After five films, director Jeff Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone have become adept at capturing a sparse, unconventional vision of life sparked by the bonds that keep people together. And in “Loving,” the historical drama about the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case that legalized the interracial marriage of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) in Virginia, the filmmaking duo take their vision to another level.
Shot anamorphically on 35mm film, which is their preferred format, Nichols and Stone emphasize love as an inalienable right for this simple, rural couple that changed the history of race relations in this country.
Visually, the director and cinematographer achieve a pastoral beauty in many of the actual locations in and around Richmond, Virginia. This helps authenticate the period and the love story, which eschews conventional conflict and even a climax.
“‘Loving’ was shot mostly outside during golden hour, and we didn’t latch onto any period movies about the South from the late ’50s or early ’60s, but we did look at ‘Mud’ [about two young Arkansas boys encountering Matthew McConaughey’s fugitive] as a springboard to take further,” Stone told IndieWire.
But Stone became obsessed with the photo essays of the Lovings in “Life” by Grey Villet (in a cameo by Nichols regular Michael Shannon). Even though they were in black and white, they served as the basis for the film’s aesthetic: candid snapshots of the couple’s boundless love and affection.
“He used wide lenses, so he’d have to sit down and wait for a shot,” said Stone, who first met Nichols at the University North Carolina School of the Arts in the late ’90s. “He wasn’t voyeuristic but you were aware of his presence. That’s one approach we had to it — wider lenses except for close-ups and running around.”
The opening, for instance, provides a key to understanding the Lovings. Shot mostly in close-up, Mildred apprehensively informs Richard that she’s pregnant. But instead of creating a wedge between them, it brings them closer together, and he proposes marriage in Washington DC.
“As far as moving the camera, which is a departure, we wanted to move it but didn’t want it to be Steadicam,” Stone said. “We wanted it more online with the character. If an actor’s moving at camera, we wanted to be straight on or [slightly] off axis. We used a dolly with a boom and a hothead for more stability.”
Stone pumped up the greens to complement the warm, golden glow, and when they shot in DC, the hot, urban landscape becomes so suffocating that the Lovings secretly move back home in violation of their parole.
Stone points to a simple moment that draws its power from the locale, in which Mildred tells her sister Garnet (Terri Abney) that she’s getting married. “The sisters are in shadow in contrast to the field. This is an example of why we shoot on film. At that time of day, it looked great, but shot on digital, it wouldn’t look as good,” he said. “The film camera added an air of weight for the actors where [the characters] grew up and lived.”
It’s part of the Nichols ethos of being true to life as much as possible, according to Stone. “It’s a beautifully understated movie,” he said. “We didn’t want to sugar-coat or inflate the drama.”