Jeff Nichols on the Quiet Strength of the ‘Loving’ Family: Awards Spotlight

The writer/director talks balancing the ordinary and the extraordinary and the people who helped bring the Lovings' story to the screen.

Jeff Nichols Daniel Bergeron

Jeff Nichols

Daniel Bergeron

Even if his throwback sci-fi tale “Midnight Special” were his only 2016 output, Jeff Nichols would have had quite a year. But the filmmaker behind “Mud,” “Take Shelter” and “Shotgun Stories” may have found his best story yet in the life and love of Richard and Mildred Loving.

“Loving,” Nichols’ second of two 2016 films, soars as a beautiful portrait of a resilient family primarily because of its patience. Jettisoning the standard biopic checklist, Nichols instead took great care following the quiet moments along Richard and Mildred’s journey from their meeting all the way through their role in the landmark Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case that struck down existing interracial marriage bans nationwide. The drama of their lives hangs in these individual scenes in a way that few films profiling historical figures manage to achieve.

Over a decade of making films, Nichols has quietly built up an impressive roster of actors and actresses who have done some of their career-best work with the director. Frequent collaborator Michael Shannon pops up in “Loving” as photographer Grey Villet. But the true standouts of “Loving” are the title characters, headlined by Ruth Negga’s Mildred, a character of overwhelming sincerity rooted in a remarkable woman’s experience. Nichols’ work with Joel Edgerton in both of his 2016 films shows that he’ll be able to foster those frequent collaborations throughout the rest of his career.

As both writer and director of “Loving,” Nichols immersed himself in the Loving family and their journey from young sweethearts through a marriage that helped bring about change across the country. Nichols explained how Nancy Buirski and her 2011 documentary “The Loving Story” helped shape the foundation of the film.

As a writer, Nichols has put these actors in the best possible situations by crafting roles specifically tailored to their strengths. With “Loving” based on real-life individuals, Nichols had to amend his usual writing process to capture the real lives behind the story. This made the casting process particularly vital, one that led to Negga showing she’d taken similar care in studying the Lovings.

Once the actors were in place, “Loving” proved to be a film ideally suited to Nichols’ established storytelling pace. With Edgerton and Negga keyed into the rhythms of the Lovings, their interactions guided a more gentler profile, removed from any distracting and inauthentic melodrama.

Nichols described that calmness as something to keep in mind as our nation moves forward in the coming months. The Lovings are a lasting testament to the idea that these are not abstract concepts at the heart of political and social debates. If we strip away the rancor and divisiveness of modern discourse and keep in mind our shared humanity, we’ll all be better for it.

This year’s Awards Spotlight series is produced with help from our partners at Movies On Demand, who shot and produced the video interviews, and from Hollywood Proper, who provided location services for our Los Angeles shoots.

You can find all Contender Conversations at our Awards Spotlight homepage.

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