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By Kathy Blackwell | March 2, 2017 | People
We caught up with Loving director Jeff Nichols about being inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame, what it was like casting Ruth Negga for the role of Mildred Loving, and where he likes to write in Austin.
Fresh from attending the Academy Awards on behalf of his movie Loving (for which Ruth Negga was nominated for Best Actress), Austin director and screenwriter Jeff Nichols will be honored on March 9 at the Austin Film Society’s Texas Film Awards, along with Shirley MacLaine, Hector Galan, Sarah Green, and Tye Sheridan. Nichols, who released two big movies in 2016—Midnight Special and Loving—recently talked to Austin Way about the awards, writing in Austin, and what’s next.
What does being inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame mean to you?
Jeff Nichols: It’s just so cool because of what Rick Linklater and everyone have done for the Austin Film Society, which is really what the Hall of Fame is all about: It’s a fundraiser to support everything AFS does. Back in 2006 I was able to travel to the Berlin Film Festival with a grant given to me by the Austin Film Society. On the one hand, it’s amazing to be a part of this growing list of people that they are inducting, but also it’s part of this bigger conversation about nurturing film in Texas.
Is that one of the reasons you stay in Austin?
JN: It makes it easier. We have the Austin Film Festival, the Austin Film Society, SXSW—they bring the industry to us, but beyond that there’s such a great growing group of filmmakers, partly because of the University of Texas’s film program. It makes it easy for someone like myself, who in a way is a bit of a loner when it comes to the writing. I don’t often collaborate with people on a page, but there’s a lot of collaboration when it comes to going out and getting breakfast tacos with my filmmaking friends and talking out our particular issues with narrative or our particular issues with getting a film made. You’ve got Michael Tully, Bryan Poyser, Kat Candler, Todd Rohal—the list is really long. And I’ve got David Wingo, my composer.
Also I love not being in L.A. When you have business you go out there and do it, and then you come home. No one in Austin, as much as they might appreciate what I do, really cares—I don’t feel like I’m treated like anybody else and it feels like a very grounded place to live. That’s what I need as a story teller. I don’t want to make movies about movie stars, airports, and the Sunset Strip. I want to make movies about people and the places that are reflected around me. The best way to do that is to live someplace that’s somewhat grounded.
Do you have plans or dreams for a feature film that would be set in Texas as well as filmed here?
JN: I have several. The way these things work, they’re like a tape ball that you just keep adding things to. It’s just a matter of time until one of these finally collects enough ideas to warrant being the next one up. I haven’t written them yet, but there are several Texas stories I’m quite interested in. It would be nice if we got a little bit more help from the state government with incentives, which I don’t think we’re going to, just in terms of knowing that if I write something in Texas physically, we are going to be able to make it there. I’ve got probably three different Texas stories brewing in my mind. It will happen one of these days.
Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton in the film, Loving, where they play Mildred and Richard Loving, an interracial couple fighting for their right to stay married and live in Virginia. The court case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and ultimately led to the groundbreaking and unanimous 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia, stating the state's law prohibiting interracial marriages were unconstitutional.
What compelled you to turn the Lovings’ story into a feature film?
JN: I didn’t know about the story until I was approached to turn it into a narrative film. Basically Ged Doherty, Colin Firth, and Nancy Buirski, the first three producers, sent me a trailer for Nancy’s documentary. I was wondering why, as a person who considers himself as fairly well-versed in American history and civil rights history, I had never heard of this. I was wondering why, especially in 2012, when they approached me and we were having conversations about the legal nature of marriage equality, this wasn’t on the lips of many Americans. The interesting thing was despite all of the social and political relevance, I just saw two people who loved each other and loved each other in a very secure way. That felt like something I could communicate in the film in a way a documentary can’t. The documentary does things my film can’t do—it goes into the intricacies of the court case in a way my film can’t—but I would argue that my film is a great companion because you can experience my interpretation of the Lovings in an even more emotional way.
What was it like to work with Ruth Negga?
JN: I had found all the archival footage that I could, including footage of Richard and Mildred in their home—of Mildred talking, interacting with Richard, and interacting with the kids. I watched every interview with her, looked at every photograph of her, and I sat down and crafted a narrative with Mildred Loving in mind. Then I sat down and said, "I have to find someone to play this person and they have to embody who this person was," because that’s how I wrote it. If they brought some weird tick or eccentricity to it, then it’s not the place for them. There are plenty of parts where you do want that and it adds a dynamic to it. I really needed someone to come in and breathe life back into Mildred Loving. From that perspective, you sit in during a casting session and watch Ruth walk in. The first thing you think is, "She’s too short," because Mildred was quite tall. She sits down, though, and starts to do the scenes. She sounds exactly like her. She holds her face with her lips pursed in a very specific way that makes her look like Mildred. She doesn’t look like Mildred, but when she’s performing this role, she does. I swear it’s uncanny.
You’re coming off a huge year. What was the biggest surprise for you?
JN: I’ve just been working so hard, and I’ve had my nose to the grindstone. What’s surprising in the work, and is always surprising in the work, is not just how it’s received—which can involve critical appraise or critical bashing, box office success or box office failure—but in how audiences interpret the work. With Midnight Special and Loving, on the face, they’re very different, but at the heart they’re actually quite similar. It’s always fascinating to see what people pull from these things. The best compliment I’ve been given about Midnight Special was after a screening of Loving. A man walked up to me in Austin at the Alamo Drafthouse and said, "I want to compliment you for Midnight Special. I didn’t have a very good father, and in your film you showed an example of what a loving father was like, and I really appreciate that." It kind of floored me. It was not something I was thinking about at all in the calculation of that film, but it’s something that deeply affected this guy.
What are you working on now?
JN: Basically 2017 will be a year of writing. I like to absorb what’s happening in the world around us and how people are feeling, and how I’m feeling about it, trying to put it into something. I’ve negotiated a deal with Fox to remake the film Alien Nation from 1980, a film with James Caan and Mandy Patinkin. My idea doesn’t have very much to do with the original, but it’s a cool landscape and a cool kind of world to step into if we make it through the gauntlet of development inside the studio, which I’ve never dealt with before. I’ve got three or four other things cooking as well, and I’m hoping to get multiple things written this year.
Where do you like to write in Austin?
JN: A friend of mind had given me an office for many, many years—that’s where I wrote Midnight Special and Loving, but I’ve just recently left it. I’ve got a little apartment I’ve been renting that I’m going to write in for the next few months, but my wife and I just bought another house, and I’m going to tear the garage down to build a little office behind it. That’s hopefully going to be my new spot to write.
photography by Vivien Killilea / Stringer; facebook.com/lovingthefilm