How to Make Movies According to Barry Jenkins

in 46th International Film Festival Rotterdam

by Eduardo Guillot

The Rotterdam Festival has not lost its touch in finding new talents. In its 2017 edition, one of its most distinguished guests was Barry Jenkins, the U.S. director who visited the Dutch city weeks before receiving the Oscar for Best Adapted Script for Moonlight. It also won Best Movie, beating the favorite La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016). The Miami born director confessed his admiration for filmmakers such as Claire Denis and Wong Kar-Wai (evident in his way of accessing the intimacy of his characters and of approaching the relations between them) in Rotterdam and offered an interesting masterclass in which he remembered his student years at Tallahassee State University (Florida). “I didn’t go to learn to direct”, he admitted. “It was the only school I could afford. At first I wanted to be an English professor and then, for reasons beyond my control, I began creative writing. After three years there I discovered there was a film program and I enrolled in it. I grew up in the same environment as the kid in Moonlight, in a very poor neighborhood, and the only way for me to become a film director was to attend a public university through a government program that financed studies for kids in need. That’s how I started”.

These were, according to him, decisive formative years. “The first thing I learned was that I was clueless. On the first day of class they give you a Bolex camera and a 16mm movie film roll, they explain how to load it up and then send you outside, without even a light meter, to film. Each week you are given new tools. A light meter is second. More footage is third. You learn by practicing. After a year, I wondered how far I could go because I am black and of humble origins, so I would probably never have the chance to use the material I was learning. I understood that it didn’t matter how strong your voice was if you didn’t know how to use the tools in order to reflect it. You can work with people who know how to do it, but I wanted to control my voice without filter. It was then I discovered foreign films. Everyone at school admired Steven Spielberg, which is not wrong, but I preferred watching other things: new Asian wave, French nouvelle vague… I also started to read criticism”.

In 2003, still in school, he filmed his first short My Josephine along with James Laxton, the photography director he has worked with since then. “When I finished it I thought it was terrible. I couldn’t believe in what I had done. The material arrived and the voice wasn’t what I was searching for, although I understood it. We were students, there were many flaws and we didn’t have much money. I remember placing two photographs from Six Days (Wong Kar-Wai, 2002) in the monitor. When I revealed the roll I asked for the images to have the same color range but the movie came back green. Understanding you can’t control everything was a lesson. One must work with perspective; what’s important is capturing the essence of what you seek”. That same year he filmed Little Brown Boy, another short film, but it would take five years before he achieved a long film in Medicine for Melancholy (2008).

Making that leap was not easy. “Until then I had only performed college works. I am proud of those shorts, but I wanted to do more things and started writing the script for a long film. We started moving the project through different instances in the industry to find financing, but the short films I had made were a little weird and it seemed that the story in Medicine for Melancholy didn’t conform to the canons required by potential investors. It was a movie about people talking and walking in San Francisco, filmed in apparent black and white. A friend told me one day: ‘I have thirteen thousand dollars, can you make a movie with that?’ I thought I could at least try it”. What is incredible about that case is that he achieved it. “I studied how many days we could invest with that amount of money before it ran out. We had to make a very tight shooting schedule. In the end, two actors and the sound manager were the only ones who got paid, one hundred dollars a day each for a total of three hundred in fixed expenses every day. The point was to maximize the resources we had and from there organize the number of recording days, number of takes, etc.”

He did not have a great impact, but he entered a few festivals and made his first impression on the industry. However, eight years went by before he could launch his second movie, Moonlight. “Not much happened in that time. In truth, there were five and a half years between the end of Medicine for Melancholy and the start of script writing for Moonlight, which by the way happened in Brussels in August 2013. The team was basically the same, but the great difference was the reach of the story we were trying to tell. Producer James Schamus of Focus Features (The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain) once told me that in movies the budget defines the aesthetic. And it is true because it is what allows you to do some or other things”. This time he had five million dollars, a small amount for Hollywood but substantially more than he had for his debut. He took advantage of it.

Moonlight shows the growth process of a person in three phases in such a way that, despite focusing on a poor black kid in a slum, it embodies universal issues. “It wasn’t one of my objectives”, Jenkins admits, who took inspiration from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. “We wanted to make a portrait of ourselves, but perhaps the characters allow for empathy. Tarell’s play has a very honest voice. He already has a career in theater and told me he trusted my work. That was how Chiron, the protagonist, also started to become me. In fact, it’s me except when it comes to his sexual identity. It was a very interesting matter to offer a vision like the one given by the film. Had he directed it, he might have destroyed it because there are things he has not completely reconciled while I could distance myself from it. That is what creation is about. When he saw the first set he blocked out, remained seated twenty minutes outside the theater, and eventually reconciled with it. I am very thankful to him for allowing me to take the story to the screen.”

One of the keys to the film lies in the combination of professional and non-professional actors. “One of my favorite directors when I was in school was Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin), who in her first films (Ratcatcher, Morvern Callar) became known for combining professional with non-professional actors. It produces a certain tension and one must be very rigorous with technical aspects. On the other hand, by setting it in Miami, where we filmed because the budget didn’t allow us to do it in another state, I wanted the people in the city to be protagonists. However, I didn’t direct them in a special way; there was no distinction. With the child in the first story, who had never acted before, I was more direct than with the other actors. Instead of talking about emotions or meanings, I told him exactly what we needed to do. There came a time when I began to explain something and he would interrupt me saying: ‘No, no, relax Barry, I got this’. He is a brilliant kid”.

Another crucial factor in Moonlight was the use of color. “Céline Sciamma did a great job in that regard with the blue in Girlhood (Bande de filles, 2014). When I saw the film I thought it was an ordeal because we couldn’t do the same, although under the light of the moon blacks look like the color blue; we tried to be more subtle in that area. In the third chapter the blue does acquire more protagonism than in the beginning, but the films must be an immersive experience for viewers. Sometimes it is advisable not to be aggressive with the color, but rather adapt it to each character. For example, we only had Naomie Harris for three days. When you have little time and a single location, you must take advantage of it. I wanted her room to have a forbidden connotation for Chiron. There was something Freudian and dark in that space, which is why the color temperature tends towards red. There isn’t a chromatic pattern in the movie, but there are moments in which Chiron’s feelings are reflected in the colors”.

James Laxton was also an Oscar nominee for his photographic work in the film, as well as film editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders. “It wasn’t my intention to work on editing with two people, but when I saw the material it became evident that each of the stories in the film was different and had its own conscience. And Joi was the first black woman nominated for film editing. It is incredible. The movie has many silences which are built in the script, but the film editing must transmit its energy. I have known them both for about fifteen years. They are very familiar with my way of making films and our relationship was very fluid. I really like a book titled “In the Blink of an Eye” by Walter Murch, who has made great films with Francis Ford Coppola such as Apocalypse Now (1979) or The Conversation (1974). My idea was to use the tools I could apply to my work as best I could. Murch developed the thesis that film editing works with emotions and noticed that empathy is created through the eyes, so when one makes a cut it breaks the connection between the viewer and the characters. It’s all in the eyes. When I did the castings I did not care about the physical appearance of actors; I was looking for feeling in their look”, concludes Jenkins, who currently works in a collective film that will adapt “A Contract with God (1978)”, Will Eisner’s masterful comic book considered the first graphic novel in history.

Edited by Steven Yates

Eduardo Guillot is a Spanish journalist and regular contributor in “Rockdelux”, “CulturPlaza” and “Levante” newspaper. A Programmer at Cinema Jove Film Festival (Valencia) and Abycine (Albacete), he is also mentor at press workshops in Talents Guadalajara (México) as well as author and editor of several books, including “Electric Dreams. 50 essential movies about rock culture” (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, 2017).