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The Making of Jeff Nichols’ ‘Loving’ and Depicting the “Original Sin” of America

Written by Eli F. on December 19, 2016 

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Jeff Nichols’ fifth feature film (and second in 2016, after the strange and spellbinding Midnight Special) is Loving, which also looks to potentially be his big breakthrough in terms of both popular appeal and awards prestige – thanks, in no small part, to the support of his studio and producers in spreading the good word about one of Hollywood’s most promising young directors.

With the film now in limited release, producer Peter Saraf and his family visited the Princeton Garden Theater in Princeton, NJ on Friday night to discuss his latest project. Following a screening of Loving, Mr. Saraf held an open Q&A discussion with the audience, in which he touched on such topics as the film’s production process, historical authenticity, political subtext, and the reactions of real people depicted in the film.

On the origins of this project

Loving began with The Loving Story, a 2011 documentary film by Nancy Buirski about the historic Loving v. Virginia case. When Buirski met actor Colin Firth, he expressed interest in a cinematic dramatization of the story, and thus Loving was conceived. (Buirski and Firth are both credited as executive producers on the finished product.) Nichols later became attached to the project as screenwriter, but did not initially commit to direct as he was working on Midnight Special at the time. As his screenplay for Loving neared completion, he agreed to direct as well and ended up working on both films in near-immediate succession.

On casting Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton

Ruth Negga, an Ethiopian-Irish actress already known for her stage work in the U.K., was suggested by casting director Anne Chapman. At her suggestion, Nichols met with Negga and attended her audition, with which he was instantly impressed. Joel Edgerton, who has been acting since the mid-90s and has worked with Ridley Scott, Kathryn Bigelow, Baz Luhrmann and more, was personally brought on by Nichols due to their previous collaboration on Midnight Special.

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On Nichols’s direction and the film’s structure

Saraf was already a big fan of Nichols prior to production. This was Nichols’ first historical film: that is, his first film with both a non-contemporary setting and characters based directly on real people. One of the most notable and distinctive things about Loving is its myopic focus on the Loving family: the wider social context of their struggle is seen only in fleeting glimpses, and the court scenes that would have been the dramatic center of any other prestige drama play out here only on the periphery of the story. This was a conscious decision on Nichols’ part to stay true to the perspective of the Loving family, who did not attend their trial and, outside of the milestone Life Magazine coverage depicted in the film, were largely avoidant of the public eye. Nichols and Saraf were both interested in flouting the stereotypical grandiosity of Hollywood dramas about the civil rights movement by making an intimate film focused on the individuals behind these major political upheavals, and the ones most affected by the law. Saraf is also particularly impressed with the structure of the film: he praises Nichols as a master of the opening scene, and indicates that the visual motif of brick-laying incorporated throughout the film was all build-up to the catharsis of the final scene, in which Richard Loving finally begins construction on the house he promised his wife Mildred at the beginning of the film.

On the modern-day political subtext of the film

peter-sarafWhile the film itself tends to avoid didacticism or direct parallels to today’s political issues, Saraf [pictured right, with his son] is fully aware of its applicability. The Supreme Court’s verdict on Loving v. Virginia – the assertion that marriage is a civil right – provided the single biggest legal precedent for its subsequent ruling to legalize gay marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges last year. Saraf also drew parallels between the film’s depiction of an era of legally supported discrimination and issues of institutional racism that have entered public discussion today. In fact, he feels that in more ways than one this is the perfect film for the current American moment. While he “doesn’t presume that everyone in the audience shares the same politics,” he emphasizes that the Loving story is a powerful reminder of the power of individuals to change political systems even in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity. It’s this timeliness that he believes will help the film appeal to audiences.

On the film’s historical authenticity

Several audience members had questions about the authenticity of the ways in which various characters and events were depicted in the film; in nearly every case, Saraf described the film as true to life. Richard Loving was indeed as stoic as Nichols and Edgerton portray him; the small rural Virginia community in which they lived was (and is) highly racially integrated; Mildred Loving really did write directly to Robert Kennedy, and her letter is still in the Kennedy collection; and the Lovings’ lawyer really did, per Richard’s request, relay his words before the Supreme Court that “I love my wife.” One of the remarkable things about the film is the way Nichols elicits tension with the mere threat of violence, rather than its actualization; this too is authentic to the Lovings’ experience. While they were never assaulted during or after their trial – no physical attacks, no burning crosses – they did spend many years living in fear of such retaliation.

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On the input of real people and institutions depicted in the film

Peggy Loving, the youngest of three Loving children, was consulted on the film (in which she is depicted by young actresses Georgia Crawford and Quinn McPherson). Saraf shared a heartrending anecdote: upon reading the script, Peggy broke into tears, saying, “They’re all dead.” Both of her older brothers died of cancer at young ages; her father was killed in an accident in 1975, and her mother died of pneumonia in 2008, leaving Peggy as the only surviving member of their immediate family. Peggy, who still lives near her parents’ former residence in Virginia, was supportive of the film. Other still-living people depicted in the film include the Lovings’ representatives from the ACLU, Bernie Cohen and Phil Hirschkop (portrayed by Nick Kroll and Jon Bass), who argued their case before the Supreme Court; both were consulted on the film, despite no longer being on speaking terms with one another.

Another surprising contributor was the daughter of R. Garnett Brooks (portrayed in the film by Martin Csokas), the Virginia county sheriff who terrorized the Lovings and forced them out of state during the early years of their marriage. According to Saraf, she emphasized that her knowledge of her father growing up was as a loving figure, and it was only after reaching adulthood that she came to recognize his deeply harbored racism; she was supportive of the film, but asked that her father not be portrayed as purely evil. (Whether this is the case or not in the final cut might be open to debate.) She even sent the film crew her father’s old uniform, but unfortunately it couldn’t be used as it did not fit Csokas. For its part, the state of Virginia was apparently highly supportive of the film: Saraf described a reception for the film crew thrown at the governor’s mansion, and a generally cooperative atmosphere from the state’s institutions. Evidently, he says, they did not see the Loving case as a blemish on the state’s history, but as a story of Virginians overcoming adversity.

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On what personal lessons he took from working on this project

First and foremost, Saraf says, working on Loving taught him far more than he ever expected to learn about both history and law. More personally, though, it provoked considerable political reflection on the history of institutionalized racism in America. Saraf, a Jew, describes how his own family fled from Nazi-occupied Europe (his father Irving was raised in Israel after fleeing from Poland as a child). Born and raised in America, Saraf feels that antisemitism has not been a major obstacle in his life (though, as his relatives in the audience were quick to point out, it is still alive and well); he finds it dismaying, then, that racism is still such a factor in the lives of many African-Americans. Part of the reason for that, he believes, is that it has taken mainstream American culture until very recently to truly open up about the horrors of slavery – the “original sin” of the nation – and its still-lingering effects on society. He even echoes a number of cultural critics and other entertainment personnel in pointing the finger at his own industry, and its legacy of depicting history predominantly from the perspective of straight white men to the exclusion of other voices and other points of view. Saraf reiterates that he sees Loving as a message of hope, of “America at its best,” and hopes that it will be seen by many people domestically and abroad to represent those things as well.

Loving is now in theaters.


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