Thursday, February 23, 2017


On the morning of the Jeff Nichols double feature of Loving and Midnight Special at the Egyptian Theatre, the director was nominated for best adapted screenplay by the Writers Guild of America. That development set the tone for the evening of conversation.

Loving was based on the documentary, directed by Nancy Bursky, about Richard and Mildred Loving and their court case versus the state of Virginia. “Before 2012, I hadn’t heard of the Lovings, which seems like a gross mistake,” Nichols recounted. “Nancy’s documentary A Loving Story featured this amazing footage of Richard and Mildred in their home, playing with their kids. Having grown up in Arkansas, the struggle for racial equality was always a part of my life. I was looking for a film that takes place in the South, that could address that issue because I hadn’t addressed that yet in my films. The choice to make this film and tell this story seemed effortless.”

The decision to present the Lovings' story as a romance, rather than a courtroom drama, was clear to Nichols. “These two people loved each other. They didn’t marry as a symbol or an act of defiance. They weren’t trying to change anyone’s opinions. They genuinely fell in love.” The specific conditions that Richard and Mildred grew up in were a large part of why they fell in love. “They grew up in this specific community where they were allowed to fall in love. I mean allowed in a specific way. They were given the room to fall in love.”

Nichols felt that if he tried to make the film express any judgement or advocacy, it would diminish that love. “Given the style of films that I make, it was comfortable to me to use focus on these two people… the experiences they had together and the things that made them a couple instead of individuals.”

The documentary focuses on a moment when Bernie Cohen, the Lovings' attorney, recalled the verdict of the Lovings Versus the State of Virginia and he is asked how they told the Lovings. “He said we called them on the phone, and I thought if they weren’t there for that what else weren’t they there for? The story sort of unravels from there and you see they weren’t there for the Supreme Court arguments and it seemed to strengthen their sincerity.”

Photo by Margot Gerber
An unexpected contributor to the story was the daughter of Sheriff Brooks, the officer who first arrested Richard and Mildred in Virginia. “Usually when you write a villain, no one is going to get angry at you or get their feelings hurt. I found the website for Sheriff Brooks’ funeral and there were all these pictures of him with his grandkids at Disney World. I was like, these people love this man and I’m going to hurt that. At the same time the evening he broke into the Lovings' home has been very well documented. So I went on writing what I knew” The daughter of Sheriff Brooks reached out to the producers and wanted to speak to Nichols. “She was lovely, and said 'I have moved away from my father’s ideology and thinking.' What she wanted to know was were we going to show him as a monster? I said I didn’t think so, but he was a racist. I told her about the line: ‘a robin’s a robin and a sparrow is a sparrow’ which is something he said in an interview, and she said 'if he said it once, he said it thousands of times in our house.' It validated the monologue we gave the sheriff. She was so generous. She sent us the uniforms he wore and we used those as the template for the costumes you see in the film.” After she saw the film, she emailed Nichols to say she was proud of the representation.

Out of the three Loving children, only Peggy remains, and she was the first person Nichols interacted with when he began his research. “She’s a lot like her dad, and she’s very protective of the memory because she is all that is left. She’s the guardian of that story.” Peggy was quiet and not receptive to his questions, so Nichols wrote the script and then brought it to her. “She looked up from reading the script on the verge of tears and said ‘They’re all gone’ and it just floored me. She was the reminder that these people were real and we had to represent them.”

Photo by Margot Gerber
Casting was an interesting experience for Nichols. Ruth Negga, who plays Mildred, is Scottish Ethiopian playing a Virginian.“ Ruth was the first one to walk in the door. She walked in and she was too short, so I said ‘Aw, that’s too bad.’ Mildred was so tall her nickname was 'string bean.' Ruth sat down and her posture changed and she pursed her lips and when she spoke she sounded just like Mildred from the documentary. She had obviously been studying Mildred. She read four scenes and when it was over I thanked her and she spoke in this Scottish accent. I was so confused but the die was cast.”

Joel Edgerton was already cast in Midnight Special. “I knew we had enough of the real Richard speaking that Joel could imitate his voice. Joel actually kind of looks like Richard, so that casting was quiet easy.”

As a director, Nichols doesn’t rehearse at all, a practice that came about through Michael Shannon. “We were working on Shotgun Stories and we were sitting around on set and I turned to Michael and said ‘Should we rehearse?’ and he said ‘I like to keep the juice in the lemon’ and that defined my lack of rehearsal.” Ruth and Joel understood the people they were playing. “Each of them had one scene when they couldn’t figure it out, but for the majority, they just had it.”

Ruth Negga has since been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role and both Negga and Joel Edgerton were nominated for Golden Globe Awards for their lead performances. The brilliance of the film is that it doesn’t rely on dialog to convey emotion, Nichols' screenplay remains true to the personalities of the real life Lovings, who were not verbose people. The actors have space to act out the many feelings that arise during the course of their ordeal, through physical gestures, expressions and body posturing.

Catherine Arcori is an avid travel writer and film critic for, as well as a media correspondent for Sorcerer Radio.