Editors Note: This Jeff Nichols interview originally appeared May 15, just ahead of the Cannes Film Festival premiere of Loving. The dialogue seemed worth another look as the film opens this weekend to a wide audience as it continues its awards-season jaunt.
There are few indie directors today ploughing their furrow as diligently and precisely as Jeff Nichols. From his debut with Shotgun Stories in 2007, Nichols has blended genre with flyover-state authenticity, telling beautifully emotional stories about a part of America often overlooked by cinema. He’s been in Cannes before, of course, with Mud, amongst the first of Matthew McConaughey’s recent run of career-revitalizing work. But Loving is something different for Nichols: a period piece based on a true story, about an interracial couple whose marriage was forbidden in their home state of Virginia. It premieres tomorrow in the South of France, after being acquired by Focus out of Berlin on the strength of scenes and a script. Appetites were whetted by a couple of clips shown at the Focus beachside party on Friday, where stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga repped the film ahead of Nichols’ arrival.
DEADLINE: Loving is based on an HBO documentary by Nancy Buirski. It’s nothing like your previous work. What resonated with you about it?
NICHOLS: I grew up in Arkansas and I went to Little Rock Central High, which was the site of a desegregation crisis in ’57. I graduated in ’97. So I was inundated with civil rights history and impact, but I’d never heard of Mildred and Richard Loving before. As uninspiring as this sounds, I got a call from my agent, who said that Martin Scorsese wanted to speak with me. He had been kind of a shepherd of this project and wanted to see it made into a narrative film. I just got on the phone with Scorsese—I remember I was pacing around in my backyard speaking to him for the first time. Before the call I had watched the documentary, and I was struck by several things. I actually had, I think, a point of view on how to do it.
This was back in 2012, and The Help, which had been a huge success, was close in our rearview. I said, “I think this story can be very successful, but I’m probably not the one to make a mainstream version of this movie.” I could see a courtroom drama out of this. I could see a civil rights film out of this. But I saw it as a very personal love story, and I wasn’t sure if that was going to be the most commercial way to go with it. I laid out my approach in terms of trying to stay with the Lovings as much as possible through the telling of the story. Scorsese was very supportive of that idea, and then I met Nancy and [producer] Ged Doherty who was also supportive, so I sat down to write the script.
DEADLINE: Scorsese seems like the kind of guy who, as well as being an icon to us all, probably sees more films every year than any of us put together. Do you know which of yours he’d seen?
NICHOLS: It was Take Shelter and Mud. I remember Michael Shannon came to me one day and was like, “Hey, Scorsese liked our movie.” He had been standing outside a building in New York waiting to go in to do a read for Boardwalk Empire’s second season. A car pulled up and Scorsese got out, and he stopped briefly to talk to Mike. He was like, “Take Shelter; I loved Take Shelter!”
And then this really funny thing happened with Mud. We weren’t done, but our financier and producer, Lisa Falcone, had slipped him an unfinished copy, and it had no titles on it. When I spoke to him later he said, “I watched this movie and I thought it was great, and I was like, ‘Who made this?’” It wasn’t until two weeks after he saw it that he was at a dinner party with Lisa and she said, “It’s Jeff Nichols, who made Take Shelter.” He’s like, “Oh, I loved Take Shelter. That guy’s really talented.”
DEADLINE: There’s so much terrific footage of the Lovings in the documentary. These are both shy people, who are clearly devoted to one another. But she’s more outspoken, in a sweet, polite way. He is described as being the definition of a Southern redneck, all stoic and internal. Do you think that was reflected in their private relationship too?
NICHOLS: That’s who these people truly were, I think. Richard Loving very much reminded me of my grandfather. I could sit with him an hour and share no more than five or six words, and it wasn’t at all awkward. It didn’t feel like something was missing. It was just how he carried himself and interacted with the rest of the world. So Richard made sense to me, from my knowledge of people in the American South. They’re not all like that, but I understood where he was coming from, from my relationship with my grandfather.
Mildred’s actually more complicated. She’s got more going on in terms of her relationship to the events around them, I think. Richard is very much in a position where if it would just go away he would be fine with that, but it never goes away.
DEADLINE: We’re used to civil rights stories that are about big acts and their big consequences. This story is different—the act is love, in its simplest terms, but the impact is no less massive.
NICHOLS: The film very much feels like that. It wasn’t a political angle that I was creating or manifesting. It really simplifies the conversation about love. I think when you’re talking about marriage equality and race, people very quickly start to get into their political corners, their ideology comes to the forefront and they get into this platform argument that they’re used to making, which really doesn’t have anything to do with the day-to-day basics of what is being talked about. The Lovings are the day-to-day. They’re the ones that are getting up for breakfast, and going to bed at night, and trying to stay together. When you look at the two of them, it’s not a debate any longer. How could you possibly debate against that relationship? I think there’s beauty in simplicity, and this is a great example of that. At the same time, it doesn’t oversimplify it. It doesn’t dumb it down. It just cuts to the core of what needs to be talked about.
DEADLINE: The documentary begins and ends within the time the Lovings were fighting their case. But the film goes back a little further. How did you define where to pick up their story?
NICHOLS: That was a big revelation, to be honest, in the writing process. They knew each other since they were kids. They grew up across the street from one another. You go all the way back, and I discovered something that is very easy to discover, that is not brought to light in the documentary—and I questioned Nancy about this—which is that, when Mildred was arrested, she was pregnant. When you do the math, you realize that when he asked her to marry him, and when they got married, she was pregnant.
I thought about how that changed things and I realized it made me like them more. For her to be pregnant, and for him to ask her to marry, that’s a statement in and of itself. Not only are you dealing with the subject of interracial marriage, but also pregnancy out of wedlock in the ‘50s, which had a stigma around it more than it does today. Here I am presented with what potentially could be a problem, and I remember it just hit me: it obviously had to be the opening of the film. I’m very, very pleased with it actually. It begins with her saying, “I’m pregnant,” and so we go from 1958 to the culmination of the court decision in 1967.
DEADLINE: You wrote this film right after you finished writing Midnight Special, though you hadn’t yet shot that film. Were the two projects an antidote for one another?
NICHOLS: I think that’s a great way of looking at it. You can give yourself over more fully to one thing because of the other. I think that’s a very astute observation and I would agree with that.
At the end of the day, too, both movies needed to be what they need to be. Loving didn’t need Midnight Special to be what it is and I would argue, because I wrote it first, Midnight Special didn’t need Loving to be what it is. That being said, I think maybe it affects the idea of ‘Jeff Nichols’ out in the public consciousness, as you’re starting to put the films together, knowing that these two films would exist in relative space of one another.
Both films have tremendous emotional synergism, and I hope that’s true for all my films. I hope people see them that way. I’ve always said that the core of these films is not plot or genre—and I don’t say that to dismiss plot or genre, it’s just to try and be honest with people about my process. The thing that gets me really excited about storytelling is some emotional conveyance to the audience. That’s what I find fascinating.
DEADLINE: Because life isn’t plot. It isn’t drama. It’s emotion.
NICHOLS: Right. Which is why it’s so bizarre, then, to go see films that aren’t built around that. They’re built from the plot up. Obviously we need narrative structure. But you’re not dismissive even, really. It’s just about perspective, and your stated purpose as a storyteller, and if you shift those slightly then I think it’s possible to create films in any genre and achieve the same goal, which is to emotionally affect the audience. If that’s not possible then I need to quit. Really all I care about is, did it get you? And Loving gets you. It is probably one of the most potent films I’ve ever made in terms of that.
DEADLINE: Do you think some of the potency comes from it being a true story? This is the first film you’ve made that didn’t come from an idea in your head. Did that change things?
NICHOLS: It changed the process a little. I felt like I needed my team a lot more in pre-production and production. For instance, I went to Erin Benach, my costume designer who was on Midnight Special, and I went to my production designer Chad Keith, who was on Take Shelter and Midnight Special. I said, “Look, guys. I was born in 1978 in the suburbs. I do not know what the context of rural life looked like in 1958 to 1967. I cannot walk up to the set and look at the characters sitting in it and tell you if it’s period correct.” Oh sure, like everybody else I can take a glance at it and say, “That feels right.” But I couldn’t tell you if the toaster in the corner was right or not. Whereas in any of my other films I was the ultimate authority. I would walk on set and say, “This does not feel like any motel room I’ve seen before. This is false.”
If you read the script for Loving, you would see it’s quite sparse. But they were quite sparse people, too. Not just in dialogue and behaviors, but even if you look at the interiors of their house in the documentary. There’s not a lot of stuff on the walls. I think part of that is socio-economic; they weren’t overly decorated or ornate. But also, they just didn’t have a lot of stuff. It wasn’t like some homes you go into now—even amongst poor people—that have junk crammed everywhere. They hadn’t cleaned it up for the documentary crew; that was just how it was. I really needed to lean on my crew and my production team to tell me, “This is right Jeff. This looks realistic.”
So that took a little getting used to. I think before that, though, which might be more at the heart of your question, is this idea of writing these people. Because at some point you cross the bridge of thinking, “I have no idea if they said this. I have no idea if this happened.” So that’s when you do have to take control of the narrative and say, “I think I understand the essence of these people and I believe this is in keeping with that.” I can tell you exactly in the film what is verifiable and what is not—that’s an easy exercise—but I’m not going to stand up and say all this happened. And yet, I could confidently stand next to the film and say that I do believe this is what they were like.
When I set out to make this film I assumed it was going to be the most conventional film I’d ever made because it’s a period piece. It just seemed to fit, out in the world, easier than my others. I knew, hopefully, how Focus was going to position it, and how people were going to talk about it. All that made sense. But when I really sat down and looked at it, it is not a very conventional film in the way I structured it and built it. I’m fascinated to see if other people feel this way, but from my perspective, just like all my other films, it does not follow a three-act structure. It deals with time in a very strange way. It’s all linear, but there are no markers. Never at the bottom of the screen does it say, “Now it’s 1963.” You just flow through the film and you get the information you need at the time that you need it.
DEADLINE: There’s too much handholding in cinema now. Your films have always offered a journey and invited the audience to take it, or not.
NICHOLS: And I reap the benefits of that, but I’ve also paid the consequences of that, and I’ve got the films and the critical responses and the box office receipts to prove it. The funny thing is, it’s just the way I like telling stories. It’s the way I find things to be interesting. And maybe I’ll alter that at some point—maybe I’ll have to—or maybe I’ll find I’m not capable of altering it. The most radical realization with Loving, which makes me sound kind of stupid, was when I was sitting in the editing room. I looked at my editor and I said, “This movie has no climax whatsoever.” There is no climax, but at the same time it’s totally satisfying and totally emotional. People may just totally rip it apart for that, but I don’t think they will. I think everything you need out of it is there. But we’ll see; I’ve done this enough times now, who knows? I thought Mud would be such an easy film for people to understand. It was this classic American film, which I think proved to be the case ultimately, but coming out of Cannes that wasn’t the feeling I got. It wasn’t that warmly received in a lot of respects, so you never know.
DEADLINE: Do you think Hollywood has us all so well marketed-to that audiences struggle with anything that doesn’t offer climactic satisfaction
NICHOLS: I don’t know, I don’t have that riddle solved. If I did, Midnight Special would have been a blockbuster. At some point people have to want to see these movies, and it not be just marketing. It has to be something in them. That’s the calculation that I think was always hard for Hollywood, which is why there’s alchemy involved in the process of making a movie. The studios have found a bit of a silver bullet in terms of comic book films for right now. You have all of this stuff built up. You have characters and history. These are library titles that people can identify with. That all makes sense and I understand why that has a built-in appeal. But the thing that it highlights is that independent films have a real struggle to create something that touches the zeitgeist. No matter how many articles you write, or how many movies I make, at some point the films are going to have to call people into the theater on their own. They have to.
DEADLINE: It’s not like you’re making seven-hour long black-and-white art films about Trappist monks trying to rewire a plug. All of your movies to date have been at the very least accessible to that crowd that goes to see superhero movies.
NICHOLS: [Laughs] Sure. And it’s going to be an interesting Cannes for me, because I’m in a moment of self-reflection coming off of one movie, going into another. Midnight Special didn’t perform box office-wise the way I hoped it would. So I’m trying to figure it out. Do I keep chipping away at it, or at some point do I have to add a component? Do I have to add a big title just so I become more well-known? Does Inception happen at the level that it did without Batman? I don’t know. At the end of the day I just have to keep making movies and hope people keep letting me make them, because at some point, if they don’t make money, they’re not going to let me make them.
DEADLINE: There’s probably some truth to the Nolan reference, but his most interesting work remains Memento. It feels, to me, like you’re in much better shape to do a Batman when you know that you’ve already found your voice on your own. And I don’t think it always happens that way.
NICHOLS: I’m with you. I’ll say this: I think from a directing standpoint, Loving is my most accomplished film. Strictly from a technical, directing point of view. So I think about filmmakers that make an amazing first or second film and then go on to a studio film. And it’s great; that’s a fine trajectory and maybe in five years I’ll really wish I would have taken it. But I’ve gotten better making these films through this process. Maybe it was dumb, and maybe I should have done a remake already—maybe I will in the future—but the cool thing is, I feel like a complete director. I feel like I have mastery of the skills necessary at least to make my films. I don’t know if I could make Batman v Superman. You watch that, and there’s so much stuff going on, and I don’t know how they did half of it. But I know how to make my films.
And that’s something great about Loving, especially with it coming out after Midnight Special, because I think so often I just talk as the writer. 90% of the interviews I give, I really am thinking about the writing. But because this film was based on something, it allowed me to really think about the directing a lot. And I really focused on camera movement as it relates to character behavior and everything else. So maybe now I’ll finally get the big job. Maybe now I actually have it figured out. I don’t know if other directors find that when they go into the big films. The hope is they’re allowed to find that. But from where I’m sitting, in terms of confidence in my abilities as a director, I feel like this is a movie I can be proud of. It doesn’t mean it will be people’s favorite—they can have fun with that—but from my perspective, I really understood what I was trying to do with every single frame of the movie. And that’s really cool to walk away with.