Stephen Best: Hello. Berkeley contingent. Hi, I’m Steven Best. My students… I’m a professor of English at Berkeley, and I’m your host for tonight. It’s my great pleasure to share this iconic stage with Barry Jenkins. Our conversation is part of the City Arts & Lectures On Arts program. And we’re really pleased that proceeds from tonight’s event…we’re having mic problems. Okay. Okay. Proceeds from tonight’s event will benefit the 826 Valencia college scholarship program.
Now, this is a San Francisco audience and many of us here in San Francisco fell in love with Barry Jenkins back in 2008, when he released his film Medicine for Melancholy. That film follows a Black couple as they wander the streets of San Francisco, following a one night stand. Black in a city in which Blacks claim a small and diminishing piece of the pie, gentrification is in some ways the root of the film’s melancholy.
I just rewatched the film with an audience at SFMOMA, and it is one of the ironies of Medicine for Melancholy that 10 years later, the film has emerged as its own kind of medicinal cure–a visual memory for many of us of what it was like to live in the city before Uber, before the scooter apocalypse, before the leaning tower of Millennium, before San Francisco became the search result when you Google the words, “income inequality.”
A much larger audience became familiar with Barry Jenkins with the release of Moonlight in 2016. That film was an adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s short story “In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue,” and it was a film celebrated as the best film of that year, both before and, of course, after it won the Oscars for best picture and best adapted screenplay. Few of us ever thought we’d see such a textured and empathetic rendering of Black queer life on the screen.
Hilton Als, the theatre critic for the New Yorker, registers the surprise many of us felt. He wrote in the New Yorker, “did I ever imagine, during my anxious, closeted childhood, that I’d live long enough to see a movie like Moonlight? Did any gay man who came of age, as I did, in the era of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and AIDS think he’d survive to see a version of his life, told on screen with such knowledge, unpredictability, and grace?”
That word “grace” frequently appears in reviews of Jenkins’s films. It captures the sense of an art that wants to bear witness to the given. Leaving room for us to experience the emotional resonances and texture of Black life, the sovereignty of quiet, this is how Barry Jenkins gives us to know that Black lives matter.
With Medicine for Melancholy and Moonlight, Jenkins has come to be known as an apostle of love, Black love. It comes as little surprise then that the film to follow Moonlight would be an adaptation of a James Baldwin novel. Baldwin, who swam against the tide and remained committed, to the very end, to getting Americans to think about the consequences of love, for which he paid dearly.
Baldwin writes in The Fire Next Time, from 1963, “a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white. Not to be seen as he is. And at the same time, a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without, and know we can not live within. I use the word love,” he writes, “not merely in the personal sense, but as a state of being or a state of grace, not in the infantile, American sense of being made happy, but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
So there was that word, grace, again. Baldwin’s love is not, as he puts it, “the infantile American one of the movie screen,” nor is it the love of Radio Raheem’s brass knuckles, a mere counterpoint to hate. The same holds true for Barry Jenkins. If In Beale street Could Talk, which we will see a bit of this evening–in If Beale Street Could Talk, which we’ll see a bit of this evening, he gives us the most unimaginably beautiful rendering of the Baldwinian sense of love: a state of being, a universal sense of quest and daring and growth.
Please join me in welcoming Barry Jenkins to the stage, and to City Arts & Lectures.
Barry Jenkins: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you. I appreciate that, man. When I lived here, nobody ever clapped for me like that. So I appreciate it.
Who said that? Actually, I know who said that.
Stephen Best: You know who said that. So, I wanted to start with Medicine for Melancholy, and just to confess that, like, when I first saw the film, I felt a bit of shock. I felt a bit of a shock, cause that sense of alienation that you can feel as a Black person in San Francisco, it was as if I were seeing it for the first time on screen. And I’ll be honest, like I was just like, “who is this guy? Like, was he following me?” You know? Because like, this is the life of a Black person.
Barry Jenkins: There were like four of us.
Stephen Best: There were four of us! That was why I was like, “who is this guy, how is it that I did not know he was making this film?”
Barry Jenkins: If we had crossed paths, it would’ve stuck, you know what I mean?
Stephen Best: So, I want you to sort of, you know, there are lots of students in the audience, future writers, future filmmakers, and I know they would like to know how you made that film. Like, what were you doing in San Francisco? How did that film come about?
Barry Jenkins: Yeah, it was a really interesting time in my life. Got in last night, it was a very different San Francisco than it is today. Oh my. I don’t think you can make that film today.
But I moved here for a woman. And was really deeply in love with that woman. And then she was not so deeply in love with me. And we broke up. Or she dumped me–I’mma be honest, she dumped me. And it was interesting.
I think when you’re in a relationship, especially one that, that has its root, its foundation in love, it kind of blinds you to, to everything else. And so I was experiencing the city through this relationship, through this woman. And when we were no longer together–cause I had no history here, I moved here for her – — m, –I started to realize just how isolated I felt from everyone else.
And, you know, people would ask me, you know, “what do you do?” And I’d be like, “I’m a filmmaker.” And then they’d be like, “well, what have you done?” And I hadn’t done anything. And so I felt like, you know, I need to do something. And I just took all this energy–because I did love the city, and I felt like the city didn’t love me back in the way I expected it to, because when I was with this woman it loved me wholly and fully. And so I thought, “Oh, well, let me take that energy and put it into a story.”
And now speaking to your students, we just did it, to quote Spike, “by any means necessary.” I mean, it was 15 days, $15,000, five person, and we stole every damn thing. Yes. Which you could do in San Francisco back then. We went to the Knockout–see you take me back to the time travel now, man–we went to the Knockout and we just put up a sign, it’d be like, “Hey, free shots at the Knockout tonight, but you got to sign a waiver to be in a movie.” And so we just got all these people wasted at the Knockout.
Stephen Best: Is that how the party scene happens at the end?
Barry Jenkins: That is how the party is going to happen is at the end, bruh. Shots bruh.
Stephen Best: Shots.
Barry Jenkins: It was all shots.
Stephen Best: Genius.
Barry Jenkins: That’s a true story.
Stephen Best: Yeah. And the style of the film, like, you know, my memory was sort of telling me, oh yeah, it was a film in black and white, and then when I watched it again at SFMOMA, I was like, no, it’s not. So was there a choice there?
Barry Jenkins: Yeah. You know, the thing with that film that, if and when I get really, really, I’ve had too much to drink and I come home and I put it on–cause that’s the only way I’m going to watch it now, bruh. But if that happens, I go through all the sort of like flashbacks of how that movie came to be, and what it was was just this almost, this quest to try to take the emotion I felt about the city, the disorientation, the isolation, and put it into a film. And, you know, there’s this very–it’s my first film. So it’s this very overt commentary about the lack of color in San Francisco. So I was like, “we goin make it black and white, because everybody thinks San Francisco is so beautiful, to hell with San Francisco. It was not so beautiful.”
But that wasn’t fully my relationship with the city. And so we started to allow some of the color, back in. Yeah. And so now for the film students, what we did was we shot the movie like hyper red, like hyper red. If you look at the raw dailies for Medicine, it’s like a very red image. You know, almost like we put like a filter over the lens. And then we pulled all the color out, because we wanted the Black folks’ skin, even in black and white, to be supple. And so we brought all this warmth and saturation into it and then took it out. But because of that, I have the ability as I was making, as we were cutting the film, to allow more and more color into the piece.
And so it was actually–man I’m going through all my old talking points now–going down memory lane. The movie is actually 93% desaturated. And I remember this critic, Karina Longworth, who does, I think it’s called The Remember This podcast now, she wrote this amazing review where she was like, “I think the movie’s 93% desaturated to reflect the fact that San Francisco is only 7% African American.”
And again, working from emotion, we ended up at the place, but intellectually I could have never, ever in a million years decided this is what we’re going to do. So it was a really fluid process that was just about being a young Black dude who loved the city that, at that time, I felt didn’t love him back.
Stephen Best: Yeah. Yeah. Good use of that alienation.
Barry Jenkins: Thanks, bro.
Stephen Best: No, totally good use of that alienation.
Barry Jenkins: I got no problem with San Francisco, man. We were getting off on the wrong foot, let me say, I got no problem with San Francisco. Thank you all for coming out, bro.
Stephen Best: So, with Moonlight, was the process less directly kind of emotional, like you– how did you come about meeting up or interfacing with h h umT Tarell for that?
Barry Jenkins: Yeah. Moonlight was an interesting process. For those who don’t know, I lived here from like 2005 to 2013, 2014. And so even after making Medicine, I didn’t move directly back to Los Angeles. I was still here trying to find a way to tell more stories and it just wasn’t, it just wasn’t clicking.
I was working with some friends doing branded content for all the companies you were throwing shade at in your intro. And, I got to a point in 2013 where I was like, “Oh, I need to go somewhere and I need to write something.” And a friend had sent me Tarell’s play,” In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue,” and there was just something in it…It was a story that I’d always thought maybe I could tell about myself–you know, growing up in the projects in the hood in Miami with a mom addicted to crack cocaine–but I never had the courage to. And so when Tarell’s piece came to me, it just opened up so many, I guess I’ll say wounds in a certain way.
But it was also invigorating, because it wasn’t the kind of story that I could tell about the life I was living in at the present moment, but it was so much about the identity that I came to sort of slip into. And so I went to Brussels and wrote the script for Moonlight and Beale Street, actually at the same time.
And when I came back and we decided we were going to make the film, again, it was this thing of, a lot of people have known me for like 15, 20 years and never knew that my mom was addicted to crack cocaine. Never knew I grew up that way. So it was about opening all these aspects of myself that I hadn’t opened to very many people. And because of that, the aesthetic of the piece took on this almost elevated sort of tone. It wasn’t just craft, you know, it became almost like, like working therapy in a certain way.
Stephen Best: Interesting. Okay. Yeah, I definitely want to talk about the aesthetic of the film, but I wonder if maybe we could look at a clip and then…
Barry Jenkins: Sure.
Stephen Best: Working from that, talk about the aesthetic of the film. Okay, can we have the…
Barry Jenkins: We got clips, y’all.
Stephen Best: First, can we have the first clip from Moonlight?
Barry Jenkins: Oh, I like this clip. So yeah. Turn the volume up?
Stephen Best: So I’m curious about two things. The craft of that scene, like how it came about, the techniques involved. And then just what it means for the film.
Barry Jenkins: Yeah. I’ll talk about the technique first. You know, it’s funny, watching that, being here in San Francisco, having talked about Medicine before, James Laxton, who’s born and raised in San Francisco, who shot Medicine for Melancholy, also shot this, and also shot Beale Street. I say that because watching, thinking about Medicine, and watching that sequence, we approached it the same way. I mean, it’s not like we grew up as filmmakers and now we have this new style that we applied to Moonlight or to Beale Street. We approached it the same way. And we just have more resources, you know, Moonlight, I mean, Medicine costs $15,000, this movie is about 1.5 million. So it’s just more resources.
But, you know, James and I, with this film, were really adamant about rooting the audience in the point of view and the perspective of the main character. You know, as I said, this movie was about unearthing a lot of dark things about my childhood, and a lot of dark things about Tarell’s childhood. And so it didn’t feel worthwhile to go through that if you guys didn’t have to walk a mile in our shoes, literally. So we freed ourselves from certain aesthetic principles you associate with certain genres, and instead it was about the emotional state of the character.
And what I love about cinema is, you guys are sitting in a room and there are speakers all around you and the screen is there. And so James and I, when we’re on set, we approach it, okay, how can we remember that the audience is here, the speakers are around them, the screen is there, and immerse them in the image?
And so with this scene, which, Moonlight was a 25 day shoot. And when you make a movie in 25 days, especially at the budget we made this film, you don’t have cover sets. And so like on a, like a, what, The Avengers. On The Avengers, if it rains, it’s like, “oh shit, we’re not working today. You know, we’re going to go get lunch.” On Moonlight, you got to work every day. Every day. And so the one rule or principle that we decided with the scene that we were going to stick with, no matter what, was that the camera was going to be oriented on the waterline the same way the main character Chiron’s oriented on the waterline. So if his head is bobbing in and out, the lens is literally right at the water line. It’s bobbing in and out. And that was a really lovely choice because we got there and it was clear this huge storm was coming in.
And I consider myself like a termite. When I, like Manny Farber, the Termite Art versus White Elephant Art. I just like to chew wood, man. And I think when I get on set to a scene, it’s like, everything’s gotta be chown. Chown, that’s not a word. Everything’s gotta be chewed. I’m gonna chew it all up, bro. And so, one of the things that we decided, you know, myself and James and Adele Romanski, our producer, was to make the film as visceral as possible for the performers, by which I mean that the three main actors aren’t going to meet each other, because I don’t want them rehearsing together and mimicking each other.
We also couldn’t afford to have rehearsals anyway. And so this kid, Alex Hibbert, did not know how to swim. And so I told him, don’t learn how to swim. I told his mom, you know, “Mahershala Ali will teach him how to swim when we film the scene.”
And so, and so we get there and the storm is coming in, and we only know that we have to have the lens oriented the same as our main character. And then you just watch Mahershala Ali teach this kid how to swim, as a storm comes in, which is so crucial for a film where I know that Mahershala Ali is not going to be in the second story or the third story. But because there’s this element–he’s literally taught him this thing that’s self-sustaining– there’s a spiritual transference between the two of them in that sequence.
And it was one of those things that if I had planned, “okay, we’re going to teach you how to–go learn how to swim. You’re the best swimmer in the world. Pretend to not know how to swim, young boy who’s never acted before,” it’s not going to be the same. And I think the scene has the power it does, because you guys are literally watching that boy learn how to swim. As the storm is coming in. It’s insane.
Stephen Best: Yeah, it has like metaphorical meaning for the film, in terms of like trust, et cetera, but it’s also, he’s literally learning how to swim.
Barry Jenkins: Well, but for me, it’s just that he’s learning how to swim. I don’t want to say metaphorical, this, that nothing. He’s just learning how to swim. He’s just learning how to swim.
Now, the other part of that scene that I’m reminded of, because I haven’t talked about this film in a bit, is the piece of music there, which is written by our composer, Nicholas Britell, you know, that music didn’t exist before the sequence. And that piece of music would not exist without the sequence. The music could not have come before the sequence. Cause I remember walking into Nick’s studio and you know, Nick’s also a termite, and we just throw stuff against the wall.
And I remember he had done a pass–I wish I could dig it up and listen to it–he had done a pass of the score on the scene and he was so happy. He was like, “it’s so happy. He’s learning how to swim.” And I was like, “no, That is not what is happening here. That is not what is happening here.” And we started from, we went back to point A, and, again, this spiritual transference, this idea of, I mean, fuck, it’s like two Black males in the Atlantic Ocean, you know, it’s like, you can’t get any richer than that. And so I think all those elements, at a certain point, come together and add up to just this thing that I don’t think the movie would work without that sequence.
Stephen Best: Yeah. I want to get back to something you said briefly about…
Barry Jenkins: What did I say?
Stephen Best: No, no, no. About the being aware…
Barry Jenkins: Am I in trouble?
Stephen Best: Of the audience when you’re filming and wanting them sort of to draw them into, like having the camera bobbing up and down. Identification in your cinema. Like how spectators identify with characters. I’m sort of interested in a little, few aspects.
Barry Jenkins: Yeah. I refer to it as a immersive cinema. I went to film school and one of my professors was a guy named Richard Portman, may he rest in peace. He was a old school sound dude. If you’ve seen Robert Altman films with the crazy sound, Richard was this really hippie dude who pioneered with Robert, with Mr. Altman, excuse me, that sort of sound dynamic. And the first day of class Richard was like, “people think film is 95% visual and 5% sound. And I’m like, no, no, no, no, no, no.” Richard’s like “it’s 50% visual, 50% sound, and do not wait until the last five seconds to try to fix that fifty percent sound.”
Now in a theater, it just got even darker. In a theater, the screen is so far away from the audience, but the speakers are right up on y’all. And so again, when we’re thinking about building these sequences, it’s like, okay, how can we take these images from the screen, mix them with the speakers and give the audience an immersive experience? Sometimes that means people looking right into the camera, but I’m sure we’ll get to that.
Stephen Best: We will get to that. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I have this quote I love from Baldwin. It’s from The Devil Finds Work, the book that he wrote on Hollywood cinema. He says at one point in the book, he says, “no one, I read somewhere a long time ago, makes his escape personality Black. That the movie stars and escape personality indicates one of the irreducible dangers to which the movie goer is exposed, the danger of surrendering to the corroboration of one’s fantasies as they’re thrown back from the screen.”
I think his point–seventies talking about forties, fifties cinema–is that Hollywood had trained minorities to identify with white protagonists. There are no white people in Moonlight. So you’d better make your escape personality Black if you’re going to sort of identify with this film, but do you approach that question of like identifying with characters, like as, like technically? And this goes to the having characters look directly at the camera.
Barry Jenkins: I do. I think part of it is, when I got to film school, I was so far behind my peers that I felt like my voice was getting suffocated in the technique, because I didn’t know how to take the tools and allow them to carry my voice. You know, I didn’t know you needed light to expose film. I was just behind. I think because of that, I took a year off and I tried to ground myself in craft and technique to the point that now I think maybe there’s almost an overreliance on technique on my part to embody the characters. You know, I’m not relying on story as much as I’m relying on technique. But the flip side of that is I think it makes for a much more immersive, visual, oral experience because I’m working towards that end.
Stephen Best: Could I ask for a still of Kevin?
Barry Jenkins: We have stills.
Stephen Best: Could we have the still of, yeah.
Barry Jenkins: Oh man.
Stephen Best: Is that the wrong one to choose?
Barry Jenkins: No, I’ll talk about it.
Stephen Best: Cause Kevin, so Kevin is not looking at a character here. He’s just looking at the camera. And that happens a lot in your films. Sometimes it’ll be, you know, the closeups will be characters looking at one another, but very often there’ll be scenes where the character is looking essentially at the audience. Is that…
Barry Jenkins: I mean, well with this still though–I want to be dense and intellectual and artsy, but I got to say…
Stephen Best: What?
Barry Jenkins: André just looked hot standing at that wall.
Stephen Best: I know, which is, which is why I wanted us to put it up there, yeah.
Barry Jenkins: So here’s the thing. So I think a movie is a series of moods–I mean look at it bro.
Stephen Best: I know, I know.
Barry Jenkins: It’s a series…
Stephen Best: I was like, I need to find a way to talk about this still.
Barry Jenkins: Ali, come get your man. Alright, so, well, I’ll talk about the still or the scene itself, and then hopefully that’ll unpack whatever it is we’re unpacking over here. Okay. so, so this sequence, or I’ll talk about film in general. I think a film, especially with Moonlight, because it’s so point of view, it’s not a big story, it’s just about trying to get the audience to know what it’s like to be this boy. And it’s also, because I’m a straight guy, you know, it’s also a story about queer desire, you know, a queer coming of age, queer life, queer feelings. And I was always on the lookout for places where I could take those things and make them not intellectual, but make them gut, you know, make them heart.
And so this is actually after we finished all the work in the diner with André and Trevante. And this is what’s so beautiful about working with the people I went to film school with. You know, we’re all termites, you know, we’re all just running around, just like doing shit. And we were packing up, it was raining, and all the crew was putting stuff on the truck. And I looked at James and he looked at me and we both looked over at André, and André was just leaning against the wall, waiting for his car. And so I walked over to him and said, “Hey bro, you got some more cigarettes?” He’s like, “yeah, I got them.” I was like, “can you smoke one?” He’s like, “yeah, I can smoke one.”
And so I ran over to James, didn’t tell the producer, the AD, are there any un–we were union, we were cool, we’re cool. But James just picked up the camera and I was like, I was brought–it was just three of us, you know? Sometimes, you’ll see a movie, people shoot here in San Francisco a lot, there’s like 5,000 people, it seems like, 800 trucks and all this shit and cords and all that. But sometimes all it takes is a lens, an actor, and intention.
And myself, James and André had like a 3 second convo. It was like, “Hey, we’re going to put the lens on the camera. We’re going to slowly walk into you. I just want you to smoke the cigarette. And if you feel like looking, just want you to look, if you want to blow some smoke, you blow some smoke.” And André, you know, he’s a very charismatic guy. He got it right away. Because where this falls in the film is, the character Chiron is having a hard time sleeping and he wakes up the next morning and he has had a very interesting night dreaming, but we didn’t have a visual to show what he was dreaming about.
And so this is unplanned, André’s just standing there. But I kind of thought, “Oh, he looks hot as hell. Let’s make this sexy.” And so the DP just walked in on him and we racked the focus and he blows the smoke and it was like, mm, that’s it. Now I can’t write shit like that. Yeah. And I don’t want to write shit like that, but, but if I see it and I feel it and the actors feel it, and we’re in an environment where everybody’s trusting–like when we’re doing this, André has no idea where it’s going to go in the film. None, but he’s like, “you know what? I’m going to blow my smoke and make those eyes.” And yeah. Is that what you want me to say?
Stephen Best: Yes, that is exactly what I wanted you to say. That’s exactly what I wanted you to say.
Barry Jenkins: This is not what I’m expecting to see. This is not what I’m expecting to see.
Stephen Best: Yeah, no, it’s just, it’s perfect how it unfolds. It’s in his dream.
Barry Jenkins: And I will say it’s interesting, as a male director, typically when something like this happens it’s because, I gotta be honest, there is some very gorgeous woman who’s doing something, and the male gaze wants to take apart this gorgeous woman. And oftentimes, in taking her apart, she’s not going to look at the camera. And this instance, this is about the male gaze and male desire. And it was a very interesting thing for myself and James, who were both straight, to apply the same aesthetic suppleness, I want to say, to the way we build this very sexual energy, sensual energy, I should say. And it was, of all the things–so weird you picked this–of all the things in the film, it’s one of the things that I’m proudest of, because it’s just, it was this alchemy of presence, opportunity, intention, and goodwill, because it was very goodwilled of André to do that. Yeah.
Stephen Best: Still on this kind of theme of technically drawing viewers in, is the way you light the character–the actors part of that? Can we have the next…
Barry Jenkins: There’s more stills.
Stephen Best: There’s one more still.
Barry Jenkins: I’ve got to say, too, let me…
Stephen Best: This one, actually it’s very hard to see because…
Barry Jenkins: As it should be.
Stephen Best: That’s what I mean. That is what I’m saying.
Barry Jenkins: As it should be. But let me say now, I don’t light the actors, and his mom is here, I got to say, my cinematographer, James Laxton–he lights the actors. Don’t get me in trouble Aggie. I don’t light ’em. The cinematographer lights ’em.
Stephen Best: Oh, I see. Right.
Barry Jenkins: You see, you see.
Stephen Best: That’s right. That’s right. But, you’re not part of the conversation?
Barry Jenkins: I mean, of course.
Stephen Best: Right. Cause it’s like, I was reminded in watching the film of like, I don’t know if you’ve seen Kerry James Marshall’s Black paintings, right? Kerry James Marshall’s Black paintings, Roy DeCarava’s photographs, where, you know, instead of trying to brighten darkness, you sort of darken it further.
Barry Jenkins: Kerry James Marshall was a direct influence on this image. A direct influence on this image.
Stephen Best: I knew it.
Barry Jenkins: No, no. A direct influence on this image. Yeah, you know, this is the last frame of the film. And again, I want, I’m going to just reveal how the sausage is made. I want to say “I’m brilliant. I wanted to end the film with this kid looking at the audience.” But I didn’t. In the script, little dude is meant to, because we saw this big swimming lesson, he’s meant to swim out into the water, he looks back very briefly, and then he keeps on swimming.
But when you making movies on a low budget and you can’t control the environment, you go wherever the hell you can get a permit to swim, and in the place where we got a permit to swim, there are sharks. And in order to shoot the scene with this perfect light, we had to shoot at the feeding hour. Which is right before dusk, right at dusk. And so the salty dogs, we call them, which are these old, these old school life dogs, lifeguards, they were like, “nah, bruh, he can’t go into water.” And so instead we improvised. Because the biggest thing was for him to feel confident and fulfilled and just, I keep using this word, it’s in a Kerry James Marshall, self satisfaction in a certain way. And again, talk about the audience identifying with the character. The look was the most important thing. And so I’m going to reveal how the sausage is made. If you look at the dailies, homeboy looks back, holds the gaze, holds the gaze, and then he turns and he walks out into the water, but we racked the exposure so he doesn’t have to go out into the sharks. Now, it was real, man, it was real. And I mean, Michael Bay would have been like, “go swim out there with the sharks.” Wait this is going to radio, edit that part out, please.
And so, we got, we got into the edit. And, we kept having him look back and then walk out, look back and then walk out. And then a friend of mine, actually a white guy, I’ll give him props. He said, “no, no,” because you talk about this idea of immersion and what people are seeing, because I see one thing, that’s my experience, other folks see other things. And he said, “you know, it’s interesting, when he looks away and he walks out, I just kind of lose something.” And he’s like, “but when I’m making eye contact with him, I feel everything.” Yeah. And so we thought, “Oh, we’re just not going to have him turn around. Once, right before he turns to look away, cut to black.” So, yeah, it’s very. It’s the same day we shot the swimming scene too. Anyway.
Stephen Best: Yeah, it’s lovely.
Barry Jenkins: I haven’t seen some of this stuff in so long.
Stephen Best: Yeah. One of my students said, it’s like the effect is, it’s like when you’re walking into a dark room and your eyes have to adjust. And that’s sort of, it’s like literally that whatever, biological process, is drawing you into the image .
Barry Jenkins: Which makes the audience member an active viewer.
Stephen Best: Mhm. A really active viewer of the film. Yeah. Yeah. Can we talk about If Beale Street Could Talk?
Barry Jenkins: Yes, of course. Nobody’s seen it, but we can talk about it.
Stephen Best: No one’s seen it. They’ll see a little bit of it. So you know, the Baldwin estate has endorsed like a number of great projects now: Raoul Peck’s, I Am Not Your Negro, you know, they provided the unfinished manuscript for that. I wondered if you might say a bit about how it was to work with the estate, what is it–what did you get from them?
Barry Jenkins: Yeah, it was very slow and diligent, because, you know, James Baldwin is a titan, and for anybody to get the keys to the kingdom, they have to earn them. When I wrote the script for Moonlight, I wrote the script for Beale Street at the same time, which was, I guess, five years ago now.
And the Baldwin estate is a collection of folks, like a coalition, I guess you could call it, a family. And one of the things I decided was, I was just going to write the script without the rights. So I adapted the book, didn’t have the rights, which you’re not supposed to do, but I was like, “to hell with it, I just need to write something.” And then I sent them the actual screenplay. I was like, “this is what I’m going to do.” And it was just this process of the estate becoming familiar with me, which is kind of cool. San Francisco shout out, the Baldwin estate never says anything about Moonlight. They gave me the rights to this book because of Medicine for Melancholy.
Stephen Best: Right, that’s what I heard.
Barry Jenkins: Which is crazy to me. Yes, [whistle sound] to that; I can’t whistle, but yes. And, and so it was this thing, this process of over the course of four, three and a half, four years, while we were making Moonlight, of the estate just becoming familiar with me, me becoming familiar with them. And it’s a very faithful adaptation as you’ll see. I mean, you’ve seen it. As you guys will see, if and when you see the film.
And my goal, my intention with the book was to bring it into a visual medium whole and intact. Because I loved it. And Baldwin had never been adapted in the English language. So my job almost was to protect it, as it made its way to the screen.
Stephen Best: Fantastic. Should we look at the clip and then..?
Barry Jenkins: So, so I gotta set this clip up. Has anybody here read the novel, If Beale Street Could Talk?
It’s like twelve of y’all. So I, I don’t know if there’s kids out here. There’s some, this, there’s some heavy stuff in this, in this book. It’s all just language. It’s all language. Baldwin was speaking the truth about a lot of heavy things, and people were expressing themselves in very heavy ways.
Stephan James plays the main character in the film, this guy Fonny, who is falsely accused of a crime he did not commit. But the movie and the book are nonlinear. It jumps back and forth in time. And so the clip I believe you’re going to show follows after a chance encounter with a friend, played by Brian Tyree Henry, Paper Boi, who has himself spent time behind bars. And it’s a long sequence. It’s like 12 minutes scene. But we’re only gonna show the second half of it. And, I apologize for the language, but you know, we wanted to bring Baldwin into the world intact. So the language is…
Stephen Best: Yeah it’s verbatim. It’s from the novel.
Barry Jenkins: It is verbatim.
Stephen Best: It’s verbatim.
Barry Jenkins: It is verbatim. That means Baldwin wrote it. Not me.
Stephen Best: Can we have the clip?
Barry Jenkins: It’s hard for me to watch that one.
Stephen Best: Y’all are trying to win an Oscar for sound editing too, huh.
Barry Jenkins: I don’t know what it sounds like out there man, but it’s like, anyway.
Stephen Best: Just sounds fantastic.
Barry Jenkins: Thank you.
Stephen Best: Yeah.
Barry Jenkins: It’s actually kind of cool, Nick… I’ll just–looking a little how the sausage is made, real quick. So in that scene, they’re listening to Miles Davis, “Blue in Green,” which I’ve always wanted to put in a movie, but Sally Potter used it in Ginger & Rosa, she used it very well. So I thought, “Oh, nobody can use it anymore.” But then we used it in this. And, but I knew I wanted the score to come in, because there’s a very lush lovemaking scene that comes about 10 minutes before this sequence, and that rumble that was in here, that is actually the same song that they make love to, but this thing that can be so beautiful in one tone is the source of dread in another tone.
And so I knew we were going to add score to that sequence, and only when you add score, you turn the needle drop off. And so we turn the Miles Davis off. And then again, what I love about working with my friends, who are all termites, is Nick and I said, “well, why can’t we just play the Miles Davis? Let’s just, let’s take ‘Blue in Green’ and make it an element of the score.” And so that’s when the sort of reverb and then the panning of the “Blue in Green” starts to happen, because everything is just swirling down into this pit of misery. So yeah, it was a really, really cool sequence to sound design.
Stephen Best: Yeah. I mean, I’m going to say something that might even, I guess might give offense some, but like, but they’re–watching the scene–it’s like, there’s something almost beautiful about the terror conveyed in the scene.
Barry Jenkins: See that’s where the trickiness of being so obsessed with the aesthetics comes into play, because it’s, it’s quite dangerous. You know, there are filmmakers who do take craft and wield it so powerfully that you forget there’s a message. Sometimes that message isn’t what we need to be hearing or seeing at the same time. So, I’ll take that under advisory, my friend.
Stephen Best: Oh, no. Yeah. I mean, it reminded, so it reminded me of this, cause it was a Baldwin film, it just reminded me of, there’s a moment in The Fire Next Time where Baldwin’s sort of talking about the Negro past and he just, he goes on for a page talking about essentially all the violence that has been done to Black people, right. You know, rape, fire, torture. He’s like, and then he writes, “this past, this endless struggle to achieve and reveal and confirm a human identity, human authority, yet contains, for all its horror, something very beautiful. I do not mean to be sentimental about suffering, but,” but, and this is the, this is the meat, “but people who cannot suffer can never grow up. Can never discover who they are.” And so for me, it’s like that sense of like a terror that..
Barry Jenkins: So are you saying I make movies that make people suffer so they can grow up?
Stephen Best: No. James Baldwin writes novels about characters who suffer to show us how they grow up.
Barry Jenkins: Okay, cool.
Stephen Best: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, the arc of that scene is also interesting, right? Because it, you, Fonny wants to be reassuring. But Daniel’s telling him “I’m not out, it’s not over.” Right. Like that’s where the..
Barry Jenkins: Yeah, the way I describe that scene, cause there’s like seven minutes of scene before that. These guys meet on the street and right away, Brian is like, he is literally Paper Boi: he’s cracking jokes, everything’s funny. He’s talking shit about Fonny’s sculptures cause Fonny’s an artist, really, really lovely stuff. But the way I described that scene to the two of them was, you know, when two Black men see each other on the street or they run into each other after a long period apart, it’s like, “how are you doing?” It’s like, “Oh, I’m good.” Everybody always says “I’m good.”
And over the course of spending an hour or two hours, three hours, “I’m good, and; I’m good, or; I’m good, but.” And slowly, you get to “the thing’s, I’m actually not good.” And that sequence is about these two characters creating the space where they can reveal to each other “I’m good, but,” and then everything in between that but, or after that but, that’s kind of what you guys just saw. And that’s where the scene goes.
So, it was really cool because this movie was 32 days. Moonlight was 25. But when you’re working with actors who know, they know what the characters are going through, you know, you don’t need, you know, 60 days to get them up to speed. They walk on set and they feel it, you know, it’s in the gut as [UI] would say.
Stephen Best: Yeah. Yeah. They’re Black actors playing Black characters.
Barry Jenkins: Did somebody say yes?
Stephen Best: I’m sorry. That was a shortcut. But, so, and, but then, you know, the scene ends with a meal. With this sort of expression of grace and love. And it’s interesting, cause like it reminds me of, you know, Baldwin sort of saying that the love he’s talking about is not the personal infantile happiness that people…
And I think in the film, there’s more at stake in Beale Street than the happiness of Fonny and Tish, right? Like it’s about that kinship network and what they do for Fonny.
Barry Jenkins: Yeah. I mean, if he had titled the book, “The Souls of Black Folk,” it would’ve just been the same damn book. You know? So see, I do think there is more at stake, but I think even more than that, for the actors, they’re communicating more to each other than what’s just on the surface, you know. It’s not just about being happy and it’s not–I mean, it is a lot about being free. But it is about being whole in a certain way, and being able to have access to a whole range of experiences and a range of emotions.
Stephen Best: Yeah. Yeah. That’s great. I thought maybe, since the clip is fresh in our minds, we could turn to audience questions.
Barry Jenkins: Sure. I can’t see nobody, but.
Stephen Best: I think they’ll do something with the lighting.
Barry Jenkins: I really can not see nobody. I can not see nobody. I don’t, I can’t see anybody. Here we go.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is to your far left.
Audience Member 1: Oh my God. Hi, my name’s Ryan. It’s a pleasure to be speaking to you. I have so much respect for you, but my question is what is something that you have made or edited that no matter how many times you’ve seen it, you don’t feel tired or apathetic about it?
Barry Jenkins: Oh, that’s a lovely question. When was this? A friend of mine who lives here, who I’m going to embarrass. And like, I know she’s not here, so I won’t embarrass her too much, but it’s San Francisco. Somebody knows her. Katrina Dodson is a friend of mine. Yes. And so Katrina turned 30, like 80,000 years ago, it seems like now.
And, back then it was like a different San Francisco. And so she was like “for my birthday, don’t buy me any stock. Don’t buy me any of this,” which is what people probably buy each other for their birthdays now in San Francisco. But she said at her 30th birthday party she only wanted people to make her things. So if you are a baker, bake her a loaf of bread; if you were a painter, you know, get an 8×11 and paint her something. I’m a filmmaker, so she said “Barry, you gotta make me a movie.” And I was like, “making movies are hard. I can’t make you a movie for your 30th birthday.”
But we were both in this weird place in our relationships. And so I knew this young couple that I worked with at Banana Republic Grant Avenue. And so I went and asked them, I was like, “Hey, would you guys mind if I came over and just stayed at your house for like three hours on a Sunday?” And this couple Jen and John, they were like, “yeah, sure. That sounds fine.”
And they had this apartment on, like in the Tenderloin. Tenderloin’s still Tenderloin. So yeah, in Tenderloin. And me and James, and my other friend, David Bornfriend, we just went up to their apartment for like two hours. And we approached it as like an anthropological documentary. I just documented the life of this young couple. And they were just so open and honest, I think it’s the most complete thing I’ve ever made.
And every time I watch it, I just, I dunno, I just get moved. And not because I made it, maybe because it was for Katrina’s birthday and she loved it. But really, because there was just something so pure about it. And so, yeah, I mean, it sounds like shit, you know, it looks crazy. But I just never, I will never get tired of watching it.
Because I think as a filmmaker, I want to always be that way. If somebody says go, it’s like, okay, I’ve got toothpaste and bubblegum and a tripod. I’m going to go and make something with these three things. So, yeah, but that’s the one. It’s called A Young Couple. You can see it on Vimeo. It’s 13 minutes and I think it’s awesome.
Thank you, Ryan.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the front.
Audience Member 2: Hi, my name is Marnie. I guess my question is just about my, really my fascination about art and artists. So you are a son of a crack cocaine mother, and your stuff could be pamphletary, but it’s not really, it’s just beautiful when you could be a white guy from the Los Angeles Hills.
When you filmed–maybe not. When you filmed Medicine, you just filmed as red as you could, and then it turns out beautiful, of course. And then you see a critic saying, “Oh, it’s 97% this color because he meant this and that.” Or when you film a beautiful scene of, you know, the boy learning how to swim in there, and our amazing host says, “well, it’s also a metaphor for something else.” And you say “it’s just a boy, really learning how to swim.” So I guess my question is how much does it annoy you, that you just meant to show a boy learning how to swim and how much does it–it’s like an epiphany. Like, “of course that’s what I meant. I just didn’t know it.”
Barry Jenkins: It doesn’t annoy me at all. That, I mean, hell no, you want to say nice shit, say nice shit. Not going to get annoyed. For me, one, a movie is made over the course of three different phases. So the conversation we’ve been having, quite a bit of, I’m speaking from the present tense of being in production, and in production, that’s gotta be concrete, you know?
You do all the pre-pro and try to make sure you have all the elements there, but when we’re making the scene, I want to distill it to the simplest element. But obviously, you know, when you watch it, I hope there’s something heightened about it. So that’s me speaking with the production brain.
When we get into post production and we’re actually editing the film and we’re putting it together, I think then the sort of metaphors you’re talking about, the more ethereal nature of the filmmakin– of the art, then those things start to reveal themselves. Case in point, the still he showed with André Holland. That’s just a guy smoking in my mind, when we’re making it.
But once I have the imagery, now it’s about editing and juxtaposition and adding this sound and that sound. And then I think I can allow myself to sort of step back and maybe project some of those things into it. But if I’m projecting these more esoteric principles onto the work in the moment of making it, it’s going to be really hard to make my day.
So I think I approach it with two different brains, depending on which phase of the filmmaking process I’m in, but it doesn’t annoy me, because at the end of the day, if eight people watch the scene, you know, two of them are not going to like it. That’s just percentages. I mean to hell with them, they’re just not going to like it. Maybe four will feel their heart just swell and expand. And for two, it’s just a boy learning how to swim, you know? And that’s totally fine. All those opinions are valid. But thank you for that very interesting question, my dear.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the front and center.
Audience Member 3: Sup Barry.
Barry Jenkins: Hey what’s up?
Audience Member 3: It’s Chris.
Barry Jenkins: Hey, cousin Chris. Cousin Chris.
Audience Member 3: I want to know if you have a favorite film?
Barry Jenkins: Yeah, it goes in drifts and shifts. I would say either Beau Travail by Claire Denis or A Silent Light by Carlos Reygadas, depending on how I’m feeling during the day. And I think it goes back to the principle of your question.
I watch those films, and every time I watch them, the metaphor changes a little bit. You know, it’s not just about A, to B, to C, to D. I’m feeling things. And depending on the mood I’m in, I feel something different when I watch the way the images and those films are built. So yeah, Silent Light by Reygadas, or Beau Travail by Claire Denis.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is also from the front.
Barry Jenkins: But In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar-wai is a perfect film. I just wouldn’t say it’s my favorite, but it’s a perfect film. I mean, a perfect film, bro. A per– because it’s going to radio–a perfect film, bro.
Audience Member 4: Hello, my name is Joel Jackson. Go Knowles.
Barry Jenkins: Joel Jackson has a voice y’all. Oh my goodness.
Audience Member 4: My question is, from where you started in 2003, your short film, My Josephine, until now, how has your directing technique evolved, changed, developed?
Barry Jenkins: It hasn’t man. It’s, and there are some critics who love to hear me say that, because then they can take me down. I’m just like some kid, some film school dude. But I don’t think it has, man. I’ve always been really curious and maybe a little too willing to experiment, but I don’t think it has.
I have this quote in my email that, it’s taken from this guy who’s an art critic for the New York Times, Michael something, Michael Kimmelman. He has this quote about being an amateur. And every email I send this quote is at the bottom of it, because I think I’m just an amateur, trying to sort of like explore and figure things out.
And My Josephine is a very interesting case study, because the movie is so damn weird. It makes no sense that I made that film. But I’m not trying to project myself into the movies. I’m trying to ask questions about these characters. And I’ve been doing it since 2003. And maybe I’d be a better filmmaker if I try to be more professional and not be an amateur, but so far, I think it yields these things that, you know, when I go to teach–to film the swimming scene, I don’t, I can’t control that, you know. But because I’m not trying to control it, something that I could never have imagined ends up going on the screen.
So, yeah, I’m the same, man. I got the same DP, I got the same editor, the same producers, all Florida State, and we’re all just bumping around and trying to figure out what the hell we’re doing.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the front to your far right.
Audience Member 5: Hi, I’m Sarah. I’m going to out my boyfriend. He’s also, he also went to Florida State. Also, sorry, I’m going to do two questions. First, kind of outing myself, I’ve never read If Beale Street Could Talk. So as someone who hasn’t, would you recommend reading it before seeing your film or after?
Barry Jenkins: It’s a very faithful adaptation. So I would say you can’t go wrong either way. My preference, don’t read the book, come and see the film and then go read the book. But you can’t go wrong either way. Yeah.
Audience Member 5: And the second one, I love the Moonlight score. But hearing you talk more about the sound, what are, what are some of your other, like favorite sound moments in your films?
Barry Jenkins: I mean, in Moonlight, there’s this really awesome moment where we, instead of adding sound, we took sound out, which is Paula and Little in the hallway with the pink light, at the, near the end of the first chapter. We filmed that in slow motion. It was spontaneous, it wasn’t planned. And when we filmed it, I remember, it wasn’t planned to go at the top of a third act and right when we wrapped production, we filmed in Miami, I got on a plane to go to New York.
I am terrified of flying. Terrified. Every time I get on a plane, I think I’m going to die. Because of that, I do a lot of research on planes. And so I know what a black box looks like. It’s not black. So we wrapped production and I’m sitting on this plane and the plane is delayed like two hours. We’re in Miami, there’s thunderstorms, and this guy with a yellow vest comes walking through the plane with the damn black box.
And so I was like, “this is crazy. We’re gonna die.” So I got on my phone. And I started texting the producers. I was like, “so, that scene we did in the first act with the pink light? At the top of the third act, we’ve got to flip it and reverse like 48 frames. She comes in, she’s walking backwards. And then we finally hear where she yelled ‘don’t look at me.'”
And that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done with the sound, because as the black box is coming to me, my life flashed before my eyes, and I thought, “Oh, every night this guy goes to sleep and this horrible relationship with his mom flashes before his eyes.” So, yeah, that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done with sound. Yeah.
Oh, okay, cool. We can show it or we can do more questions. Hey, by the way, man, we gotta, we can’t discriminate against the people in the back. Keep all these front left and front center. Oh you working your way back, right? Yeah. See, I got y’all people in the back. I got y’all.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s to your far right.
Audience Member 6: Hey Barry. It’s RJ Lozada. It’s been a minute.
Barry Jenkins: Hey, what’s up bro?
Audience Member 6: Documentaries…
Barry Jenkins: This guy went to Stanford. He is a very smart man. Oh, wait, it’s San Francisco. All y’all went to Stanford, right?
Stephen Best: Ahha. No. No.
Barry Jenkins: Damn. Hating on the cardinal, bruh. I knew him before he went to Stanford though. He ended up going there, but he’s not from Stanford, right?
Audience Member 6: No, no, no, no.
Barry Jenkins: Okay.
Audience Member 6: San Diego, yeah. Anyway, there’s strong documentary elements in all your work. Can you talk about documentary filmmaking? Perhaps something you’re watching now maybe?
Barry Jenkins: Yeah, I mean, I just saw this film it’s on Hulu. It’s called Minding the Gap. You have to see it. It’s so damn good. It is just so damn good. By this kid named Bing Liu, out of Chicago. It’s about skateboarders and stuff. It’s really, really dope.
Fred Weisman’s stuff’s all now streaming with libraries. San Francisco, all y’all got library cards. I remember that. I mean, I remember being at film school and watching Medium Cool and realizing, “Oh shit, this is wild,” and and thinking there was a place for that in my work.
We made Medicine for Melancholy, I was really obsessed with gentrification and I kept trying to find an elegant way to have characters talk about gentrification. And there was just no fucking elegant way for characters to talk about gentrification. It’s just, it’s just like, it doesn’t sound right. You know, it’s like a very awkward thing. And so instead I thought, “Oh, let’s open the narrative and have our characters literally walk into a documentary.” And I think it worked, you know, some critics thought it didn’t.
But I think there’s always this tension between make-believe, fictive storytelling, and documentary. And I think there is a place for the two of them to stand hand in hand. So yeah, this, as we get on with the films– although shit, I mean, I think about it, in Beale Street, we do have–yeah, you’re right, bruh. I’m trying to get away from it, but I can’t. Stop outing me, bruh. No, don’t clap for that, bruh. Thank you for the question, man.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is to your far right, in the middle.
Audience Member 7: Hey Barry.
Barry Jenkins: I can’t see you bruh.
Audience Member 7: Over here.
Barry Jenkins: Oh, far right? Thank you.
Audience Member 7: So I’ve been going through a pretty long creative block for a while. And so to look for inspiration, I found your article, “From Medicine to Moonlight.” And so I was wondering if you could actually touch on your own sort of creative block that you went through. And sort of just talk about your creative process there on how to get out of it, really.
Barry Jenkins: You want me to talk about pain, bro?
Audience Member 7: Yes.
Barry Jenkins: Is that what you’re doing? In front of all these strangers, bro? Man, that’s a Twitter DM thing, man. That’s not, that’s not out here.
Yeah, I did go through a creative block. But, I used to refer to it as a creative block, and then I realized it was just a block. You know, I was here, working on branded content for like Google and Apple and–Uber didn’t exist the– but all those tech folks, and it was a cool gig and I had a deal at Focus Features that was also a cool gig. But I was working on things I didn’t really care about, that I wasn’t like deeply passionate about.
And it’s strange, because all it took was six weeks of me deciding, “I’m going to work on nothing but the things I care about,” and I wrote these two films in those six weeks. It’s–shit that’s a weird thing to say out loud, because it’s not going to help you. But the thing that I think will help you is, I had to get to a point where I didn’t accept the fact that I was blocked. Like I wrote those scripts so damn fast. It’s like, I think it literally should be impossible to write screenplays–it is for me–to write screenplays that fast now. I’ve tried to do it again. I can’t. But I got to a point where I decided, this is what I have to do. And so I went and I did it.
And this kind of brings the conversation full circle, because one of those things was If Beale Street Could Talk. I did not have the rights to If Beale Street Could Talk. As a screenwriter, it makes no sense to adapt a novel you don’t have the rights to. It’s like wasting money or wasting time, if you consider it that way. To me, the pleasure was in the writing and I wasn’t beholden to the estate giving me the rights to the work. It was just about the writing.
So if you get to the point where you’re embarrassed to ask somebody like me a question about being blocked and you’re just like, “fuck it, I’m just going to like, smash the block,” I think then you’ll get through the block. So smash the block, bruh. You gon’ smash the block? Say it louder, bro. You gon’ smash the block? Are you gon’ smash the block, bruh? You got a mic, man. You gon’ smash the block? Huh? You gon’ smash it?
We could…no, let’s keep talking, man.
Stephen Best: Let’s keep talking. Okay. Okay.
Barry Jenkins: We have the teaser for Beale Street, but I figure a lot of folks have seen it already. So let’s, let’s just keep talking.
Stephen Best: I think I heard a “show the teaser.”
Barry Jenkins: Hey, you gotta make it loud though, bruh. You gon’ make it loud? There’s some guy back there with a Macbook. I think he’s the one who runs it. He’s just looking at me, though.
Stephen Best: It’s coming. Okay. But it has to be loud.
Barry Jenkins: And the light’s got to go down. I heard somebody say lights. Lights. See you ask for it to be loud, now we’ve got no sound. I can just narrate it. Hey, it should have sound though, man.
Oh man. They told me there was no alcohol here, so clearly. All right.
Stephen Best: Well. Yeah.
Barry Jenkins: It’s payback for picking on homeboy.
Stephen Best: Well, you know, Barry, Barry, thank you for your art. No, like we…
Barry Jenkins: Are we done, are we done?
Stephen Best: Yeah, we should…
Barry Jenkins: No, let’s do a couple more. Give me a couple more questions.
Stephen Best: A few more questions?
Barry Jenkins: Yeah, a couple more questions.
Stephen Best: Okay, we’re going to do more questions. Oh, okay. All right.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is in the back to your right.
Audience Member 8: How you doing Barry? My name’s Morgan. So question for you: earlier this year at South by Southwest, you had called out that you were denying yourself of dreams for awhile, of your own dreams. If you look at where you’re at today, when it comes to you evolving as a writer, as a director, as a creative, how have you taught yourself how to dream again, and what does that mean as you’re creating new things, moving forward?
Barry Jenkins: Thank you for that very difficult question, Morgan. That was a very soul-baring thing you talk about, at South by Southwest. Again, I’m talking about in front of all these damn strangers. You refer to the speech I was going to give at the Oscars, about dreaming and allowing myself to dream and all that stuff. You know, it’s kind of cool, because again, most of the people I work with are people who, we were filmmaking babies together. And it’s really lovely to look to my left and look to my right and see all these kids–and we were literally kids– see all these kids who are together still, making these things, on the damn stage, at the Oscars. Um,I
It’s–I don’t want to unpack that speech up here, cause I don’t want to give it again. But I think for me, what’s really cool is I never really wanted to be this person. I never had this dream of being somebody who sits on a stage and talks to however many hundred people are here, or who fucking is on the stage at the Oscars, intentionally or not intentionally, whatever the hell that was. And so now that it’s happened, I think I have more distance from it.
And I think now it’s just about, to go back to homegirl’s question…and it could be an evasion tactic, which my therapist is probably going to tell me when I talk about this, when I go back and see them. I think because I’m not concerned with dreaming and things like that, I just keep working. And so I think for me and my friends, we just gotta keep working, man. I’m not really a dreamer, bruh.
Nah, don’t clap for that. I wish I did dream more. I wish I did dream more. Don’t clap for that one.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is also in the back to your right.
Audience Member 9: Hi, I’m Victoria. I am a film student at Academy of Art. And my question to you is, so as a filmmaker, has there been like a defining moment in your life where you’re like, this is what my purpose is?
Barry Jenkins: Yeah, it was, like I said, I took a year off from film school. Like literally, I ran away from film school, because my peers were so much more…I, in my head at the time, I thought they were more talented than me. And then I, now I realize, looking back, they were just more technologically advanced than me. They knew the craft before I did. And so I went away and took a year off. Literally left the program after asking the Dean for some time away. Taught myself the craft of filmmaking, went back, and I made the short film, My Josephine.
I frame it that way, because that was the first time in my life where I was surrounded by folks who grew up in much better circumstances than me and I wasn’t as good as they were, in an empirical sense. You could watch our films and see that mine just weren’t as well made as theirs. And I had to ask myself, “is this because I’m poor, and I’m Black, and I grew up with a mom who was a crackhead, or do I just not know?”
And so I took this year. And I was like, “I’m not going to accept that shit. I’m going to teach myself how to do these things. I’m actually going to pull from a deeper well than they’re pulling from, by watching people like Wong kar-Wai and Claire Denis. And then when I come back, I’m going to show that my voice is just as worthy of being spoken as theirs.” And it worked. And I was like, you know what, I’m done. I was like, I’m done. This is what I’m doing.
So it was incredibly empowering. And I, the thing that I try to unpack when I tell that story is, I hope I would feel the same way. Even if I didn’t love the film I made as much. You know, thankfully I don’t have to wonder about that, cause I do love that short film. But the process of doing it–leaving of my own accord, teaching myself, and then coming back and putting those tools to use–it was so damn empowering.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the back of the orchestra on your left.
Audience Member 10: Oh, my goodness. Okay. Hi, I’m Simone. I’m in Professor Best’s class. And then…Hi Professor! I’m super nervous. I don’t know if this is like a question or partially a thank you. But I noticed–we had to watch, Moonlight for Professor Ellis’s class too. I love very much. And you–I don’t know if it is intentional, but, especially in the moment that you just showed on the screen, there’s these moments where I feel like there’s a lot of trauma behind the Black characters and you do not show it, which I’m kind of extremely thankful for, and it’s extremely beautiful to me because I feel like in some way you’re protecting these characters. So I was wondering if that was like an intentional action on your part, or something that just kind of happened in the magic of the film.
Barry Jenkins: I would say it’s intentional in a certain way, but it’s not about those characters, it’s not about them being Black. To me, it’s about my approach to cinema. I think the beauty of cinema when utilized, in a certain way, is you can say so much more by showing so much less. You know, it’s why I I’m so respectful of my actors. I think the things you’re feeling, that trauma, that’s, to quote Hemingway, “beneath the iceberg”–that’s not me. You know, that’s the actors, who, even in the present moment of me not showing these things that physically, or maybe emotionally, have happened to them, or verbally have happened to them–they’re still projecting those things, like in their souls and their auras and their spirit, especially in that film, in Moonlight.
I think the three main characters do such a wonderful job–Trevante Rhodes, especially–of showing all the calcification, all the hardening, that has been met upon him. So, it’s no thank you to me, you know, that’s to the actors and everyone else who helps make, makes these films. And I think it’s an addition by subtraction, or it’s an addition by omission in a certain way. Eisenstein, the information’s in the cut.
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s from the back to your right.
Audience Member 11: Hi, my name is Arianne. I wanted to ask, given that both Moonlight and Beale Street have the potential to be so deeply personal, when writing them, did you have to oscillate between two different headspaces, or was it all kind of an amalgam of your own experience meeting what was already there for you to grow on?
Barry Jenkins: It was in an amalgam. And what I did was I am–I’m in San Francisco, an amalgam. I wrote Moonlight first, and then I wrote Beale Street next. And I think to have jumped back and forth between the two of them would have been very difficult. And, like I said to homeboy who’s gonna break his block, I was just in this place where that’s what I wanted. Like I knew nobody. I knew nothing. My life was so damn boring. I was in Europe. I had no friends. I had very little money. All I did was write, like basically 18 hours a day. And I didn’t allow myself to be sensitive about the things I was doing. It was almost like this, this very, literally soul-baring experience.
And I didn’t want there to be a distance between myself and the material, or myself and the characters. It was all-access, all connection, to the point that in the first draft of these scripts, which I’ve gone back to now, there’s certain dialogue that’s in both damn films. And I was like, “Ooh, that was a mistake.” But because we made Moonlight first, all those lines stayed in Moonlight and they didn’t stay in Beale Street. Like Paula says, “but I’m your mama, ain’t I?” That also was in the first draft of Beale Street. I was like, “Whoa, this, this is not right.”
City Arts & Lectures: This question’s on your left.
Audience Member 12: Hello. My name is Justin. I took the trek from San Jose and I’m a, I’m actually a gaffer. And I was curious–I know, as you said, and I notice, as a director, most of the lighting situations are mostly in regards to the, your DP. I also do know that most of your gaffers and all your grips came from the Bay Area.
Barry Jenkins: Are from the Bay Area, yeah. The Steelhip.
Audience Member 12: Yeah…and they worked on, yeah, they’re good guys. They’re good guys. But I was curious to get a little bit of–well I’m gonna cheat with two questions, but a little bit of, maybe is there a cheat code in terms of, cause I know you guys shoot real tight. Do you guys use like quasar tubes pushing on the side? Do you guys use like, do you guys do a book light? You guys do book light and then you do a bounce on the side?
And I guess my other question is, I understand that David Gordon Green’s George Washington and Wong kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love are big and heavy inspirations in terms of style. And I was curious to hear what were some big inspirations for If Beale Street Could Talk.
Barry Jenkins: Beale Street, most of the inspirations were Baldwin, to be honest. I think the way Baldwin constructs sentences, the literal syntax of the writing, to me was so attractive and moving that we took some cues from that to allow ourselves the–the movie moves in movements. Some of it’s very lush and romantic, the way sometimes Baldwin will literally, like, there’s no fucking periods for like eight lines, you know, in a paragraph. It was like, we’re just riding the wave, you know?
But then we looked at the still photography of the era, some of which you’ve mentioned, actually. Roy DeCarava, Gordon Parks, a little bit of Dawoud Bey, also, which falls a little bit later, but is still very Harlem. And there’s this one sequence in the film that I thought was very reminiscent of like old school Hollywood. Like Douglas Sirk, you know, there’s this two, the scene–you guys haven’t seen the damn film–where these two families sit in the living room and they just have it out. And it is melodrama, with a lot of backyard cookout cursing thrown in. And we just leaned into it.
The gaffer I’ll talk about, Kiva and James use a lot of light maps now. It’s kind of evolved from Moonlight to Beale Street. And the sequence I’ll talk about…You know, you’re a gaffer? I’ll talk about the gaffer. Gaffer is very important in a film. In Moonlight, the scene where the two kids have their sexual encounter on the second story on the beach was by far the most difficult scene to shoot in the film, from a production standpoint.
To answer the first part of your question, I tried to write in the screenplay the way the light should feel when the light is important. And that sequence, the light was very important. So Kiva and James got together and they built basically this moon rig–there’s actually a photo of it on Instagram, where we just took all these, you know, when I was in school, we called them Kino Flos, they’re not Kino Flos anymore. Just this whole bank of light maps that we hung over muslin, and it was like on a crane, just like floating. It looked like the beach was almost like Mars. And the thing about that was, we were very small crew, but on that night it was biggest crew we would ever have in the film, and the most intimate sequence we were ever going to have in the film, as well.
And it was a really lovely to work with someone–Kiva, Kiva Knight is a local guy. He’s a local gaffer who does all my films. He did Moonlight and he did Beale Street. What I love about Kiva is he’s not–you know, he’s a gaffer, and normally on the crew sheet, the gaffer and the director are not friends, but we’re friends. And so he understands the mood and the tone I’m going for. So even though that was the biggest night of production, he knew how delicate it needed to be.
And so it’s kind of cool. It seems like Chiron and Kevin are the only two people in the world, and yet somebody like you is running around, you know, reading the wind to make sure the rig isn’t blowing all over, and also making sure that the light is falling off just the right way. When that hand went in the sand, we did bring in a light map, just so close, so we could get it and steal it.
But yeah. Good stuff. Much respect to you, my gaffer friend. Round of applause for the gaffers.
City Arts & Lectures: This question is from the back and center.
Audience Member 13: Hi, my name’s Moses. I have two questions and I hope they don’t overwhelm you or, you know, you can’t, you can’t focus on the other one cause you’re too caught up in the first. Sorry. No. This crowd, they’ll laugh at anything. It’s wild. I was wondering if you could touch on the importance of being a truth seeker, and a seeker of the truth in writing and films. And, I hear you calling yourself a termite a lot, and the ones around you, termites and wood chewers, and, I was wondering, what do you think makes you and the people around you, those?
Barry Jenkins: I think we, we never felt entitled in doing this–I’m answering the termite question now. We never felt entitled in doing this. I think there’s a way to approach making any kind of art, where you assume the thing you’re doing is great. And I think those people typically don’t end up being termites. I think when you’re the kind of artist who assumes everything you’re doing needs to be investigated, it needs to be torn apart in order to make sense, I think that yields worthwhile work.
At the very least it will yield surprises. Cause I often approach a scene, a sequence, a script, assuming if it ends up exactly the way I see it in my head, that is not going to be good enough, because who the hell am I? You know, there’s all this sort of chemistry and alchemy in the world, and I think if you allow room for those things to enter your process, you’ll end up with something you didn’t expect.
Being a truth seeker? I mean, I don’t know, that’s kind of heady, and I will try to unpack it. But I think what I will say is, people don’t read as much as they used to, so I’ll speak to being somebody who works in visual storytelling. I think most of the information that the populace at large is receiving right now is coming through visual media. Hell, even if you go to the New York Times, you know, or the Washington Post or the Wall Street Journal, whatever the hell you read, you know, and you go to read an article, that article is gonna start to preload, and you’re going to see a video, you know, of the article. You’re not gonna actually read the words.
I say that because these images are very, very seductive and people are getting used to seeing them. In their seductiveness, people are getting used to trusting everything they see. So I think it’s very important for all the storytellers–it’s incumbent upon us to, as you said, my friend Moses, to seek the truth, because if–and now to go to the aesthetics, and to make these things as aesthetically worthwhile, worthy, rich, dense, airtight as possible.
Because what’s happening right now is, if this thing over here is just so gorgeous and beautiful and well done, the person receiving it is going to accept the message no matter what. If this thing over here is rough around the edges and not as well done, there’s a certain person who will assume, “Oh, well, shit, this message is not the truth.”
And so I think it’s important–I place an importance on myself to seek the truth, as you said, and I place an importance on myself to take that truth and not just have it be the story. Extend it to the aesthetic, extend it to the theme, extend it to the release, extend it to this conversation. I’m just trying to have that be my guide posts all the time, because I don’t know what person over here or person over there is doing, but if you’re going to come into this room and listen to me, I got to tell you what’s real. Because this is the only time I’m going to have to speak to you.
So, it’s not something–I want to say it’s not a feature, it’s a bug or something like that. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Hell, I don’t know. I’m getting off, man. You called it bro. You said I was gonna have a problem with it. I did. But I rambled for quite a bit.
City Arts & Lectures: We have time for just, just a few more questions. This one is from your left at the front.
Audience Member 14: Hi, I’m Lindsay, I think you talked a lot about what hasn’t changed about you and your surroundings and how you make movies since Moonlight, but what is something that has changed both about you and I guess about how people interpret you since the movie?
Barry Jenkins: Oh, see, I had a really easy answer to that, but then you kept going and you made it way more difficult. Like my form answer is, people respond to my emails, you know? But that’s not what you were asking.
What’s changed about me? I think I’m becoming more okay with accepting the fact that maybe I’m good at what I do. I’ve always really doubted myself, and I realize over the last few years, I use that as fuel, and it’s not a good fuel to use, cause eventually that shit burns up.
So I think I’ve begun to accept that maybe I have something to say and it’s worthwhile. And the way I say it is possibly worthwhile, as well. It took me a long time to get to that place. Like I still have a hard time watching the stuff I make with a public audience. Beale Street‘s shown like eight times now. I still have not watched it with a public audience. So, there’s that.
And something about me. What was it? The change? You said something else. Oh, yeah. I’m not going to answer that one. I’m not going to answer that one. I’m not going to answer that one.
City Arts & Lectures: This is the final question from the back and center.
Barry Jenkins: Hah, of course, they put a ringer back there. So this is my cinematographer’s mom, Aggie Rogers, who is an Academy Award nominee in her own right. She’s a costume designer. I can, I guarantee she’s done five films that all of you in here have seen. The Last Jedi, Beetlejuice, PeeWee’s Big Adventure, The Color Purple, The Fugitive, right? The Fugitive, come on, ma. When I lived in San Francisco, I lived in her attic for five years.
Audience Member 14: Okay. There’s so many students here. Fantastic. But I want to have you guys go back and look at Little Brown Boy. I know that people love My Josephine. I love My Josephine, but Little Brown Boy, Barry. Talk about that in relationship to Moonlight. It’s deep mother love. The best films–you look at Mr. Spielberg, his early films were about mother love. This is what we’re all looking for. We don’t need the orange menace. We need mother love and Barry’s movies. So come on. Would you talk about that?
Barry Jenkins: Very–Little Brown Boy‘s the other film I made at film school that, Aggie is right, I don’t talk about. It was an adaptation of an experience in my personal life, where I was like 10 years old and–I was 12 years old, and I was going to middle school with a cousin. That cousin had a boyfriend who was a real bad dude and a bit older than me. And one day that cousin brought a gun to school. And because I was this 12 year old dude, as we took the public bus home, they gave the gun to me to put in my pocket, because if the cops came on the bus to search it, they wouldn’t search me.
And so I wrote a story that was about the worst case scenario of what could have happened to me with that gun in my pocket, and trying to protect this dude. And it was the film that we made after My Josephine, which, Aggie’s right, is a much easier film to wrap your arms around, My Josephine. It doesn’t ask the hard questions.
But–and I’ve never thought of this, and thank you for publicly outing me–I do think that the character Little in the first chapter of Moonlight is an extension of the character in Little Brown Boy. You can watch it on Fandor. That’s the only place where you can watch that short film. And it’s something that maybe I need to re-embrace. Yeah. See, my mom came in here and gave me a lesson.
Stephen Best: Yeah, that’s it. That’s it. Thanks Barry.
Barry Jenkins: And on that note.
Stephen Best: And on that note.
Barry Jenkins: Thank you all for coming out, man. I don’t get to San Francisco as much. I didn’t think I could turn out this many people, but I appreciate you all being here. The movie If Beale Street Could Talk drops on November 30th. You guys should go out and see it. But it’s also showing Sunday in Mill Valley. It’s the closing night film at the Mill Valley Film Festival. So if you make your way up to Mill Valley, yeah, you can go see it. It’s showing four times on Sunday at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Go up and check it out. I’ll be up there running my mouth. Although after this, I’m sure y’all don’t want to hear me say another damn thing, but. Yeah. Appreciate y’all.
Stephen Best: All right. Thank you.