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BEHIND THE TRAILER: Diving Into Jeff Nichols's 'Loving'

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Those of you who have been following TrailerTrack back when it was just a Twitter feed last year may remember that there have been a number of cases of anticipated trailer releases landing in theatres first, only to be released online weeks, if not months, later. One such notable piece was the moving first trailer for Jeff Nichols’s Cannes breakout Loving, which dropped theatrically with Free State Of Jones before landing online a month or so later.

Now, with the awards season in full swing and in anticipation of the film’s UK release early next month, we got to catch up with the team behind the piece – Creative Director Wayne Watson and Editor / Producer Eric Archer – who put the piece together for Focus Features on behalf of Ignition Creative. While there tends to be a lot of conversation around trailers for big blockbusters, it’s films like Loving that not only end up having the most affecting trailers, but also actually need great pieces like this to get people to see these films on the big screen. And it’s a piece the team is really proud of, so it was great to get to talk to them about what went into making this.

The film’s stars Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton have both been nominated for Golden Globes earlier this month and it’ll be interesting to see whether the film manages to sneak into next week’s Oscar nominations. Watch the full trailer below, and read on for the full interview!


TT: How do you begin to tackle a film like Loving? I would imagine the process for a prestige drama trailer like this would be quite different than for, say, a big tent pole – does this allow for more creative freedom when putting it together?

Wayne Watson (Creative Director): Actually, I would say a big tent pole would allow for a bit more creative freedom regarding storytelling and editorial flair.  With a film like this, it’s a real and honest story and you want to stay as true to the account as possible.  Not only is it a beautiful film but it’s an important subject, so there’s no nudging the story in a way that could come off as disingenuous to the history behind it. That said, you only have 2.5 minutes to convey the essence of the film so you have to get creative in how you’re going to pull out the essentials – keep the deliberate pacing of the movie, tell the story, show the drama and performances and make it feel compelling and entertaining in a fraction of the time. You want the viewer to watch the trailer and say “wow, that looks incredible.  I need to go see it.” To do that, the editor and I sit down and discuss the movie; what really stuck with us about the film and what we liked because generally speaking, the things that stick with you are the important emotive-driven moments that can pull people into the movie. In our first discussion, I said “we have to end on the line ‘tell the judge I love my wife’”, and Eric, the editor’s, response was “obviously”.

Another unique characteristic in this film is the deliberately slow pacing that gives it a thriller feel. It feels like we’re constantly building to that big moment when things explode.  It’s hard to allow for the time to build that in a trailer, so we came up with a sound design element, – scraping of the blocks and the ticking – to build tension in the trailer.  As the stress of the character’s situation is intensifying, the added sound element helps that tension escalate.  Hopefully, the viewers felt it worked.

Eric Archer (Editor / Producer): For me, marketing tent pole films versus prestige dramas are like working two completely different muscles, and hard to compare in terms of creative freedom. With tent poles, the main considerations are conveying size, visceral impact, and commercial viability. With increasing frequency these days, we have to be acutely aware if we are trying to fit into an already existing mythology (comic book/video game adaptations) and/or aesthetic (sequels, “universes” a la Marvel).

With prestige films, frequently your biggest asset is the film itself. The mission becomes more about distilling what makes the film special – its performances, its tone, the nuances of its story – and allowing that to speak for itself. This may sound like a more self-evident process than marketing tent poles, but it comes with its own set of hurdles.

With Loving, the main challenges were effectively showcasing the two lead performances (in other words, really trying to live in moments, rather than rapidly moving through exposition); and to find a way to, in a marketing sense, gently amplify the film’s overall tenderness and elegant understatement. This latter point was particularly delicate, especially with music choices; elements like the shoveling and ticking motif added a sense of urgency, but we had to be careful not to get bombastic with it. For example, at one point, I had the orchestration under that midsection building too quickly, and it felt like we were trying too hard, like we were kind of stepping on things.  We pulled back because, in the end, being true to a film like Loving is the best way to sell it.

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TT: What stage was the film at when you started working on the trailer? Did you work off a completed cut or sets of dailies?

WW: We had a fairly completed version of the film when we started cutting. Focus Features acquired this film so it was in final stages when we received it.  This was helpful because the director had essentially shown us, through his cut, what he believed the most powerful takes are and we could lean on using those. That way, we showcased the strongest performances and got a sense of the overall feel and tone that the director wanted to achieve, and looked to stay true to that.

TT: Filmmaker involvement in trailers and marketing in general is something that seems to vary from project to project – how involved was director Jeff Nichols with this piece, was he behind any of the creative choices?

WW: We worked initially with Nick Counter, the Creative Executive at Focus Features, to get the trailer in to a place where he was happy with it.  Once it was there, him and his team shared it with Jeff who had final approval.  He had some thoughts on the piece, but overall, from what we were told, he was very pleased with it and just had a few minor changes.

EA: Filmmaker involvement with bigger films frequently encompasses many voices, including, in some cases, actors. With smaller prestige films like Loving, this process is a lot more streamlined. This, plus the fact that we had received a nearly finished version of the film, made it a lot easier to get everyone on the same page in terms of the finished trailer.

TT: How much did the trailer and the structure of it evolve over time? Did you have a single plan that you stuck to or was there more experimentation and playing around?

WW: I was very surprised by this because Eric and I had a plan from the beginning that we stuck with and it didn’t change that much. Usually with trailers, they can go in a million different directions and clients can want to try a lot of angles. But, with this one it stayed pretty true to the original idea. We have a great relationship with Nick at Focus Features and he believed in our vision for the piece. He was very much a champion of it all the way, to the end.

EA: In this case, the simplicity in structure of the film yielded a simple trailer structure: meet the Lovings, understand their milieu and the challenges within, build tension, and create a back end that historically contextualizes everything. And, most importantly, provides emotional catharsis. We set out to do this from the beginning, and aside from playing around with a few moving parts in the middle, this initial structure remained intact.

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TT: The use of Carter Burwell’s True Grit score, along with that ticking motif over the first two thirds of the trailer, were really nice touches – how did the idea to use these come about? Were there any plans to use David Wingo’s score?

EA: The ticking motif actually began with Wayne’s “bricklayer sound montage” idea: the rhythmic shoveling and grout laying. From there, the idea was to find a cue (that wound up being “Clocks of Destiny” from Immediate Music) that would complement the bricklaying motif, allow it to continue, and build on it in terms of emotional intensity. Once we’d found the cue, I retrofitted the bricklaying sounds to be rhythmically in time, and we were off to the races.

In terms of the back end music, I thought Carter Burwell was a good place to start, if not to find an actual cue, than just for inspiration. I was initially thinking of a more lush, orchestral type of music, like Burwell’s score for “Miller’s Crossing”, which is beautiful. But in browsing his catalogue, I came across the track from True Grit (“Ride to Death”), and there was something about both the sparseness and the lyricism that seemed like it would be a good fit. Once we laid the first few notes of it under the “I can take care of you” scene in the trailer, we felt pretty good about committing to it.

I’m personally a fan of David Wingo’s scores (especially for Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter), and thought his score for this film was very effective. We did consider using some of it for the trailer, but for Loving in particular; his music is highly impressionistic and minimal. Ultimately, we opted for music that had a little more momentum and shape, and hence, felt a little more “trailer friendly”.

TT: Another curious detail also on the online version of the trailer is that really nice animated pre-roll graphic, which is a far nicer touch than the quick splashes of footage of most pre-rolls. Were you behind this graphic, and how do you feel about this rise of ‘social media optimisations’ like the pre-rolls and their impact on the actual trailers themselves, that you put so much work into?

WW: We do a lot of those, but this one in particular was done by Focus in conjunction with another agency.  Personally, I’m not generally a big fan of a “trailer to a trailer” for a number of reasons but I do really like the Loving one. It was done very tastefully and elegantly and since it’s a graphic with a still, it doesn’t take away from the trailer; instead seems to add something to it.

TT: And lastly, what were the most challenging and the most satisfying parts of putting this trailer together?

WW: The most challenging part was not letting my marketing tropes bleed into this. It’s a unique and important film and although the goal of a trailer is to get people into the theaters, with a film like this you want to capture them by showcasing an important and gorgeous film, as opposed to marketing tactics. I think that’s the most satisfying part of this trailer – It’s one that I’m really, really proud of not only because of the importance of the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, but because Jeff Nichols’ retelling of this story is so beautiful. It’s extremely satisfying to be part of a film this great; to be proud of the work you did and to be able to have a tiny roll in getting such a powerful film out to the audience.

EA: For me, the most special thing about Loving is that, despite the historical significance of the Loving Supreme Court case, this film is really an intimate love story about two people who simply want to be left alone. It is free of the usual Oscar season histrionics that prestige dramas frequently espouse. The biggest challenge in creating a trailer for the film was accurately and succinctly portraying exactly that; this is not a film about the case, or even about the Lovings’ persecution. It is is a portrait of two simple people, both of few words, who quietly love each other at all costs. Not the easiest thing to effectively depict in a mere two and a half minutes.

The most satisfying thing about working on Loving was, well, working on Loving. It is a rare thing for me to be able to cut trailers for a film I truly love, and the motivation to do your best work was purely driven by the fact that you believe in the movie, and you really want people to discover it for themselves. Playing a part in that process has been really fulfilling (I also happen to be a Jeff Nichols fan, so that’s also cool).

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From acclaimed writer/director Jeff Nichols, Loving celebrates the real-life courage and commitment of an interracial couple, Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga), who married and then spent the next nine years fighting for the right to live as a family in their hometown. Their civil rights case, Loving v. Virginia, went all the way to the Supreme Court, which in 1967 reaffirmed the very foundation of the right to marry – and their love story has become an inspiration to couples ever since.

Loving is released in the UK on February 3 and is now playing at select cinemas in the United States. A big thank you to the team at Ignition Creative – check out more of their film, TV and video game marketing work at ignitioncreative.com.

(images and video courtesy Focus Features)