Phil on Film Index

Friday, February 10, 2017

"People are responding to this film the way they are because it's clearly so personal, they respect that." - An Interview with Barry Jenkins

Ever since its debut at last year’s Telluride Film Festival, Moonlight has been riding a wave of acclaim that shows no sign of abating. Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue is the story of a young black man from a broken home in Miami, following him through his childhood, adolescence and adulthood as he grapples with his sexuality and identity. It’s a film that feels specific in its perspective and its details, but universal in its portrait of loneliness, pain and yearning, and it continues to live in the memory long after the end credits have rolled. Moonlight is a very special film that remarkably manages to live up to the hype, and I met Barry Jenkins last December on the morning after he had attended the British Independent Film Awards, where he received the award for the Best International Independent Film. 

Congratulations on yesterday. Both the LA Film Critics and the British Independent Film Awards.

Yeah, I know. It happened at the same time too, man. It was amazing.

Was it a good ceremony last night?

Oh yeah. It was a really good room, and as I said on the stage there are a few British filmmakers that I really admire, Lynne Ramsay chief among them, you know, Lynne Ramsay and Alan Clarke were the two biggest when I was in film school. It's kind of wonderful to be in a place where I assume Lynne has won a BIFA in the past.

Can you comprehend and digest the reaction that this film has received from everyone so far?

Now that I'm on so many planes, you have nothing but time to think and process. I've realised I'm in a very privileged position. I have friends who have made really amazing works that not a lot of people see, you know, my friend Antonio Campos has a film called Christine and it doesn't have the same buzz that we have, and that's unfortunate. I wish all these films could have the sort of response and visibility that Moonlight has had over the past few months. So yeah, I know it's a really privileged place to be in, and so I'm just trying to take it bit by bit and not get too damn happy.

So can you identify what has connected with people that has generated that kind of buzz?

I think because we didn't try to make the movie for everyone, people really respond to that. I think we live in a time now where, because of the business dynamics of what we do, the imperative is to make something that everyone can love. With this film I was trying to make a movie for an audience of two, myself and Tarell, because the movie is more or less about the two of us. I think when you do that, people respect it, you know, it passes the bullshit test. It's like, oh, this is really interesting and at the very least I'm gonna get something that I didn't expect, because I don't know these guys and I get to experience what they're like through this film.

One thing that intrigues me about Tarell's play is that it was never actually produced, it was just an unfinished manuscript sitting in his draw. When I heard that was the case it made sense because I was trying to picture this as a play and I couldn't really. It's so cinematic, and it relies so much on the power of silence, gestures, close-ups.

I don't think it would have ever worked on a stage, and I don't think Tarell ever wrote it intending it to be on a stage. Now I also don't think that the first version I read would have worked in the format it was on screen. I always describe it as being halfway between the stage and the screen, and I always think of the process as kind of being like a relay race; Tarell got to the first or second leg, you know, and then he passed it to me and I took it the rest of the way. But it was inherently visual, even when he first wrote it, and like you my first instinct was, this is not going to work on the stage, however, there are some very interesting visuals here. The original piece was like 47 pages, so there was a lot of space within it, and there was a lot of room for me to extend and create. I always knew that I wanted to make a film that would live on faces and physical gestures, and it was wonderful to have his language to connect those very silent beats.

The one thing I had assumed was a legacy of the stage was the three-act structure, but I understand you actually brought that to it in your adaptation.

I did. Tarell wrote this in 2003, the first version of it, so he was a very young man and I'm sure if he wrote it again today it would be quite different. He called it a circular narrative - you'd see Little wake up and go to school, you'd see Chiron wake up and go to school, you'd see Black wake up and go to the corner. Then you'd see Little at school, Chiron at school, Black at the corner. It just kept going through this one day, always resetting, and I thought, this is going to be very difficult for an audience to follow. I don't see how they're going to really connect and grab on to what the characters are experiencing, because every five minutes they have to reset. It would be better to get a whole run of each character and then reset. I had seen this Hou-Hsiao Hsien film called Three Times and I thought it really worked in that piece, so I thought that's what we'll do. It is funny, I never thought of it as a three-act structure, but you're right, it's old-school dramaturgy for sure.

That structure has a real benefit though, because it's a striking moment when Black appears in the third section. The last time we saw this character he was a scared, skinny teenager getting beaten up, and now he's this huge, imposing figure. You're trusting the audience a lot there to go with you because you don't give us much context for his development and what has happened in the intervening years.

Yeah, it's funny. I don't often try to anticipate how the audience is reading the film, but I think that act two to act three structure is a moment when we really are in tune with how the audience is receiving the character. At that point, it's been 60 minutes, you're prepped, now you know a different actor is coming, and act two ends on such a cliffhanger, which is weird for this film. I felt like the audience would know, okay, I have to keep watching, this is very different and very jarring. This beautiful thing happened where, it wasn't scripted that you would see Naomi at the top of story three, as a flashback to that moment in the hallway in story one, but we're giving them this one little thing - we've gone from two, to three, then here's this thing from story one, and then he wakes up from the nightmare. And then at that point, we've done this thing where the audience is hopefully used to the preamble. It's almost like a literary device, you get a moment with the character before we officially state their name. You're right, it was trusting the audience, but I had the same experience in casting Trevante Rhodes, who came in to read for the other character, Kevin. I was like, this dude has too many muscles and is too damn built, there's no way he's going to work as Kevin, but out of respect I let him keep auditioning. Then this thing happened where I realised I had judged him because of how he looked, and I had decided that he couldn't channel the vulnerability and sensitivity that I thought the character needed, but he was auditioning and I was like, oh shit, there's the sensitivity and vulnerability. I thought that if the audience can have the same experience I just had at this five-minute audition, it would work, so we cast him and that was it.

His appearance does encapsulate so much about the film's exploration of masculinity.

It's masculinity run amok and the aggression of the world projecting a certain accepted image of masculinity, I think Trevante embodied that fully, just in his physical presence. And then as a performer he's so good, the subtext and all these things buried underneath, you can slowly bring those things to the surface, which is who he truly is. Yeah, it was one of the choices that was the most jarring. I even remember being on set with Trevante, his first two days of work, where he was by himself for his first two days - he's working out, walking around in his boxers, sitting on the bed - and all the women on the film are gathered around video village, watching this very ripped guy. I was like, fuck, this feels so different from working with Ashton [Sanders], you know? Did we make a mistake? But then we filmed his side of the phone call, when André Holland calls, and I was like, oh, that's where it is. We're good to go.

There's also this very moving sense that he has recreated himself in the image of Mahershala Ali's character, the only positive male figure he has experienced in his life.

Exactly, but that male figure isn't there to constantly guide him. This is why parents are parents, you know? You tell your kid to do something right, they're going to make a mistake, then you have to be there to make an adjustment. "Oh, I know you tried, now try it this way." He doesn't have that presence to go, “Don't do it that way, do it this way,” so I think he's performing again what he thinks Juan did for him. There's that great scene where the guy is counting the money, and he's trying to be this presence the way Juan was, but all he's doing is scaring the shit out of this kid, you know? Because Juan isn't there, I think he's taken the worst aspects and applied those as a performance.

So this is probably something you've been asked about a thousand times, but I have to talk to you about the casting process. I think it's astonishing the way these three very different actors create this sense of a whole person. I can't recall seeing anything quite like this before.

It's magic. [Laughs]

I guess a magician never reveals his secrets.

Well, magic and a great casting director. I always say magic, because we didn't allow them to rehearse and we didn't allow them to meet, because I didn't want them to mimic one another. We ended up in a place where they were organically feeling the same thing, because it is the same character, just becoming a different person. There's this idea that no matter what version of Chiron you're watching, and no matter what version the character is performing for the outside world, internally he's still the same person. I think the audience buys into that intellectual conceit. The one thing I did do, is that I gave all the actors the full script, so they knew what came before and what was going to come after. I think they could emotionally process all of that stuff, especially Trevante because of the two guys that came before him. And yet, I think they're all kind of doing their own thing, it just ends up in the same place. I've said this a lot, but we were casting them based on this feeling in their eyes, and that's why the poster works, because they all have the same deep vulnerability in their eyes.

And there are a number of simple but effective tricks that you can use to help tie these performances together, the way you use certain shots or angles repeatedly in each story.

That was all worked out at the shot design process. Myself and the cinematographer had a shot list. We don't storyboard but we did say that there were two or three shots that we had to get to help connect that we were following the same character from the same perspective. A lot of it is the behind-the-back shots, then we do these spinning shots above, and then the direct address to camera.

It works brilliantly, and I think that final scene is not going to possess the impact that it does if we can't actually see the child inside the adult Chiron.

You're right, it doesn't work if you can't look in his eyes and see Ashton and see Alex.

It all goes back to that scene on the beach, and I felt the film expresses that sense of how you sometimes think of something that happened as a teenager and you get this flush of shame and regret, even though it's long gone.

Bro, you're telling me. [Laughs]

That's what that beach scene feels like. Kevin can get up and walk away from this intimate moment, but Chiron seems to be locked inside it and is constantly replaying that moment in his mind.

Exactly. I think when he smashes that chair, it locks him in there, in a very big way. What I love about that scene is, it's not about Terrel, it's about Kevin. That's why the last look in that scene is not between Chiron and Terrel, it's between Chiron and Kevin.

That scene on the beach is such a pivotal and momentous moment in the narrative, and yet you're capturing a very quiet and intimate and deeply felt interaction. How do you go about constructing a sequence like that?

Ah man, that scene was...that was definitely the most pressure-filled moment on set. Part of it was just that we were a very small crew, this was a very small film, and that night was our biggest production footprint. I mean, we had a light rig that was about the size of this ceiling hoisted up about thirty feet above a beach, you know, with this wind just rocking it, so it was madness. And yet, this is the most intimate moment, other than the kitchen scene, in the whole damn film. I haven't directed in a while, these kids have never done a sex scene, we're all just green, you know? I knew the main currency of this scene was going to be tenderness, you had to believe that this was a very tender and genuinely intimate moment, that Kevin was not preying on Chiron, but that he was creating a very safe space for this kid's sexual intimacy. So it was difficult and yet it wasn't difficult. I always try to make everything on set have the same level of importance, so a character placing a pot on the stove in the kitchen scene is just as big as two guys making out on the beach. I approach it the same way and I think the actors respond to that. It's one of those things where when most of the technical aspects of it were done - I keep pointing to this ceiling, because that's literally what it was. There was this huge rig right above us, there's a photo of it on Instagram - once that was all set, then it was like when you're at a wedding, when the couple goes out to dance and everybody clears off. It was like that.

It was really beautiful because myself, Jharrel [Jerome], Ashton and the DP James Laxton, it was just the four of us underneath this thing, and we just took stock of what the elements around us were. There's this moonlight, there's this sand, you know, and we started working with their hands because it felt like their hands was the thing that was going to carry the currency. In each chapter the characters meet and they do this [clasps hands], they do it in the first story, the second story and the third story, so it felt like there was something in the hands, because that stuff is not scripted. We shot the scene, and I remember thinking, it hasn't gone quite far enough. So I whispered to Ashton, I think you should apologise, and that's when he says, "I'm sorry," and Jharrel says, "What have you got to be sorry for?" Again, it felt like there was some level of that character that would process the moment shamefully, because I think this is a character who feels he is undeserving of love and undeserving of physical intimacy, so when he has this moment he apologises for it. And I wanted Kevin to be creating a safe space with, "What have you got to be sorry for?" Those two lines aren't in the script, but in building the scene and trying to make it feel comfortable and organic, that felt like the natural conclusion of the moment emotionally for the character.

You mentioned that you haven't directed a feature for a long time. Does Medicine for Melancholy feel like the work of a different filmmaker?

Nah, same filmmaker, different circumstances, different resources. I do think I'm a different person. I think I'm definitely more mature. I could make Medicine today, I could not have made Moonlight eight years ago. So I think there has been, not an evolution but I think I have evolved and matured in certain ways, less aesthetically and more emotionally.

You've been working a lot in the commercial sector in the intervening eight years.

Commercials, short films, branded content. I think it was good because Medicine was a crew of five people, this was a crew of, I don't know, average 35 to 40 people? But doing commercials I'd have a crew that's even larger than that. I think just being on set and utilising the tools makes you faster, for sure, and I'm very fast on a film set, I pride myself on that. But also, it was good to keep working. The other thing that happened was, so many of my friends were making amazing work, and we were all still friends. I was watching their work and supporting their work, and it kept me going, it gave me energy. You know, I've been spending all this time with Damien [Chazelle] on the festival circuit, and Pablo Larrain, and those guys are animals, they've made so many films in the last three years. I've only made this one in the last eight years. Shit like that inspires me, man.

You did have some other features that you were trying to get off the ground, right?

Yeah, yeah...but you know what? They weren't personal enough. I'm not saying that every movie you do has to be as personal as this one has been, but I do think, to circle back to the beginning of our conversation, that people are responding to this film the way they are because it's clearly so personal, they respect that. The things I was working on before, I probably didn't care about as much as I cared about this one, so I've got to be very good about finding things that I can genuinely care about.

Are they things you'd consider going back to or are you going to move in a different direction?

I'm considering both of them. I think applying the filmmaker I am now, the person I am now, to those projects might yield better fruit.

What's great about the success of this film is that you hear so often that certain films are challenging to market, and that any black film or any gay film is a risky proposition that immediately limits itself to a niche audience. Moonlight has confounded whatever expectations people might have had for it.

Plan B and A24 were great. They did not tell us to make a marketable film, they said go and make a film that's true to you and Tarrel, and bring it back to us and we will figure out where the market is for that movie. Apparently, so far so good, the market is just putting it in a place where people are seeking cinema. Don't worry about where they come from, they're going to the auditorium, they'll come to you.

What was Terrell's reaction when he first saw the film?

[Laughs] Oh, I'll never forget it. I showed it to him at a private screening room. The movie ended, and he got up [Barry gets out of his chair and sits on the floor], he sat on the floor, and he stared at his feet for like twenty minutes. It was him, myself and André Holland, because him and André go way back, and he said, "I don't know how many times I can watch that, because you've brought to life some things I haven't been able to think about for so long. [Returns to his chair] Thankfully great things continue to happen, but at that point I was like, alright, I'm good.

So do you know when you'll be finished with Moonlight and start thinking of the next project? You've been on a long road with this film by this stage.

It has been a long road. I will say, though, I was hanging with Kenneth Lonergan the other day and Manchester started at Sundance, so talk about a long road, you know? Theoretically, this keeps going the way it's going. We open here in February, we open in France in like January, and I just want people to see the film. The best thing about winning the BIFA last night was thinking, holy shit, we're a long way from Miami, I mean a long way away. And yet, people are still seeing themselves in the film. I want to go to Turkmenistan to see if people can see themselves in the film there. No matter what community you go to, there are people who feel ostracised or othered, and they rarely see narratives about ostracised or other characters, where those characters have their full humanity on display and intact, so I think it's in some ways important to take the film as far as it can go. I'm not speaking of awards and things like that, but physically to just get the movie to as many people as possible.