What a difference a couple of days make — well, a couple of days and eight Oscar nominations. When “Moonlight” director Barry Jenkins was announced as an attending guest at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), he was only the director behind the most critically acclaimed film of the year, winner of the Golden Globe for Best Drama and the recipient of innumerable critics circle and independent filmmaking awards (including four Gotham Awards, which I want shout out because I was part of the Performance jury that awarded it a Special Jury Prize for Outstanding Ensemble, and I can’t overstate just what an effortlessly unanimous decision that was). But by the time he took the stage for his Masterclass in Rotterdam, he was the anointed Crown Prince of the Academy Awards 2017 (assuming Damien Chazelle is its King, with “La La Land” taking 14 nods). Tickets were, to say the least, hard to come by.
But they were worth fighting for. Jenkins spent an hour and a half talking through his career to that point, and then individually going through every area of the filmmaking process on “Moonlight” — which just so happened to correlate pretty well with the film’s Oscar nominations, which are for (deep breath) Best Picture, Best Director (Jenkins), Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Supporting Actress (Naomie Harris), Best Adapted Screenplay (Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, on whose play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” the film is based), Best Editing (Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon — the latter being the first African-American woman nominated for an editing Oscar), Best Cinematography (James Laxton) and Best Score (Nicholas Britell). Here are the highlights of that frank, engaged and genuinely inspiring talk.
Jenkins was so plagued by doubt during his first year as a film student at Florida State University (in the same class as ‘Maze Runner’ director Wes Ball) that he dropped out for a year so he could become more acquainted with the mechanics of filmmaking.
[That first year] I had a very bad experience. Wes Ball — you know, he did the “Maze Runner” movies? He was in my class and he was just gifted from the first moment. He was making, like, Pixar movies on a Bolex camera, just a brilliant cat. And I couldn’t get my images to expose properly.
And I thought, am I not good at this because I’m black and I’m poor and my mother was a drug addict — I was in a class that was predominately white — and is it because they’re white and I’m black, because they’re middle-class and I’m poor, or do I just not know how to utilize these tools?
So I took a year off, watched Asian New Wave movies, French New Wave movies — all the stuff no one else was watching. I did a 35mm still-photography class. I read a lot. And when I came back to school, that’s when I made the film “My Josephine” [Jenkins’ first proper short, which is showing in Rotterdam and embedded below]. That year taught me that if I ever hit a block, the only thing between me and getting through that block is work. I just have to do the work.
Jenkins claims “My Josephine,” a love story between two Arab immigrants working in a laundrette where American flags are washed for free in the aftermath of 9/11, is still “probably my favorite thing I’ve ever done.”
I was a sponge. My roommate was obsessed with Napoleon; he would walk around the apartment, just quoting all these things about Napoleon. And he kept talking about how Napoleon had two lovers, Mary-Louise and Josephine — Mary-Louise for an heir, Josephine for love. So I thought about this guy washing these flags as an act of patriotism, and how he’s obsessed with this woman but he can’t see who she truly is. So he calls her his Josephine.
And it was always going to be about feeling ostracized as a black man in the South but personified through this Arab-American couple. And it worked! It worked. It’s probably my favorite thing I’ve ever done. Which is sad to say because that was 14 years ago.
But “My Josephine,” which was also shot by “Moonlight” DP James Laxton, got its distinctive “very green” look and sense of woozy intimacy by happy accident.
The beautiful thing about what I’m going through now with “Moonlight” is that people are like, “Why aren’t you happier?” But I remember that first film, we got that footage back from the lab and I was wrecked; I thought, “Oh shit, this is terrible, what have we done?” I couldn’t see it… The footage had a completely different voice than what I expected. It was what I intended, but it wasn’t what I expected. It was a process that the film had to take me through to show me what was intended, which was this very dreamy, very evocative, very… out-of-focus, green film.
Because the mag had jammed [in the camera]. So there were all these light leaks in the footage. And at first I was like, shit, we gotta cut out all the light leaks. And then I thought, no, the movie is in this character’s consciousness and when the light leaks, he’s jumping to a different tangent.
I wrote a note — a fucking note! — to the colorist. Wong Kar-Wai (he and Claire Denis are probably my two favorite filmmakers) had this music video called “Six Days” [watch it below] and I took photos of it, on, like, a laptop screen, printed them out and sent them with the footage and a handwritten note, and this green thing came back. It’s a weird-ass film. I love it.
On “Moonlight,” the casting philosophy that led to the remarkable central triple-performance from three unknowns was inspired by famous editor Walter Murch and his book “In The Blink Of An Eye,” especially the part about the blink (or the edit) “cutting” the emotional connection between character and viewer.
I was inspired by Walter’s book, and I really thought about that when casting. It was all about the eyes. The more the actor wasn’t blinking, the more they were not cutting that connection. So I’m not worried about them physically resembling each other — though their skin tones have to be consistent — but I’m looking at their eyes. And if you see the poster for the film, there’s a sliver of each actor’s face and it’s all connected by the look in their eyes.
And he the drew inspiration for mixing professional and non-professional actors from the work of Lynne Ramsay.
One of my favorite filmmakers is Lynne Ramsay. And [in] Lynne’s first few films, she was famous — notorious — for blending non-actors with actors — in “Ratcatcher” and “Morvern Callar.” And she always talks about this tension where the trained actor cannot rely on old tricks, on muscle memory, to react to the person they’re in scene with. And I spoke with James [Laxton] about it because our shooting style would have to be a little different with untrained actors.
Also, we shot in Miami — our budget could have gone a lot further if we’d shot in some other state where they have these tax incentives, but I wanted the voice of the city to be a part of the piece. So we did a lot of work searching for non-actors we felt we could trust to give us what we needed in-scene as characters, not just as the people they were. But after that, I didn’t really direct them any differently than I did the others. There was something about speaking to Alex Hibbert [the youngest Chiron] that was different than speaking to Mahershala Ali, but I tried to use the same voice. And over the course of the project, who was an actor and who was a non-actor, that line became blurred to the point of non-distinction.