On October 20th, 2016 The Knockturnal had the opportunity to attend a roundtable discussion with writer/director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell McCraney centered on their acclaimed new film Moonlight.
The film, an adaptation of McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, tells the story of a young man coming of age in Liberty City, Florida through three distinct ages while portrayed by three different actors. During the discussion, Jenkins and McCraney spoke a bit about how the leads were cast, what it was like to film in Liberty City where they both grew up, and the importance of representation. Here are some highlights:
Why was it so important to get this story out?
BJ: You know when I read it, I just kind of fell in love with the characters and the story. What Tarell did that was kind of shocking to me at first was that he just took this neighborhood and this world that we grew up in and he put it up there. And I haven’t experienced anybody else who had done that with that place that we were from. So I was kind of just struck by how brave it was to do some of those things, especially with a few of the characters in particular. You’d have to ask him about why he wrote the piece in the first place.
Well why did you write the piece in the first place?
TM: It’s difficult to narrow down why in a way that feels generous to the process of it. It was really self-serving. There was… no real representation of myself to see and sort of purge ideas on or like look at for models of. I was trying to figure out my manhood, my childhood, my personhood. I was the son of a crack addict who had just died from AIDS related complications, but at the same time I was on the precipice of a life-changing moment. I wasn’t really intimate, I’d never had an intimate relationship by then and I couldn’t quite figure out what was happening, like why these cycles were happening in my life. Why I was still kind of reticent even though I was in performing arts. I was still very shy, didn’t go out to clubs. I was 22 years old and still wasn’t even going to the keggers I guess. And I really wanted to… put in a lab the circumstances that made up my life and then try to figure out what I would’ve been like if I’d turned left instead of right? What would’ve happened if I’d decided to take that next move in this direction, what would life look like? And that was the impetus for it, but again I didn’t know even what I was chasing, I just knew I wanted to really put those down. So I took the stories and actual happenings of me being taught to ride a bike by a drug dealer, being taught to swim, being nourished and treated like a human being by this person who then disappears from my life. And then the aspects of growing up with an increasingly addicted mother and being in a neighborhood surrounded by people who felt the need to ostracize and bully. Bully’s not even the word cause there’s bullying and there’s like terrorizing…there was sometimes imminent danger for people who were different and what about the interactions with that made me the kind of recalcitrant person I could be.
One of the film’s most striking elements is its music and how it complimented Florida, how did this element come together?
BJ: I knew I wanted like an orchestral score, cause my filmmaking voice has that, but the voice I grew up with, which Tarell captures so beautifully in the piece, that’s not orchestral score, so I was like how can I merge these things? And [the film’s composer Nick Britell] was like yeah let’s chop and screw the orchestra. And what I love about it is as Black, or Chiron and Little becomes more masculine, the score—these violins, these cellos…they become more masculine too…I’m really proud of the music. I think he did a great job. I always say instead of taking the hood to the arthouse I wanted to bring the arthouse to the hood.
What response to the film have you enjoyed the most?
TM: Well Barry’s response has been my favorite response…When you’re a person who needs representation, you kind of have to get excited when someone wants to champion your story. And Barry didn’t denigrate it in any way, there was never a day where was like, “Look, I’m gonna come and dumb this down.” If anything you were like, “I’m gonna add more of this”…After that initial response I was like “Okay, we’re in this”. And I think we had a conversation with [producer Adele Romanski] at SLS, my favorite hotel, and I think both of you were kind of like a little stunned that I was like “Yeah, do it! Do what you gotta do.” And you were like “That’s it?” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s it.” Because again…when someone wants to champion your story or your storytelling ability in the way that you guys did, which was no holds barred, it’s difficult to say no to that. You know when they come with precepts, you know when they’re like, “I like it, but maybe it’s a Chicago story.” And you’re like “Naw, cause it’s not a Chicago story, it’s a story that belongs in Liberty City.”… You know when that conversation’s happening, and you guys weren’t about that so it was a much easier do.
What work did you do to recreate this moment of the 80’s in Liberty City?
BJ: No work. I don’t like to talk about the time stamps like 1987 or 1989 or things like that. But that place feels to me largely the same as it did when we grew up. It’s part of the permanence of whatever’s the sort of spiritual, cultural gumbo that’s in the air in that place. And to be honest when I read the script, that’s kind of what it was. I was like damn, this feels like my childhood but it also feels like now. It felt like a very contemporary story, although many of the stories were rooted in these things that happened in our pasts. So there wasn’t a lot we had to do to augment Liberty City to make it feel like the place that we grew up, it legitimately is the place that we grew up and it hasn’t changed a ton. I think it’s why, one of the things I really loved about the response to the film, that I’ve been proud of, is this idea of the story being timeless in a certain way, despite the fact the character is aging, so clearly time is passing. Yet, I think what he’s going through, because it represents so much we can all identify with, it creates a sense of timelessness. And we could’ve gone to like New Orleans or Atlanta or a place like that to make the film, and the tax incentives would’ve actually allowed us to make a lot more movie on the same budget, but we wouldn’t have had that thing that was in the air in Liberty City, that was there when we were growing up and is still there now. And I think when people talk about the film they talk about the imagery, and it’s like, I didn’t do much. It’s there, the walls were painted that color and they have been since I was a kid.
How did you come to cast these three actors as Chiron for three different ages?
BJ: This woman Yesi Ramirez who was born and raised in Miami and lives in LA, which I think was key because she sort of knew what we were looking for, the vibe, despite the fact we looked literally all over the country and even across the ocean trying to find these characters. [The eyes were] a real key part of it, that’s what we settled on, thinking that we found these guys with the same feeling in their eyes there would be this continuity across three chapters. But it was also Trevante, and Ashton, and Alex, they all have this sort of, not world-weariness, but you can see there’s a lot going on behind their eyes because they know what it feels like to be a black man in this country and there’s all this shit swirling around you, all these micro-aggressions, this sort of pressure that you can’t touch, but you can feel it. That sort of ended up what was the bedrock of our casting process, they didn’t have to look alike, but they had to feel alike. And once we settled on that we started to build it out, the other element of it was well these characters are all so different. Little, Chiron, and Black are different people and I want them to remain different. I don’t want them to meet and mimic one another. I don’t want Trevante trying to walk the way Ashton walks, I want the way he walks to be a reflection of the time that’s passed between story two and story three so you can see the world has done this to him now. And everybody was fully on board with it and with the camera we tried to frame them a certain way to cue the audience in, this was the same person and they were moving through the world in the same way. But it was largely just casting and just relying on those guys, cause the one thing we didn’t do which has come up in a few write-ups is I didn’t only give them their section of the script. They all had the entire script, so they knew where the character had been and they knew the full journey, but I didn’t allow them to physically meet the other person. I think they carry this feeling of the journey that came before, especially Trevante, into their work.
TM: And they were inquisitive about the entire scope of what they were doing. I mean, I love the fact that Alex, who was what, 10 when you cast him?…
BJ: Yeah 10.
TM: But had read the whole script and was like, “I don’t understand the other two.” You know, he was questioning what the other two parts were like, what’s happening in those other two parts. I think that it goes back to what you’re talking about in terms of understanding what it is to be a black man, he’s already knowing that there are things that are written about him and he needs to experience that he’s curious about. I just love that, he’s hungry, and you can’t teach that. That curiosity is in his eyes, it’s in who he is, that’s why he’s so damn talented.
Moonlight is now playing in limited release.