For his fifth film, writer/director Jeff Nichols eschewed aliens, apocalyptic visions, and bounty hunters in favour of a period love story that changed the American constitution. “Loving” tells the true story of Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), who fell in love and married in 1958, defying Virginia’s laws against interracial marriage. Jailed then banished from their home state, the Lovings spent the next nine years searching for a way back home, taking their civil rights case all the way to the Supreme Court.
On the eve of the film’s home entertainment release, Mandy spoke with Jeff about his decision to follow the love story instead of the courtroom, waiting on a call from Martin Scorsese, his experience of “creative differences” with a major franchise, and why he moved away from the traditional three act structure.
Congratulations on the film. I thought it was such a nice approach to take, focusing on the personal story, the love story at the heart of it instead of the courtroom, which is where I think a lot of people would have focused the film. I understand your personal upbringing informed a lot of your choices here, is that correct?
Jeff: Yes there were a lot of personal connections to it in a way but I think the one you’re referencing is really the type of relationship that Richard and Mildred had. As best as I could surmise from the people I talked to, it seemed like the type of relationship that my grandparents had. We live in a pretty cynical time and I don’t know but they seemed like simple, straight forward people who loved each other very very much. I kept looking for chinks in the armour, looking for people to tell me about their fights or their problems, and of course I’m sure they had them, but people kept coming back to me and what my research really led me to was – for the most part they were very loving and cared for each other very much. I found this quote which I use at the end of the film, from just before she died, that she ‘missed him’. And that was confirmation from what I’d been hearing from people that really felt like the relationship that my grandparents had. For everything they went through, and even after he died – only seven years after the verdict – and she went on to live for decades, she wasn’t thinking about all the pain they went through, she wasn’t thinking about all the anger she had towards the outside world. She was just thinking about this man that she missed. And that seemed to, I think, support the approach to the whole idea.
Absolutely, and it was such a nice message as well that these two people who loved each other could make such a huge difference. Makes you feel a little less powerless perhaps…
Jeff: Oh for sure. People often think of them as activists, and I say ‘no’ and they give me a strange look. I always have to qualify – ‘not in the traditional sense’. I don’t think, and that’s apparent from the film we made, that they were seeking glory, they weren’t seeking, really, any revolution, they were just seeking what they thought was right. And their commitment to the idea of what was right is what caused all of the change.
And so much time that they lost. It was such a beautiful way you set it up, at the beginning you see them planning for their family life once he finds out she’s pregnant and at the end you see them being able to construct the home that they always wanted so much later, so much time wasted. It was very sad. But hopeful.
Jeff: Yes it makes it a form of a tragedy in that regard. Because all of that was true. He was a brick mason and he had laid out plans for their home and had this land that they were going to build on. All of that was very true. It makes the whole thing that much more infuriating because everything that happens in the movie really just gets you back to where you were. And that’s frustrating and I felt like it kind of had to be that way to understand how frustrating [laughs].
I understand it was Martin Scorsese who approached you initially about doing this film?
Jeff: Yes he was the original touch point. He was just kind of a friend of the project and reached out to me. He had seen “Mud” and “Take Shelter” which I was very flattered to hear. ‘You’ve actually watched them? And liked them?’ [laughs]. Yes that was really the only touch point for him was just to get the conversation going.
Well that’s a good you-know-you’ve-made-it moment when you’re waiting on a call from him, right?
Jeff: For sure that’s what it felt like to me! I was pacing in my back yard just not believing what was happening.
And you’ve built up quite a family of people that you work with in terms of cinematography and production design and actors, of course Michael Shannon, and now Joel Edgerton potentially. You seem to have a really stable crew of people you obviously work really well with. Is that something you always planned to do or is that just a nice side effect of your journey?
Jeff: I guess I planned it as much as you can plan anything in the film business. I’ll separate it into crew and actors although the conclusion is kind of the same. It’s just such a pleasant way to work – to work with your friends. And I’m very lucky to have a lot of very talented friends. But I like to think we push ourselves with every film. I’ve used the same cinematographer on every film – Adam Stone. Chad Keith has been my production designer now on three of the five. I’ve worked with Sarah Green as my producer. Having that team of people around you, to be honest, is quite pragmatic. I don’t have to prove to anybody that I’m smart or nice or anything. I can just set out and do the work and they trust what we do together. And I think that’s what goes for the actors as well. That really is the whole thing. I think the relationships that I have with the actors, I think everything we do on a film is in service of ultimately what they do. So when you find someone that is both talented and that you enjoy collaborating with it’s hard to let them go. Because it could so not be a great relationship [laughs]. You know I’m really drawn to good people, and these are all really good people and they happen to be really talented.
I’m a huge fan of Joel Edgerton’s, we’ve been following his career here since his TV days on “The Secret Life of Us”. He seems like such a laid-back, funny, charismatic guy, but he’s so busy, he’s always got new acting projects, writing, directing. He must have an incredible work ethic behind the scenes.
Jeff: Yeah I think it goes to his brain power, he’s got a lot going on up there. I think because he’s so charming, and he’s a big, meaty Australian guy [laughs], I think it would be easy to meet him and assume that that’s what there is. But there’s so much going on in his mind, between him and his brother both, and I think that’s what makes them so powerful and so productive. Certainly he has a work ethic but I think it’s also because he has a desire to express himself through his work. Not just his acting but his writing and directing as well. He’s got something to say, something he wants to put out in the world and lucky for us we get to watch it.
So you’d work with him again? [laughs].
Jeff: Oh yeah. It’s kind of tough because I’ve got all these actors that I like so much now! I’m going to have to just keep writing [laughs].
You’ve managed to land some really great actors even when you were quite new to the scene. You seem to be someone who has a real vision for your projects, to know exactly what you want to do, do you think this is what they’re responding to?
Jeff: I hope so because I feel that. I see this stuff in my head and my cinematographer talks about that – he says that I dream it. When I’m writing I just picture it in my head. With “Loving” I was picturing Richard and Mildred because that was the documentary that I was studying with the archival footage. With “Midnight Special” I could see the whole movie in my head so when you’re casting it’s actually really easy in a lot of ways to know when the right person is in front of you. You get this feeling – and this sounds negative but I promise it’s positive – it gets removed from your mind, like this relief, like you’ve been holding it in your head and that person walks through the door and they do the thing that you saw in your head, and they embody it, and it’s like a relief. Once you’ve made that decision the rest just comes so easier.
You seem as well that you don’t feel tied down to the traditional three act structure. Is that something you like to shy away from or do you just like to follow the journey in a more organic way?
Jeff: That was certainly how it started, and then it just became how I write, how I approach stories. I’m writing a big sci –fi movie right now and I’m trying to avoid that, I want it be easier on the audience [laughs]. I want it to be effortless for them. And I’m fighting my own aesthetic style, narrative style. It’s a strange thing, it’s how I build these stories I really just start thinking about the characters and I think about what they’re feeling and their emotions and I’m trying to reach a point in the film where my character is experiencing something hopefully pretty profound. So everything in terms of the narrative structure flows into that, is there to support that. It’s very hard for me to think about my films like ‘so and so needs to get to such and such by X date’. Even though I tried that with “Midnight Special” [laughs] and of course you saw the result which was a bizarre sci-fi film that’s more about the relationships between parents and their children than about aliens and a parallel dimension.
I loved “Midnight Special”, it was actually one of the two films that I paid to go see last year. I usually go to the media screenings but I missed it and I really wanted to see it. That and “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”, those were the two that I paid for [laughs].
Jeff: I loved that movie! I told someone literally like three nights ago to see that movie. I think that was one of the best movies last year.
I understand you were attached to “Aquaman” at one point but you decided to go in a different direction, is that true?
Jeff: I certainly feel like I was going in a different direction [laughs]. In hindsight, the more I’m away from it I’m not so sure it was me walking away from it as they were long into a new direction [laughs]. I don’t know, in my heart, if I had something to do with that decision. It was funny, I was hanging out at Warner Bros making “Midnight Special” at the time that they were activating all that stuff, I got along well with the people over there and they asked me if I wanted to think about it, and I was like ‘yeah I’d love to!’. So I went off and came up with this approach, and they were ‘that’s super interesting but it doesn’t line up at all with what we had planned’. And I was like ‘but you didn’t tell me what you had planned!’.
Well maybe you dodged a bullet, much better to realise creative differences at that early stage than what’s just happened on the Han Solo film with Chris Miller and Phil Lord…
Jeff: Yes that’s crazy. I feel sorry for everybody. That’s just sad news all around. These things are personal relationships. You can’t work that closely with people and not have a personal connection. That was a big decision obviously to make. No I’ve been real lucky. I sometimes joke that I haven’t been successful enough to really be offered anything that I felt like I haven’t been ready for and now here I am with five films with varying degrees of success [laughs]. I feel really excited about the future and this might sound strange but I feel really capable, that I kind of have a handle on what I’m doing. I’ve been doing this basically for a decade now and I’m excited about the next one.
I love how you have a different goal for each film, a different skill set that you want to master. Can you tease us with anything about what you’re working on at the moment?
Jeff: I’m writing a film called “Alien Nation” for 20th Century Fox. There’s an original film called “Alien Nation” starring James Caan that was kind of a detective movie with aliens. That’s not really what I’m doing although it would be cool [laughs]. I’ve been allowed a lot of leeway on this one by the studio and I’m able to dream up this whole new scenario and storyline and characters so I’ve just been doing some world building. I spend my days thinking about aliens. There are worse ways to make a living [laughs].
“Loving” is now available on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital Download.