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Loving director Jeff Nichols on making every frame of his historical drama a prison

He tells us why his Loving v. Virginia movie features almost no courtroom scenes.

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as Mildred and Richard Loving.
In Loving, Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton play Mildred and Richard Loving, the couple whose marriage was at the center of the historic court case Loving v. Virginia.
Focus Features
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The new film Loving is as impressive for what it doesn’t do as it is for what it does do.

It takes a historic court case — Loving v. Virginia, which made interracial marriage legal throughout the United States — and tells that story through the point of view of the couple at the case’s center, Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga).

It doesn’t have scenes of lawyers offering grand speeches about the glories of freedom, or scenes of judges considering the weight of the evidence. It’s just a movie about two people whose quiet love changed the country around them.

Loving exists on the outside of a tremendous bubble of emotion. Richard and Mildred love each other, yes, and the state wants to keep them apart. But they also have a quiet faith that everything will work out, that the two of them will make it.

The film hails from director and screenwriter Jeff Nichols, whose rocket ship of a career — including such acclaimed films as Take Shelter, Mud, and his other 2016 release, Midnight Special — turns the American South into fodder for his abundant cinematic imagination. Loving is his most restrained, and best, film yet, opening a vivid window into two ordinary lives that held extraordinary importance.

I talked with Nichols about researching, writing, and shooting Loving — from nurturing the chemistry between Negga and Edgerton on set to making sure his framing always felt a little imprisoning.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Hosts an official Academy Screening of LOVING
Jeff Nichols (right) attends an Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screening of Loving with stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga.
Photo by Craig Barritt/Getty Images for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Todd VanDerWerff

This movie is so dependent on chemistry between two actors. How do you find that in the first place, and how do you nurture it on set?

Jeff Nichols

I have to give all the credit to the actors.

I find them, but chemistry is an incalculable thing. You find two people that you really like and respond to, that fit the spirit of the people who are going to be onscreen, and you place them together and hope for the best.

I can talk about specifics of finding Ruth and casting Joel, but when you're talking about chemistry, you've done the work in the script to make sure the behavior of each character is logical and something actors can understand and wrap their heads around. Everybody's done their work in terms of costume and in terms of set dressing and design, and hair and makeup. The whole thing shows up, and then you're there. These two people have to connect. That's where I lean very heavily on these two actors.

There's a scene where Mildred has been released from jail. She goes home. Richard's not there. He sneaks out that night and sneaks into her room. It's all done in one shot. I remember sitting behind the camera watching this and thinking, there's no flinching. There is no hint of hesitation in their skin or eyes. They are face to face, cheek to cheek. Lips to lips, in this very delicate, intimate scene.

That's the definition of chemistry. I can't take any credit for that other than I just set the table.

Todd VanDerWerff

What was your approach to filming? Obviously, you want to have the two of them in the same shot as much as possible, but you also really let every moment take its time and have its full effect. How did you consider the framing and pacing?

Jeff Nichols

It's a pretty classic — in terms of classic cinema — stylistic approach. In terms of the way the camera moves, and, chiefly, the way it doesn't move. In terms of the amount of coverage, and the amount of edits you see. Those are all pretty precise.

I very much wanted these people to be trapped inside the frames. I did not, however, want to lose movement. On a film like Mud, I used Steadicam through probably 80 percent of that film, because Steadicam has a little drift to it. It feels free, and it feels fluid, like these two young boys running around this river. That is not the situation that Richard and Mildred are in. They are living in a [metaphorical] prison for a decade. I wanted the camera and its movement to reflect that.

In order to get this rock-solid frame, we set up a lot of dolly tracks, but in order to have movement and not have the dolly tracks seen, we used an offset jib arm with a remote head, so that you could get these very precise moves.

As soon as you set up a dolly, you're changing the orchestration of the shot. Your actors have a movement that you don't want to affect or impact. Then you've got a dolly grip moving a thing. You've got another dolly grip who's on the boom arm, making it go up and down and side to side. Then you've got your [assistant camera] who's off on these focus wheels, that are off of the dolly.

You have all these points of movement that have to work in this beautiful concert with one another. That's why when I've talked to people about directing this film, I'm so proud of it. We reached a level of precision that I haven't had on other films.

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga play Richard and Mildred Loving in the movie “Loving.”
Mildred and Richard share a quiet moment in Loving.

Todd VanDerWerff

Limiting your movement in that way certainly adds to the feeling of the characters being trapped, but what did that teach you about your own style and how you work?

Jeff Nichols

I learned that I really like it. I like the process of thinking about these puzzle pieces in advance.

But that's always been the case, to be honest. I'm most pleased when I have a concept for a scene, execute it, and then go in the editing room with the editor and can literally just lay those pieces out, exactly as I saw it in my head, and they fit together. That's something I enjoy.

A lot of filmmakers might hear that and say, "Gosh, that sounds really rigid," but it's not for me. It feels like balance. It feels like control over an understanding of an idea that is important to me.

Todd VanDerWerff

Certainly you can read about what the Lovings went through, but to see it onscreen really brings home how horrible their treatment could be. In your research, was there anything you reacted viscerally to as something you couldn’t believe they had had to go through?

Jeff Nichols

This isn't necessarily a harrowing thing. This place that they grew up and are from isn't even a town really. It's more of a community. Bowling Green, where they were held and tried, that was the county seat, and the town.

They lived in this little community off to the side, which, from my research, seemed like a very unique place in the Jim Crow South in the ’60s. It was a place where you had racial mingling going on for decades between the black community, the white community, and the Native American community.

The reason it's not just a factoid is because I genuinely believe [that community] provided the space for these two people to fall in love in a sincere way, not as an act of defiance. They just fell in love. Their friends were around and didn't think it was a weird thing. They'd been dating, and other people in different races had been dating around them. Where Richard separated from people is that he actually got married to Mildred.

Todd VanDerWerff

One thing that’s been much noted about the film is how little time you spend in the courtroom following Loving v. Virginia. What was behind that choice in writing the script?

Jeff Nichols

It's all about point of view. In Mud, I chose the point of view of a 14-year-old boy, and we stayed with him for the majority of the film. It's very similar here. I made a decision that the point-of-view characters would be Richard and Mildred. By definition, they were not involved in the daily intricacies of the court case [the two rarely appeared in court], so it wouldn't make sense to abandon them as characters.

To be honest, it was kind of like a sweater with a thread that you're pulling. That court case is so interesting, and those lawyers are so interesting. If you pull too much of it, then the whole thing is going to unravel and you're going to be covered in yarn. And that's going to be your movie.

I was far more interested in witnessing the court case from the Lovings’ point of view, which was at a distance. Think about how scary it must have been, that your fate is in a process that you're completely unaccustomed to.

So the audience’s experience watching the film is from [the Lovings’] point of view, and seeing it through their experience, rather than a typical cinematic one, which would be a courtroom drama. One doesn't have anything to do with the other.

Loving is playing in limited release right now. It will expand throughout the country in the weeks to come.