Playback: Jeff Nichols on Oscar Contender ‘Loving,’ Fox’s ‘Alien Nation’

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

On today’s show Jenelle Riley and I are back to chew on the season’s lead acting Oscar races. The best actress field is stacked with so many contenders it seems a guarantee that a few deserving candidates will be left out of the equation. From Emma Stone (already a prize winner for “La La Land”) to Natalie Portman (causing a stir in Venice and Toronto with “Jackie”) to great performances we’ve seen from the likes of Ruth Negga (“Loving”) and Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”) and possible contenders we haven’t, like Taraji P. Henson (“Hidden Figures”) and Viola Davis (“Fences”), it’s just incredibly competitive.

Later on, director Jeff Nichols is on hand to discuss his latest film “Loving.” It’s a strong Oscar contender from Focus Features that stands out from the pack because it isn’t a loud historical drama drawing attention to itself, but rather, a quiet piece of work with two subtle performances from Negga and Joel Edgerton that deserve to be in the thick of it.

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One of the first experiences Nichols had with the film was getting a call from director Martin Scorsese, a “friend of the project” who was eager to see HBO’s documentary “The Loving Story” turned into a feature. Nichols recalls just pacing in his back yard talking to this titan and personal hero.

“This is a man who shaped our film knowledge,” Nichols says. “I had two DVDs my junior year. One was ‘Fletch’ and one was ‘Goodfellas,’ and I watched those movies so much. I just remember eating Ramen noodles and watching ‘Goodfellas.’ I just became a student of that film, and here this man is speaking of my films. It was a surreal moment.”

“Loving” certainly has a place in the on-going diversity discussion in Hollywood. That might even play into a need to recognize people of color, which could help Negga’s Oscar chances. But that kind of talk sort of reduces the accomplishment of the movie, and particularly its wider-ranging themes of equality.

“The state of the country in May when we played this thing in Cannes, the tenor of the conversation was one thing,” Nichols says. “And now here it is September, we play the same movie again, but the tenor has changed. The shootings in Dallas and Baton Rouge — the conversation is constantly evolving. And what’s so important about that and what’s so important about the Lovings’ story in reference to it is the Lovings just showed the humanity at the center of a very complex, difficult conversation. We are having, and need to be having, complex conversations about race in this country, and about equality in general, and the Lovings remain this constant example of humanity.”

Nichols says he’s not sure what is next for the first time in his career, but part of his time will no doubt be spent developing a take on “Alien Nation” for Fox. Indeed, just after we speak, he’s off to discuss a possible direction to take with his producers on the project. As Nichols says, he’s eager to keep a brand of variety in his work — exhibited in early 2016 low-fi sci-fi release “Midnight Special,” which we also discuss — but he’s also candid about reacting to the direction of the industry in general, which is chasing big IP franchises and swinging for the fences with massive cinematic universes.

“I’m reading the same tea leaves everybody else is reading,” he says. “This is a phase and we’ll get out of it. As a society and as an industry, at some point we won’t be as shackled to IP. But right now I feel it’s very hard in the film business to break through without some connection to it. That’s why I’m talking to Fox about ‘Alien Nation.’ I have an original idea there. It doesn’t have much to do with the actual ‘Alien Nation’ movie and TV series, but the title fits and there’s real value in that, potentially, just to get people to listen, to pay attention. I’d love to just continue making original films from scratch, but it doesn’t mean I won’t try my hand at something else in the meantime.”

In the macro, though, Nichols is — like any artist — eager to make something immortal.

“Remember when ‘Dazed and Confused’ came out,” he asks. “It’s not just about people quoting it on the street, but kind of it is. That means it has permeated our society. And it’s not something you can calculate. It’s not something you can set out to even do. But that, to me, would be real success.”

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