Speaking last night in Charlottesville after the public premiere of his film “Loving” at the Virginia Film Festival, director Jeff Nichols said, “It’s a weird film.” This drew some chuckles, because the narrative film is about a fundamental human desire: Two Virginia people in the early 1960s want to marry and make a home, though Mildred Jeter is of African and Native American descent, from a close and affectionate family, and Richard Loving is a white, hot-rod-racing bricklayer whose mother is a midwife in their Caroline County community of Central Point.
The context in which Nichols made the remark concerns the garden-variety multiplex fare that he doesn’t make. Nichols grew up outside Little Rock, Arkansas, and though he studied at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, he didn’t take screenwriting classes. “The three-act structure seems boring to me,” he said. “It’s useful, I guess, for analysis, but it’s not how I view storytelling.” The climax of “Loving” comes, “and you almost miss it.”
Nichols doesn’t mark the passage of years by putting dates on screen; instead he uses the advent of seasons. “The weight of so much time,” he said, “another spring, another winter.” The Lovings' life progresses though they are in a metaphorical prison (and on occasion, actual jail) for their affection. Like so many great and memorable tales, there is love, a society that denies its right, exile, journey, birth, and tears of both joy and sorrow. The production is a remarkable achievement because of the way in which the monumental story occurs around two quiet people who just want to be left alone in their love. This is a subtle, nuanced film where a door slam, a dust cloud on a driveway or a rope tossed over a branch make you anxious.
The brilliant legal maneuvering initiated by the American Civil Liberties Union occurs largely off screen because the focus is on the Lovings, trying to make their way against overwhelming forces that seemed beyond their control. The leads, Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton, are completely believable. Negga, of Irish and Ethiopian descent, captures the voice and mannerisms and the shy and elegant grace with which Mildred Loving carries herself in the period films and images. Edgerton, an Australian, inhabits the big laborer who loves his wife and wants fairness for his family (and his car to win the race). He at times seems like a balled-up fist, not necessarily one to lash out, but struggling to control the array of emotions seething within him.
The legal aspect of the story is explored in an excellent 2011 documentary, “The Loving Story,” by Nancy Buirski, which inspired Nichols and the film’s producers. “Loving” concentrates on what kept the couple and their family together through their trials, which included threats of violence and imprisonment. While the story is somewhat known in Virginia, where “miscegenation” laws were imposed against the Lovings, and their case has been repeatedly mentioned in the recent marriage equality struggle, the story isn't well-known in the wider world.
Producer Oge Egbuonu, in the panel discussion after the film, said that as a 35-year-old African-American Texan who went to good private schools and university, she was astounded that the first time she heard of the Lovings was through Nichols’ script.
Producer Sarah Green said of the film, “The story is about living your truth, living your love, not allowing others to deny the legitimacy of your children.”
I asked Nichols afterward about artistic references that he may have drawn from in realizing the look and texture of “Loving.” The wide views of splendid Virginia farms and forests and the old country houses reminded me of Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper. Nichols replied that while all that composition informs him — he expresses great appreciation for Memphis, Tennessee, photographer William Eggleston — he wasn’t purposefully invoking their visual language. The lush rural countryside is juxtaposed against the harsh structure imposed upon the people. And scenes set in a Washington, D.C., row house surrounded by concrete and asphalt are claustrophobic. By the time Mildred packs their bags to go home — despite a Virginia court ruling that forbid their return home for a quarter century — you understand why, even facing the danger of jail, she wants to get out of there.
Nichols, after reading about the Loving case and seeing the documentary, decided that the film should be made around the places where the events occurred, and this gave screen time to a crew of regional actors: Bridget Gethins is a court clerk who reads the charges against the Lovings, Terry Menefee Gau is legal secretary, D.L. Hopkins is a Loving relative living in D.C., and young Miles Hopkins makes his big-screen debut. Veteran Coby Batty shows up to install a phone in the remote Loving farmhouse, and Scott Wichmann is a member of the braying press corps. Gau, who’s been on many sets for film and television, described “Loving” as the most pleasant of those experiences. “The set crew was kind, considerate; we didn’t get yelled at like can happen. Everybody wanted to be there and nobody was exhausted,” she told me.
Another actor, perhaps better known, and one of the film’s producers, of whom it cannot be said that you expect him to be taller, is Colin Firth. Firth heard of the Lovings in 2009 from the documentary filmmaker then contemplating her effort and who joined the “Loving” crew of producers. When he co-founded Raindog Films, this was a story Firth wanted to help tell. He needed to get through the project "The King's Speech," though.
During the panel, Firth responded to the question of how the producers chose to manage the filmmaker. “I wanted this to be a test case of leaving a director alone,” Firth said. “How often the producer commits sabotage against profound creative ideas because of the anxiety that they’ll cost too much or impair the film’s potential success. How counterintuitive would it have been for us to hire Jeff and then try to clip his wings and mold him in some way? … There has to be risk taking — somewhere. The whole point is to tell a story that is unlike any other.”
And in the zero-sum game of film, where gigantic opening-weekend grosses are measurements of a film’s worth despite its merits, choosing to follow such an approach can be a nail-biting and bean-counting decision. But, ultimately, the story, and how Nichols chose to interpret it, won the day. Whether the box office will agree is another matter.
“Loving” opens Nov. 11 at the Bow Tie Cinemas at Boulevard Square.