Less than 48 hours after winning the Golden Globe for Best Picture (Drama), we sat down with Director Barry Jenkins to talk about his highly acclaimed, award-winning work Moonlight – which hits Australia cinemas this week. In our 15 minute chat we reflect on the night’s big win, the journey to make the film, casting his leads, the film’s “spiritual essence” and the global interest in the film which has left him in “awe”.
Firstly, congratulations on the Golden Globe. What was that night like?
It was amazing. You know, it was one of those things, I try not to be affected by any of these awards stuff, because it’s all results oriented. The movie doesn’t change whether we win this or lose that. It’s still the same movie. No one is going back into the edit afterwards. But when you’re in the room, everybody wants the toy. It was a long night, but then we won at the end. And even that was complex, because any of those other films winner would have been just as deserving. It really is an honour to be nominated. And you start to realise that anyone in this room winning one of these things would be meritorious. But it was great. *laughs* Holy shit it was awesome.
And you kicked on well into the night I imagine?
Yeah, drank way too much wine and champagne. But you know we worked so hard on this film. And again, that’s why it’s bittersweet, because I know everyone in that room, at the very least the people I know personally, and the people in our category like Kenneth (Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea) and David (Mackenzie, Hell or High Water), you want everybody to win. But yeah, it was a great feeling.
Between the time your first film (Medicine for Melancholy) and Moonlight, you did work on a couple of screenplays, including a James Baldwin adaptation?
That (If Beale Street Could Talk) I actually wrote at the same time as Moonlight. Before that, I adapted a memoir called Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man (Bill Clegg). Then I wrote this weird, sci-fi, time travel, Stevie Wonder project.
What do you think it was about Moonlight that got it over the line over the other projects you were working on?
I think because it was so personal. It was the only thing that I’d ever worked on that was set in Miami. Which is a weird thing, because that’s where I was from. It’s my birthplace. You would assume I would have written seven or eight things that were set in and around Miami. That just wasn’t the case.
The other thing, Tarell (Alvin McCraney), the playwright, at the core of this thing, I like to describe it as, you have these minerals that are very small, but are very very heavy. Because they’re so heavy. It’s a very dense piece, there was so much in it. And as I began excavating it, I realised this is just foundationally beautiful and a story worth telling.
Is there a potential to revisit any of your earlier works now?
What advice would you give to someone, because I know it was a good 8 years between films…
…yeah eight years…
…so what advice would you give to a director who’s in between projects?
You know, I stayed active, I did quite a few short films, quite a lot of commercials and branded content. You have to stay active, because the muscle atrophies if you don’t. The brain is a muscle like any other. But then two, there was a time that I worked on things, and not that they weren’t personal, but I wasn’t as honest with myself as I was with this, about why I was making it, why I loved it, why I was putting so much time into it.
I think if you’re always asking yourself those questions: why am I doing this? Why do I love this? What do I hope is the outcome of this? If you get those answers and you find the piece to still be meaningful, I think you’re working in the right direction… that’s not a guarantee that things are gonna work. I can’t say if I went back in time and I made this film again, that I would be ending up on this couch talking to you. But I also wasn’t beholden to that as a result. I was just so fully in the process: I have to make this film right now. In this way. With these people. And here we are.
And here we are! I cried all the way through this film – this kid just needs a break! But the scene where Kevin and Chiron are on the beach, and they’re talking about the act of crying. I don’t know whether it was just a way to make them as more sensitive as others. I interpreted it more as saying, to young men, it’s OK to talk about your feelings… was that something you set out to achieve?
I’d say it’s a bit of both. I have to tip my hat to Tarell there. This is one of those scenes that could just not have originated from me. Those boys on the beach, they came from Tarell. I think part of it is – the full title of the piece is In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and that scene was always meant to take place under moonlight. And I feel like in that scene, for Tarell – I’m speaking for him at this point – the boys, as you say, have the freedom to be their full selves. To be vulnerable. To be sensitive.
And I do think it’s to acknowledge, not necessarily just that it’s OK to cry, but what I love is that they’re making these statements. I cry. I love it when Chiron is like, “You Cry?”, he’s like “yeah?”, you know?
It’s still quite a taboo conversation, especially between men.
Absolutely. In society in large, there’s this stigma that if you open yourself to certain things, you’re going to show weakness. And wherever that crevasse is, this thing will come in and destroy you. So I can speak in particular for young black men, from the community that I’m from, which is a very remote area of the United States, it’s very tough to find the space to be vulnerable, or to allow people to see you as being vulnerable. Because no matter what, we’re all vulnerable. We all have sensitives. Some of us bury those things, we try to fortify them, because we’re afraid if people see them, it would be seen as a weakness, and we’d be dominated.
When you’ve got three actors playing the same role, the casting is so important – especially when you don’t have a 20 year Boyhood scenario. How long was the process to cast and how difficult was it?
In totality, it took about fourteen months. Things really accelerated in the last three months. I don’t think we casted any of the main characters before those last three months. We were basically collecting data. Originally I was trying to cast the film for chemistry – cast the teenagers and adult Kevins and Chiron at the same time. And that just wasn’t working.
And we realised it was doing two things. One, it was obscuring our view of Chiron, and two, in trying to do these pairings in each chapter, we weren’t finding this journey of these characters from story one to story two to story three. So we pulled that apart. And then we were trying to find, not even a physical likeness – though there were some skin tone things that we were being mindful of – but really it was about the spiritual essence – I don’t even like saying that word because it’s so high fleeting – of the young men who were playing this person.
I do think, in each chapter, Chiron is playing a different character. We literally give him a different name – or I should say the world has given him a different name and he’s adopted a different name, but he’s been so shaped by the outside world. But this stimulus – we call them micro-aggressions – that society that projects onto young black men, young black men in the community that I’m from – I don’t want to speak to the totality of all young black men, because I can only speak to my experience – but he’s being reshaped. So he’s become a different person. So we felt the freedom to break it apart, and cast three different actors – and once we did that… there’s this thing with the eyes that I’m obsessed with… once we hit on that, that was the key, it unlocked the whole thing.
I think I read somewhere that you didn’t allow the different “versions” to meet each other during filming?
Yeah that’s right, I didn’t want them to try and mimic or borrow things from each others performance, you know? I didn’t want that. Because again, this guy has become a different being. And again, I was relying on this thing, in the eyes, that would sort of be the continuity of the spiritual essence of the main characters. But no, I didn’t allow them to meet, or even watch each others footage.
Trevante Rhodes, who plays Chiron in the third story, he was very adamant about wanting to watch the footage of the others, but I think it’s part of the thesis statement of the film in a certain ways, that the world is dictating who these young men become. So I wanted to make sure they were different young men, but still had the same feeling in their eyes.
And there is a real difference between teenage and adult Chiron.
It really was a leap of faith, only in a sense that it was a bit demanding of the audience. There is this preamble at the start of each new story, where you meet the character for like two minutes. Who am I watching? What time is it? And then we tell you. For Trevante, it’s by far the most jarring.
When he first came in to audition, I judged him. Right away I thought, oh this guy is way too buff and masculine. He was even more muscular when he came in and read for the part. I thought, there’s no way he can do this. It’s totally wrong. Totally wrong! But as he was auditioning, and he wasn’t even auditioning for that part, he was auditioning for Kevin, which was way, way wrong. As he was auditioning though I saw this well of vulnerability, this deep, deep sensitivity. And I thought that if an audience member can take the same journey I just took in this casting room, oh that’s what it is. You assume you know exactly who this person is, but that little boy is still inside. And I just love the performance that he gives in the film. I don’t think that any one of those three guys really, truly looks alike. But the longer you watch Travante, the more you see Alex Hibbert (the youngest Chiron). You just start to see that little kid in this face. Yes, because he still is that same person.
What has surprised you most about people’s reaction to this film?
Not surprised, but I have been heartened or pleased… I don’t know what the word is. Maybe I’m in awe. Of the fact that this movie has gotten further and further away from its setting. Speaking to you, you’re from Australia. Looking at this list of interviews today, there’s Denmark, Norway, Tokyo… all these different places. It’s amazing. And the further away it gets, people are still finding a way to see themselves in the film. In the characters. In the story.
I’ve always thought about cinema as this thing that makes the world quite small. Most of my favourite films, from when I first fell in love with cinema, were not American films. They were from Asia and Europe, primarily. And despite the fact that people were speaking a different language and that it was in a place that I felt like I would never visit – they made the world feel small, because I could relate to what the characters were going through. The fact that the same thing is happening with our film. People will walk into a cinema in Denmark, and they’re in Miami, and they’re not afraid to be. And they’re identifying with these characters. That is by far the best thing. It leaves me in a state of awe. It’s one thing to watch films as an observer. I love cinema. I love that feeling about someone else’s work. But someone is having that feeling about my work? Holy shit, that’s amazing.
Moonlight hits Australian cinemas this Thursday, January 26th
Header Photo Credit: Golden Globes / HFP / NBC
Film Stills: A24 / Plan B Entertainment / Pastel Productions
Interview by Jaime Lewis. Transcript & Article by Larry Heath.