Freda Cooper talks to director Barry Jenkins about the Oscar-nominated Moonlight…
A portrait of African American life and a meditation on family, friendship and identity, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man as he grows up in a rough part of Miami. For its director, Barry Jenkins, it was also a personal project, as he grew up in the very same part of the city where the story is set.
He spoke exclusively to Freda Cooper just days after the film received a total of eight Oscar nominations.
Let’s go back to the beginning. This is based on a play, which I believe has never been produced?
It’s never been produced and I don’t think it’s producible in the form that it was in. I’d describe it as being somewhere half way between the stage and the screen, and I stand by that. I think that Tarell (Tarell McCraney, author of the original play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue) attempted to write something that was a visual memoir. It was about the recollection of this father figure, who becomes the character Juan in the film, and of his mother. And those two relationships were the foundation of what he was attempting to do.
How did you come across the play in the first place?
So there’s a guy called Andrew Hevia, who’s a co-producer on the film – we’re all from Miami, Tarell, myself and Andrew. Tarell and Andrew went to the same high school, it’s like the Juilliard of Miami, so a very prominent high school. And Tarell has always been – because he’s a rock star – one of the best known students there. I made a film in 2008 called Medicine For Melancholy, about my time in San Francisco. And Andrew wanted to know why a guy from Miami was making a film about San Francisco. He thought I should be making movies about Miami. So he read Tarell’s play and saw so many similarities between our two lives that he passed it to me. And he said “you two need to meet” and that was how the whole thing started.
You said you grew up in Miami, so where there any personal resonances in there?
Absolutely. There were two elements. One was how evocatively he’d captured the atmosphere and the spirit of Liberty City, the neighbourhood that he and I grew up in. The other was more obvious, more clear, and that was the relationship between the main character and the mom, Paula. Tarell and I grew up in such close proximity and at much the same time and the ills of the neighbourhood that touched his family also touched mine. So both our moms went through the struggle of addiction to crack cocaine. I just saw that element immediately and said to Andrew “How does Tarell know the things he knows about me?” and the answer was “because they happened to him.”
If it’s not too personal a question, how does it feel to have that re-created in front of you on set when you’re shooting?
It’s intense. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do as an artist but in some ways it was also the most rewarding because I’ve always been very good about keeping my personal life distinct from my artistic life. In this case, I think those two things came together in a way that elevated it. I think that the work I was doing illuminated some things about myself that maybe I wasn’t aware of.
The young boys in the first chapter were so natural, it was almost as if they weren’t aware of the camera. How did you come to find them and cast them, especially young Alex Hibbert?
It was an arduous process in that I knew I wanted the kid in the first part to be from Miami, I wanted him to be from the neighbourhood, and so it took time. I thought we are just going to have to look and look and look until we find the right guy. And thankfully, after seeing many, many, many, many kids, Alex Hibbert appeared. Once we had cast him and all the other kids in that first chapter, other than Naomie, there were no other actors in rehearsal. It was all real people. Even Janelle Monae had not acted at that point in her career. And then it was just about getting them comfortable with the process. Rather than get them to jump through 20 hoops and say things this way and do things that way, it was about trying to find the continuum where the character and the human being were one. And Alex Hibbert in particular got really good at the process of performing, of creating, and there was a different language to use with him than there was with Mahershala. But it wasn’t me tricking him into giving certain emotions or certain performances, it was working with an actor.
One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when Juan teaches the boy to swim. It’s his first right of passage in the film, and the first time he’s ever trusted an adult. But it also looks like a baptism. And you’re nodding, so presumably that was what you had in your mind?
I actually said to Mahershala that “this is a baptism”. But I want to go back to what you said about trust. I love the way that scene opens because Mahershala’s holding Alex and Alex won’t allow his head to go all the way back. I do think that he doesn’t believe the water’s going to hold him up and he doesn’t believe that Mahershala’s not going to let him go. That scene functions for me in two ways. One, as the creator of the piece, I knew that the character Juan is not going to be with him for the entirety of his life. And yet I knew that the essence of him, the feeling of him, the aura of him and the presence of him was going to haunt and support Chiron. So I was looking for this moment of spiritual transference between those two characters and that transference was going to be built on, as you said, this kid actively trusting someone for the first time in his life, or at least in his immediate life.
Like with a lot of things in the making of this film, we weren’t trying to make it as real as possible – because of certain perameters, we couldn’t afford to have rehearsals – a lot of it had to be Method. Alex Hibbert did not know how to swim. So when you see him giving in to trusting Mahershala, it’s real. He literally doesn’t know how to swim and I told him not to learn and so all those things you’re ascribing to the scene are real because Alex is learning to trust Mahershala Ali in that moment.
There are three different actors playing Chiron at different stages of his life. They don’t necessarily look alike, but they’ve got all the same gestures and mannerisms, the same way of looking at people and talking. Was that something that you achieved by getting them to work together?
No, it wasn’t that, although what I loved about the Academy Award nominations that we received recently was how widespread across the crew they were. I didn’t allow the three actors to meet, we didn’t have rehearsals for anybody, so that wasn’t going to happen. I didn’t want them to meet at all and I didn’t want them to watch each other’s footage. But then the same cinematographer was filming them, the same editor was cutting all the footage.
And the source material was framed as 24 hours in the day of a life, so you see Little wake up, Chiron wake up and Black wake up. You see Little go to school, Chiron go to school, Black go to the drug corner. It’s 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3. There’s this rhyming, this repetition that’s built into the piece, so that when you see a different character perform the same gesture it takes on a different meaning, a different context. In the footprint of the film, we’re framing them the same way across all three chapters, the editors are cutting them the same way across them all. The composer is taking one piece of score – it’s called Little’s Theme and it’s a violin and piano – and he’s evolving it from chapter one to chapter two and chapter three. So there’s all this work being done to carry the essence of the character while he’s being embodied by a different actor.
Naomie Harris’s performance was remarkable, especially the way she deteriorates every time you see her, but I understand she didn’t want to play the role. How did you persuade her?
Queen Naomie Harris!! (Smiles and laughs) No, she didn’t. Her guiding principle, which I understood, was that she didn’t want to play a negative stereotype of a black woman. She wanted to produce positive images. I said to her, “this isn’t positive or negative, it’s productive. And you’re not playing a drug addict, you’re playing my mom.” And once I said that, the judgement of the character went away because clearly I’m not going to create a character based on my mom, who I love, who’s not going to at the very least embody her full humanity.
I just talked about what those three young actors are doing: they each only have to contextualise a certain chapter in this character’s life and because he’s embodied by a different actor, we’re already saying certain things about how the world has shaped him. Trevante Rhodes doesn’t have to show how he’s changed from Ashton Sanders. He literally is a different person so you can see the change. Naomie’s task was very different. She’s the same actor, and yet her character is becoming a different person. And so the work she does, and the degree of difficulty, is much higher.
Moonlight is released in UK cinemas on February 17th.
Many thanks to Barry Jenkins for taking the time for this interview.