Meet the College Friends Who Helped Make Moonlight

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54th New York Film Festival - NYFF Live Making Moonlight
Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

There are all sorts of reasons to be excited for the success of Moonlight, a small-budget film which, at least on paper, certainly sounds like it might be a pretty grim time — and yet, somehow, leaves you exalted — from a director you’d likely forgotten about (he’d not made a movie since his first foray into mumblecore lyricism, Medicine for Melancholy, eight years ago.) The critics loved it, and it’s up for six Golden Globes, and Academy Awards expectations are high. Last month, when I profiled its writer and director, Barry Jenkins, we talked about how he came to make the film, and how much he depended on two of his friends from Florida State University film school, Adele Romanski, his producer, who set up regular Google Hangouts with him to shake him out of his career funk and set to work on this film, and James Laxton, his cinematographer, with whom he first worked back in 2003 on his undergraduate short My Josephine, and who also shot Medicine. The two also happen to be married. They agreed to meet me for drinks at the Ace Hotel in downtown L.A. We spoke about what they learned about their old friend making this film, and what the director learned about himself.

I have to confess, it was hard to imagine, when I met Barry Jenkins at this foodie joint a couple of blocks from here, that he is from the same very poor, very troubled housing complex in which Moonlight is set, and that his mother was, like Chiron’s, an absentee drug addict. 
Adele Romanski: Barry’s a fascinating dude. I mean, I think like, we’ve … We have known him for, you know, 15 years or something. And there are so many things I have learned about him in that last year that I never knew. I didn’t know about his personal history and how he grew up and stuff.

You didn’t know? 
AR: He was not … he was very private about it. I remember another friend of ours who when to school with us and grew up in Miami, she told me she used to give Barry rides home for holidays. But she never dropped him [in Liberty City.] He just did not really advertise where he came from. I think it was about forging an identity separate from that. Like, I learned that his mother was HIV positive in the middle of a casting interview. We were interviewing a possible actor and sort of having that callback or something with them. He just dropped it in the room that his mother was HIV positive, and I sort of have to play along like, Yes, that’s why we’re here, you know. And when we got out of the thing, I was like, What? And it’s always dropping. It’s still dropping to this day. Like we are doing Q&A’s and he’ll mention something that like, yeah, I didn’t know.

And you guys are some of his closest and longest-standing friends.
AR: That’s what I mean. Like, we’re close.

It’s amazing that  you guys went to school together and are still working together, and with such success. How has Barry changed?
James Laxton: To me, he’s the same person I knew in school. I don’t think his aesthetic has changed very much. The references we used for the film in terms of things that referenced to styles in Moonlight were things we talked about in school or references we talked about before that.

AR: I mean they generally don’t speak in complete sentences on set. They don’t need to. So they volley one or two words back and forth. Or they’ll say, “You know what I want,” and James goes, “I know what.” It’s almost like a telepathic mode of communication.

Would you say Barry is a quiet person?
AR: Yes. You wouldn’t know it because he’s the ringmaster right now. But he is.

JL: And I think at times he’s also reserved and … both those things can be said for Chiron.

AR: I don’t think anybody was doing a Barry impersonation … but the characters are often times Barry. They’re Barry or they’re Tarell [Alvin McRaney, who wrote the play Moonlight is based on] or they’re a blend. But the performances I don’t think are Barry.

The film seemed so much about identity, and to what extent you can choose it and what extent it is chosen for you. Which is a topic which seems to run throughout his work. Medicine for Melancholy, certainly, with its ruminations on what it means to be a black hipster in San Francisco — a city awash in white hipsters. And I mean, when it comes to reinvention, Chiron does become Black, but that isn’t exactly a model you’d want to recommend, this shut-down, armored-up man. The film kind of killed me that way — how Chiron didn’t get out. Unlike the real-life Barry, as well as the award-winning playwright McCraney — who grew up in the same neighborhood as Barry and Chiron.
JL: What do you mean about get out? I’m just curious. You’re saying get out in terms of like being his sexuality out or …

I mean find himself, or invent himself, rather than just … 
AR: …become Juan. [Chiron’s drug-dealing father-figure in the film]

Exactly. And yet the movie does such a fantastic job of evoking the wonder of his otherwise kind of sad world. It even was filmed in Liberty City.
AR: Which they are supposed to tear down, I believe, next year. We were reading about it for making the movie, because we didn’t know when it was going to happen, and we were like, Oh shit, are they going to tear down one of our primary locations? Which not just selfishly for location — we could have gone to a different public-housing complex — but we wanted that one specifically. As a point of, I guess, making a historical record of the place.

And the way you filmed it is surreally gorgeous. It’s not grim. It’s lush, intense.
JL: I don’t think I really understood what the film would fully look like until I got to Miami, because the city itself just offers so much in terms of, to be specific, it’s color palette and light and all those things. But in terms of like creating an immersive environment and an experience that is not reality-based, I think that’s something we talked about in preproduction before we got to Miami. The conversations we were having early out … we wanted to make sure this didn’t feel like — well, it’s based in reality, but it doesn’t feel like a depiction of a dark, dreary place

AR: I don’t think it’s designed to make you feel bad or to necessarily tug at your heartstrings specifically. I think that’s just the honesty of the story, you know, the authenticity of that particular story that we’re telling that causes you to feel the feelings. But I don’t think it’s manipulative. You could have made more manipulative choices in how it was photographed.

JL: We were trying to express something visually that’s more in tune with the emotional journey the characters are on, as opposed to something that’s more narrative-based. Meaning like, we’re not doing things with the camera or lighting that is emphasizing a story beat, but more so emphasizing sort of an emotional turn within the scene that the character’s feeling … That was sort of the intention anyway, to try to bring the audience into that perspective, into Chiron’s character’s perspective, you know.

Why do you think it took him so long to make this movie?
AR: Well, okay, so the way that I break it down is that Medicine premiered in 2008, Barry toured with that movie for a year, like every festival on the planet basically, and the movie was released in 2009. I called up in 2013, so we’re only really accounting for a four-year period of time, not the eight years … And then he and another friend of ours from school started this branded-content studio, so it was a start-up for a year, and then it eventually started being profitable so that they all went on salaries, and they’re making this web-based sort of content…

Oh, I saw Tall Enough, which was made for Bloomingdale’s. And since he’s not a trustafarian, unlike so many young filmmakers I meet, this is also a case of him being practical.
AR: You have to have make money when you can’t just call your parents. And he did, and then he did a year in the writers room of The Leftovers, which actually technically was during the three-year period that we were doing Moonlight. So he was doing shit. It’s just that for a while I think he was doing shit that I think he thought would lead to a movie, and then I think it became kind of clear that all of the gas had run out, or at least all of the Medicine gas had run out of the tank.

And there was just melancholy left?
AR: I think that time creeps up on you, right?

So how’d it come about that you would have these biweekly calls with Barry to get him going on his next project — like you were bugging him and calling him and having these, was it weekly?
AR: I had just come off of a project that was a pretty miserable experience for me that sort of caused me to go into my own sort of self-reflective … just trying to figure out what I should be doing, you know? And I came to the realization that I wanted to work with good people who I knew, who I could trust or who I did trust, and [do] good work together. And so the top of the list obviously was going to be Barry. And there was a lot of noise, it was becoming sort of a louder and louder conversation about where’s Barry’s next movie? Why hasn’t Barry made a movie? We would be at festivals or other industry functions, and people were coming up to us like, Why hasn’t Barry made a movie? And I would say, I don’t know, why don’t you ask him? But also, like, why are you asking me? You’re coming to me? So anyway, I just called him and said, You’ve got to make a movie. I’m gonna make you, I’m gonna help you, we’re gonna make it, make you make a movie.

JL: Clearly, Adele doesn’t take no for an answer is the takeaway I think.

AR: Barry didn’t say no. So what do you mean?

JL: I’m saying  you pushed …

AR: But he never said no. It’s not like I hit him up and he was like, Oh, I don’t know. He was like, Okay. It was like, You need to make a movie, I’m going to help you make a movie. We’re gonna get on the line every other week or so. He was still up in the Bay Area, and I was here, and we’re just gonna talk until we figure it out … So eventually through multiple Google hangouts, he came up with …

Why Google Hangouts?
AR:  We wanted to look at each other while we were doing it.

I know he’d had a few dead ends, like the script he wrote for Portrait of an Addict As a Young Man, which he told me died because it was too dark. Which is weird, because it’s a pretty dark book.
AR: That’s also an amazing script. Do you remember Ira Sachs’s movie Keep the Lights On?

Yes, same bedeviled gay relationship, told from the other point of view. So how’d your Google winnowing process go?
AR: So Barry came up with this list of a dozen, a little more than a dozen possible ideas, and they were one or two sentence log lines that he sent to me that I went through and I basically starred like four or five of them that just off the description sparked something worth exploring. And so then we narrowed that down to like four or five key, actually crossed a few off. One of them was, like, too personal, so that got nixed. And I think it was kind of a story about Barry’s mother, and he said, No, flat-out no. I was like, Okay.

And then there was this. Which is about him in so many ways.
AR: I always saw this as being something that was personal to Barry and he just wasn’t seeing it. And I thought, well, that’ll be interesting. At some point, we’ll have to deal with that. But fine, if I can’t get you to do the one that is overtly your story, let’s do the one that, for whatever reason, you think is somebody else’s story. Let’s sort of sneak that one in. And I remember reading his first draft of it and it even … his initial adaptation was so strong. And such a fully formed piece. And we looked back and we did notes and we changed some things and added and took some stuff out, but the first draft that he delivered, I thought, was sort of close to fully realized. I remember reading and thinking, fucking amazing. And it had such great potential if we can just make it. If we can just figure out how to make it. I think it can mean something to some people.

So what was the timeline?  
AR: Barry went off, he wrote the script, he came back with the script … It was nearly a year between deciding, like, you’re making a movie, let’s figure out the movie — Okay, go write the script; okay, do some revision on the script; okay, it’s great, let’s start sharing it with people. Oh hey, we just met, sorry, re-met the Plan B guy at the Telluride Film Festival. They love it — they can’t stop thinking about it. They really want to make it with us.

But it wasn’t easy to make happen. 
AR: It’s hard because I didn’t … I thought Barry’s first work was something so beautiful and singular that it should be enough to support the idea that he deserved to make another film with a modest budget. But I don’t know, they put you through the paces.

Plan B doesn’t fund, right?
AR: Yes, they don’t finance — so they introduced us to [the very chic film distributor] A24, telling us “we happen to think that A24 might be ready to get into production. And so, it was true, they were having sort of the right moment inside the company where they were like, maybe we should finance and produce a movie … I mean it was a hard road from there to here, but there have been so many moments along the way that really were time and place — the right moment in the universe.

How’d you guys all end up at Florida State for film school? I know that Barry didn’t even know there was a film school when he arrived.
AR: I grew up an hour south of Tampa in a small town called Venice, which is mostly a retirement community. My parents are chiropractors and a pretty loving, normal family. I mean, you know, I hated my childhood but it was perfectly safe and privileged … I went to Florida State because it was the only college I applied to. And I had a Florida prepaid thing where college was free at a state school. Florida State was the farthest school away from my home. It was also, no one was going to pay for me to go out of state. That was the farthest I could get. I applied and I figured if I didn’t get in, I wouldn’t go to any college.

And James, you came from San Francisco? I read that [Barry] stayed with your family, James, while filming Melancholy, which you shot so beautifully — such a bleached-out vision of that city. Why Florida for school?
JL: Yeah, I left California because of film school, which is an odd thing to do especially if you’re not going to like New York or Boston or something like that. I went to Northern Florida. It’s also the only school I applied to as well. I didn’t apply to anything else either. I don’t know what that’s about.

AR: We were fated.

JL: I just thought it would be different and new and strange. And all those things were true. I mean, Tallahassee in northern Florida is a strange place just generally. And since it was such a young school, I was assuming they would have sort of a younger more youthful curriculum that sort of taught maybe like new aesthetics and theory and styles of filmmaking, so at the time, as a high-school kid, I was sort of curious about.

AR: But that did not end up being true, right?

JL: That was not true, at least at the time.

But you also grew up around filmmaking?
JL: My mom is a costume designer. She’s had kind of an insane career. She did a lot of fantastic films over the years. I mean, her first [film] ever was American Graffiti. And then she did The Conversation and then there was Return of the Jedi and films like The Color PurpleSo yeah, I got interested in film via that experience, and sort of Christmas vacations or spring breaks were spent with mom on set and things like that, and that was sort of, as a kid …

AR: They did a big costume book on Star Wars that was just published last year, and there’s a whole chapter on his mom because she did Jedi. You can see pictures of baby James.

It was fun to see Moonlight at the Angelika. The theater was packed. Afterwards, people in the audience were crying, some of them, who didn’t know each other, started talking about it.
AR: We went to a screening on opening weekend in this 300-seat theater, and they were sold out two nights in a row. Which is, you know, I mean I’ve made some movies that I think only 800 people have seen period, so …

And it wasn’t always what you might think. I remember two people, who didn’t seem to know each other, one of them said to the other, about the ending: Yeah, I thought he was just going to go in the last scene and kick the guy’s ass like he should kick his ass. And the other one’s like, Yeah. 
AR: [A bit confused, making sure she heard that right.Chiron should have kicked Andre’s ass?

JL: That’s an amazing reaction. [Pauses.] Wow.

You can’t choose your audience, much less their reactions, right? I confess I go to theaters less often, and watch things on VOD more often. I guess it’s partly because digital filmmaking has lowered the financial bar, so that there are just more films. Not to mention all the much-talked-about scripted streaming series. There are too many options — it can be overwhelming.
JL: Yeah, there’s just so much to watch that you just watch nothing.

AR: Like, I’m committed to only making things that I think have the potential to be great and are worth your fucking time. Why can’t everybody else commit to that?

JL: I don’t know that Melancholy would ever exist and therefore maybe Moonlight would never have existed if not for the advent of this concept that you can go out with a small camera, with a couple people, and make a movie.

AR: And people should, and I’m not trying to up the barrier of entry, I’m just saying we need to filter. We need to filter.

JL: I’m not sure there’s a way to filter, and you might just need to be okay … that there will always be this kind of volume, no? I don’t know.

AR: I just think that every filmmaker wants their movie in a theater, and like, it’s not always appropriate, you know? I support people going out and experimenting and making films and learning from those experiences and growing and evolving and maybe growing and learning that they shouldn’t be directing and evolving out of directing, but like everybody wants that shit to end up in a theater, right? Like they feel some personal failure if the movie doesn’t get distribution in the way they think that films should be consumed which is on this massive screen.

What do you and Barry disagree on?
AR: Barry likes to call me Boss Lady. Which is so not true. It’s a partnership, like 100 percent, even balanced, and I think I’m really appreciative of how effortlessly we’re able to exist in that sort of relationship to each other, right? I feel like we’re always in sync.

When did you two get married? Were you a couple since college?
AR: I always have to make it clear to people that like, no, I slept around before I dated James. We had not been together since college.

I thought you were like Black — other than James, you’d never been touched.
AR: Exactly. No, how long have we been together? Nine years?

JL: We started dating I think around Medicine actually, right?

AR: Mmm-hmm.

That’s a good run. And you’re not openly fighting, at least in front of the reporter.
AR: We’re not fighting on the record.

We can go off the record … 
AR: No we got it out of our system this morning.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

HOLLYWOOD - NOVEMBER 09: (L-R) CinematographerJames Laxton, Producer Adele Romanski, Production Designer Jeanine Nicholas and Filmmaker David Robert Mitchell from the film “The Myth of the American Sleepover” arrive at “On Acting” A Conversation With Halle Berry during AFI FEST 2010 presented by Audi held at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on November 9, 2010 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for AFI) Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for AFI
The College Friends Who Helped Make Moonlight