How the Loving Story Went From Documentary to Unique Biopic

Jeff Nichols, Ruth Negga, and Joel Edgerton on Remaking the Real
Focus Features
By  · Published on November 12th, 2016

“I’m just trying to make films that emotionally affect people,” Jeff Nichols tells me in early October, as I bring up how much of a departure his latest, Loving, seems to be from his other work.

It’s based on a true story, while his other four features, including 2012’s Mud, were made from original ideas that he alone came up with and wrote. His previous effort, also released this year, is the sci-fi drama Midnight Special, which features a smidgen of action, and even that he considers akin to the new film, which is a low-key American civil rights biopic set half a century ago. “The fact that in one I get to flip over cars and blow things up, that’s cool, but the two very much are in line in my mind.”

Loving depicts the lives of Mildred and Richard Loving, a mixed-race couple who were legally married in Washington, DC, in 1958 then jailed by the Commonwealth of Virginia, where they lived, for violating anti-miscegenation laws. Their case wound up going all the way to the US Supreme Court, where a decade later such statutes were deemed unconstitutional, as well as just plain racist.

Nichols compares one of the real-life characters to a fictional man on the run with his son: “When [the actor] Michael Shannon turns back in that car in Midnight Special and yells at that boy, it breaks my heart. And when Richard Loving comes in and sits at the edge of his bed and looks at his wife and says, ‘I can take care of you,’ all of us knowing full well that he can’t, breaks my heart. The trajectory of getting to those two emotions is all I’m doing.”

Learning About the Lovings

The new film is inspired by a 2011 HBO documentary about the Lovings called The Loving Story. Its director, Nancy Buirski, is one of the producers (along with Colin Firth and Ged Doherty) who approached Nichols with the idea of doing a dramatic version. “They sent me the trailer,” he says,” and I was in. Obviously you see the relevance immediately to racial equality and marriage equality. But beyond that I just started seeing all these connections to the South and to people I recognized.”

“There are a lot of movies about this period, and sometimes I just don’t think they get it right.”

Nichols was born and raised in Arkansas well after the events of Loving, but he saw his grandfather in Richard, and he saw Mildred as someone he understood as deeply in love with the place she lived despite its terrible side. He wanted to honor what he recognized as the South he knows. “There are a lot of movies about this period, and sometimes I just don’t think they get it right,” he accuses. “Not that we did, but we tried to.”

Nichols would often ask his father, who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in a very poor cotton town, to tell him about “the bad stuff.” And the response he got was that their family didn’t have anything, and that he played with other kids who didn’t have anything, white and black. “I think that’s often forgotten when you talk about films about segregation,” he says. “There is a codependence in the South especially. We need one another to survive and to have our economies thrive. I felt like the Lovings, in a beautiful, elegant, apolitical way, were rooted in that.”

“Miscegenation, as the term was, was essentially marriage but really what they were talking about is sex.”

For Ruth Negga, who portrays Mildred in the film, the personal interest was different. She was born in Ethiopia to an Irish mother and Ethiopian father, and mixed marriage wasn’t a problem for them there. “You have a different history here,” she tells me in a separate interview the same day. “People get nervous, don’t they, around miscegenation, as the term was, which was essentially marriage but really what they were talking about is sex.”

She discovered the story of the Lovings on her own, through her interest in American history. It was Mildred’s obituary that she stumbled upon during “one of those internet holes you go on.” And she was amazed by what the Lovings had achieved and surprised she’d never heard of them earlier or seen their pictures, at least during Black History Month. But she’s not sure exactly when it was. “It’s funny, when you spend so long on a project and you fall in love with it, you forget where you started to learn about it,” she explains. It was especially their lack of prominence that drew her to the film.

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“The first person who ever told me about Richard and Mildred Loving was Jeff,” admits Joel Edgerton, who plays Richard, in another conversation that day. Coming from Australia, he wasn’t surprised that he hadn’t heard of them, but he couldn’t believe his friends in America also didn’t know about their story. “However, when I went to Virginia and to other places, there are a lot of young African-American people who are like yeah, yeah, I know about the Lovings. Some members of the community do and others don’t.”

Painting Without Numbers

Initially, Nichols said no to the idea of writing and directing the movie, because he had never been commissioned to write a screenplay before. But he eventually agreed to write a script, which would be a strict blueprint for what he wanted to do. If they liked it, he’d know they were all making the same movie. “This was on the heels of The Help,” he explains of his concern. “There was a different movie to be made out of this story for sure, probably one that would be much more successful commercially.”

He knew from the beginning this was going to be a quiet film. “It had to be, from watching that documentary and that archival footage of Richard and Mildred,” he explains. He knew it couldn’t even have titles pointing out time and dates. “I really wanted to make a movie about time that just slipped through the seasons. One of the biggest injuries they suffer is time being taken from them, so I wanted you to feel the seasons just kind of slipping away and slipping by over time. Every year they’re robbed of something, the ability to live safely and comfortably in their home. That was always a kind of foundational element to the way I was gonna build the script.”

“You feel emotionally attacked after you see those films. You think, ‘Why am I crying? I don’t want to cry.’”

Negga appreciated that Nichols resisted the paint-by-numbers approach, which she describes as including swelling scores that dictate what to feel and when. “You feel emotionally attacked after you see those films. You think, ‘Why am I crying? I don’t want to cry,’” she says. “[The Lovings] are not a formulaic couple. They may seem ordinary and kind of prosaic on paper, but then we all do in a way, really. Their sort of ordinariness makes them all the more extraordinary. You fall in love with them for that reason.”

“You want to reach an authenticity to it,” Edgerton adds, regarding what makes a movie like Loving different and special. “I think Jeff wanted to tell this story as authentically as possible, and why not tell a true story truthfully rather than turn it into the Hollywood version of it. Therefore across the board, Jeff wanted us to search for authenticity.”

“It’s horrifyingly kind of embarrassing to me that that made people so angry and so horrified.”

Negga doesn’t like when movies do all the work for you, so she also respects Nichols for avoiding that. “He gives everybody space to breathe,” she acknowledges, “and he gives the audience time to watch these people and really sort of connect with them. You see emotions across their face. Jeff wanted you to see that this was a court case but it was really about two human beings, like you and I, who just wanted what everyone should have: the right to marry the person they want to and have a family where they want to live. When you put it that starkly and bluntly, it’s horrifyingly kind of embarrassing to me that that made people so angry and so horrified.”

Studying the Subjects

Preparing for their roles, Negga and Edgerton watched The Loving Story as well as a ton of additional verite footage that had been shot by Hope Ryden in the 1960s that didn’t make it into Buirski’s film. There was more of the Lovings’ life at home, Richard mowing the lawn, kids playing on the porch, stuff of that nature, and all of it was a great benefit to the actors and the filmmaker in their research of the real-life subjects of the movie.

“You get the sense that they’re not just putting on a show for the camera,” Negga states of the Lovings’ genuineness in the documentary footage. “Maybe their posture is different and their voice is slightly different, but they’re themselves. That’s a refreshingly beautiful thing, to see people being so uncynical and hopeful. There’s that scene where she comes out of the court with Richard and the reporter asks how does she feel and— I find it immensely moving, in the documentary but also in our film ‐ she says, ‘I’m hopeful. I feel hopeful.’ I don’t hear that very much these days.”

“Their heroism is quiet but yet speaks louder in some ways.”

Edgerton couldn’t completely go off the documentary footage alone to play his character, though. He explains that while Richard is clearly shy on camera and apprehensive about being filmed, in reality he had a really good sense of humor and the Loving home was often filled with laughter that isn’t captured in that archive material. Fortunately, Richard and Mildred’s daughter Peggy filled in the holes of the man’s personality for him.

“In the documentary you see the tiniest traces of a cheekiness to him,” Edgerton acknowledges. “The rest of him was almost unable to talk. In many ways that makes them better heroes for revolutionary change and civil rights. Because it was like they were pushed through the door rather than they kicked the door in. Suddenly they were thrust into the limelight, and I think what’s beautiful about them is they’re just regular people. Regular, normal, hard-working folk who were living in a pretty lower economic situation who found themselves the accidental poster children of a revolution. Their heroism is quiet but yet speaks louder in some ways.”

“Oh now I have to move these people I know are real around the page as characters.”

Nichols confesses that at times they diverted from what’s in the documentary. “You should watch this and watch the documentary as companion pieces, because you’ll recognize a lot, which we’re really proud of. But I was kind of creatively paralyzed for a period of time sitting down to finally write the thing,” he says. “I’d done all the research I could, and then it was like, oh now I have to move these people I know are real around the page as characters. That took me a little while to get comfortable. I didn’t want to do anything wrong. I didn’t want to do anything to misrepresent them or misrepresent the nature of who they were. That was tricky.”

Playing Real People as Characters

Both Negga and Edgerton had experience portraying real-life figures before playing the Lovings, and so they knew about the demands of such roles and the need to honor the subjects as well as the audience. “I don’t think you should do ‐ what’s that thing that you call a hit and run or something?” Negga says, presumably meaning a hit piece. “That’s just cheap. I would never be involved with that.” She starred as Shirley Bassey in the 2011 British TV movie Shirley, and although the singer is still alive, her preparation, as with Loving, mostly entailed poring over available footage.

She claims she didn’t feel any pressure but does feel a responsibility with such roles to make her performance seem authentic, not imitation. “The physicality I get from that,” she explains of the process studying footage of a real figure. “The voice I can get from that. The spirit, as well. You take that and add it to the script and the director and the other people you’re acting with, everyone involved, and you put those parts into the jigsaw puzzle and that makes the whole. There are many pieces to these things.”

Edgerton’s experience includes his portrayal of corrupt FBI agent John Connolly in last year’s Black Mass. “In a case like John Connolly or Richard Loving, it’s almost important that you magnetize towards the material you have,” he says. “Even though nobody really knew John Connolly, I was like, well, what’s my version of getting as close to [him] as I can that goes beyond mimicry and becomes a listening, living, breathing beast of his own with the right notes that make him enough like John?”

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He brings up Helen Mirren’s Oscar-winning performance in The Queen, how the real Elizabeth II we see is the one at public functions, giving speeches to the world, not the one with a migraine sitting in bed with an ice pack on her head when the cameras are off. “You gotta go out of the frame,” he says. “For Richard, it was important for me to hear things like how [he] had a great sense of humor. Otherwise you just get me going off the interminably shy Richard and that’s all he is.”

Edgerton compares portraying real people to playing literary characters that have been done many times before. He’s mentions doing “A Streetcar Named Desire” on the stage, for instance, and he’s Tom Buchanan in the most recent adaptation of “The Great Gatsby.” “With a real-life character, you want to live in the same room as that person to get as close to them as possible,” he says, “and with other people’s portrayals you want to shut them out of that room because of the fear you will emulate them or try to use an intonation or gesture that feels like you’re plagiarizing someone else’s performance.”

“It has to be you there on screen listening, breathing and eating and talking and all that stuff.”

But there is ultimately a commonality to all the roles he plays. It comes down to what the director and the screenplay offers in terms of clues needed to bring the character to life, combined with what comes out of his own imagination. “The character is so much of you, but it’s you with parts of you equalized,” Edgerton says. “You bring out certain parts of you, and you leave other parts at home. Together you and the character become sort of one, because you meet somewhere, without getting too esoteric. You can’t just be an impression of your character. It has to be you there on screen listening, breathing and eating and talking and all that stuff.”

One day on the set of Loving, Nichols pulled Edgerton to the monitors to show him a certain expression he was making. “That’s very much you, and I want you to get rid of it,” Nichols told the actor, and Edgerton says he had never gotten that kind of feedback and instruction before. It reminded him, “It’s not just nice when a director tells you what to bring, but sometimes it’s what they ask you to leave behind.”

Playing this part was also a new experience for Edgerton because of how much more internalized Richard Loving’s personality is. “It was great to be able to harness all that,” he admits. “John Connolly and Tom Buchanan are outward show characters, and this was the opposite, a person who had a lot to say but was unable to say it. He had a lot of integrity and a lot of intuition and intelligence and wisdom, but not a lot of education and not a lot of ability to strategically see his way out, but a massive heart and not that verbose arrogance or trickery in other characters I play.”

Looking the Part

How much of portraying real people is in the actors’ literally looking the part? It’s not important to Nichols, yet he’s impressed with the casting of Loving. “Ruth and Joel, I think they are strikingly similar,” he expresses of their resemblance to Mildred and Richard. “Nick Kroll is strikingly similar to the real Bernie Cohen. Jon Bass a little bit to Phil Hirschkop. Even Sharon [Blackwood], the woman we cast as Richard’s mother ‐ look at photos of Richard’s mother. I spent a lot of time thinking about it.”

“If it’s just the outward stuff, it’s a parlor trick that lasts and extends only so long.”

“Yeah, you know there’s a difference between putting on a costume or energetically changing the internal levels of intellect or energy levels, all that stuff,” Edgerton states of the superficial side of casting biopics and other movies based on true stories. “If you can get a combination of both, you could hit a really nice place, but if it’s just the outward stuff, it’s a parlor trick that lasts and extends only so long.”

“At the end of the day, nobody cares. Nobody really cares. They’re going to care about the integrity of the film,” offers Nichols on that level of authenticity. But if there are going to be nitpickers about the authenticity of Loving, he says, “We’re ready for them on this one.”

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.