The film, starring Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as the couple, has received some of the year’s best reviews for its deliberate restraint. “There are few movies that speak to the American moment as movingly — and with as much idealism,” The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote, adding that the “insistent, quotidian quiet of ‘Loving’ can feel so startling.”
In part, that quietness emerged after Mr. Nichols watched Nancy Buirski’s intimate documentary “The Loving Story” and hours of archival footage of the couple. He was struck by Mildred’s polite dignity and Richard’s taciturn silence. When he learned that the Lovings opted not to attend the Supreme Court on the day of the ruling but instead receive the news by phone, he said his stripped-down approach came into focus.
“Immediately I saw that end scene, which may or may not represent reality: Richard playing with his kids on the lawn and not saying anything,” Mr. Nichols said. He was aware enough of the danger of such a contrarian choice that he called his producers at Big Beach to warn them, or at least temper their expectations.
“I remember saying, ‘I don’t think this is going to be ‘The Help,’ though ‘The Help’ made a lot of money and got nominated for a lot of Oscars,” he said. “I guess I must have known we were taking a risk in its execution but I never thought there was another way.”
However, when Mr. Nichols was looking for financing, he met one investor who was not so confident. “He’d shown the script to his bigwig boss who said, ‘I just don’t get it. It’s like a courtroom drama without the courtroom,’” he said.
When this financier asked Mr. Nichols if he could “punch it up,” Mr. Nichols said he launched into the sort of rebellious speech that is absent in his film. “What you need to worry about right now is not whether I’m going to punch up this script so you can be involved,” he recalled saying. “What you need to be worried about is how I will ever come back to work with you guys ever again because that is the most simplistic, stupid response I’ve heard.”
Peter Saraf, a Big Beach producer on the film, said that the production company knew what it was getting into. “Jeff’s idea was to tell the story from Richard and Mildred’s point of view and stick to it,” he said. “You can’t commit to that and then say oh, but we need the big courtroom moment with the gavel falling.”
Showtime’s 1996 movie “Mr. and Mrs. Loving,” produced with Hallmark Entertainment and starring Timothy Hutton and Lela Rochon, hit more predictable beats and portrayed Richard as more charming and garrulous. But Mr. Edgerton said in a telephone interview that he was drawn to Mr. Nichols’s version of the character, who was, “just shut down and emasculated and weathered by this situation,” he said, and more in keeping with the man in the documentary footage.
“Every year in Hollywood, true stories get made and we feel the need to renovate them, and suit them up,” Mr. Edgerton said, then continued: “That’s legitimate sometimes. But to make Richard more articulate or defiant or to place him in that courtroom would have negated the idea of trying to tell a true story truthfully.”
Or as Ms. Negga put it, when discussing her character on the phone, “It would have been really unfaithful and quite grotesque to have made her any different.”
Though the two stars have been nominated for Gotham Independent Film Awards, one of the many ceremonies that make up Academy Award season, they will not have the explosive reels of other, often more famous, contenders. In today’s market, quiet adult dramas don’t sell themselves, and reviews only go so far. So Mr. Nichols, who notes that he is “not a filmmaker who wants to operate in obscurity,” and his cast have been busy selling the film in a way that might have mortified the Lovings.
“If Mildred were alive now, I don’t think she’d want to do any junkets, any of this nonsense, any of this hoopla,” said Ms. Negga, on a day in which she joked that she had done 782 interviews. “And there’s not much that would have terrified Richard more.”
Mr. Nichols initially objected when the film’s domestic distributor, Focus Features, wanted to use the movie’s few memorable lines in the trailer, including, “We may lose the small battles but win the big war.” (As Mr. Edgerton said, “Mildred didn’t talk much but when she did it was kind of worth quoting.”)
Then he relented.
“This film doesn’t speak with the histrionics of other potential award contenders, but it does fit into the frame of the award season and that’s still how they’re going to cut the trailer,” he said. “The sleight-of-hand is just to get people into the theater. I get it. My hope is that people will go see the movie maybe expecting one thing but maybe pleased it’s something else.”
Mr. Nichols, polishing off his steak and fries along with his fifth of the day’s seven interviews, said that in the thundering horse race of the Oscar season: “‘Loving’ is not even a horse. We are a whole other animal.”