EXCLUSIVE: Jeff Nichols discusses his film 'Loving', Oscar buzz and a truly inspiring love story
One of the most buzzed-about films at Cannes this year is "Loving," a touching, inspirational film from acclaimed filmmaker Jeff Nichols exploring the real-life story of interractial couple, Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) who spent years fighting for their right to be a family.
Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Loving, a black woman, married in 1958 and were sentenced to prison for their union due to laws prohibiting interracial marriage. "Loving" celebrates the couple's courage fighting for their right to live as a family in their hometown. Eventually, their civil rights case, Loving v. Virginia, reached the Supreme Court and the couple, who shared three children, won their right to marry in 1967.
Each year, Loving Day is celebrated in the couple's honor on June 12, the anniversary of the Supreme Court decision -- and a new petition is asking President Obama to mark the date as a national holiday for mixed-race families.
"Loving" is set to hit select theaters in November, and we chatted with director Jeff Nichols just ahead of the holiday about the Lovings' love story, Oscar buzz and more. Read the interview below.
The reception from Cannes has been profound, with many saying "Loving" could have a chance at the Oscars. What's your reaction to that commentary?
JN: I'm obviously flattered by any talk about the film being considered for awards, but I'm most excited about the possibility of it raising the profile of the film. I think this is an important story, and hopefully that kind of reaction will get more people to consider this film.
When you were making the film, was an Oscar at all on your radar?
JN: No. I make personal films. This is the first film I've made that has not been wholly created from my imagination, but in spite of that difference all of my films contain an emotional core that strikes me on a personal level. For LOVING, this idea of a pure love, unadulterated by politics or social pressures, was something I desperately want to believe in. This couple's courage to trust in that love despite outside pressures is very emotional to me. Richard reminded me of my grandfather, and although my grandfather did not find himself in the same situation as Richard, I could imagine how painful that type of situation would be on a man like that. It first made me very sad, and then it made me angry. I've witnessed, through my grandparents, a couple that shared very few words between one another, but at the same time shared a deep love for one another. This does exist. It is possible, and that was important for me to portray it in this film.
I know you specifically wanted to make the film about a love story versus the civil rights issues that they inevitably took on. What prompted that decision? Why did you want to make the film about their lives?
JN: Once you begin looking into the lives of Richard and Mildred, it's easy to recognize the type of people they were. They were very simple people who had an innate belief in family and home. The decision that I made was to follow their life as closely as I could. In doing so, I think you get the story that you see in the film. The Lovings did not attend the oral arguments for the Supreme Court hearing. As a result, we as an audience don't get to attend these arguments. I just tried to stay as close to the Lovings as possible and still keep the story intact.
The real-life Mildred and Richard Loving, 1965 (Getty)
How did you decide on telling this story? When did the Lovings' story first come to your attention?
JN: I'm ashamed to say that I did not know about the Lovings or their case until this project was brought to my attention. The initial producers of the film, Ged Doherty and Colin Firth and the documentary filmmaker Nancy Buirski, were the ones to first approach me about this story. The idea was to use Nancy's documentary as inspiration to tell a narrative feature version of their story. They first made contact with me in June of 2012. So I've been thinking and working on this for a while now. I honestly got caught up in the idea by watching the trailer for Nancy's documentary. That contained a lot of core elements that I still refer to today. Once I sat down and dug into the Lovings' life more fully, I couldn't deny the impact of their story. It felt both relevant and timeless all at once. It's rare to find stories with that type of resonance.
This film feels extremely relevant given the current racial climate -- why was it important for you to make this film now?
JN: Again, I've been working on this film since 2012. What this means, unfortunately, is that the discussion around equality in racial and social terms is as heated today as it was four years ago. In fact, you might argue it is more heated today as the debate is pushed further and further into the public consciousness. I think this is a good thing, but I also think the story of the Lovings will always be relevant because they represent a pure idea of love. Their story is not limited to their place in time. I'm afraid as a society we will always be struggling with issues of inequality. The good news is that the Lovings will always be there as a reminder of the best parts of ourselves.
Did you have an opportunity to meet any of the Loving family? What was that experience like?
JN: I was able to meet and sit with Peggy Loving, the only remaining child of Richard and Mildred. She is a lovely person, but much like her parents I found her to be soft-spoken and a fan of brevity in words. In a way, this affirmed my ideas of what Richard and Mildred were like. We were lucky to have Peggy's blessing while making this film. The experience of speaking with her after she read this script was nerve-wracking and ultimately very touching. As I watched her flip through the pages in front of me, she began to cry and just said, "They are all gone." It really made it hit home that these were real people, and it was my responsibility to tell their story with accuracy and integrity.
Let's talk about the chemistry between Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga -- how did you know they were the right people to play the parts?
JN: I actually cast Ruth well before casting Joel. We were lucky to meet Ruth in an audition set up by our casting director, Francine Maisler. She was actually the first, and one of the few, people I read for the part. She walked in, and despite being shorter than Mildred, was able to embody the role. It wasn't until chatting briefly after she had performed a few scenes that I realized she spoke with an Irish accent. It was quite a bizarre contrast to be honest, but she just nailed it. I had met Joel while working with him on my last film, MIDNIGHT SPECIAL. We hit it off and I was very impressed with his facility for handling dialect. He also, if you squinted one eye and imagined his hair bleached blonde, somewhat resembled Richard. It just clicked in my mind that he would be right for the part. As far as the chemistry between the two of them, this is something I just hoped for. I think I found two incredibly empathetic people. As actors, my hope was that they'd connect through that empathy. That said, you never know until you see it on-set happening in front of you, and in this case it worked out beautifully.
Now watch Edgerton and Negga discuss the film: