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How the making of Moonlight was like a magic trick

Director Barry Jenkins reveals how his stunning story about coming of age as a black gay man was told with tenderness – and why he didn’t let the actors meet

Moonlight is as beautiful as you’ve heard. Actually, it’s even better, and director-writer Barry Jenkins deserves all the plaudits he’s receiving. For anyone living under a rock – check our cover story with star Ashton Sanders here – the three-part drama is a tender coming-of-ager about a young gay black man growing up in poverty-stricken Miami. As the film progresses, a romance steadily blossoms between him and a male childhood friend, and through Jenkins’ smart, sensitive lens we witness the ecstasies and agonies of falling in love.

Chiron, when we meet him, is a child (Alex Hibbert). Kids call him a “faggot”, but he doesn’t understand the word, nor what it’s got to do with him. With his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), temperamental and addicted to crack, Chiron turns to Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local dealer, for a parental figure. “You could be gay,” Juan explains to Chiron, “but you don’t got to let nobody call you no faggot.”

Still, Chiron’s long-lasting bond is with Kevin (Jaden Piner). In part two, the pair are teens, played by Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome. Then something small and life-changing occurs. In part three, they’re adults, depicted by Trevante Rhodes and André Holland, and a key line of dialogue pops up: “Who is you?” With emotions flowing through each frame, the lighting and music are sincerely romantic, not sappy; richly drawn and vibrant in its textures, it’s a finale that caps an exceptional work of art. Barry Jenkins spoke to us about Moonlight, how to be an active ally of LGBTQ causes, and expressing emotional vulnerability through hip-hop.

Your other film, Medicine for Melancholy, came out in 2008. What took you so long?

Barry Jenkins: I have friends, who I consider my peers, who have done amazing work, particularly in the film and television space, who came up as independent artists, and who have been – to be brutally honest – much more prolific than I was able to be. By the same token, there were other filmmakers in the mumblecore collective, that I sort of got lumped in to, who also went on to make more work. I don’t know what the difference was in me taking eight years and a lot of these other folks doing multiple films in that time. But I can only say the responsibility lies with me. I should have done more.

How was it adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue – which was non-linear – into something chronological for the screen? Having seen the film, I can’t imagine it as a non-linear play for the stage.

Barry Jenkins: Yeah, but Tarell is such a genius – literally, a MacArthur genius – that he found a way to do it. The play was structured like “a day in the life”: Little would wake up, and then you’d see Chiron wake up, and then you’d see Black wake up. And then Little would go to school, then you’d see Chiron go to school, and then you’d see Black go to work. It just progressed over the course of the day.

So it had three different actors as well?

Barry Jenkins: Exactly. I was like, “Huh, how does this work?” But the scenes were so striking. And the setting reminded me so much of my own childhood, growing up in Miami. It revealed itself very quickly. The first draft, I wrote in 10 days.

“Ashton really wanted to meet Alex. They all wanted to meet the person who came before. Trevante was the most persistent. He kept asking and he kept asking” – Barry Jenkins

How did you prepare three actors to play one character?

Barry Jenkins: Trevante described it as a magic trick. There was no rehearsal, and I forbid them from meeting.

Wow. Really?

Barry Jenkins: Yeah, I didn’t want them to mimic each other. But I did want the character to be a different person in each chapter, because I felt the world around them is shaping them so much that they’ve literally become a different person. However, I still wanted you to see and feel a bit of the boy or the young man that came before. We felt if we cast actors with the same kind of vibe and spirituality, we would end up at a place where people would feel, “OK, I get it. I believe that I’m watching the same character.”

Were the actors OK with not meeting each other?

Barry Jenkins: They were not. Alex was so young, and we shot it in sequence – he was the first person. I don’t think he thought about it much, but Ashton really wanted to meet Alex. They all wanted to meet the person who came before. Trevante was the most persistent. He kept asking and he kept asking. I finally told him, “No, you cannot. You are going to be a radically different version of this character. Leave it to me that you’re not completely different.”

The daps in the film are quite important and actually become sort of romantic. What instructions did you give the actors for those greetings?

Barry Jenkins: Part of it was framing it in a certain way, to be honest – literally, with the camera. But I think there are ways that men in all communities – the black community, the white community, whatever – that we exchange greetings. Those greetings can have very different meanings. And I do think by the time the characters meet in the third story, when they give each other the dap, it is a bit romantic because they dap and come in for the hug – and you see Trevante’s free hand on André’s back. It’s the same greeting, but now it’s a caress. The possibility of that kind of nurturing is always there when we exchange hands. It’s about contextualising them. It’s about meaning and about intent.

Nate Parker said a few years ago that he would never play a gay character, because he wanted to “preserve the black man”. Are you hoping Moonlight will help counteract beliefs like that?

Barry Jenkins: I’ve heard that quote from places. I haven’t seen the video or anything, so I try not to accept that quote, because I don’t know if it’s verified. But as far as feeling the counterargument, I do think that if we see more honest portrayals of people like Chiron, of LGBTQ characters of colour, then maybe we won’t “other” them as much as we do. Maybe we won’t feel those characters can’t represent us. Chiron is a guy who’s trying to find his identity, just like anyone else. His sexuality happens to be a core element of his identity, just like heterosexuality is a core element of other people’s identities. The more of these images we have, the less taboo they will become, and the more people will approach them with a sense of understanding.

As far as that quote – I haven’t seen the video, so I can’t say. But I would hope that this movie, for being an authentic portrayal of a character like Chiron, will take some steps towards… not normalising LGBTQ characters – because who the fuck needs to be normalised for anyone else’s sake? But I do think people need to be exposed more to people who aren’t exactly like themselves.

I need to ask about the music – the chopped-and-screwed elements, the mixture of hip-hop and classical, and how the beat really kicks in for Part Three.

Barry Jenkins: There isn’t much hip-hop in the early goings. The first story has almost no hip-hop, and the second story has hip-hop in the background of cars going by. Then by the third story, the character’s actually playing hip-hop. Again, by the third story, he’s trying to project his identity into the world. Chopped-and-screwed is this form of hip-hop where you slow the music down. You lower the register, and it becomes very bass-heavy, and the voice is very guttural. It’s like a hyper-masculine version of hip-hop. At the same time, I think hip-hop’s a very vulnerable form of music, if you really listen to the lyrics. In chopped-and-screwed, because the lyrics are coming across slower, you can hear what the MCs are saying.

So I knew I wanted chopped-and-screwed music in the film, and yet my favourite filmmaker is Claire Denis, and she always uses a score by The Tindersticks. Despite being an austere arthouse director, she uses score pretty liberally. There’s a lot of score in her films. So I always thought of Moonlight, even in the writing stage, as having an orchestral score. But I didn’t want the score to clang with the hip-hop. I wanted them to be fluid. Our composer, Nick Britell, was like, “If you love chopped-and-screwed so much, why don’t we chop and screw the orchestra?”

What we have is a classical score – violin and cello and French horn and oboe and all these things. And as the film goes on, and the character’s projecting this hyper-masculinity and the hip-hop’s getting more chopped-and-screwed, the score is also getting more chopped-and-screwed.

The heaviest bass in this film, if you watch it in a theatre, is not from the Jidenna track “Classic Man” they play in the car ride home; it’s somebody from the New York Philharmonic playing a cello that has now been chopped and screwed and pitched way low so that every pluck feels like a rumble.

“You can be a passive ally or you can be an active ally. It’s like on Facebook when the Supreme Court Bill passed and everyone turned their profiles to a rainbow flag. That’s great, but it’s not active” – Barry Jenkins

I really like Morris from America by your friend Chad Hartigan. But he received some flak for being a white filmmaker telling a black teen’s coming-of-age story. What’s the reaction been so far from the LGBTQ community?

Barry Jenkins: So far, the reaction’s been amazingly positive. I consider myself an ally of LGBTQ causes – obviously; I made this film, I must be an ally. But you can be a passive ally or you can be an active ally. It’s like on Facebook when the Supreme Court Bill passed and everyone turned their profiles to a rainbow flag. That’s great, but it’s not active. This, for me, was an opportunity to be an active ally. And if I had turned away from it, it would have been cowardly.

At the same time, empathy can only get you so far. We all know filmmakers who’ve tried to make films about the “other” purely out of empathy, and you get something that clangs because it doesn’t have the true rawness. For me, because the piece originated with Tarell, I felt if I could preserve enough of his voice, that first-person perspective paired with a passionate active empathy could get us to a place where this felt like an authentic portrayal of a character like Chiron.

I noticed in the credits you thank Shane Carruth and Amy Seimetz. That’s quite a cool indie pairing.

Barry Jenkins: Amy Seimetz went to my film school. I’ve known Amy since 2002. If you look at the credits of Sun Don’t Shine, I’m in as a special thanks. When I had the first rough cut screening, Amy and Shane gave great notes. There was a scene in the film I was thinking about taking out, and Shane came to me after the screening and said, “I’m a straight white guy from the suburbs of Texas. I deeply identify with the film, and that scene was one of the main reasons why. If I can relate to that scene, imagine how the people like the characters will relate to it.”

John Cho said part of the diversity problem is that most cinematographers are white, and many aren’t so knowledgeable about lighting non-white skin – and they perhaps aren’t rushing to learn how.

Barry Jenkins: It is true. Thankfully, my cinematographer, James Laxton, who is white, has been working with me for like 15 years. By this point, he’s learned! He knows what to do and what not to do. He’s accustomed to it. Not all my work features black actors. I mean, it’s funny; someone was reading back to me all the languages that have appeared in my films, whether they were shorts or features. They span Arabic, French, Mandarin, Cantonese – all kinds of languages. I think it’s really cool.

But because James has worked with me so much, he’s used to working with diverse actors in front of the camera. You’re right, you can’t go through life only learning to light fair skin. It’s a very different thing. Our main character is named Black because his skin is so dark. And yet James found a way to make that dark skin extremely luminous – as it is to the natural eye. But it’s different when you translate that to the lens. All skin, when treated the right way, is very beautiful on-screen.

‘Moonlight’ opens in cinemas on February 17