Written By February March 2017 : Page 30
WRITTEN BY ERNEST HARDY PORTRAITS BY TOM KELLER Dancing in Moonlight BARRY JENKINS ILLUMINATES THE LUNAR LANDSCAPE. Serious
Dancing In Serious Moonlight
BARRY JENKINS ILLUMINATES THE LUNAR LANDSCAPE.
It’s an overcast day in Los Angeles, the sky’s grayness intermittently giving way to rainfall. During a break in the weather, 37-year-old writer-director Barry Jenkins sits on an outdoor patio of the Four Seasons Hotel, clutching a cup of hot tea and thoughtfully dissecting his approach to making the critically acclaimed Moonlight.
After his Medicine forMelancholy feature debut in 2008—a well-regarded but little seen film about a one-night stand that turns into a weekend of witty banter and philosophical musing while measuring the toll of gentrification on San Francisco’s black residents—Jenkins fell off the radar. For a time he made short films and commercials, wrote almost a dozen screenplays (including one inspired by the music of Stevie Wonder), and worked with a loose-knit collective of fellow Bay Area filmmakers. He was paying bills but making minimal headway in his filmmaking career.
That is, until he received a copy of In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, an unproduced piece by Tarell Alvin Mc- Craney, the celebrated dramatist and Yale School of Drama playwriting chairperson whose experimental work fuses mythology, religion, and questions of race and sexuality. Mutual friends had passed the work to Jenkins, thinking the similarity in his and McCraney’s backgrounds—though they’d never met before, they grew up in the same Liberty City, Florida neighborhood, attended the same school, and both had mothers that battled drug addiction—might strike a creative chord. It did.
McCraney’s admittedly “very visual” piece isn’t a play, and was written originally for his 2003 graduate school application. Nevertheless, Jenkins adapted it into a screenplay, knocking out a first draft in 10 days while self-exiled in Brussels. Th e result is a dazzling coming-of-age film that follows the life of Little/Chiron/Black (each name/nickname demarcating periods in the lead character’s life) in Miami, told in three chapters as he navigates his way through poverty, his mother’s crack addiction, his sexuality and homophobic bullies ... and a betrayal so deep and painful that it alters the course of his life.
The film lays bare Jenkins’ cinematic and literary influences (he has degrees in both Creative Writing and Film from Florida State), while marking him as a singular filmmaker whose style is poetic and achingly insightful.
Two days after the film earned a Writers Guild nomination for Best Original Screenplay (adding to its bounty of year-end awards, including Best Picture nods from the National Society of Film Critics, the Golden Globes, and the Oscars), Jenkins discussed screenwriting discipline, responsibilities as a filmmaker, and the power of oldies R&B.
Ernest Hardy: In interviews Tarell McCraney has said he put the work away in frustration after writing it because he couldn’t figure out how it would be realized onstage or as a film. What did you see when you read it? What made you think you could make it work?
Barry Jenkins: You know, it’s funny. It’s been called a play, a screenplay, a teleplay. I don’t know what the hell it is. I’ve never read anything that looked like this or that sounded like this. It could not have been staged. It could not have been filmed. But it had that thing in it. Th ere was dialogue in it that was piercing. Th ere were visuals in it that were piercing. Th e original piece was 45 or 46 pages, and [my] finished script is either 98 or 103 pages, I can’t remember. So they were different but … You know how you get a jewel that’s really, really heavy because it’s so dense? It was like that. It was this very small thing that was super, super dense because it had so much weight. It was a beautiful process of digging in and pulling out and seeing, Th is goes here, that goes there, this goes there, oh, shit—where does that go? Th at’s what it was, man.
I do think that if Tarell wrote this, say, two years ago as opposed to when he did , it would have been a very different piece. I think it would have been a gorgeous piece of material, but I don’t think it would have been that dense, core, gobbledygook of stuff that had all these ingredients that could lead to Moonlight. It would have been too much its own fully fleshed out thing. When he wrote it, it was just this beautiful, undeniable open wound, so to speak, but you had to apply a structure to it. And then I had to allow my full self to enter it. I mean, I literally went to the other side of the fucking world to write this script. I had to get far away from everybody.
What made you choose Brussels to write the script?
So this was five-and-a-half, six years post-Medicine, and my Plan B had become my Plan A at that point, which is a bit of a pun since [production company] Plan B ended up becoming heavily involved with this film. But I’d been making short films and creating content for commercials in the Bay Area. It was me and three other filmmakers and we just worked so hard at it, but since none of us had any business acumen we ended up working probably four times as hard as someone who knows how to do those things would. I felt like I needed to get far away from all that stuff and have nothing to do but focus on story, character, and scenes. I polled people and asked, “What’s the most boring place in the world in the summer, in August?” And everybody said Brussels because everybody who lives there goes to the coast. My plan was to get my James Baldwin on and go to Europe to write. I’m not gonna speak the language, not gonna know anybody. Gonna find a flat on a side street, which is exactly what I did—a flat on a side street with a bar, a café, and a menswear store. My whole life was on that block. It was beautiful. I would wake up with Moonlight and I would go to sleep with Moonlight, and in-between I would eat, drink, and shop Moonlight, which is sort of what had to happen. There was no way to do this without fully inhabiting the main character.
“On the page, when I’m writing the script, I approach it the same way. The language of constructing the story is me as a writer, as a
craftsman, and it’s housing this authentic language of the
neighborhood I grew up in. Yet I’m still presenting it in a
professional sort of craftsman voice that’s been developed by studying
the craft of screenwriting.”
How long did it take you to get a working draft?
The first draft was written in 10 days. Now, the finished film is not the first draft, but it’s not that drastically different. Maybe 50, 60 percent [of the final version] was written in those first 10 days. The finished script differs from the source material in that Tarell’s piece ended after that phone call in the third chapter, so you never see Black get into the car and drive back to Miami. You never see them sit down in the diner. That stuff didn’t happen. As I’m in Brussels writing, I have this thing from Tarell that had all these waypoints—I’m obsessed with aviation—and some of them were very linear. Story two [in the film] was very linear even in the source material, story one not so much, and story three, as I said, just stopped at a certain point. So I have these waypoints, have this outline, and I’m working very loosely, not super structured. I’m just drinking coffee, drinking whiskey, eating fries—‘cuz it’s Belgium— drinking coffee, drinking whiskey, eating fries, and working.
Once I get into that third chapter, I’m now working way past the waypoints. It’s like jazz. I get this Barbara Lewis song [“Hello, Stranger”] into my head and write it into the screenplay, and I’m going, going, going. Then we get back to Kevin’s apartment and I wrote that entire scene in one swoop. I remember exactly where I was, exactly what I was drinking— that was a whiskey night at Lord Byron café, and it was almost like “pencils down,” like you’re taking a test. I was like, okay, this is done. And it was scary as fuck because I was like, shit, what do I do now? So I adapted a book [If Beale Street Could Talk] by James Baldwin. For the next four weeks that was the next thing I did.
Are you someone who writes on scraps of paper wherever an idea hits you, who jumps out of bed at 3 in the morning to get an idea down, or are you someone who writes largely on a schedule and gets into a certain headspace and that’s when your juices flow?
I think more the latter. Once I get into a certain headspace is when the ideas come and I’m most productive. That’s why this film was written in such a compressed period of time. When I’m working on something I try to put notes in my phone. I usually keep a long form, freeform document in—I think the app is called Scribe? I forget the name of it. I use a technique when I’m outlining—and I always outline—that is based on Jessica Bendinger, who wrote Bring It On. She did a guest-post on John August’s ‘How I Write’ website—I don’t know if I was in film school or just out of it at the time I read it—and she had this simple approach to generating a story outline. It was three beats: the beginning, the middle, the end. And then you craft the beginning, middle, and end of the beginning, middle, and end. And so on. You build the story from all these mini-stories within the stories. I always do that no matter what project I’m working on. It’s a very simple thing you can always do.
The first book I ever read in creative writing class was Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and my favorite chapter from that is “Shitty First Drafts.” So I have no problem writing a terrible first draft. I pretty much journal until I get to the point where I say, Okay, now there needs to be a first draft of this. And then I plow through it. But I’m not keeping a scrapbook or anything like that. That just doesn’t work for me.
You wrote Medicine for Melancholy by hand on a notepad. Is that still how you write?
This is the first script I’ve ever written the first draft of not by hand. Up to this point, the first draft of everything I’ve written was by hand, red ink on yellow paper. I don’t know why. It’s just always been my thing. I’ve written probably 12 features that way. Now, starting with Moonlight, I’m just typing it in. Part of it was my first producer on this project, Adele Romanski. She was the one who sent me to Brussels to write and told me, “You know, when you come back you’re not going to have time to transcribe, so just go ahead and type it in.” And now that I’ve done it I can’t go back. It kills me because there was something really beautiful about being at the café and everyone else has a laptop and I’m the only person with a pen and paper and I’m moving way faster [than they are] because I’m just whipping through it.
Novelists and poets often tell younger writers that they must write a certain number of hours a day, or a certain number of pages or lines a day. Do you have any such rules for yourself?
Once I’m in the writing phase of something, I do try to write something every day, seven days a week, even if it’s terrible. I think it’s important to stay in the world of the characters. It’s more about once you enter that space, you gotta just stay in it. I don’t have quotas per se. Usually the way it works for me is I will have two days where I just write a ton, and then on that third day I get very little done but it’ll be a gut check where I’ll say to myself, “You kinda got over today, Barry.” Then I try to hunker down and go back in the next day. I try to end the day in the middle of a scene, that way when I start back up the next day I can just get back to work, as opposed to thinking, Oh, shit, where do I start today?
“You know how you get a jewel that’s really, really heavy because it’s so dense? It was like that. It was this very small thing that
was super, super dense because it had so much weight. It was a
beautiful process of just digging in and pulling out and seeing, This
goes here, that goes there, this goes there, oh, shit— where does that
go? That’s what it was, man.”
A DELIBERATE BALANCE
How do you strike the balance between posing questions, sketching with ambiguity, and doing justice to characters that have historically been poorly sketched or underwritten?
Ah, I see where you’re going. I try to push that stuff out [of mind] as much as I can. I never want to approach a project thinking this is important because X, or this is going to have meaning because Y. I try to push those things out and just focus on the character. At the same time, because of the lack of certain voices, because of the lack of certain characters, there is an added charge. There’s almost this seduction to say everything about these characters that can possibly be said in 110 minutes—to tell their whole story when there are certain things that are unknown to the characters themselves. By extension those things should be unknown to the audience, especially if you’re making a film that arises from the consciousness of the main character, as our film does. In some ways, Moonlight is a first-person piece. It’s meant to be immersive for the audience. It is tough to do the two things at once, to try and approach this film as I’ve done with quite a bit of my work, which is asking questions.
Tough? In what way?
I often think that creatively, whether it’s on the page or if I’m on the set directing, if I’m working toward questions— whether I’m clarifying questions, or whether I’m figuring out what the question even means—that [process] is going to yield a more satisfying piece of work. And yet because of the responsibility created by a lack of certain images, there is this push and pull to go, “I can’t depict a black mom if [I portray her] this way because we see so few black moms in cinema that I now have to present the most positive version of that figure as possible. Because if I don’t, who will?” But that’s not truthful to the experience [of Chiron]. So there is a tension between those two things. And I will say it’s less seductive on the page than when you’re on set. I think on the page I’m pretty rigorous about what the character is going through, what the movie is about, and sticking to those things.
Reading the script really underscores the elegance of your use of language. There’s an absence of “ums,” “likes,” and assorted linguistic placeholders that pepper the way most Americans speak now, and are often used heavy-handedly to establish authenticity in screenplays. Yet you absolutely captured the music and poetry of the way many black people talk. Was that approach a conscious thing, or a carryover from the source material?
I don’t know if it’s conscious. I think it’s where my voice— speaking purely in craft terms about my voice—has landed. You could say the same thing about the visuals onscreen. It’s a very black film set in this impoverished inner city, and yet the aesthetics of the film, one could say, are very art house. Know what I mean? And typically you think those sorts of things [art house aesthetics and inner-city poor black realities] clash, run counter to one another. But I think because I’ve authentically arrived at both voices they go together very well. It’s a very fluid pairing. I think on the page, when I’m writing the script, I approach it the same way. The language of constructing the story is me as a writer, as a craftsman. And it’s housing this authentic language of the neighborhood I grew up in. Yet I’m still presenting it in a professional sort of craftsman voice that’s been developed by studying the craft of screenwriting.
What would your professors say if they read your scripts today?
If my old professors read my Moonlight screenplay they’d say, “I can’t see that, why is it in the script?” Well, the actor can see it. Like at the end of the scene where Kevin first calls Black. At the end of that scene, in the script—I’m paraphrasing—it says, “Black hangs up the phone, sits on the edge of the bed despondent, looks at his phone screen, lies on his back, five minutes twenty-six seconds, dot-dot-dot, a lifetime.” Now, I can’t film all that, but when I’m on set, the actor has read it. So Trevante Rhodes hangs up the phone, sits on the bed, puts the phone against his head, he’s rubbing the phone against his forehead, he lays back, looks at the screen, and the phone drops to his chest. That’s how, through concrete imagery, you’re revealing the interior of the character to the actor, and the actor can perform and externalize it onscreen without resorting to voiceover—which I’m a fan of but I try not to lean on.
Who are some of your favorite authors or poets, and do you see any of their influence in your own writing style?
Baldwin, absolutely. His non-fiction is just searing and powerful and has as much of his artist’s voice as his fiction. I feel like when I’m writing a screenplay, I am trying to create language that—well, not that can stand up to the language in Mr. Baldwin’s work, but I don’t think a screenplay is just a blueprint. I mean, you can’t have all this purple prose in it either. Film is a very difficult medium to translate interiority if you’re not using voiceover. The way I was taught screenwriting was that it’s a blueprint; don’t put anything into a screenplay that cannot be seen or heard. However, there’s gotta be a way to get at the interiority of these people without going to this place where you’re falsely projecting what’s inside their head. When you read some of the best literature, when you read Faulkner, when you read James Baldwin, when you read some Hemingway—like The Sun Also Rises—you’re getting into the interior of characters in concrete terms, in concrete metaphors. I would say those three for sure have had the biggest influence, especially since I was studying it all at the same time—writing workshops, English Literature, and film school. All that stuff was sort of swirling around and I think it ended up affecting the way I approach a script.
STRANGERS WHEN WE MEET
In Moonlight, silence itself is a kind of text. What is actually on the page in those moments when there is no dialogue, when sound is muted or drops out?
There’s a scene in Moonlight’s first story where the kids are wrestling in the field, and it’s written in such concrete language that you don’t even get the idea of silence when you read the script because it’s not like you’re reading and suddenly there’s half a page of white space. There are things transpiring in that silence, emotions that are changing in the space of that silence. I try to write the film so that the person reading it can see the movie. I never indicate a camera, ever. I got beat over the head too many times in screenwriting class to ever go back on that.
But I am trying to write the script in a way that if you are reading the screenplay you are seeing the film. It’s writing in a writer’s voice, not a director’s. It’s a tightrope but I like it. It keeps me on point.
“I try to write the film so that the person reading it can see the movie. I never indicate a camera, ever. I got beat over the head too
many times in screenwriting class to ever go back on that. But I am
trying to write the script in a way that if you are reading the
screenplay you are seeing the film.”
Often in contemporary film, music is used to tell the audience what they should feel or to spackle over shortcomings in the storytelling, but the music in Moonlight was crucial text. Can you talk a bit about the music choices, especially “Hello, Stranger”?
Bruh, we played [the Barbara Lewis song “Hello, Stranger”] on set. Like, every time we shot that scene the song is playing out loud, which you’re not supposed to do. Th ere’s no dialogue while the song is playing. Th ey’re just looking at each other, it’s just gestures. Like anyone who’s obsessed with Claire Denis, I’ve seen 35 Shots of Rum and I know how that Commodores song [“ Nightshift”] in it moves everyone in the auditorium. I wanted that experience on my set, so it’s written in the screenplay and I’m playing it as we shoot. And I thought, If there’s a version of the world where we can’t get the rights to the song, fine, we’ll find something else. However, I wrote the script with this song in mind because of the feeling I have connected to it from my time in San Francisco where I first heard it played on a vinyl 45. When the producers watch dailies they’re gonna hear this song over and over again. Th ey’re gonna know what it means to me. Th at feeling of the music as it’s embedded in the film I wanted embedded in the script.
I wanted to create this space where here’s this guy just wanting to be vulnerable. He’s yearning for someone to just tell him that he is okay. Trying to pair music with that, there could be a song where the violin is playing and tugging at the heartstrings, but I wanted something that a) existed in the real world, that I had a connection to and other people in the audience might have a connection to, and b) that would acknowledge the intimacy but wasn’t aggressive about asserting it. She’s got a very powerful voice, Barbara Lewis does, but man it’s so gentle. Kevin, especially as played by Andre Holland, is such a charming presence. He talks so much, and yet is so gentle, so kind and so warm, and that’s what that song meant to me.
Chiron is the fusion of you and Tarell, and you two navigated your ways out of your similar background and became wordsmiths while Chiron has almost surrendered language. Is that something you two have talked about or given much thought to?
For sure. I wasn’t always this way, though. I feel like people who went through what Tarell and I went through, more often than not because of the systemic dynamics of the society we live in, they end up more like Chiron than they do myself or Tarell. I can just speak viscerally from the experience of the people we grew up with. Not everybody can become the head of the playwriting program at the Yale School of Drama [as Tarell now is]. Not everybody who comes from the world of Chiron is going to sit and do an interview with you at the Four Seasons. Th ere was a point in my life where I could have become more like Chiron—not like Black in the third story, but more like Chiron in the second story, which is to retreat from the world, to withdraw into myself because as you express yourself the world tells you, “No, don’t talk like that. Don’t walk like that. Don’t look like that.”
These characters originate, but in merging myself with him into this character, it felt like that was the personality that kept asserting itself for Chiron—that withdrawn figure. One of the things I most love about the finished product is that there are scenes where Tarell McCraney ends and Barry Jenkins begins. I think within the character of Chiron those seams, over the course of writing and making this film, just became more and more indistinguishable. I think where we ended up is this place where the character very fluidly, organically stood apart from us and ultimately becomes himself.
Ernest Hardy’s criticism has appeared in Th e New York Times, the Village Voice, Vibe, Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles Times, and LA Weekly. His collection of criticism, Blood Beats Vol. 1: Demos, Remixes and Extended Versions was a recipient of the 2007 PEN / Beyond Margins Award. Blood Beats Vol. 2: Th e Bootleg Joints, was published in February 2008. He has written liner notes for Chuck D Presents Louder than a Bomb; Curtis Mayfield: Gospel; Chet Baker: Career 1952-1988; and the box-sets Love, Luther; Say It Loud! A Celebration of Black Music in America; and Superstars of Seventies Soul, among others. His short story, “Cold & Wet Tired You Bet” appears in Best Gay Stories 2011 (Lethe Press).
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