Oscar season is weird. You spend months and months obsessing over a handful of movies, becoming deeply invested in their rankings and fates, and then in one night it’s over. Of course, this year, that one night had a pretty momentous surprise ending, particularly for Moonlight director Barry Jenkins, who could barely believe that his poetic $1.5 million film about growing up black, poor, and gay was in the Oscars conversation, let alone that it would end up winning Best Picture (after La La Land had been mistakenly announced as the winner first).
Jenkins has been, understandably, taking a breather from the limelight, but over the past seven days, he’s shown up around New York at the Time 100 and Met Costume Institute galas, as well as on the excellent Still Processing podcast from New York Times writers Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, giving his first extensive interview since that insane night in February. Vulture ran into him on both of those nights to grill him about where he keeps his Oscar and his adoring friendship with Isabelle Huppert, plus did a deep listen to his Still Processing interview. Here’s what we learned.
Sly Barry, always on the move, was doing some serious networking at the Met Gala.
“This is definitely crazier than the Oscars,” he said Monday, giving Moonlight star Ashton Sanders (middle Chiron) a squeeze. “You can’t wear [Ashton’s leather jacket] to the Oscars.” Jenkins, who was there as a guest of designer Raf Simons, a new buddy from the Time 100 Gala, told us he was most excited to have met fellow guest Jake Gyllenhaal. They’d talked about movies; Jake was pretty cool. Wait, was Jenkins doing secret casting for some future project at the Met Gala? Jenkins put his finger to his lips and gave us a look that said, You know I am.
His Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars have a budding friendship with a very significant houseplant in his life. “So I have this plant that I’ve had for 10 to 12 years,” he told us at Time 100. “It’s the only thing I can keep alive. It’s been with me through times when I was sleeping on friends’ couches, San Francisco, Oakland, now down to downtown L.A. It sits on a stool and the Oscars at various times are beside the plant, on the floor beneath the plant. And there’s a whole wall of books, and sometimes the Oscars are up on that wall of books. But the books and this plant, for whatever reason, are just loving the Oscars. They all live together.”
That collaboration with Isabelle Huppert that we have been hoping for ever since witnessing their adorable friendship on Instagram may yet come to fruition.
The moment I mentioned Isabelle Huppert, Jenkins grabbed my shoulder. “IS SHE HERE?!!!???” he wanted to know. Désolé. No. “Did you see my face? Did you see my face? Did you see my face? She’s amazing!”
So what’s the next step after their awards-season love fest? Jenkins said he’d actually just spoken to his business partner, “and we’re trying to figure out what are we going to do next. And we’re like, ‘Maybe we should find something to do with Isabelle Huppert.’ It’s one of those cool things that kind of just happened and people saw us together and it took on a life of its own.” A life of its own as the greatest love story of the Oscars, that is. “That’s good,” said Jenkins. “Let’s focus on the love at the Oscars and not the mistakes.”
His Amazon adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad may have shades of Moonlight. (And perhaps a little bit of The Handmaid’s Tale, another story of a woman stripped of her personhood under a repressive regime.)
Jenkins told us that what drew him into making a limited series about one young slave woman’s journey to freedom after escaping her Georgia plantation was the main character, Cora. “It’s such an amazing character, and I feel like right now my obsession is in translating the interiority of these characters,” he said. “Cora has a very rich interior life because she lives in a town where she can’t express herself externally. That’s my bread and butter. And I just want to dig deep and dig down and really bring out the interior life of that character in the way an audience can feel it.”
The Oscars mix-up had a deeper, more sinister meaning in the Liberty City projects of Miami, where Jenkins and his co-screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney, both grew up with crack-addicted mothers, and later returned to shoot Moonlight.
On Still Processing, Jenkins describes how involved the people of Liberty City had been in the making of the movie. First, the Moonlight crew had to gain their trust, and show them that they weren’t doing some kind of cautionary-tale drug documentary, which is usually why film crews would come there. Along the way, residents became extras in the film, and avid advocates for it when it came out, closely following the roller coaster of the awards season — as best captured in a video of an Oscars viewing party at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center in the Liberty City projects. McCraney’s cousins still live there, and you can almost hear a pin drop in the crowd as Best Picture is being announced.
For whatever reason, they said, ‘La La Land!’ and the [Cultural Center] feed cut out. Because they were projecting a screen, outdoors, in the projects. The feed cut out! And you see people get up, and they’re just going about their way, because the thought is, ‘Of course. That’s the way the world is. They teased us. We thought we got all this far, to the mountaintop, but there’s no way we’re actually going to get to the top of the mountain.’
And then the feed cuts back in, and it’s just the card — Moonlight. People go nuts. It’s frozen on the card Moonlight. And then it goes black. And then it cuts back in again and it’s my face and I’m screaming and I’m probably saying, “To hell with dreams.” And then people just erupt and just go crazy. So I think they went through the entire roller coaster again in the last five minutes, but of course they went through it in this way that people who are from where we’re from, they always go through things. There’s always a glitch, but then somehow the sun comes out.”
He understands why people were upset about him sharing that Variety cover with Damien Chazelle a couple days after the Oscars, but insists it’s not fair to get mad at Chazelle about that.
Jenkins is referring to the outrage he encountered on Twitter and the media about the perception that he’d been unfairly denied both a clean Best Picture win and a solo magazine cover celebrating that win — as a black film and the first LGBTQ film to take that top prize in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite. As he told Morris and Wortham, it was all overblown. For instance, that meme about Ryan Gosling laughing when Moonlight won makes total sense to him. “What people don’t know is I had lunch with Ryan three days before the Academy Awards,” said Jenkins. “The people in these camps were genuinely friends.”
Doing the Variety cover with Chazelle was actually Chazelle’s idea. That cover was always supposed to be the Best Director, not Best Picture winner, and Jenkins, Chazelle, and other possible winner Kenneth Lonergan had been prepped to do it, whoever won. “Damien called us up Monday morning, it was very generous of him, and he said, ‘I don’t want to do this alone, I would much rather do this with you. It feels right,’” Jenkins said.
Then they did the cover and Twitter erupted. Said Jenkins:
“That was the first sign where I realized, ‘Oh this isn’t about me and it’s not about the film. There are people who know nothing about Variety magazine, but now they feel like a part of this process because Moonlight is them.’ And they just came after that cover! And I had to get on Twitter all that day Wednesday and basically tell people, ‘I understand that you caping up for me and I understand that you don’t want to be hurt, but I’ve got my Oscars. It says Moonlight, Best Picture. This is cool. And it was actually a very cool thing on Damien’s part. The false dichotomy of the opposition of these two films isn’t necessary, especially at this moment, because the thing has already been done.’ But I think when the Academy Awards ended the way it did, to bring it back home, people just went, ‘Even when your name is on the card, even when your name is on the statue, you still have to share the spotlight.’
When he thought he didn’t win Best Picture, he immediately started looking for a drink.
Most people who tune in on Oscars night aren’t paying a lot of attention to the gazillion non-televised awards shows that precede it; of the hours and hours spent at New York and Los Angeles critics’ awards just hanging out with the same gang of people who are also in this weird circuit with you. Before that night, the Moonlight and La La Land camps had spent a ton of time together, and a ton of time triumphing over, and losing to, one another (or to Manchester by the Sea).
“So when they said ‘La La Land,’ it wasn’t a shock to me,” Jenkins told Still Processing. “Not that it was business as usual, but I was like, ‘Okay, the show is done. Congratulations.’ I was actually on my phone trying to contact my publicist to see, ‘Where is my champagne? I need a drink.’ Also because, too, I knew that someone was going to ask me, ‘So, how do you feel? You came very close, what does this mean?’ I was already trying to formulate my answers.”
Then he started to notice security gathering nearby. And the giant screens that had been broadcasting the TV feed to the balconies turned off, and only showed the word “Oscars” in red.
“So I thought it wasn’t about a switch,” said Jenkins. “I thought it was something, not necessarily sinister, but something that was not planned and something that — I’ll say now, openly — not safe, was happening. So I was concerned and I couldn’t see the close-up of the card when Jordan [Horowitz, La La Land producer] extended it. But for us, I couldn’t tell even then. It wasn’t until Jordan, my friend, came toward me, like, ‘Hey, get up here, this is yours,’ that I realized he was like, ‘This hurts, please get up here so I can go and process what just happened.’ And that’s when I got up out of my seat. And somebody was pushing me. You know, I can talk very well. I got used to it, and I had no words. And all I wanted to do was hug Jordan, because I knew he was hurting. I hugged Jordan, I hugged Fred [Berger, another La La Land producer], and I hugged Damien. I’m at the back of the stage when everything is going on and Warren [Beatty] is correcting. You can’t even see me because I’m back there with Damien, and then after that, even now, it’s like, [whispering] I can’t believe that happened.
I have two things I can’t believe it happened, because for two minutes we didn’t win Best Picture and I was fine. The Underground Railroad was already happening. There’s something else that’s going to be announced that was already happening. You know, I have a career now and I’m anxious to create more work. I was good. And then two minutes later, ooooh shit, I was way better than good. But I knew I couldn’t get the words out, so I didn’t want to speak at all, and that’s when Denzel [Washington] started telling [Jimmy] Kimmel to get me up onstage. And I had these very eloquent things I wanted to say but they just came out — you know, I went back home and I just said what came out.
Even now I try not to talk about it because even five years from now I’ll really understand what it meant. There’s one photo of me that I’ve seen where I’m just standing onstage, I’m apart from everyone else, I have my hand on my chin and I’m just looking down and I think I was feeling the magnitude of what had happened. ‘Me? You’ve seen Medicine [for Melancholy, his first film]. That guy’s going to win Best Picture?’ Never. Never.”
Whatever mix-up happened, Jenkins is still really impressed with whoever was operating the camera that night.
Jenkins couldn’t see the close-up of the Best Picture card announcing Moonlight as the winner, but once he saw the footage of what we saw at home, he had to tip his hat. “Whoever the cameraman or live producer of the Oscars was, that zoom was, uhhhh, as a director, I was like, ‘This is money!’ when I saw it. Because it just came right in on it. And for anybody at home who was doubting, it was clear, ‘Holy shit, Moonlight won.’”
Criticize Warren Beatty all you like, but he’s the reason why Jenkins was finally able to relax after that crazy mix-up.
On Still Processing, Jenkins describes how that insanity happened, and then he was led into another maze of insanity, up an elevator, down a hallway, up another elevator, to wherever he had to do interviews, holding this statue he still wasn’t totally sure he’d won. All of his inner circle had disappeared, due to security measures that progressively picked off anyone who didn’t have a statue.
“By the time I got down to the very end, it was only people with statues and Janelle Monae, because Janelle Monae is just Janelle Monae. She somehow got through all the picking off. I was glad she was there. She handed me a drink. I had a drink. And then Warren came up to me and he was still holding the cards, and there were people who were trying to take the cards from him, and he said, ‘You didn’t see the card. I didn’t want to give this to anybody until you saw it.’ As I said, I didn’t see the zoom, that beautiful zoom, so even in my head, because, you know, I’m from where I’m from and I’m not going to believe it until I see it. And the first time I saw the card and I tweeted it was Warren, he held it in his hand and he said, ‘I want you to see this.’ And when I saw it, that was the first time — and this is sad to say — where I truly believed it.
Like you, though, he still wishes he’d been able to experience a pure, doubt-free moment of Moonlight being announced as Best Picture, not just for himself, but for the people who feel like that movie represents them.
As he told Morris and Wortham:
“I’ve tried to stay away from all of this, but somebody tweeted at me the video of Tarell and I winning Adapted Screenplay, and the roar — I hear ladies all over in the back of the theater. Somebody’s momma is just yelling when we win, and they cut and everybody’s on their feet. And I imagine the same thing would’ve happened if they had just said, ‘And Best Picture goes to Moonlight.’ And that’s never gonna happen. It’s just not. And there are people back home now who, even in this moment of us winning Best Picture, they’re never going to have that moment where it’s clear, clean, there’s no confusion, there’s no conspiracy. It’s just like, ‘We won.’ And now it’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m pretty sure we won.’”
This isn’t his next picture, but he did at one point write a script about Stevie Wonder and time travel that got close to getting made.
The working title was Eternal Sunshine for the Stevie Mind, he told Still Processing, and Terence Nance (An Oversimplification of Her Beauty) was attached to direct it, with Solange Knowles as the lead. The idea was what Jenkins calls “grounded sci-fi,” and the project is dead for now. But, he said, “We still have it. And Solange and I have been emailing.” In other words, TO HELL WITH DREAMS, THIS IS HAPPENING!