Jeff Nichols on “Loving”
The movie Loving opens with some well thought out camera shots. The story of interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving follows their arrest in 1958 for being married and the subsequent decade long legal road that brought their case to the Supreme Court. In 1967 the highest court in the land overturned their conviction on miscegenation laws and made marriage between two races legal.
Director Jeff Nichols opens with a shot of Mildred (Ruth Negga) in a kind of freed-from-her-concrete-form close-up where she is talking to someone. Then we see Richard (Joel Edgerton) responding in a close-up but it’s not clear where he is in relation to Mildred. Then a two-shot establishes they are sitting close together yet it’s a creative angle that plays within the confines of cinematic properties. Finally a longer shot shows the two of them close together, again from an angle another film wouldn’t have thought of, sitting on the porch of a rural house, their feet dangling over the edge almost like children.
“I can talk about the shot construction and then we can talk about the narrative construction,” says Nichols speaking by phone from Austin on the first day of the Austin Film Festival where Loving is the opening film.
“It made so much sense to see these two people disembodied from one other. I wanted to focus on her and the fact that she was nervous and worried. Then these words come out, which are pretty powerful words, anybody who has ever said ‘I’m pregnant,’ knows how powerful they are. We’re obviously looking at a woman, a black woman and there are period elements like the style of her hair or the color of her dress. Then you cut to a white man who is listening and at first you’re not sure if he likes this news,” says Nichols.
“Then this smile breaks out and you see his teeth. Then the camera starts to move inside the close-up so that you start to get hints of the other person. You’re starting to build the relation between these two people; you see their body language next to one another.
“You see how sweet and nervous and how close they are,” continues Nichols. “Physically, but also emotionally. It’s a really great way to represent the moment itself and in the narrative timeline of the film it now makes sense. But also it’s a representational scene. It shows you where they’re at, where they’ve been, and where they’re going all in one scene.
“As a writer that’s what you want, something that compounds things. It makes sense in the moment – you’re not stretching, there’s not a lot of exposition that you’re trying to cram into the moment. It stands on its own as a scene,” says Nichols. “There’s three lines in the scene but so much more going on with their relationship.”
Loving goes deep into the relationship and the acting of Negga and Edgerton brings out the physicality of the characters. Richard Loving works in construction building walls with cement and cinder blocks and that informs his character’s gait. He’s a man of few words and his mother, when we meet her, is a woman of even fewer words.
“If you look at the real Richard Loving and the way that he walked hunched over, which Joel built into his performance, that directly comes from the work he was doing,” says Nichols. “We sent Joel to mason classes and even the guy who taught the class walked the same way.”
While lawyers and legal appeals take up a bit of the narrative, Loving is not a courtroom drama. “When you look at the documentary The Loving Story [2011, d. Nancy Buirski] you quickly realize that the court case is fascinating. But it’s like the lawyers deserve their own movie because the Lovings themselves were not part of the day to day navigation of that case all the way up to the Supreme Court,” says Nichols.
“For me, I’m a filmmaker who appreciates point-of-view as a narrative approach. I decided to make a movie from their perspective and it didn’t make sense two-thirds of the way through to leave them alone and go follow the two lawyers no matter how amazing they are. The Lovings were apolitical – they didn’t have an agenda. By concentrating on them you remove the onus of the court proceedings and focus on these two people.”
Loving opens in area theaters this weekend.