Vintage cars lined the Virginia drag racing track where men and women wearing high-waisted pants and long skirts waited eagerly for popcorn at the concession stand and children darted in and out of the crowd. But as soon as the movie director yelled "cut," the actors relaxed, chatted and pulled on coats to stay warm in between shots on a cold, rainy afternoon.
It was the final day of filming for "Loving," which transformed the Richmond Dragway and other locations across Virginia into scenes from the 1950s and '60s to tell the story of Richard and Mildred Loving -- a couple with a bond so strong that it dismantled laws against interracial marriage, thrusting them into one of the most pivotal moments in American history.
Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Loving, a black woman, were thrown into a Virginia jail in 1958 for "unlawful cohabitation" a few weeks after getting married in Washington, D.C. They avoided a one-year jail sentence only by leaving the state. Although they never aspired to become political lightning rods, they wanted to come home. So they fought all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which struck down the Virginia law and those then in effect in roughly one-third of the states in 1967.
Filmmakers hope the Lovings' story will send a strong message about marriage at a time when debates over who should be allowed to wed still linger. The film comes on the heels of the Supreme Court victory for same same-sex marriage advocates, who repeatedly invoked the story of the Lovings during their fight for legalization.
The Lovings "were kind of these perfect candidates to talk about an issue about marriage equality and marriage rights without ever really bringing it up," said writer and director Jeff Nichols, best known for his film "Mud."
"Instead of talking about who deserves to be married or the meaning of marriage, let's just talk about people that love each other in a really straightforward, really honest way. Let's show people that and hopefully that will do the heavy lifting for us in terms of the debate," he said.
Nichols' movie isn't a courtroom drama, but a story about a love that shines through actions more than words, said Joel Edgerton, an Australian-born actor who recently starred alongside Johnny Depp in "Black Mass'' and plays mild-mannered Richard Loving. Ethiopian-born Ruth Negga, known for her role on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, plays his wife.
"They weren't waving a flag for civil rights change. They weren't looking beyond themselves, I don't think," Edgerton said. "What it really is to me and to Jeff is a love story, primarily, and all that other political stuff that surrounded it enriches the story and provides other meanings for people to take away,'' he said.
As filmmakers raced to shoot the final scenes before the sun set on a gray afternoon in Virginia last week, actors and crew members who had been putting in 12-and-14-hour days since September handed each other cards and reminisced about their time on the set.
They went silent when the camera started rolling and Edgerton as Richard Loving watched his car speed down the track.
The film is expected to be ready for theaters sometime this spring, but a release date has not yet been set.
Nichols said he invented some characters and scenes, but sought to stay as true to the Lovings' story as possible. He drew inspiration from an HBO documentary about the couple released in 2012. His film includes shots of the Virginia courthouse where the Lovings were sentenced and the jail in which they were initially held.
Philip Hirschkop, who represented the Lovings before the Supreme Court and visited the set, said Edgerton and Negga captured the essence of the Lovings as well as he could remember. But the couple, who were averse to publicity, probably wouldn't be thrilled to see their lives played out on the big screen, he said.
Mildred Loving died at her home in rural Milford in 2008. Her husband was killed by a drunk driver in 1975. Their daughter didn't respond to a message seeking comment.