“I believe that any time we can be reminded of the elegance and the simple beauty of love,
it’s a good thing...”
Writer/Director Jeff Nichols talks about the extraordinary film LOVING, beautiful in its quiet simplicity...
Nichols and his dedicated team, including Director of Photography Adam Stone, Production Designer Chad Keith, Set Decorator Adam Willis and Costume Designer Erin Benach, bring a natural authenticity to the story of an interracial couple, Richard and Mildred Loving [Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga], whose simple love for each other and family brought about the landmark 1967 civil rights decision by the Supreme Court reaffirming the right to marriage.
“The love between two people was what impacted me emotionally,” says Nichols. “They weren’t martyrs, and didn’t want to be. They weren’t symbols, and didn’t want to be. They were two people in love who wanted to be with each other and their family. Out of that grows the other importance of the story, which is the decision by the Supreme Court."
“The truth is, I wasn’t aware of the Loving story, and I’m kind of ashamed of that. I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas. I went to Little Rock Central High, the site of the desegregation crisis, and I felt like I had a pretty solid knowledge of our history with the Civil Rights movement, and yet I didn’t know anything about the story. So that’s what struck me first, and how many other people would be equally unaware of it. But it was the love story at the essence of it that I wanted to tell.”
“The film could have been a courtroom drama, a civil rights picture, but I saw it as a very personal love story. It’s a story of a decade-long emotional journey. That’s what appealed to me as a storyteller, conveying the commitment, the deep love, and how they lived it day to day.”
Joel Edgerton, who plays Richard Loving, says, “Jeff’s script is so beautifully written. This is a story that gets into your heart and touches deep wells of feeling.”
He also notes, “Jeff has a wonderful team that creates such a true sense of the authentic world, of those decades, of those environments, of the farm. It allows your imagination to focus on the relationship because the world is there for you.”
“It’s true,” Nichols replies. “Our DP Adam Stone and I just understand each other. He is my best friend and has shot all my films. Chad has been with me for most of them, too, and Adam Willis. These people are right by my side. Every decision I make is filtered through them. With Adam Stone, naturally, it’s filtered through his lens. He’s able to make things beautiful without making them affected. There’s no veneer on his images. And Chad and Adam make sure that everything is so real, there’s no feeling of veneer in these sets, either. Even though we had to bring everything in because it was a period piece, in the moment, it all felt very real.”
Some moments of the film were shot in the actual locations where events had occurred. “It was pretty incredible that we were able to film at the Bowling Green courthouse, inside the sheriff’s office and outside the jail,” Nichols says. “We were even able to go inside the jail where Richard was held overnight and Mildred was locked-up for five days. We couldn’t believe how small it was, and how difficult that must have been for her.”
For the majority of environments, the team filmed in the Virginia countryside near the original sites. Nichols mentions, “I grew up in Arkansas, so I know the feel of the South, but Virginia has it’s own geography, with swaths of fields and undulating rolling hillocks and flatlands. The horizons were amazing. You can see why the people were of the land. So nature is a huge part of this film.”
The Virginia countryside that he and Stone were lensing in widescreen was a revelation: the landscape itself could convey emotional importance in ways words could not. “So much of the story resides in Mildred and in her defining relationships to home and to this place. She was very much of the earth.”
“When the family was forced to move to D.C., I feel it was a meaningful shift in her life, and a painful one. They had support there from friends and relatives, but imagine having to go to a place full of asphalt and car horns when you’ve never been around those things on a daily basis or been that close to a city. And later, when her children have no grass to play in, no horizons to experience, it accelerated her need to get home.”
“Once I visited Virginia and saw how beautiful it was, it made sense that she wouldn’t want to leave. Bowling Green and Central Point are fundamental building blocks – so to speak – in how and why Richard and Mildred’s lives progressed as they did, and how everything followed from their being born and raised there.”
For the specifics, the director and team relied on Nancy Buirski’s documentary, THE LOVING STORY, as well as Grey Villet’s photos for a LIFE magazine feature in 1965 and the ABC 1967 profile on the eve of the ruling. The sense of community was something the director knew from his family and their roots, “It echoed what I had heard from my father, who grew up in in a small town in Arkansas. My dad said, ‘We all needed one another to get by.’ And I saw my grandfather in Richard Loving. He was hard-working man of the American South, who spoke very little. But the silences were comfortable.”
Nichols points out that, unlike his father and grandfather, he grew up in the suburbs, and he was born 20 years after the film begins. “Look, I don’t have a direct context for rural life at the end of the ‘50s into the ‘60s, which meant I couldn’t always say if something was period correct. So I relied heavily on my team. And they would definitely let me know when it wasn’t! Or explain why something was.”
“Instead of the crammed-full houses you sometimes in films, the homes have a sparseness. These were sparse people, not only in their dialogue and contained behavior, but also in their environments,” says Nichols. “There isn’t a lot of stuff. Part of that was economic, but it was also the times, we just had less in our houses then.
Which means each object in the film carries more weight, has to be somehow “more” right, such as the ashtray, side table and lamp in the scene where LIFE photographer Grey Villet photographs the Lovings at home...favorites of Nichols. “They attest to the skill of Adam Willis and Chad Keith.” *
As does something as simple as the carry-through of the same clothespin bag moving from the tiny kitchen in D.C. to the back entry of their home in the Virginia countryside...
Details always matter.
As does love.
*Check back later in the awards season when we talk with Chad Keith
about more of the details the set decorator and he provided!