Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” was a cinematic force of nature, a film that won multiple Oscars, including one for Best Picture. It was the kind of success that allowed its multi-talented creator to pick his next project, and he went back to a beloved text, James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, a book long-labeled with that horrible word: “unfilmable.” Barry proved that wrong (read our 4-star review by Odie Henderson and my coverage from TIFF for our opinion on how wrong). He recently stopped by Chicago for an all-too-brief conversation, but we did our best to talk about a movie it would be easy to discuss for hours.
I’m fascinated lately by how art reflects the time in history in which it is made and the time of the artist’s life. So how would this piece of art been different if you made it ten years ago?
The characters and what they’re going through—so many people can look left and right and see people going through what they’re going through. Those things have been happening non-stop. So, ten years ago, it would have been just as relevant. Now, a spotlight is being shone on them. All it says to me is James Baldwin was right. And it’s proof positive of our choice to allow the movie to remain set in the early 1970s. In that way, if we made it ten years ago, it would have still had resonance.
How have you changed? How does this reflect this particular point in your life as opposed to a decade ago?
There’s no way I could have done this ten years ago. Instead of making “Medicine for Melancholy,” I make this?!? Impossible.
So how did things change?
I’ll say this—there were certain choices we made in “Moonlight”—and this is largely the same crew—and we made those choices out of fear. It was like, “Naomie, can you look right into the camera? I don’t know if it’s going to work and ...”
Exactly. We still made those choices through intuition but we were terrified. Can I make this choice? Should I be making this choice? Will it work? Having had that experience, it allowed us the freedom to really be constantly risk evaluating, and not make these choices apprehensively but go full-bore committed. Case in point, there’s a 12-minute sequence between Stephan James and Brian Tyree Henry that, halfway through the day, we decided to just stop. We were filming with two cameras but, to me, this idea that Brian’s energy was going into one camera and Stephan’s energy was going into another camera, and they were cutting between those two cameras, it wasn’t going to be the same as sitting on set, watching Brian pass energy to Stephan, Stephan ingest it and pass it back to Brian. And so it was risky to say we were going to stop covering, throw one camera out, and I need to follow the energy from man to man. The experience of making “Moonlight” and “Melancholy” gave us the confidence to make those kind of choices on the last day of shooting with an actor we had for one day from a position of strength and not apprehension.
Right. But the way you describe it’s not so much the traditional ego-driven confidence as it is acceptance of risk.
Yes, exactly! It can’t be ego-driven. With this film, my ego was checked left and right. I’m not a woman, James Baldwin is not a woman, and yet this movie is ruled by women. As a director, part of your job is to make decisions and choices—people come to you. And so what you start to do is anticipate the question. Now, the ego is like I know this, I know this, and I know this. With this movie, I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman. And the author of the source material doesn’t either. When an actress comes to me and says, “I don’t think that feels this way, I think it feels like this,” I have to think, “I can’t know what that feels like. I can project. Let’s talk about it. OK, cool.”
It requires a lot of trust. You have to trust Regina, you have to trust KiKi. That they’re making the right decisions.
It does. But what’s the opposite of trust? Distrust. We can’t build these characters from a place of distrust, can we? You’re gonna feel that. That’s going to reach you in the auditorium.
When and how does that trust form? When you cast them? Do you know you’re going to give major decisions over because of the dynamic you’re forming?
I assume some, always. To me, the best performance is the one where the actor has agency. Coming off of the process of “Moonlight”—I’m also not a gay man. The difference there is I have [writer Tarell Alvin McCraney]. I can go directly to him with these questions. Don’t have that luxury with this film. And even if I could, the author is not a woman. So it was almost an extreme example of checking directorial ego. There was a direct barrier to personal experience. You and I, we just can’t ever know what it’s like to be a woman.
There's clearly so much love for the source material. Does that add pressure? If you mess this up, this is the version of a book you love forever.
It’s the funniest thing. People often ask me about pressure coming off “Moonlight.” [What you’re describing] was the actual pressure. Baldwin is considered unfilmable—the way he writes, the way he constructs things. This book, in particular. The movie is non-linear, the book is way non-linear. And the interior voice is the thing that makes Baldwin Baldwin. So, yeah, it was fucking terrifying.
So how do you get past that and not allow it to stop you or impact the production?
Part of it was time. I went to Europe, and I came back expecting to make “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, and I got to make “Moonlight,” because over the course of the next four or five years, it got to the point where, “OK, the book is the book and the film is the film. And the script has existed for long enough that now even the script has evolved away from the book and in itself.” Once that process took place, and then when the actors come in, and all the collaborators, the burden is not just on me. KiKi is responsible for Tish. Stephan is responsible for Fonny. We’re now sharing the burden. At that point, it becomes bearable. I can carry this much weight.
One of the thing that fascinates me about you is your vocal admiration for other artists. I heard about you gushing about Helena Howard (“Madeline’s Madeline”) at the Gothams.
I love that. So I want to know what inspires you; what art and what artists?
I like watching things that I feel were made in a genuine way. Anything made in a genuine way, I respond to. I still program shorts for the Telluride Film Festival because most of what I see there is pure artistry, pure yearning and things that people genuinely care about. I think about when art is made purely for commercial purposes—or even when it’s made purely to engender awards. When I see someone legitimately swinging for something and trying to capture something, that always moves me. And I think it should be celebrated. I remember a time when I went to film school and I was trying to expand my horizons, and I would get in AOL chatrooms or something like that and, “'The Dekalog'? What’s that? Somebody made a ten-hour movie?" I would walk to Facets. And then you get on the web, and other people are watching these things. I just know how open and wonderfully connected the world can be. And so if I see something that I respond to, I want to share it with the folks. And I want to encourage the people who see making beautiful things to make more beautiful things.
Do you think that conversation is getting easier or harder? So much of Twitter, for example, is just noise. How do you cut through it?
I know. It’s funny because I love some of Twitter, but I don’t know. Honestly, one of the things that terrifies me is that I think I’m getting to the point where even my voice is part of that noise. I never wanted it to be that way. And it doesn’t make me happy. But I can’t deny that it’s true. Again, I think back on discovering “The Dekalog,” or something like “Chungking Express,” or on Twitter, there was something somebody sent me and I went and bought a DVD I didn’t know existed.
A very small number of people have seen “Madeline’s Madeline,” so that’s an example of something you can amplify.
Exactly. I just happened to be in New York and I saw a tweet about the film playing for its last week at the Quad, and I was like “I got the night off.” I went to the Quad and I saw the movie.
How do we who are lucky enough to see great art early amplify it by staying above the fray?
I think you just do your own thing. I remember having like 2,000 followers and then as “Moonlight” happened I realized it was getting away from me. And then I’m drunk on a plane tweeting about “Notting Hill,” then it really gets away from me. At this point, I try to follow people. I follow a lot of random-ass people. I mean people who have like 50 followers. I love that. Now I’m getting things from the source. This person is going to see stuff that no one in my circle has seen. And when they tell me about it, what am I going to do? Now, I’m going to tell everyone else about it.
Exactly. As long as that relationship is still possible, it will be a good sort. And the noise, you have to just take it as it is.
I’m working on [Colson Whitehead's] "The Underground Railroad." Like literally later today. As someone who went eight years between films—I did nothing—and now I’ve got one second to do everything.