Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins on Directing One of the Best Films of the Year

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There's been no sophomore slump for Barry Jenkins. Eight years after his first film, the influential Medicine for Melancholy, Jenkins has written and directed Moonlight, which is earning some of the best reviews of the year. Adapted from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film tracks its protagonist, Chiron, through three pivotal periods of his life: as a boy (Alex Hibbert) mistreated by his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), as a wiry teenager (Ashton Sanders) figuring out his sexuality, and as a man (Trevante Rhodes) who wears his muscles like a suit of armor but finds an unexpectedly emotional connection with an old friend (André Holland). For Jenkins, the film sometimes hit too close to home: He, too, grew up in Chiron's rough Miami neighborhood with a mother who grappled with substance abuse. For those reasons, Moonlight is hard for him to watch. For other people, though, it is a necessity.

Barry, Moonlight kicked off its acclaimed film-festival run at Telluride, where you'd been volunteering since 2002. Was it a goal of yours to have a film play there?
Oh, absolutely. Well … actually, I wasn't thinking about it when we were making the film.

Not at all?
Nah, you know, I'd been there so long, and having a film at Telluride is like this mythic thing.

Although I would think that volunteering there would demystify it.
No, no. Definitely still mystified. [Laughs.] But once the production of the movie got pushed — we thought we'd shoot it in spring or summer, and we decided because of certain weather considerations to do it in the fall — the timing was right to apply to Telluride. Then, when we got in, it was crazy, man. I mean, I'd been at the festival since 2002. Everyone there gets a badge, and they have them in different colors: green, light green, orange, platinum, all these colors. The filmmakers get a blue badge, and I always wanted a blue badge. And there was a moment with Moonlight where I realized, "I'm gonna have a blue fuckin' badge."

You kept that badge, I can tell.
I keep all my badges. I have, like, 14 badges. A lot of them are green, one lime green, one orange — my first — and now I've got that blue badge, bruh. So yeah, it was nice. I have had an experience very few people have, which is that in the present moment, I realized I was living one of my dreams. It was very cool.

I'm sure it helped that it played so well.
It did, but I'm kind of good about that stuff. The problem I have with watching the film is that so much of it is personal, and I don't wanna see that shit. The actors are really good, and they're performing it in a certain way where you can't help but feel it. But otherwise, I'm pretty good about not letting the reaction to the film dictate or cause a fluctuation in my relationship to the work. Before Telluride, I was very clear about deciding that I was proud of the film, I was proud of the work we put into it. I hope I would have felt the same way about it no matter what the reaction was coming out of Telluride.

Still, I would think that the first audience's response has got to be gratifying.
Yeah, but … I didn't watch it at Telluride.

Do you escape to the lobby at these premieres?
I introduce it, make sure the sound is okay, and then go get a drink. [Laughs.] I watched it once in Toronto, at the premiere, and that's the only time I watched it with an audience. It was a beautiful house, and I think the entire cast was there. People were emotional. I'm glad that I sat in the room and could feel that emotion, but now I don't want to do that again.

Why?
I've seen this movie hundreds of times, which is what happens during the course of making it.

Is that not refreshed by the experience of watching it with a brand-new audience?
No. When I watch it, I have a hard time seeing the movie. I see the work. I see the work for good, I see the work for bad. And then, when Naomie comes onscreen, I see my life. You know? And I've dealt with those things. We've done the work, so what can I do now? Also, it's not for me. Once Telluride happened, the movie stopped being for me and about me. Now it's about the people who engage with it.

That's a healthy perspective. I have to say, I watch so many movies that usually I can see the work, too … but I don't see the work with Moonlight. The movie is hypnotic to me.
Thank you, bruh. We tried to create an environment where we could be fluid. I didn't want to be rigid, despite the fact that we shot-listed the entire damn film and I knew the locations like the back of my hand. As a filmmaker, I really want to utilize the tools to carry the voice — my voice, and the voice of the characters. There were things we were doing that were very deliberate, but at the same time, I never want the audience to feel like we're doing things. Things are happening, but we're not pulling any strings.

How often did you shoot in locations that you recognized from growing up?
Whenever possible. It was very cathartic — again, especially with all the scenes involving Naomie. Those were incredibly cathartic … so much so that they were almost too cathartic. I was trying to work, man, and I'm feeling all these damn things! And these things get in the way of me working, you know? But we managed it. We had to sandwich all of Naomie's work into three days, which wasn't our intention — it was because of her visa that things got squeezed so tightly. But thank God, because if I'd had to go through five, six, eight days of that, I don't know that I'd have been able to handle it.

Tell me about casting for chemistry with Trevante and André, who strike up such sparks in the film's final third.
Did not cast for chemistry.

No? They met on set?
They did, but this really cool thing occurred before they met. There's this phone-call scene where André's at the diner, he's got the towel on his shoulder, and he calls Trevante, who's in his room on his bed. We shot that the week before they physically met, and it was great, because they had this very long conversation for half a day, basically just talking on the phone. I could feel the two of them getting … well, not familiar, because the characters aren't familiar at that point, but it was almost like they were enticing one another. And that's what needed to happen in order for that relationship to work.

So when it does work, do you breathe a sigh of relief? Are you happy that you played matchmaker and it worked?
A little bit of both, but also, just like when I cast the different Chirons, I didn't allow them to meet either. I felt like we had done the homework and had accurately projected that these things were going to work out. The only time that I had any doubt about one of the casting choices we made is the first two days with Trevante, where we were shooting just him in the apartment by himself. I remember coming from working with Ashton to working with Trevante, thinking, Did I fuck this up? Did I get this wrong?

Because they felt so physically dissimilar?
So different! And when Trevante comes onscreen, he's meant to feel different. But then, at the beginning of day three when we shot that phone call with André, I remember looking at Trevante at the end of the first take and going, "That's why we hired you. Okay, we got it, we got it." It wasn't a thing about him — he was giving a good performance from the first moment — it's just that it was such a jarring contrast that it was even jarring on set.

Though you're straight, you've made one of the most high-profile gay movies of the year.
I had some trepidation about it at the beginning, only because I think there are some stories that can only be told from a first-person perspective. I hadn't lived this aspect of the character's identity, but at the same time, I had so many other things in common with Chiron that I thought, If there's ever going to be a space where I can truly empathize with a character who has a core aspect of his identity that I don't share, it's going to be this case. Also, too, talking to Tarell through the writing process, I realized how aligned we were. I realized through that process that I could preserve Tarell's voice and meld it with my passion as an empathetic ally for LGBTQ stories. The combination of those two things could give me the room and breadth to actually be able to take authorship of this thing. What I say is that Moonlight could not have originated with me. It had to originate with Tarell. I think because it did, I felt very comfortable taking on the issues. I mean, the movie's very intersectional. There's so much going on with Chiron, and that's only one part of his identity. But I did feel because it's a core aspect of the material and a core aspect of all of Tarell's work that I could do it.

Do audiences now assume you're gay?
They do! All the time. [Laughs.]

It's been eight years since Medicine for Melancholy. What did you learn in all that time that made you a filmmaker better able to tackle Moonlight?
Really, I had to grow up to make this film … and I don't mean just grow up from Medicine to Moonlight. From the very first moment I read this piece, I really had to grow up to take on these themes in a way that felt authentic and true, where I didn't have to handle these things with kid gloves. I had to get the fuck over myself and really dig deep. I've been a part of that world that maybe is projecting a certain thing on Chiron, and it was kind of a great reckoning to be like, "Oh, I've done that. What the fuck was I thinking?" Laughing at a kid because he threw a ball a certain way … that's fucked up. But it was great to be able to watch Tarell watch me stumble over some things. And he was always like, "It's all good, bro. I got you."