The Real Story Behind The Other Loving Movie

Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features.
Joel Edgerton & Ruth Negga in "Loving."
Nancy Buirski has been talking about the Lovings for a long time. The documentary filmmaker — and producer of Loving (out November 4) — knew the story of the interracial couple would make for a compelling feature film since Mildred's obituary caught her eye in 2008. Long before Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton signed on to play the Virginia couple — whose marriage marked the beginning of the end of slavery-era rules outlawing interracial marriage — Buirski was working to bring the Lovings' legacy to life onscreen.

In 2012, she did. Buirski directed The Loving Story, crafting together found footage and interviews with the Lovings' family, friends, and lawyers. The documentary (which is available to stream on HBO) is a touching portrait of a love caught in the crosshairs of conservative politics. After nights in jail and days in court, the Lovings — as Mildred says in both movies — "won the big war."

Buirski is a heavyweight in the documentary film world, and just finished a movie about director Sidney Lumet. She spoke to Refinery29 about the Lovings, working with co-producer Colin Firth, and the importance of telling the story behind this couple's enduring love.
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From what I've gathered, you first heard about the Loving story through Mildred's obituary in 2008. What struck you about their relationship?
"It was such a powerful, important civil rights story that I had actually not heard about. I'm not a lawyer so I hadn't studied Loving v. Virginia. Most people know that case usually because they studied it in law school. But the general public didn't know about it.

"I had been running a documentary film festival. I was really familiar with the general canon of documentaries that were out there, particularly ones that dealt with race and civil rights. And I had never come across anything about this. It struck me first of all as a huge oversight, in terms of what we know about the civil rights period and issues of race.

"It had also struck me so powerfully as a love story. You know, not only was this an important civil and human rights story, but it was also a powerful love story. It would make a beautiful movie. It just really took me a nanosecond to decide that this is something I wanted to work on.”

From that point, how did you start researching? And how did you find all that great archival footage?
First of all, I optioned the book on the case. And then, I connected to the lawyers. The first people I really talked to were the two attorneys involved, Phil Hirschkop and Bernie Cohen. When I did a background interview with them, they told me about Hope Ryden, a documentary filmmaker during the mid '60s who had come to Virginia and had interviewed Mildred and Richard.
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The Loving Story is available to stream via HBO.
"It turns out that Hope Ryden is a very fine documentary filmmaker who had worked with a very close of friend of mine named D.A. Pennebaker. He's really one of the legends in the documentary world. He gave me her information and I called her. She had this incredibly beautiful black and white footage that had never been seen. That made me realize that this is a movie that could be made, because the footage was there.”

The Lovings' daughter Peggy is also featured in the movie. What was it like working with her?
"Oh, she's wonderful. The lawyers introduced me to her. She is, like her parents, not interested in publicity. She's not a show-person at all. So it took some convincing to allow us to come into her life and make the documentary. But we did create a really beautiful relationship with her. It was easier, actually, to bring her on to the feature film, once that was in place. She's a consultant to the feature. She's been a huge help. And she's just a lovely person."

Was there a difficulty in telling Mildred and Richard's story?
"For me, there's always a challenge in finding a story that is real and then anchoring the narrative in the truth. That's something I always feel very committed to. But I also want to take it out of that reality — the time and the place — and create something a bit more universal.

"One could have gone outside of them and talked a lot about other interracial couples: how the ruling in 1967, affected so many other people. You could start it with the many other couples that had been fighting for this years before Mildred and Richard. The decision to just focus on them — to make their story the anchor for this story — was key.

"I really believe as a documentary filmmaker that you really want to tell a dramatic story. That's what will resonate for an audience: a beautiful story to watch, not just a lot of information on the screen."

One thing that really struck me about the documentary is that it's also a really beautiful portrait of the American South. Had you spent much in the South prior to this?
"Yes! I'm now living in North Carolina. I'd lived both in North Carolina and New York, but I'd moved down to North Carolina in 1997 to get married. And I started the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival down here."

"I'm not a Southerner, but I felt connected to the South, and I had been to Virginia a number of times because my husband has family there. So I did really want to do a story that was based in the South, and learn more about it.”
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Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images.
Nancy Buirski founded The Full Frame Documentary Film Festival.
You've spent a lot of time thinking and talking about the Lovings. How did you get involved in the feature film?
"When I was creating the documentary, I also felt very strongly that this should be a narrative film as well. Once I'd realized how powerful their story was, it just seemed obvious. So I was talking about the narrative and pitching the narrative the whole time I was working on the documentary. I connected with Colin Firth, who fell in love with the story as well. Once he got involved and brought on his business partner, we were off and running.”

How familiar were you with Jeff Nichols' previous work — movies like Mud and Take Shelter?
"I'd seen every film he had done. It never felt like a stretch at all — he seemed like the obvious person. And then of course, we had to hope that he would want to do it.

"He typically does not direct films that he doesn't write. He wanted to write the script first and make sure that we would all buy into his vision of this. And we did, immediately.”

The performances in Loving by Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton are so striking. Do you think they were both true to what you know about who Richard and Mildred were?
“Oh, they are amazing, frankly. They inhabit those characters. I feel like they channeled the spirit and the tone, the gentleness of this couple, and the quiet that they are. You know, just...their silences speak volumes. Their looks, and the way they connect to each other. I'm just so impressed with it. And every time I see the film I get more and more impressed, and I almost forget my film. I see Roos and Joel in these parts, and I begin to forget the people that I worked with on screen for so many years. I mean, I didn't know the Loving's, by the way, of course, because they were both dead by the time that I started the film. But I felt like I knew them having worked and looked at them and kind of felt their spirit for so many years. But now Joel and Ruth have sort of overtaken that, and they've become the Loving's for me.”

You made the documentary before the Supreme Court marriage equality ruling, and now, the feature is coming out after. Do you think that impacts the way the Lovings' story is told?
"Both the documentary and the feature are really focused on the couple and their story. In both, we assume that people will intuit from these stories a relationship to the ruling of same-sex marriage. I could have brought that into the documentary, but I chose not to. I just felt like it would almost insult the audience, that they would understand that there's a connection and a relationship.

"We see this in Jeff's movie, too: People immediately associate the Loving's with the larger question of marriage equality. And now that the Loving v. Virginia decision was invoked during the argument for same-sex marriage, more and more people know about it now."
We're celebrating the biggest movies of the year with a new series called Blockbust-HER. We'll be looking at everything film-related from the female perspective, interviewing major players in the industry, and discussing where Hollywood is doing right by women and where (all too often) it is failing them. And now...let's go to the movies!
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