At the world premiere of his movie at the Cannes Film Festival last spring, Jeff Nichols was wearing cowboy boots with his tuxedo. He stood at the edge of the lavish party for the film, greeting well-wishers from a dark corner. The tall filmmaker, with his sandy-brown hair and large blue eyes that seem to pop out of his boyish face, struck a welcoming posture, and it didn't take long to pick up on his underlying sincerity and astute intelligence. Yet, for a guy in that club of major international directors at the apex of their careers, he's pretty disarming.
As the Arkansas native received visitors out on a tent-covered beach across the street from one of the famous resort town's immaculate hotels, movers and shakers lounged in evening wear, cigar smoke wafting through the air around them, while sweating journalists looked for waiters carrying trays of rosé. I was briefly introduced to him there, and that is when I caught a glimpse of the boots. They looked like something better suited for a construction site in Little Rock than the pristine beaches of Côte d'Azur. The boots spoke to a certain laid-back authority, and playfulness too. And they were much different from the wingtips belonging to Jamie Patricof, the indie-film producer who was there when the Loving director and I met. Nichols and I chatted about our favorite BBQ spots in various southern cities, while Patricof stood awkwardly trying to chime in. Nichols lives in Austin, Texas, and told me he loves Franklin Barbecue, which puts coffee in at least one of its sauces. I told him I favor Payne's in Memphis. Patricof likes BBQ from Blue Smoke in New York City.
Nichols is the only director to have his films included in three of the year's five mega-festivals (Berlin, Cannes, Toronto), and he's riding high. His latest release, the timely miscegenation drama Loving, seems poised to put him in the thick of the Oscar conversation for the first time. Though he's already had an acclaimed career, Nicholas's second and third features, Take Shelter and Mud, respectively, were also screened in the French Riviera, and he's become a member of the rarefied group of directors that debut their work at the festival frequently.
Loving is the second movie that Nichols released this year. His fifth feature, it tells the story of rural Virginia couple Mildred and Richard Loving, who were at the center of the Supreme Court case that finally struck down anti-miscegenation laws in 1967. It received a standing ovation at the screening, and with the exception of Nichols's brother, Ben, a country-punk musician who's helped score some of his films, being unable to enter a temporarily locked Grand Théâtre Lumière, everything more or less went smoothly. Loving stars Australian Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby, The Gift) as Richard Loving, and Ethiopian-Irish Ruth Negga (Warcraft) as Mildred Loving, and—like most of Nichols's films so far—is set in the American South.
"Yeats dealt with this a lot. He had a love for Irish culture and myth, but he also was sometimes struck by how obtuse the people could be," Nichols told me in a hotel room in Canada several months following Cannes, the day after the film launched its fall award-season push at the Toronto International Film Festival. "I feel that way about the South. I love it. I feel very comfortable in it. I feel very comfortable writing in these voices. But you're also confronted with a lot of the realities…" Nichols paused, seemingly trying not to use the words "slavery," "white supremacy," "torture," "state-sponsored terror," "protest," before finding, after a slight hesitation, "of what has transpired there in our nation's history."
I want to make a big commercial film. It may destroy me. I want to make at least one film that enters the zeitgeist.
Nichols said that he identifies most strongly with Mildred Loving, the young black woman who, exiled to DC with her white husband, yearned to go back to the South. Mildred (who died in 2008) grew up in Central Point, Virginia, where, even deep into the Jim Crow era, blacks and whites mingled freely together with less racial tension than elsewhere in the South. Marriage proved to be another matter entirely. Yet the woman doggedly wanted to return to the place of her upbringing. "The specificity of that place is really, really important to her. And I get that," Nichols said, adding that the film had a special resonance for him because of his southern roots. "Where you're from means more than just a spot on the map. I think it defines so much about who we are. I know that was the case for Mildred. And it's the case for me."
Loving was shot with great care by longtime Nichols collaborator Adam Stone. It isn't flashy; the filmmaking and the performances are muted. There are few grand speeches. When their case goes to the Supreme Court, the Lovings aren't in attendance. Edgerton and Negga portray the Lovings as people without a point to prove. "It's rare," said Nichols. "Usually people have agendas, usually people have an ax to grind, and they have a platform. They had an ideology that they are pushing. These people didn't have that." It seemed important to the director that he tell this particular story, especially in our time of tumult and aggressive ideological posturing, but the film's restraint makes these characters seem almost at odds with the national mood.
Nichols has built his reputation quickly as a director of terse and unusual American dramas with a distinct regional flair. His first film, 2007's Shotgun Stories, set in rural Arkansas, was a low-budget critical darling that began his career-long collaboration with Michael Shannon, who stars in his first two features and plays significant supporting roles in the rest. "He just kind of leaped out of the screen for me, and he seemed to be able to pull off a really natural southern accent, which not many people can do," Nichols said when discussing Shannon, who hails from Lexington, Kentucky. At 23, Nichols wrote Shotgun Stories—which he didn't get the chance to make for several years—around Shannon. "We're tied together for life as a result of that. I owe him, and, uh, he doesn't owe me that much! But I owe him, he reminds me of that a lot actually. But now it's become something different. Now we're like brothers."
By the time they worked together again, in 2011, Shannon was an Oscar nominee for 2008's Revolutionary Road. But Nichols's film, Take Shelter (some of the actor's best work), finds him playing a young father and husband in rural Ohio who, haunted by visions of the apocalypse, becomes increasingly convinced a giant storm is coming, as the specter of mental illness looms large. His scenes of bracing intensity and hysterical mania prove to be a striking counterpoint to the moments of crackling emotional intimacy with his wife, played by Jessica Chastain. Crafting performances such as that doesn't come easy. "Working with Mike, it's not effortless," Nichols offered about his creative partner. "We grind it out and have to figure things out. But that process seems to be really positive."
Despite Shannon's tremendous performances, and the critical acclaim his films have garnered, other than the commercially successful Mud, none of them have been in-theater hits or made a ton of money. Nichols obviously hopes Loving, a quiet award-season drama that stars a couple of not particularly famous people, changes that. Although he hasn't decided what's next, he told me that he yearns to work on a bigger canvas, and to do it on his own terms, somehow. "I want to make a big commercial film," he confided, late in our time together. "It may destroy me. I want to make at least one film that enters the zeitgeist."
Just as our conversation was becoming somewhat lofty, Michael Shannon appeared behind me in the hotel room, in nearly knee-high blue socks, sneakers, and Bermuda shorts. "Are things tougher for the redneck filmmaker or the hillbilly filmmaker?" he shouted at Nichols, bringing the interview to an abrupt halt. A publicist scurried in behind him to let me know our time was up, but Shannon already had; he planned to do an interview of his own. Nichols laughed, and the two men began cutting it up. Shannon never got his answer, but he didn't seem to mind.