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Inside Looking Out: Barry Jenkins on Moonlight

Barry Jenkins (Photo by David Bornfriend, Courtesy of A24)

Occasionally a movie has the look and feel of something totally original, immediately allowing one to see the protean leap its maker has taken from novice to master. Someday, when the American movie landscape is no more, simply the purview of art historians who live on Mars or on ocean front property in what we used to call Indiana, people will still regard Barry Jenkins’s startlingly effective Moonlight as a unique and supple flower, the kind of heartrending experience that gives rise to the notion that motion pictures can be a lasting, emotionally resonant art form. Drawn from MacArthur “genius” Tarell McCraney’s lauded play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the American cinema has never produced anything even remotely like Moonlight. 

The film follows Chiron, the son of a crack-addicted mother, through his journey of burgeoning sexual self awareness in Miami’s Liberty City and Atlanta, Georgia, across three distinct stages in his life. Moonlight is a document of rare visual and sonic force, one that beyond its potent aesthetic shifts perspectives from the white-heteronormative space American movies are normally drawn, a move so radical it seems an impossibility at any other point in history save our own. Chiron, a pleasant homosexual child we watch grow into a hard and closeted homosexual man in order to protect himself from the hyper-masculine nihilism of boys who have been under nurtured in the hothouse environment of the Miami ghetto, is played by three different actors (Alex Hibbert in the childhood section “Little”; Ashton Sanders in the teenage section “Chiron”; and Trevante Rhodes in the adult section “Black”) across 20 years or so.

We watch Chiron harden himself one step at a time in the ways black boys in this country often have to in order to survive — play with other black bodies turns, as he grows older, into desperate masculine tussling and, later, pervasive threats of violence. He has to learn what being called “a faggot” means from a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) who acts like a surrogate father to him after discovering the boy in a crack house, where Chiron had fled to escape the bullies who will haunt him for most of his young life. His family is no help; we never meet his absent father, while Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is hopelessly addicted to crack at the height of the 1980s crisis with the drug. By the time he is first compelled to kiss another teenager — a friend he has known since those earlier magical days of touch football in pockmarked grassy ghetto knolls, who now sits before him on a Miami beach — it’s clear our movie culture can never go back to a place where moments like this one are not given their due. Only recently have mainstream American movies created a space to see gay men, to take note of their struggles and resilience, let alone emotional and psychological perspectives. Gay black men have never had such privilege. Until now.

Jenkins’s second film debuted at the Telluride Film Festival, where he was employed for several years and where he first met Brad Pitt, one of the film’s executive producers. It has since gone on to win raves at Toronto and the New York Film Festival before finding its way to theaters in October from A24. Filmmaker caught up with Jenkins in Toronto to talk about his process, the difficulty of getting a second film off the ground after his 2008 debut Medicine for Melancholy put him on the map, and the way one most effectively reveals aspects of the black experience to non-black collaborators and audiences alike.

I’ve got to say, I’ve seen a lot of films that originated as plays. I don’t think I’ve seen anything as bracingly cinematic as this. People talk about opening up a text, but I think that you’ve gone far beyond that. Was the theatrical origin of this material something you worried about when you started developing this project? I wasn’t worried about it, and it’s only because of the way I think about movies. When I first read the play, I was like, “This could be really visually striking.” It was the very first thing. The second thing was about the structure, because the play was non-linear. But Tarell had just taken so many things that I knew growing up. So, literally, I’m reading this thing and I can see these things and I don’t see them in a box. I see them out in these spaces that we grew up in. I wrote the first draft in 10 days because I could see it. Granted, it’s an adaptation, but still, 10 days is pretty damn fast. It’s an intimate, small sort of drama in a certain way, where most of the big, emotional movements are interior. And yet, I just saw it as this visual sort of moving thing. It’s a movie, it moves, says Charlie Kaufman.

How involved was Tarell once you wrote a draft? Once I wrote the draft, it was my thing at that point. At first, I wanted him to adapt the play with my guidance, because I wanted to preserve his voice. There were scenes in this film that I did not write, and I just could not write, you know? But he became a MacArthur Genius [Fellow], which made him really, really busy. So, over time, that went out the window. I flew to Miami, and we had a pretty little conversation about it. That wasn’t the first time we met, but it was the first time that we had an extensive conversation about pretty much anything, and realizing how similar our lives were growing up, and that neither one of us was in this for any other reason than to tell an authentic story about what it was like to grow up in Liberty City. But he basically said, “Yeah, I trust you man, go with God,” which is a very Tarell thing to say. From that point on, it was kinda in my house to handle.

I don’t think you’ve been out on the reservation for eight years since your last film. I’m sure you’ve been trying to make other films. I have, man. I have.

I’m curious about what was different with this film. Was it involving producer Adele Romanski or, later, A24? How did this come together in ways that other projects didn’t? It’s cool that you mentioned Adele, because I do think that one of the fundamental differences about this project and why this one started and just kept going was because Adele willed it. The way this all began was she called me up — it was the end of 2012, maybe January 2013 — and said, “Look, this is ridiculous. You have to make a film. I want to make a film with you. I want to make a film with people I love about something I care about. That’s all I know.” Every two weeks, we would have a Gchat, because she lived in L.A. I lived in Oakland at that time. Sometimes, we would just sit there, and she was like, “I don’t care. I’m going to shame you into coming up with something for us to make.” So, I started to make a list of all the things I was working on. One of those things was Tarell’s play — at that time, Lucas Leyva and Andrew Hevia of [Miami-based production company] Borscht had basically put Tarell and I together. We were slowly getting the process going. But Adele was kicking ass and was like, “No, no, move. Keep the process going.” Eventually, because we had like, 20 ideas, she had me do some very rough, not very detailed treatments. This was the one that stuck. Some of the other things I worked on — I worked with John Lyons and James Schamus at Focus Features on a project that didn’t work out, not for any ill will toward anyone. Those guys really, really tried, and they showed me the ropes of how to navigate Hollywood and the studio system. And then, I adapted a memoir for another producer that fell apart spectacularly. Once Plan B and A24 got involved, then it was like, “Well, we’re really making this film.” It just kept moving.

When I saw it, someone who was in the theater with me said afterward, “That felt like a movie that someone spent a lot of time thinking about how exactly they wanted to represent every single moment in it. There’s nothing that feels unconsidered.” Do you feel like the time you spent away from making films gave you that space to consider the movie in that way? Intellectually, I would say yes, but I think it was more emotional for me in that when you go so long without doing something, you realize what a privilege it is, you know? It wasn’t this thing where I don’t want to mess this up because if I mess this up, I won’t ever get to make another film. It was like, I’ve missed this deeply, and this is fundamentally a part of who I am. And so, I really, really want to take my time and take good care with it. Also, the character that Naomie Harris plays is based, for me, partly on my mom, partly on Tarell’s mom. There’s just a lot of things that I wanted to do right by in the process of making this film.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that there isn’t a coming-of-age story in the annals of American cinema that’s quite like this one, that involves the spectre of homosexuality in a way that’s so tender and so heartbreaking, that suggests the ways in which black men are often taught to harden themselves, both within our communities in order to protect ourselves, but also, to protect ourselves from outside, from the forces that seek to oppress us. What was it like communicating that to your crew, to your actors, to your producers? Many of them are African-Americans and obviously like you and Tarell, could relate to and identify with that. Did you see people perhaps grow in the process of making this movie or making this movie with you? I did, for sure. When Trevante came into the picture — I mean, talk about a visual representation of performed masculinity. You can’t get more jarring than going from Ashton Sanders to Trevante Rhodes. And the conversation about that casting choice and what Trevante represented, that was interesting. I think it was a moment of illumination for certain people involved with the film, because what you just said to me, I don’t have that conversation with other folks, not very often, and certainly not as eloquently as you framed it. There was no way that the conversation couldn’t go into these more political and less purely artistic reasons for making that choice and for having that be a representation of the character.

The whole journey that the character goes through is about this idea of nature versus nurture. I’m definitely a nurture person, not so much a nature person, and [the journey shows] the lack of nurturing, and then the application of certain kinds of bad nurturing and how that affects these young black boys from this neighborhood that Tarell and I grew up in. I do realize, though, that the movie now represents certain things and is a part of a larger conversation that doesn’t have anything to do with these characters. But I wanted to make a picture where you could see how the world might bring this boy up so hard that he literally buries himself, you know, to perform this thing. If there was anything that originally drew me to the piece, and especially after making the decision that we should tell the stories in turn, because Tarell’s play jumps back and forth in time, it was that. There was going to be a definitive stance on nature versus nurture, and a representation of how the performance of toxic masculinity can affect these boys in these neighborhoods.

I think your first picture was made for somewhere around $25,000, maybe more. Something like that.

I imagine this movie was made for a lot more. It was made for more, yeah, for sure. Not a lot, but it was made for more. [Laughs]

But when you stepped on that set on day one, what was that leap like? Was it scary, the fact that there’s more people around? No, it wasn’t. I’d done commercials over the years that had bigger crews than this had. We actually tried to streamline this crew and make it as close to Medicine as possible. Part of that was [because] I’m comfortable working with small crews. I mean, Medicine was five people. On average, this crew was maybe, like, 30, 35 on set a day. But also we wanted the actors to have the space to work, so we needed more days, and in order to stretch our budget, we needed to have a smaller crew. There’s usually one or two good choices for a scene, and I had to make sure that because there was more, that I was not just throwing more at the situation and not paying attention to the actors and not trying to find the proper way to cover a scene.

Was there a moment when you were making the movie, when you were like, “I’m doing it exactly the way I want to do it”? Was there a moment where you felt like, “I have total mastery over the circumstances”? Not total mastery, but the opening of the film [a circling Steadicam shot], we didn’t really plan to do that that way. You know, as sort of a oner. But the day before [DP] James Laxton and I had a quick talk about it. I explained to him that I wanted to drop the audience into this very disorienting world, to really see that all these things are happening right out in the open with these kids. I didn’t want the drug deal to be about a drug deal, I wanted it to be about something else. That was a decision we made on the fly. Then we got there and we did it. And I’d say it was like chopping wood. There was a lot of stuff in this film that was kind of like chopping wood, but that was a piece of wood where I was like, “Shit. Can we pull that off? I’ve never done that.” I had no Steadicam on Medicine, you know? I’ve actually probably never worked with a legit Steadicam operator until this film, and yet, we did it. That was day five, so we did five weeks. There were a few tricky moments [that first week]. Day three we shot the last scene of story one. And I will say, if there was anything, that was the one. That kid’s never acted before and Janelle’s never acted before, it’s day three, I haven’t made a movie in eight years. That day started out, it was not good.

How so? It was just everything, man. We were just not comfortable, and I don’t like to be on a set where people are uncomfortable. We just couldn’t get it. There was this brief, brief moment where I thought I might panic. And then I was like, “Nah. Let’s just keep working.” And we just kept working. It’s funny because I was working with a crew that was probably more experienced than I was, and as a director on a set, and — fuck it, I’ll step on that. Sometimes as a black director on a set, I’ve had this experience on commercials, people are like, “Ah, does this guy know what he’s doing?” And here we are, shooting this huge scene, and it was like, “Man, does this guy know what he’s doing?” And then, I slowly went back to my training, went back to my instincts and we built the scene and we kept building it and we kept building it. There was a moment where I looked over at James and Adele, and I looked past them and people on set were crying at the monitor. And I was like, “Okay, all right, we’re good. We’re going to make this movie.” It was a big moment, man. It was almost like being a fighter and you get punched in the nose for the first time and you go [on].

It feels like the color choices are very considered, given the emotional temperature of each moment and the overall journey of our protagonist into a space of a tragic self awareness. Hannah Beachler, our production designer, Caroline Eselin, the costume designer, and James, the DP, all worked really well together. It’s funny, because I’d seen Girlhood by Céline Sciamma, which is amazing, and I was pissed because she uses blue a lot. I was like, “Damn it. She already beat us to it, shit.” But it was good because at first, I thought I wanted to do really overt color blocking. But then I thought, “No, it doesn’t feel right.” And what we ended up with was exactly what you described, the environment sort of reflecting the mood of the character. Over the course of the three stories, the image gets a bit darker. In the second story, the image is very, very stark. But we always tried to allow the real world [in], for budgetary reasons, but also because again, the movie’s coming from this memory of growing up in this place and the neighborhoods we shot in. A lot of that stuff is still the same way it was as when I was there. So, there’s the subtle things that we’re doing, but it all comes from the character out and not the other way.

The music is so emotionally resonant. Nick Britell, the composer, did an awesome job. One of the technical things that I explained to Nick was that all the source cues were going to be rooted in the community. Chopped and screwed started in Houston, started in Tampa Bay. We’ll give it to Houston. I played a lot of that for him, and I told Nick, “Can you apply some chopped and screwed principles to orchestral scoring?” And so, over the course of the film, the score is becoming more and more chopped and screwed. Literally, we have these professional players, the New York Philharmonic, and we’re chopping and screwing their violins, their cellos. It takes this thing that we might consider arthouse, a very refined art form, and filters it through the characters, through the community, through the story.

And one of the things that makes me not happiest, but proudest, about the film is the way people respond to the music, because again, it’s a fine line. Some of that stuff can be very aggressive, especially some of the cues we have in here, where you don’t know what’s making that sound, because that sound is not made in analog terms. You have to chop and screw it to get to some of Nick’s sounds. But it feels organic because it feels like it’s motivated by the characters and what they’re going through. I mean, nobody would ever recognize this, but the very first song we play is a song we call “Chiron’s Theme.” And there’s a scene in the second story, where Kevin beats up Chiron, and the bully walks out and he’s circling and “Chiron’s Theme” [is there] chopped and screwed, you know? And so, it just takes it to this whole other place because it’s filtered through the community and through the world I grew up in.

DJ Screw would be really disappointed about that Tampa shit though. No, come on. I mean, Screw did it way better, but I’m telling you, man, that’s funny. They didn’t chop it so much in Tampa. They did screw it.

Talk about working with Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon, the two editors. So Joi and Nat both went to film school with us, and it was kind of an organic process how they ended up working on the movie together. This piece was so distinct, story to story to story, that to do one required one kind of mind. To do another required a different kind of mind. Organically, the two of them ended up working together on the picture. I didn’t even think we decided beforehand that they were going to co-edit, it just ended up working that way, where somebody took one story, somebody took another story, and there just wasn’t a lot of crossover. But it was great because it was like these informal checks and balances, where it would be like, “Oh, you did great with that, but not so great with that.” And it was beautiful, man. It had been a while since I’d made a film, and I wanted to surround myself with people I was familiar with. And the great thing is, both James and Nat have a lot more experience now than I do, because they made a lot of movies in the intervening years. I do think there’s no way I could’ve gotten to this point, especially with this film, without the three of them [James, Nat and Joi].

Was there something in that process that surprised you, like something that was in the film that was made fully resonant in the edit that had never quite been there in the writing or shooting? There were a couple of scenes that we shot certain ways that I wasn’t sure were going to work. Nat and Joi dug those out. But the biggest thing for me was just the amount of silence and the space. I knew when we were working that the actors were doing a lot while not speaking. It was something I specifically tried to drill into them, that we needed to see the characters evolve onscreen. It’s like actually watching people ingest and reflect. It would lose its power. And I never had to tell them, “We gotta keep the silence.” They just were totally in tune with what I feel like the best version of the movie was. It was a movie where the actors had space and were silent.

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