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Barry Jenkins on making the magnificent Moonlight

Barry Jenkins (Photo: Aaron Davidson/Getty Images)

Barry Jenkins shot one of Moonlight’s many striking scenes as a storm was moving onto a beach in Miami. But there’s a burgeoning tempestuousness throughout Jenkins’ film, a wrenching portrait of internalized emotion. Moonlight is told in three parts, each dipping into the life of the protagonist, a black, gay man. As a child (Alex R. Hibbert), he goes by Little; as a teenager, he’s Chiron (Ashton Sanders); and as an adult, he’s Black (Trevante Rhodes). Throughout all of the chapters he’s a character who rarely, if ever, articulates what he feels, but Jenkins demonstrates how he’s shaped by the figures that come in and out of his life: His drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), a kind dealer (Mahershala Ali), his girlfriend (Janelle Monáe), and a classmate who becomes a lover (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland). Even as Chiron stays quiet, Jenkins’ work swirls and swells with passion in music and color. Drawing from playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Jenkins crafts a magnificent piece of art that is without a doubt one of the best films of the year. Jenkins spoke with The A.V. Club in New York, around the time the movie was hitting the New York Film Festival.

The A.V. Club: How did you and Tarell Alvin McCraney find one another?

Barry Jenkins: Tarell first wrote this as part of his application to Yale’s drama school way back in 2003. We had two mutual friends. Basically the way the story goes, they read In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and they called me up and said, “We got this thing from Tarell McCraney.” I had no idea who Tarell was at that point. This was like three-and-a-half, four years ago. They said, “It’s not about you. But it’s about you. You should read it.”


AVC: You’re from Miami, right?

BJ: Yeah, born and raised. Tarell and I grew up blocks from each other, and we’re within a year in age. We went to a lot of the same schools. It’s amazing that we didn’t know each other, but we didn’t. I read it the first time and I didn’t really see what they were talking about. I thought it was interesting because all Tarell’s work is. But the “it’s about you” part I didn’t really see. Then I read it again and was like, “Okay. I kind of see where they’re coming from.”


AVC: What struck you the second time?

BJ: The obvious part is that Tarell and his mom had the same sort of ordeal with addiction that my mom and I went through. So there was that. But that’s biography. More emotionally, I saw the idea of a character who exists in a world, who doesn’t participate, and who starts to take these cues based on how the world reacts to him on how he should be, who he should be, and what face he should put on to best survive in the world. And once I keyed in all that, I was like, “Oh, okay. I kind of get it,” especially because of the place and the time. I was like, “There’s something in this.” I thought there was something that wasn’t in the play that could be realized by making it visual.


AVC: There’s a three-act structure which is reminiscent of theater, but it’s so cinematic also.

BJ: It’s weird though. The way Tarell structured it was one day in the life, but the way he did it was that Little would wake up in the morning, and then in the next scene Chiron would wake up in the morning, and in the next scene Black would wake up in the morning. Then it would go back, and that is how he would progress through the day. So it was really trippy and not something I thought would work in a film. I’d seen this film called Three Times by Hou Hsiao-Hsien. I thought there’s something about that structure, where you view, in that movie, a relationship contextualized against the times it’s set in. That to me enriched and deepened my emotional response to that relationship. I thought, well, if I take this character, pull it apart, and just do one moment here, one moment there, and one moment here, I think I’ll actually see more of the character than less, despite the fact that you can spend a full film with either one of these three characters.


AVC: How did you think about language in the context of the film?

BJ: Growing up, I wasn’t the most vocal kid in the world. I feel like I learned through observation, and usually when you’re watching things you’re not speaking. That sort of metastasized in a way that I began to participate less and less in the world. I thought it would be interesting to create a character who was retreating within himself, and so as the film goes on he’s speaking less and less. It just felt appropriate. The other thing was, some of the language in the play was so strong that I thought it would be—not elevated—but I thought it would be even better emphasized if when that language appeared it was—not jarring or out of nowhere—but your ear would perk up even more because these are characters who don’t say exactly what they mean very often. And the fact that they do is a sign that something is different about this moment, or something’s different about this character now. In the translation, one of the things I thought would work really well was to give some of the amazing dialogue Tarell had written the space to really show.


AVC: That moment when Little asks “What’s a faggot?” is so striking.

BJ: A thing I love about that exchange is Juan says, “Faggot is a word to make gay people feel bad,” and the idea implicit in that is that the word “faggot” is bad, the word “gay” is not. The whole piece originated for Tarell with the friendship he actually had with a local drug dealer who protected him from the neighborhood bullies. So it comes from a very true place. I thought that we had to have a moment where the dichotomy of that character—the very very dark sides of this person—had to come to a head, and it had to come from the mouths of babes. Because while he gives an amazing answer to the question, “What’s a faggot?” the next question is, “Do you sell drugs?” And he does. Implicit in that is that a black man who sells drugs is not only a black man who sells drugs. He’s also other things, and he’s capable of being a surrogate and being someone who nurtures, as much as his work is horrible and debilitating.


AVC: The film subverts those stereotypes.

BJ: I hope so. It wasn’t the point at all. Tarell and I knew people like this growing up. They exist. Juan is not the magical Negro who sells drugs and teaches kids how to swim. Tarell was actually taught how to swim by a local drug dealer. I’m sure there are men just like him all over the country, who are doing some untoward things, but on the other hand, also do some very charitable and nurturing things. There’s room within these men for multitudes.

Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali in Moonlight (Photo: A24)

AVC: That shot of Juan teaching Little to swim is so much like a baptism. Do you plan out those images?


BJ: For sure. There needed to be this moment of what I consider a spiritual transference. That scene was interesting because we thought we’d have six hours to shoot it. It was a much more dialogue-heavy scene. I actually described it to Mahershala Ali as a baptism because we got there to shoot it, and we thought we’d have six hours and we had 90 minutes on a beach in Miami. It was a 25-day shoot and you don’t have cover sets when you work that way. We couldn’t go somewhere else and come back to the beach another day. We had to get it in before the storm came in.

So what you’re watching when you watch the scene is me describing to Ali what the scene was about—which is a baptism—and this kid was being taught a lesson how to fend for himself as a storm is rolling in. It’s beautiful because yesterday I was doing press with Alex [Hibbert], who plays Little in the first story, and the woman from The New Yorker said, “Alex, where did you learn how to swim?” And he goes, “In the movie.” And she goes, “What?” He says, “Yeah. Ali taught me how to swim.” You’re literally watching this baptism of Mahershala Ali teaching this kid how to float and how to swim. Things like that you can plan for, but once you’re there it’s really about, “How can I best capture the essence of what I think this movie is about, and what this play was about, and what the inspiration for it was about, and the humanity of Mahershala and Alex against the duress of a fucking storm?”


AVC: So the storm was why you had a time limit?

BJ: Yeah, it was a storm. But it’s beautiful because as the scene goes on, the sky gets darker and darker and the waves get bigger and bigger.


AVC: There’s color factors into the title of the play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and you use distinctive hues, like the purples in Little’s home. What were some of the formal challenges of that?

BJ: The formal challenges were mostly intellectual in a certain way. I got asked the question of, “Were you ever worried that you were making a film that was too visually beautiful for the subject matter, which is quite dark?” The only thing I could think of in reply was that my memory of Miami is of this very beautiful place, because it is. It’s all these pastel colors, this very deep green grass. To have taken that color out as opposed to embracing it—to me would have been immoral because it would have been a lie about the beauty of the place that we grew up in.


Tarell describes Miami as a beautiful nightmare. I think in certain ways and certain aspects, from a craft standpoint aesthetically, we approach certain aspects of this as a beautiful nightmare. You mentioned the purple light that comes from the mother’s bedroom. I saw that as this space that Little could not traverse, and this place where his mother goes to become this other person. We just wanted to visually represent how a child would ingest that. It’s was as light that’s a color that you can’t quite pinpoint on the spectrum and where he’s not allowed to go. So yeah, we try to be thoughtful about it.

AVC: In some ways the movements of the movie read like movements of music.

BJ: And they kind of are. When we first met, I told [composer Nicholas Britell] that the movie was definitely going to be rooted in the neighborhood, and as the film got more contemporary, we were going to have contemporary hip-hop, this chop-and-screw music, which is [where] they slow the music down or change the pitch. It’s very big in Houston, but also started in Tampa, and so I grew up listening to it.


My favorite filmmaker is Claire Denis, and she uses score liberally. I didn’t want to have a film where the orchestral score would clang against the chop-and-screw hip-hop, and so as the movie goes on and the character retreats deeper into himself, Nick began to chop-and-screw the orchestra. And so, we have these beautiful orchestral arrangements that are filtered through the sound of the community. There’s this wonderful fusion that charged the journey of where Chiron is headed. So at the very opening of story two, we have a song called “Chiron’s Theme.” A bully walks out of the classroom, and this piano starts, and when there’s that fight scene it’s the same song, but chopped-and-screwed because things are different now. That relationship has shifted, you know? So we tried to be really thoughtful about how the score was emanating from the character out, and not the other way around. Because the last time that cue plays is when Black and Kevin pull up at the parking lot and he looks out at the ocean. Now we’re back at a place where the sounds are much more open.

Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight (Photo: A24)

AVC: Way back when your first film Medicine For Melancholy was coming out you said in an interview, “I used to be obsessed with race. I’m more obsessed with class now.” What are your obsessions now and how you see that filtered into Moonlight?

BJ: I think especially with this film in particular I tried to not be intellectual about it, and not have a theme that was driving character, but to be the other way around. To have the character and the place dictate what the themes are. It’s interesting because I think class is a heavy, heavy part of Moonlight and I think, in a certain way, through the sum of all these parts it’s become a commentary on the black experience in America. But that experience filtered through a very particular character in a very particular neighborhood that Tarell and I grew up in, in a very particular time. I think that specificity is much more important to me now than it was then. I do think Medicine was overtly a commentary on gentrification and race in San Francisco whereas this one is a commentary on Chiron and the life he leads.


AVC: In addition to choosing the three Chirons, you went to Janelle Monáe, who we know is a super talented musician but hasn’t really acted before this. How do you approach casting?

BJ: It’s about presence. Knowing that I was going to have a different actor play the different Chirons, it was about finding actors who had the same presence, the same spirituality in their eyes, is how I’ve been describing it. It’s a good way to describe the process of casting Janelle too because there was no tape to see whether she was a good actor or not. For me, it wasn’t about asking Janelle to act. It was about trying to figure out, so, what’s she like? Because I don’t know what Janelle Monáe is like personally—I only knew her as a performer. It was really beautiful getting to know her through the casting process and realizing this woman is Teresa in a certain way. And there are certain things we will do to make sure that Teresa is Janelle. Her inner warmth—I’m speaking about Janelle now—was amazing. There was something very authentic about it. To me, no matter who you’re casting for what role, if something’s authentic, usually you can mine something good there. That was all I was really concerned with.


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