'Loving' Director and Stars on the Couple Who Changed Interracial Marriage Laws

Directed by Jeff Nichols, "Loving" features Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in "Loving."

The KCET Cinema Series launched its sold-out winter season at ArcLight Cinemas Sherman Oaks on October 18 with a screening of "Loving." Written and directed by Jeff Nichols ("Mud," "Midnight Special") the film tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple whose marriage was deemed illegal in their home state of Virginia. Ultimately, their case made it to the Supreme Court, who ruled in 1967 that states could not bar interracial couples from marrying.

Nichols and stars Ruth Negga (Mildred Loving) and Joel Edgerton (Richard Loving) joined KCET Cinema Series Host Pete Hammond for a Q&A session following the screening. A portion of the interview appears below and has been edited for length and clarity. 

The KCET Cinema Series is generously sponsored by the E. Hofert Dailey Trust. The winter season runs through December 13 and is now sold out. 

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Jeff Nichols on making "Loving." 

The thing is, no matter what type of movie I really wanted to make, no matter what things I felt were in my wheelhouse, as a filmmaker or lent themselves to my aesthetic, the reality is this is not my film. This is not my story. This is Richard and Mildred's story, so in all instances, we had to represent them. I had to, first off, find out who they were, as best as I could. Find out about their nature, the essence of who they were and then try to lay that out in a narrative form and in a film format that supported that story. 

Now, it helped that their story does actually match up with my wheelhouse as a filmmaker and does actually play my aesthetic preferences, but, ultimately, I just wanted to make a film that represented them. 

Jeff Nichols on the documentary that inspired "Loving."

Ged Doherty and Colin Firth had a company called Raindog Films and they had seen Nancy Buirski's documentary, "The Loving Story," and got in business with her to turn this into a narrative film and they were the first producers on the project that approached me. 

They had a pretty good pitch in that they just sent me Nancy's documentary, which was so well thought out and so delicate.

When Nancy was making that, she unearthed this archival footage from the 1960s. A documentary filmmaker named Hope Ryden had gone to see them before their case had made it to the Supreme Court to interview them and there was black-and-white footage and color footage. It was integral to that documentary and integral to our making of the film. You're able to watch it and watch this very elegant, beautiful, but at the same time, earthbound, blue collar woman enunciate her feelings about her husband and their marriage. Then you get to watch this other man, this man who is completely incomparable of enunciating his feelings in front of the camera and looks like they're torching his feet on fire when they're in front of the camera. It is an open door right into their hearts and their lives. 

So, when Colin Firth calls you, you listen, but when he calls you and shows you this documentary, it's an undeniable choice. 

Directed by Jeff Nichols, "Loving" features Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga
Alano Miller, Terri Abney, Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in "Loving."

Jeff Nichols on casting Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton.

Joel's casting actually came after Ruth's, so I'll talk about Ruth first — it works that way in my chronology. Before I went to make "Midnight Special," I was out in L.A. taking meetings for "Midnight Special" and Francine Maisler, my casting director, who has been with me since "Mud," who is phenomenal, she said, "let's have some casting sessions" — because I had kind of looked around and I just hadn't seen Mildred walking around on screen yet. Sarah Green, my producing partner, and Francine and I, we sat down and had a very brief casting session, only a few people, and Ruth was the first person to walk in the door. I wasn't familiar with Ruth's work. She sat down. We didn't really speak very much beforehand. She started doing these scenes and it was very similar to what you saw on screen. She obviously had been studying this documentary as much as I had been studying it. She had the posture, the facial expressions, the voice. It was pretty uncanny. 

It wasn't until the audition was done that I was speaking to her briefly and this Irish accent came out. At that point, it was too late. She was already cast. 

It was remarkable. You guys saw it. If you go see the documentary, it becomes more impressive, I promise. She really inhabited this person. 

Then, on the other end of things, I was working with Joel on "Midnight Special" thinking about Richard Loving. Joel has a bit of a physical resemblance. He's blondish. I thought, if he lost a little bit of weight, and we cut some male-pattern baldness into his hair and gave him bad teeth, it'd be pretty close. 

That was kind of in the back of the mind when we started working together. Second, and, I guess, also important, I just fell in love with the guy. I loved working with him. He's extraordinarily intelligent and easy to work with. Third, and more importantly, I watched how he broke down a dialect for that film. He was a Texas state trooper. I live in Texas, so I was a pretty good student of that voice and accent. I saw him take a clip from the Errol Morris documentary "The Thin Blue Line" — we took a detective from Vidor, Texas out of there — and he broke that voice down so beautifully and was able to apply it. I knew that with all of this archival footage of Richard, that he would have enough source material to really build Richard's voice, which is a strange voice. It's hard to understand him a lot of times. It has this odd coastal influence. In Virginia, this accent, they say "a-boot" rather than "about." Strange things. Had I gone out and just cast an American actor with a nice Southern accent — they do exist — I just wasn't sure that they would do the mechanical work necessary to get this voice right because I wanted Richard and Mildred Loving on the screen. I didn't want just an actor doing a good job. What I got, were these two incredible actors that did the work and I think really embody the spirit of these two people. 

Pete Hammond, Jeff Nichols, Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton at the KCET Cinema Series screening for "Loving."
Pete Hammond, Jeff Nichols, Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton at the KCET Cinema Series screening for "Loving."

Joel Edgerton on playing Richard Loving.

The first point of reference for us was Nancy Buirski's documentary and when you have access to the real person — sad to not ever be able to meet Richard — but to have access to footage of him really helped. One thing that really fascinated me, and I know it fascinated Jeff as well, is that you can see him thinking a lot, but not saying a lot. You saw the cogs turning, but you don't see the mouth opening. 

There's so many reasons why he didn't talk. It said a lot about injustice. It said a lot about how injustice breeds silence and teaches people to shut their mouths, which is really sad. But, as beautiful a screenplay as Jeff has written, in all its detail, he's more detailed ahead of time in that pre-production period, that writing period, than most directors I've ever worked with, so nothing feels like a mystery. It feels like a perfect roadmap for what you're about to do. We talked a lot about the sort of speeches that didn't exist. That was interesting to have a conversation about what's he thinking and why is he not talking? What are the reasons for that? Is it an inability to mince words with people he feels are more intelligent than him? Is it fear of talking to the constabulate, talking to the police, talking to the lawmen? Is it out of frustration? Is it out of a will to wish everyone else to disappear? 

Ruth Negga on playing Mildred Loving.

Jeff sent me Nancy's documentary and I was in L.A. filming something else, so I locked myself in my hotel room for a couple of days, poured over it and the archival footage. I think anyone who has seen that footage, and Mildred and Richard, can't help but be instantly captivated by them. They really are so beguiling in their, like Joel was saying, they're really such truthful people with such integrity and with absolutely no affectation. You really feel that who they are when they're being interviewed on camera is really close to who they are off camera. I don't think you can say that about many people. The conversations between them, when they're sitting next to one another, they're so intimate and giggly and flirty together and there's this lovely, respectful energy between them. It's so palpable, the love they feel for one another. I just thought, this is such a beautiful love story. Obviously, I was so shocked that it hadn't been told before, considering the impact of this couple on American legal history. The impact is still felt today. We do screenings and so many people come up to us and say, "thank you this is my story." Or, "my parents story." "You're bearing witness to how I got to be here." That's super important too. As a mixed-race person myself, I can relate to that. 

Directed by Jeff Nichols, "Loving" features Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in "Loving."

Jeff Nichols on equality.

Fifty years from now, we're still going to be dealing with it. Equality is not a thing that we achieve as a society. It's not something that we ever take care of and move on. It's not something we're ever going to treat fully. Equality is a concept that, as a society, we have to bring up and hold up to ourselves and define for ourselves, I think, continually. Notions of equality now, we define it and apply it and withhold it from people in our society. That's as relevant today as it was in '67. We know that just because there is this miraculous instrument in our society that is the Supreme Court that can, at times, step in and make the right decision for our country, sometimes ahead of where the public vote or sentiment would be, it doesn't mean that public sentiment changes immediately. It's something that takes much, much longer. It took a long time for racial equality, I'm sorry, for interracial marriages to start to be more accepted across the country, just like it's going to take more time for gay marriage to be accepted throughout this country. The reality is that we are a constantly evolving nation in society, so it's always going to be relevant. What Richard and Mildred do is they show us how to have these conversations. We, as a society, often use liberal conviction or religious conviction as the things that hold up our points when we make them over the Thanksgiving table or wherever it is. This is my point of view. This is what I believe. But, it has very little to do with the people at the center of the things you're talking about. If you can focus on the people at the center of these things, then I think we have an opportunity to advance the conversation in a meaningful way. That's what Richard and Mildred show us is the humanity at the center of it. 

Directed by Jeff Nichols, "Loving" features Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in "Loving."

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga on playing a couple.

JE: Independent from how we approached our characters, how did we prepare as a couple? It didn't occur to me until later in the pre-production process and part of it is also looking back in hindsight, looking back and playing that character, in this case, each of us playing two separate characters, a great question, which has been on my mind a lot, is what is that third thing? Which is the two of us, together. It's very hard to decide if that's going to work or not, I think. It's very hard to judge for ourselves whether that worked or not. I think a lot of that goes to the credit of the screenplay that Jeff wrote, the way he treated the film, the way he chose to depict love in a true sense in a couple, a long-standing couple over a long period of time, that's not about a Hallmark declaration of love, sex scenes version of that prism, but more of the connectivity of domesticity, the connectivity of support, camaraderie and all those other aspects that go into a couple that are individuals marching forward, particularly during a difficult time. 

As an actor, I felt that I was like that little kid in class that was given a special task to play this guy and that, together, we were the two special kids in class who were allowed to do this very important thing that we felt was very precious and carrying that together, I think, created an enjoyment together. Beyond that, I really admire Ruth. I admire her as a person. I think she's an excellent actor. It kills me to say that when she's sitting next to me. I just loved watching her do what she was doing and spending time with her. Together, we had this special gift given to us by Jeff and by fate. 

RN: I think we just both knew that we were so privileged to be playing this couple and we were very excited. To watch them on screen in the archival footage, I got very excited that we were going to experience what they experienced, that joy of being around one another and I think myself and Joe are quite similar in that we like a nice, happy set, we like to get on with people and I think we're both performers that are happy to interact with other performers on the stage or on the set. It's very important. I, as a performer, am totally dependent on other actors around me. I rely on them for what happens, that chemistry. We can prep all we want beforehand, but, what that does is it prepares you for the magic that can happen between action and cut. That can only happen if you've got this sort of bond and that involves, quite simply, being open and present. I think we're both similar and that's the joy of it. Anything can happen. I think we have a similar approach and temperament on the set.

Directed by Jeff Nichols, "Loving" features Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga
Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga and Michael Shannon in "Loving."

Jeff Nichols on the locations in "Loving."

We were based in Richmond. The courthouse that you see is the courthouse they were tried in. The jail is the jail where they were jailed. The field where he proposes to her is about a three minute walk from the home where they lived in hiding in King and Queen County. Those roads that you see them driving around on, those are roads all through Caroline County and Central Point, where they're from. That was downtown Bowling Green. We really put ourselves in the place, which added a supreme amount of focus to the whole thing, for us, but also for our crew. There was a reverence, I felt, on set because these weren't stages or sets that we showed up on — this is where they were.


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