildred?
She was, in fact. She was the first person I auditioned, which made that process really easy. When she walked in, I immediately thought she was wrong because she was too short. Mildred was quite tall – that’s why they called her ‘Stringbean’ – so that was a hurdle for me to get over. But then Ruth sat down and became Mildred in a second. She’d obviously been studying the documentary, and once I saw that, it was a very easy decision.
You worked with Joel Edgerton on Midnight Special, but what was the film that first introduced you to one of our finest exports?
It was Animal Kingdom. I thought, ‘Where’s this guy going?’ And Warrior. Those two together really started to pique my interest. I kind of have a running list of people I want to work with and he got put very high up on that list. When Midnight Special came around, I was kind of thrilled that he agreed to do that part.
Civil rights issues notwithstanding, Loving is ultimately a film about two people in love…
If the film does anything unique, it’s that. I really didn’t set out to make a film about race, which is kind of a difficult thing for a middle class white guy born in the late ‘70s to say about an iconic civil rights story, but it’s true. That was the thing I connected to the most – how these two people very apparently felt about one another.
Read STACK‘s review