Director Jeff Nichols Talks 'Loving', His Relationship With the South & His Muse, Michael Shannon

The talented director behind 'Mud' and 'Take Shelter' comes through with his first true story.

Getty | Focus Features

For a director with such an impressive resume of feature films, writer/director Jeff Nichols remains mostly an unknown. He doesn't make superhero movies or blow it up at the box office. Nichols is more low-key and his films relflect that. From Shotgun Stories to this year's Midnight Special, Nichols' movies are always based around families in trouble and how that dynamic shapes characters. 

So it was natural for Nichols to tell the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who made headlines in 1958 Virginia after they were arrested for getting married, forced to move out of state for years, and then returned to fight for their civil rights. Their case would make it all the way to the supreme court and change anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S.. It's Nichols' first true story and the director nails it.

We were excited to participate in a roundtable interview with Nichols at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco recently. He was forthcoming and articulate about his process and passionate about telling the Lovings' story correctly. 

What was the genesis of this project? It's a switch from your other films.

Well it is in some ways and isn't in others, but the very unexciting answer is the producers approached me and asked me to consider it. Nancy Buirski, who made the documentary The Loving Story that was on HBO, Colin Firth, and Ged Doherty, they reached out and asked if I would watch the documentary. And it didn't take long. Pretty much from the moment it ended I had my approach which was to concentrate on the day-to-day lives of the Lovings.

I gave them a call and said "Look, this is my interpretation of it—this was kind of on the heels of The Help coming out back in 2012, and it made a boatload of money—and I said, "I'm gonna make a really slow, really quiet film and I don't know if it's gonna be the feel-good experience of the year. And there's potential for someone to make a film like that out of this story so if you guys really want that then I'm not the right guy for you. But if you're willing to go this other way then let's keep talking." That's kind of the way it developed

Director Jeff Nichols Talks 'Loving', His Relationship With the South & His Muse Michael Shannon

Hitchcock's movies were driven by his personal fears, and you've agreed yours are too. Were you able to take that personal approach in Loving?

Where that really came into play, in terms of approach, is in the back third of this film. There's not a lot known about the day-to-day existence of their lives in hiding when they moved back into Virginia, which was a very dangerous time for them. And I would imagine a lot more harrowing things happened to them than are represented in the film. But I didn't want to invent something that I didn't have some shred of evidence for. Their re-arrest—that happened, the sheriff breaking into their home in the middle of the night—that happened, the cousin telling her to write Robert Kennedy. All these things are documented, but in that last third they just went off the radar. And, in lieu of inventing harrowing moments, I just wanted to create the types of scenes that would convey the psychological threat that was hanging over these people for this very long period of time.

This is the most insidious part of the Jim Crow south, the black community had to live under this constant threat. They had no real rights. Someone could come and lynch them whenever they wanted to... That felt more honest because it's that threat hanging over them for that time. If you add time to it, it's actually more tragic than a single moment of aggression. So that really felt like a comfort zone for me. It's very much what Take Shelter is like. It's that looming psychological threat that just hangs over a person. 

How daunting was it for you writing characters based on real people? 

I was kinda creatively paralyzed for a few weeks. After I'd done all the research it was finally time to sit down. I'd done the outlines. I knew every scene that was gonna happen, but when it came time to start typing, I felt like a phony. It's the honest truth. But, at some point you just have to say "Look, I've done all the work I can. I think I understand the essence of who these people are, best I can. I have representational ideas about who they are, representational scenes of what I think happened in these certain moments and I'm just gonna have to go with that." Somebody's gotta do it and they already paid me half for the screenplay. (Laughs)

Director Jeff Nichols Talks 'Loving', His Relationship With the South & His Muse Michael Shannon
Focus Features

Joel's performance is so physical. Most of the storytelling is done with his eyes and posture. What was your reaction to his performance?

I love it and I hope he gets as much recognition as I think he deserves. That scene where he's sitting in the sheriff's office is the best representation of that. You've got a guy who says very little but he's so angry, he's so frustrated, he's so unable to articulate his position but he's also 100 percent cowed by that man. And he knows not to look him in the eye. There's this moment where Marton (Csokas, who plays the sheriff) his eyes drift off. He's caught up in his own thoughts and that's when Joel looks up at him and, as soon as the sheriff's eyes come back, Joel's go back down. I think that's a very precise performance happening in front of you. 

All your movies deal with families and the theme of family. Is that a starting point for you in your process?

It is. I'm making this film right now, Alien Nation. I'm trying to write it and I'm trying to figure out the familial dynamics of an alien species. How the hell is that going to work? Because it's going to be a foundational element to the story and so it's obviously something that's important to me. I just think it's where our greatest passions lie. Either being a father, a son, a sister, a brother... again, the specificity in those relationships is what opens these stories up to be universal. So yeah it's an undeniable approach and theme in everything I do.

Have the Lovings' children seen the film?

Peggy's the only one alive. Sydney and Donald passed away. Yes, Peggy saw it and said she loved it. 

Director Jeff Nichols Talks 'Loving', His Relationship With the South & His Muse Michael Shannon
Focus Features

I was curious about the decision to enter the story with them as a couple as opposed to showing how they meet. What was the calculation there?

I love that scene. I think what you look for as a filmmaker and storyteller are representational scenes. Scenes that, in the moment, play very honestly, like the behavior in that moment makes sense on its own. But it's also representational of everywhere they've been, where they are and where they're going. They met as children, living across the road from one another and, in my opinion, the horrible version of that introductory scene is: You cast two kid actors and they see each other and look longingly at each other through a field or something. That's just fucking garbage. So I just needed a scene that would jump us into the story because as soon as I had that opening scene the details of them getting married in DC, coming back, living in her parents' house, hanging the marriage certificate on the wall, getting arrested, all that stuff was very well-cited in their own words in several different places, but I just needed that opening scene.

Interestingly enough, when you watch the documentary, Nancy didn't reveal for whatever reason, that Mildred was pregnant when they got married. So it took a pretty simple Google search to look at the kids' birthdays, their marriage date, and their arrest date to know she was pregnant when they got married and pregnant when they were arrested which I found fascinating! It didn't decrease my opinion of them as a couple. In fact, it increased my opinion of Richard in a way because it almost validated his conviction in getting married. From looking at him in their photographs, the kids would just drape themselves on Richard. It seemed like a happy family... His response (in the opening scene) tells you where they're at as a couple.

It feels like nature is an actor in your movies. It plays a different role but it's always there. Could you talk about nature in your stories?

Well, this is the most pronounced effect that nature has had on a character. I mean, Mud (in Mud) was almost supernatural in his approach to things. He was definitely superstitious but I think Mildred is so connected to place. It's the first time I've ever had a character that represents the way I feel about the South. It's very easy to look at this and the facts of this time and ask, "Why would you ever risk moving your family back into Virginia before the court case came down? Why would you risk, not only arrest, but much much worse, to have your kids grow up in a country like this?" Well there's an answer for that and I understand it. It's because you feel connected to a place.

Obviously her family was very important to her. Her sister especially, who lived across the road from her until the day the sister died. But I think she was connected to nature and place. She speaks about it in the documentary and I lifted that line very specifically from the documentary: "There wasn't any grass for them to run in." I think she had a connection to nature and it was very easy for me to fall in line with it. People ask, "How do you, Jeff Nichols, relate to a person of the black community in the 1960s and I'm like, "Well, I don't know that I do relate to the black community in the '60s but I do relate to Mildred and I relate to her in this point." Yeats always used to write about this duplicity—this idea that he loved Irish culture, but he was also infuriated by it at times, infuriated by the people. And that's what I feel like sometimes as a southerner. These people give us these amazing stories and this amazing voice and accent and music and culture and they also harbor some of the worst parts of ourselves.

Director Jeff Nichols Talks 'Loving', His Relationship With the South & His Muse Michael Shannon
Focus Features

I've got to ask you about Michael Shannon. What makes him so good?

He's innately talented and he demystifies the process which only makes it more mystical. You ask him about it and he doesn't belabor anything. He's extraordinarily intelligent. He understands what's going on on the surface of things and probably about four layers deep into it...better than I do. And so, when he shows up, he has it all worked out in his head and he's like, "Where do you want me to stand?" Then he just does it.

We talked early on because I send him all my scripts. I sent him Loving almost as a way to prepare him for the fact that: I'm not going to ask you to play Richard Loving. We'd already talked about it and that I was thinking about Joel for it. But he read it and immediately was like, "This is an American classic." And that's just two friends talking about a piece of material. Then I said, "Look, you know, I saw this photograph of Grey Villet. He was, like, 6'4" would you want to play him? And he's like, "Yeah, whatever you want, Nichols." (Laughs). And I told him, "He's gregarious. I think it'd be fun to watch you be gregarious, because, you know, he's gregarious." And he's like, "What the fuck, Nichols. You don't think I can be gregarious?" So I didn't ever mention that note again. And he does, from the moment he runs up (to the Lovings' house) it's friggin' hilarious. "Oh, something smells good in there!" But it's perfect because that's what Grey Villet did. He would ingratiate himself to people. There's no way he could've taken the photos he did otherwise. And that's where Mike Shannon proves he's one of the greatest actors in the world. I think it's a performance like this that proves it. I just wish I could've had him in 20 more scenes. But, I don't know, there's something in his nature there. I believe in talent and he has it. 

He sure does. Great, thanks Jeff. 

Thanks, great seeing y'all.

Director Jeff Nichols Talks 'Loving', His Relationship With the South & His Muse Michael Shannon
Focus Features
Managing Editor, Zimbio — entertainment writer, critic, and reporter since 2011. Bay Area. Origin: Shark City.