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Moonlight’s Tarell Alvin McCraney on Writing the Original Source Material, Taking Inspiration From Myths, and Creating Heroes With Black Skin

The playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney originally wrote the source material for Moonlight over a decade ago, after he graduated from DePaul University. The work remained in the background as McCraney’s career took off: He graduated from the Yale School of Drama, wrote a number of critically acclaimed plays (including a trilogy known as The Brother/Sister Plays), and won both a MacArthur Genius grant and the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize. It wasn’t until 2010 that director Barry Jenkins got the script, originally called In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and rewrote it into the film playing in theaters now.

Moonlight is a semi-autobiographical work that draws from both McCraney’s and Jenkins’s own experiences. The pair grew up at the same time in the same neighborhood of Liberty City in Miami, but it wasn’t until Moonlight that they first met. Or, as McCraney told Vulture over the phone in early November, “We were seeing the same moon, and yet we just weren’t looking at each other.” In the conversation that ensued, the playwright discussed the importance of naming characters, adapting the material for the screen, and the gender binds that dark-skinned black men experience.

I wrote about the name of the protagonist Chiron, because it’s such an interesting choice. How did you come to choose that name?
I saw that, that was really awesome. I had never been so surprised. People don’t pick up on my small, kind of crazy, idiosyncratic familiarity with mythology in that way. 

Well, I’m here for that.
And I hope that didn’t sound backhanded. I was actually really thrilled and quite honored that someone looked so deeply into the choosing of the names. And I think that people just don’t anymore. Shakespeare spent a lot of time using mythological characters and archetypes and stereotypes in order to explode them. And to look at how we use myth and legend in everyday life to tell our origin stories and to tell who we are. So a lot of my work is based in that. Like The Brother/Sister Plays, people are like, “The names are weird.” And I’m like, “Well, they’re Yoruba gods, so …” To me, it’s the same thing — it’s about finding out why our ancestors used these origin stories and these myths to talk about their everyday life; it’s probably because they were dealing with the same thing.

The notion of a wounded healer was really important to me, the story of how Chiron takes Zeus’s unwanted children and raises them in this other place. He’s also an herbalist, he deals in medicine. Those things were very connected to the story I was trying to tell. I wanted to place that narrative in a central way so that I understood, I guess as a way of making sure I remember that even though this feels like a singular event — and of course it is based on two people’s lives, because Barry certainly has elements of his life in there too — but it’s just in the ethos, it’s in the mythology of who we are as people. There are always stories about the shaman or the wounded healer somewhere and they don’t always make it to the fore. But I just wanted to remind myself that this goes back into antiquity. The name itself had a great weight to it.

Is there a reason why you decided to change the sound of it?
I didn’t, Barry did. And I think the way he describes it is that’s the way it probably would end up getting pronounced, where we’re from, which is true. But yeah, that was something that Barry brought. To me it didn’t denigrate it in any way. So I didn’t have a problem.

Naming is so important in the film. At the risk of just asking a very simple question, I wanted to ask who you think Chiron is.
I think he’s all the things that he portrays himself to be in the moment. I think at some point he is Little, and I think at some point he is Chiron, and at some point he is Black. It certainly deals with identity; one of the things I think we all can agree on is that identity is also when you can name yourself. And I think that’s the major dilemma: When is he going to name himself? And then we find him in the third act and he’s named himself after something someone else gave him a name for. And he sort of filled that in to the best of his ability. So he wasn’t “Black” until Kevin called him “Black.” And so now he’s Black and that’s his name and that’s what he goes by and that’s what he’s going to embody to the best of his understanding.

Normally I can talk about theory and things of that nature, but this piece is so personal to me and still working in my real life right now that I kind of have to talk about it from my own “in therapy” perspective. Which is to say that I struggle with the person I’ve created to present to the world versus my authentic self. And to me, that’s one of the things this illustrates. It’s not the only thing for sure, but it illustrates who we become in order to survive, or what we think is surviving, and the cost of that.

And also, the joy of when you feel like someone can see you for who you are.
Absolutely. Being seen is so important and when someone sees you through all of your bullshit or through all of your performances, good or bad … I think in some places, that little boy had to perform certain ways. He was in danger; his world was chaos. But at every avenue, Kevin was there like, I see who you are, I can see you. To me that’s why Moonlight, the title, makes so much sense. To be seen under this light, it’s like it doesn’t matter that it’s just a reflection of the sun. To be seen period is enough. It’s beautiful and it doesn’t matter that it’s in the dark. It doesn’t matter that everything else around you is dark. If you get that light on you, to bask in it, it may not be as warm as the sun, but it’s certainly feels so good.

The original source material you wrote was titled In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. What happened to it? Was it ever staged?
So the original script was written in 2003. I had just graduated from DePaul University in the acting program there. I was on my way. I had gotten into the Yale School of Drama for playwriting. I was starting my artistic life in a way. But my mother passed away in July of that year. She had suffered from AIDS-related complications and she was in dementia for a while. I was estranged. I just felt like I didn’t quite understand who I was and why I was having such bad guilty feelings for not being there, why we weren’t so close, why I didn’t feel very close to many people. The strongest memories I had in my mind were the memories of blue and the memories of my mother, and the times that we had together: Just growing up in Miami, trying to see how this would all play out if I had chosen a different life, if I had performed to the demands that were asked of me. I still think I performed, but I just found a different way to do it. And I just really wanted to write that down as poetically as I could. It was really a lot of meditation, not something that I was ever interested in putting on as a play.

In fact the script that Barry got, I don’t think he got that script until 2010. The first scene, it says “EXT. African Square Park.” So it never had the language like a play, it never was like “Setting.” It always had visual keys to it. At some point after I wrote it, I put it away and a friend of mine got ahold of it in Chicago while I was still there and was like, “Yeah, we should make this into a movie.” And they really wanted to set it in Chicago, and I was like, “Nah, you’re missing the whole point.” There’s something really important to this being in Miami. And so I just left it alone, because again, my business wasn’t making films, it was making plays. And this clearly to me had a life as film. Or maybe even a TV show or something on television. But not in the world of theater. So it never was a play in that sense, it never was produced in that way.

It had a lot of dialogue in it which I think confused Barry because he was like, “I can’t imagine a movie being this dialogue heavy.” At the same time, a lot of what he did was just give that dialogue space; I had written it clumped on top of each other and he spaced it out in the screenplay. So a lot of the same story exists. And the characters certainly are still there. Named differently in certain parts, but he did preserve that element to it. And actually there are parts of the film that feel like a play, which I think is a testament of him trying to preserve what he read in that original script.

What was the collaboration like in getting from your original script to Barry’s? Were you a part of also that writing process?
No, no. Once we got to that point, Barry had all the tools he needed to do what he wanted to do. One of the large, blaring differences is that the piece that was originally written was much more circular. If you took those three chapters and made a Venn diagram of them, that’s what it looked like. Barry felt that a three-act structure and spacing those lives out would do the same thing. It would have the same kind of claustrophobic feeling, and really zero us in on those events in a way that allowed us to also have the space to take it in.

It’s interesting that you say that because the film does feel like it exists in a kind of endless present. There are very few time markers, and I assume that is an intentional decision to preserve what you’re talking about, the feeling that all of these narratives could exist at the same time.
Right. I think that was something that he was trying to preserve. Also it’s something in my writing that I often do. Anytime people ask me when the play happens, I say the distant present. So it feels like this just-right-there present that we’re in. Maybe a little ahead, maybe a little behind, but it doesn’t feel like it’s set some time that we have to go back for or that we have to rush ahead for. It’s a time that’s happening and has a simultaneity to it. And for me, that’s why Black Boys Look Blue was written that way, because it was like those parts of myself were still trying to figure out things at the same time. They weren’t finished. And one of the things I think Trevante [Rhodes, who plays adult Chiron] does so well in his performance is that he embodies all three of them so well. We can just see the direct line. We can see how all three of them are alive and well at the same time, how he became this thing in order to protect Little. How he’s still skeptical of people even though he has no reason to be, like Chiron. It’s incredible to watch.

I read that you and Barry lived just blocks from each other in Liberty City, Miami, when you were younger. It almost sounds like fate. Was it important for you that he also understood the place?
I am a believer of intersection. I believe that paths connect and cross at a time that if you are aware, you can say yes to an opportunity that will change your trajectory. Be that fate, be that God … But I do believe that there’s something that magnetizes us to each other. It’s interesting, living that close in proximity and never knowing each other until almost 30-some-odd years later. How do you explain that to people? You know, we were literally in the same school, in the same spaces. And like he mentioned the other day, he grew up with this guy in the neighborhood and I was like, “Yeah, I know exactly who you’re talking about.” I wasn’t friends with that person, but literally I saw them almost every day that I went to school. Clearly we were seeing the same moon, and yet we just weren’t looking at each other.

And I think there’s something to be said once we got to this place, why this inherent trust happened. I didn’t feel like he was trying to uncomplicate the story. I felt like he was trying to make it so that he could share it with himself, so that he could get in it, but I never felt that he was trying to undo the complexity to make it simpler for anybody else but him. And that felt right to me. That felt like what a person coming into a world that they’re familiar with and have great respect for would do.

Were you a part of the casting process at all? I only ask that because André Holland was in some of your productions for The Brother/Sister Plays. And he’s so great in this too, so I thought maybe that was a part of it also.
Dré was familiar with the play because he and I are really close friends and longtime collaborators. He knew the play as a piece that I had in the background all along. And I told Barry, “Yo, when you reach out to him, he’ll probably know what you’re talking about already.” I wasn’t like, “Yeah, hire Dré.” I was like, “Dré’s a great actor. You totally should hire him if you can.”

Is it difficult to watch the film?

Were there parts that are especially resonant for you?
Too many to really count. Every time I see it again, there’s something new that’s hard. There are portions of the film that aren’t necessarily word-for-word biographical, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have the same tone and/or cadence of what actually happened. They’re not easy to get through. Some are the opposite; they’re easy to watch and they make me want to watch that more and more, but then to realize that that person is no longer in my life, or that this representation of that is not real anymore or cannot be real anymore. There’s something hard about that. Which probably says more about me then it does about the film.

Is it autobiographical in the sense that you imagine what your life might have been like had you made different choices?
Absolutely. Had I decided to, you know, nearly beat a man to death — spoiler alert — had I decided to follow in the footsteps of one of the persons I greatly admired as a child and become a drug dealer. “What if?” questions. Would I be happier not trying to pursue what privileged white institutions asked me to? Those difficult questions. What Barry did so expertly, and what the story is doing so expertly, is saying, at the end of the day, the thing you most want has nothing to do with your masculinity or what occupation you decide. The thing you most want, being seen, doesn’t require all of those things. And yet, we think that it does in some way. We think that a performance of something is necessary in order to get those things. My mother and Barry’s mother both suffered under great addiction. I don’t know if Barry lived with his mother at that time, but I remember those scenes with Naomie Harris are directly from my life, or very close to it. The bullying at school was absolutely based off the bully who bullied me in school. Those are hard, but I also think the harder part is that they’re so beautiful. That they’ve figured a way out to make it so that they don’t feel gratuitous. They feel right in their element of hot and cold. They don’t seem to slant it in a way of showing Chiron as some perfect angel. They slant it at showing real people all the way around. That’s why I think it’s resonating.

Something that I think is interesting is that the film and also your other work talks about being dark skinned and that being an integral part of how a person experiences the world. And I like the dissonance when Kevin calls him Black, but he does it in a way that isn’t …

Yeah. Ashton Sanders is amazing in this, but you know, he instinctively flinches a little bit. And I just wanted to talk a little bit about that discourse around skin color in the film. It feels important to have cast dark-skinned black men.
For sure. There are things that we ascribe to dark-skinned black men that we don’t even think about, especially when they’re young. I was just talking to a good friend of mine, Jussie Smollett actually, about this. I remember being in class, there was a light-skinned or fairer-skinned kid in my class who I was really close with in a lot of ways. He wasn’t Kevin, but he was a friend of mine. I just remember my fairer-skinned friends didn’t get told, “You are soft because you’re not living up to what a dark-skinned black boy should be.” There are different pressures, there just are. And there are certain things that you’re being asked to mold yourself into.

I remember when I wrote Marcus, I remember specifically making sure that he looked a little fair-skinned mostly because I feel like, we weren’t talking about how fair-skinned people are often ascribed a kind of femininity. There’s a sort of space for it, which is just strange for me that something in the fairness is allowing a femininity in a way that doesn’t when you’re dark-skinned. If you’re dark-skinned and have effeminate traits, it’s something that doesn’t sit well. I don’t know where these things come from. I just know that I’ve witnessed them and that they were important in playing out the main question that’s always in my work: When the world is asking you who you are, or telling you who you are, what do you do when you’re trying to just be a human being? What are those hurdles, and how do you get there?

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Tarell Alvin McCraney on Writing Moonlight