“Loving,” director Jeff Nichols’ fifth feature, is sure to be one of the 2016’s awards season’s most talked-about films, as well as one of its most purely satisfying.
Opening Friday, the movie is based on the true story of Mildred and Richard Loving, whose interracial marriage in 1958 in Virginia leads to years of struggle, followed by a landmark court decision.
Unlike many Oscar-type movies, Nichols leaves biographical details and important events in the movie’s margins, and focuses squarely on the tender, subdued relationship between its two protagonists, played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga.
“I did exactly what I wasn’t supposed to do,” admits Nichols, who recently visited the City, along his two lead actors, to promote the movie.
“But what else could I do, make a courtroom procedural? I don’t know anything about that except what I’ve seen in movies. ‘You can’t handle the truth!’ How am I going to top that?” he smiles.
The actors began preparing for their roles by gleaning details from a 2011 HBO documentary “The Loving Story” by Nancy Buirski.
As a child of mixed marriage, Negga especially related with her character, noting that Mildred is “shy and reserved, but also confident. They’re not mutually exclusive.”
Edgerton’s character, on the other hand, holds his emotions inside and speaks very little. “It’s difficult to express so much with very few words,” says the Australian-born Edgerton, who notes that Australian men are taught to be similarly strong and silent.
“However, it’s easy to not have to learn all those words,” he adds with a grin. “There’s an easy and a hard part.”
The film’s quiet tone, in part, is because it focuses on family and working life, not on the fireworks of a battle against oppression.
The actress, whose expressive face fills the screen, found the approach different from what she did in her training in theater, where, she says, “you need to be heard.” In film, she says, “If you think it, it shall be seen.”
She has a response to many who are calling the movie “quiet,” too: “There are no explosions, no bloodshed, but it speaks volumes. Extraordinary things can happen because of everyday people.”
While the documentary revealed moments of shy flirting between the real-life Lovings, the actors imagined what they really might have been like together, and what happened when the cameras weren’t running.
Edgerton says that, while it would have been easy for each actor to play their part in a bubble, “I was mindful of creating a third character, which was the couple. I’ve never had that experience before.”
In many ways, the couple’s last name was the perfect title for the movie, although, surprisingly, Nichols wasn’t always so sure.
“Doing all the research, it was always referred to as ‘Loving v. Virginia,’ and it began to take on a negative connotation,” he says. “But then I decided that we should try to take it back, take back the name.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Michael Shannon
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols
Running time 2 hours, 3 minutes
— S.F. Examiner Staff Writer Leslie Katz contributed to this report