Emotional Trajectories: Jeff Nichols on Loving
Jeff Nichols discusses gestational thinking, emotional trajectory in films, writing from a female perspective, and the universality of specificity.
Loving is based on the lives of Richard and Mildred Loving, a Virginia couple who were forced to leave the state in 1958 because interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia.
After moving to Washington D.C. and starting a family, Mildred (portrayed by Ruth Negga) came into contact with lawyers of the American Civil Liberties Union who hoped to use the Lovings’ mistreatment as a case that could rule anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional throughout the United States. Though Richard (portrayed by Joel Edgerton) was a man of few words who preferred the quiet life, he agreed to support his wife in her efforts to make marriages like theirs legal throughout the nation.
The story of the Lovings was previously told in the 2011 documentary The Loving Story, directed by Nancy Buirski (who also served as a producer on Loving).
The screenplay for Loving is the first written by filmmaker Jeff Nichols that is based on actual events. Nichols’ previous films that he both wrote and directed – Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter (2011), Mud (2012), and Midnight Special (2016) – are all based on original ideas. While they are all rooted in the South, each screenplay follows different emotional arcs about the human condition, including family relationships and love.
Both of these themes are also explored by Nichols in Loving.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Nichols about writing his first film based on true events, why he does minimal rewriting on his scripts, the emotional connection between his films, and how he feels about the ambiguous ending of his 2011 film Take Shelter still inspiring debate.
How did you get involved with writing and directing Loving?
The project came to me in 2012 when I was approached by producers Colin Firth, Ged Doherty and Nancy Buirski, who made the documentary The Loving Story.
They approached me with Nancy’s documentary, which was more or less their pitch. It was all they needed really.
I watched that documentary and was immediately attached emotionally and narratively to Richard and Mildred. I walked away from that documentary with a really clear idea that I wanted to make a film that followed Richard and Mildred and stayed with their point of view.
Your previous films were all original screenplays while Loving is a true-life story. Because of that, was your writing process for this screenplay any different?
Yes, it was. Usually I write for years, and what I mean by “writing” is that I carry things around in my head for a very long time and collect different things. It’s an interesting way of doing things – the bad stuff falls off and the good stuff stays because I don’t write anything down for a very long time. Eventually, I start my outlining process, which is pretty severe. The typing is actually the finishing work because usually I’ve had the entire script outlined and figured out at that point.
For Loving, that long period of gestational creative thinking was replaced by research.
In 2012 I hit the ground running. I went to Virginia and met Peggy Loving, who is the only surviving child of the Lovings, and I went to all the locations relevant to the story that I could. Nancy delivered a hard drive to me with all the footage that she sourced for her documentary, including extended interviews, archival footage, and photographs that she didn’t use in the documentary. It was like having a research assistant drop two or three years of research on your lap all at once.
I squirreled away in my office and pored over that, the documentary, and a book titled Virginia Hasn’t Always Been for Lovers by Phyl Newbeck. All through that process it was a different version of that gestational thinking, because I would read a line in Newbeck’s book about the Lovings’ son being hit by a car, or about Richard drawing blueprints for the home he’s going to build her before they get arrested, and for all these things I thought, “Well, that could be a scene,” and I started lying out the structure for it.
That research part was different and something I never tackled before.
Because you do so much research and outlining, do you tend to do much rewriting?
Because I do such heavy outlining, for most of my scripts I’m pretty certain of where I am going by the time I sit down to type. It’s not like I pick up one of my scripts after typing it out and think, “Wow, that’s a direction I didn’t expect the character to go in.” All of that part of the process – which does happen – happens in the outlining process for me. For better or worse, it’s the methodology I fell into back in college when I was writing short films.
I’ve heard about writers who will write hundreds of pages to get twenty good ones. I’m not like that. I don’t do that much typing.
There was some little detail work, like when I shared it with the lawyers and they said, “That’s not a 2137 motion, that’s a 1983 motion. Can you change that line?” But to be honest, the structure of the thing really did not change at all from the first draft all the way to the finished film.
Even though Loving is based on a true story, it still reflects the “David versus Goliath” theme of your films Mud and Midnight Special, with one or a few people united against law enforcement and the government. What about those kinds of stories appeals to you as a filmmaker?
I’ve never really thought of them as David versus Goliath stories. I remember specifically thinking about the absence of law in Shotgun Stories because in the feud I kept thinking that the authorities would be on the peripheral of all that.
With Mud, Midnight Special, and now this, that’s not where I placed the connective tissue, but there are great similarities between Loving and the rest of my films.
For starters, these are people who seem very similar to characters I have written in the past, Richard especially – Southerners who don’t talk a lot and don’t wear their hearts on their sleeves. That’s a character I’ve been writing for Mike Shannon for a while now.
I don’t underestimate the fact that as I’m watching these people in the documentary I think, “I can write a scene for that person and not feel like a phony.” With theirs being a Southern story there’s a lot that fits into my wheelhouse already, but even beyond that I felt very much connected to the personality types of the people.
If you’re going to talk about points of connection – and this gets to a narrative structure point – it’s really about the emotional trajectory of the films. I tend to not build films that result in a plot climax. That inevitably happens because that’s how stories have to unfold, but I really don’t put that at the forefront of my mind.
The main thing I’m thinking about is an emotional trajectory that will hopefully deliver the audience to a feeling or an experience. I’ve done it for every single one of my films that I created from scratch, and I felt like I was doing it here.
There are so many emotional scenes in the back half of Loving, but there’s one for me specifically that felt like a similar emotional focal point to scenes I’ve had in other films. It’s the scene where Richard comes into the bedroom drunk from the bar, and tells Mildred that he can take care of her.
I reverse-engineered that scene after finding a quote from Mildred before her death, which is also the last thing written in the film.
Even though “Tell the Judge I love my wife,” Mildred getting on the phone with the news of the Supreme Court decision, and all these other lines and moments are amazing and monumental moments as well, for me personally that scene in the bedroom just punches me in the gut every time I think about it. Especially in relation to what I knew would be the final words of Mildred.
In that sense it’s just like Midnight Special where Alton jumps out of the car after they get to the roadblock, and Mike Shannon’s character calls out after him. That scene kills me every time I see it.
In Mud, it’s the scene with the kid standing in the parking lot telling a sixteen-year-old girl that he loves her and she’s laughing at him in front of all her friends. It’s even similar to Mike Shannon’s character flipping over the table in the Lions Club and breaking down in front of his kid and his wife in Take Shelter.
Each film has that moment for me and that’s where I see the relationship between them. Yes, there are all these specific pragmatic connections – the South, the stoic working-class man – but the bigger and more important one is the one about emotion.
Much of the film is from Mildred’s point of view, because she is the one who is proactive about the court case. Your previous films are mostly told from a male point of view. What was different about writing this movie from Mildred’s point of view?
Mud is a romantic film, but it’s a romantic film told from a male perspective. I’ve heard some critiques of it saying that it’s chauvinistic, which I don’t agree with. I think that one of the reasons why people come to that conclusion is that they don’t typically see notions of love spoken about from a male point of view other than it just being about lust or getting the girl.
That’s not what Mud is about. It’s not what Take Shelter is about, either, because that’s about marriage and commitment. I would make an argument that Jessica Chastain’s character in Take Shelter is one of the strongest characters I’ve written.
When I saw the documentary and I saw Mildred I saw a fascinating character arc, though I hate to refer to her and Richard as “characters” since they’re actual people. There’s a trajectory of watching her over the course of nine years go from a giddy teenager, to scared and pregnant but excited to be with this man, to a woman who matures, has children, and goes through this severe state of depression.
She emerges as a woman who becomes aware of her place in the world. And even though it’s going to be a very quiet place that people might consider one of subdued participation in the Civil Rights Movement, she genuinely becomes aware of the potential that she has, and that her situation has, to affect change.
It’s a beautiful arc, but it also doesn’t end there. When she says, “I wouldn’t go without him” in regards to the Supreme Court, it’s her understanding her place in that movement, but also understanding the commitment that she has with her husband.
Above all things, they support each other. It felt like a beautiful trajectory for a character. That was a stunning, special thing as a writer to sit down to craft and meter out with all the information I had.
She also had this intense connection to nature that was actually like a story point. A lot of my characters have connections to nature, or nature plays a role in the storytelling not just as a backdrop but as some kind of spiritual guide of some kind. Here we have a person who makes decisions on her future, her family’s future, and potentially their safety because of her connection to place. That’s something that I have, especially as a Southerner and as a Southern storyteller I identify with.
I also spent so much time thinking about my grandfather in relation to the type of man Richard was. What it made me really think about was my grandmother, and the responsibilities of a woman in a relationship when you’re married to a man like that, which is to be the emotional forbearer of the family.
That’s what my grandmother did for my grandfather. He loved us very much, but that’s not what he did. That wasn’t in his comfort zone. I see that same dynamic – or maybe I’m projecting that same dynamic – on to Richard and Mildred, and Mildred not only has to be the emotional voice of this family, but she becomes the voice of the progress that moves the case forward and inevitably makes it possible for them to legally live in the state of Virginia.
Take Shelter was released five years ago and people still talk about the ambiguous ending. As a storyteller, how does it feel to have made a movie that still inspires conversation years later?
It’s the greatest thing you can hope for. I’m going to ruin this Flannery O’Connor quote by paraphrasing it, but she said something like, “The best hope of writers is that their writing at some point moves beyond their intentions.” I use that quote so much I should actually look it up to find out what she really said! [Laughs] But I think it was something to that effect, and I think I understand what she was getting at.
You try to write things as specific as possible to your feelings and experiences in the hope that through specificity you gain universality. Through specificity, your work can actually leap outside of your own head and start to connect with other people in ways you didn’t plan and didn’t realize.
I had a very strict idea of what the end of Take Shelter was. I know exactly what happens, and it’s fascinating to see people respond to it in their own ways. The beautiful part of storytelling is that you’re not just telling people a story, they’re also telling you something about themselves too through their reactions. In that situation you’re in a conversation with your audience. I really can’t think of a more rewarding or fulfilling result for something you’ve written. It’s active, kinetic, and really humbling.
Featured image: Joel Edgerton as Richard and Ruth Negga as Mildred in Loving. Credit : Ben Rothstein / Focus Features