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Contender – Production Designer, Chad Keith, Loving

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Joel Edgerton (center, left) stars as Richard and Ruth Negga (center, right) stars as Mildred Credit : Ben Rothstein / Focus Features
Joel Edgerton (center, left) stars as Richard and Ruth Negga (center, right) stars as Mildred
Credit : Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

Set in pre-civil rights Virginia, Loving is based upon the true story of interracial couple, Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), jailed for being married, who take their case all the way to the Supreme Court in order to have their marriage recognized. Told with great restraint by director Jeff Nichols, the gentle story is best summed up by Richard’s simple response when his lawyer asks him if he has any statement to share with the court, “Tell the court I love my wife.”

Simplicity was an underlying principle of the film, including the production design by Chad Keith. “The story was about the Lovings,” explained Keith. “We did not want to draw attention to their environments. They were very simple people. I wanted to make what came across on screen as simple as possible as well.”

The production designer put a lot of thought behind what would be in the couple’s environment in what was roughly a ten year time period starting in the late 1950’s. Keith does not like a lot of extra things on set because people in that time and place would not have things in their home that they did not use.

With a “comfortable budget” and because of the simplicity that they desired in the design, Keith felt he would not have done anything differently, even if they had more money. Much of the money was spent in construction, to return locations to how they would have been during the period.

Keith relied on his set decorator, Adam Willis, who has worked with him on all of Nichols’ films. “He did a phenomenal job,” stated Keith. “The amount of searching it took to find kitchen appliances. And us doing hardware stores and grocery stores from scratch. It was super challenging to find everything you need for a period film, but that is also part of the fun of it – the hunt.”

Director Jeff Nichols on the set of Loving, a Focus Features release.  Credit : Ben Rothstein / Focus Features
Director Jeff Nichols on the set of Loving, a Focus Features release.
Credit : Ben Rothstein / Focus Features

Everything from the 40’s through the 60’s was “pretty bland in the south,” so they did not want to draw attention to any specific color, but there were subtle differences as the years went by. When the couple moved to DC, color was added to give an urban feeling. The design team collaborated closely with costume designer Erin Benach so as not to clash, “staying super soft” while remaining true to the goal of not bringing any attention to the settings.

Keith was particularly pleased with the shop in Richard’s garage. Art director Jonathan Guggenheim drew plans and they built it. Keith’s father, who had passed away about a year before the film commenced, had been an auto mechanic his whole life. “I drove to North Carolina and pretty much pulled everything out of his garage and put it in our set,” shared Keith. “To me that was kind of a throw out to my dad. That was a special set for me to do.”

Locations were spread throughout Virginia and set decoration came from all over. Shooting in areas where the Lovings had lived was “pretty magical.” Keith commented, “Almost every day when I was driving by to prep a set, I literally was passing their graves. It was like they were there, making the film with us.”

One of the best parts of the film occurred when the Lovings’ daughter Peggy came to visit the set and said she felt like she was in her parents’ house. Keith noted, “I felt like I had done my job.”

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