I first interviewed Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins before he was an Oscar winner at the Mill Valley Film Festival in October of 2016.
We met up, again at the Mill Valley Film Festival, this last October, to chat about his Moonlight follow-up, If Beale Street Could Talk, what life has been like since his last go-round, his affinity for working with newcomers and we get down on that living room scene in Beale Street.
AW: So let’s turn the clock back a little bit. You were first here two years ago, almost to the day, with Moonlight, which went on to win the Best Picture Oscar. Now you’re here with Beale Street. What is changed the most for you personally and professionally since everything that’s happened?
BJ: I mean, professionally, it’s just like a whole new world. It’s wonderful to know if I’m curious about something to have a place where I can legitimately go and explore curiosity; that’s the biggest thing. On the flip side, my career used to be built around trying to get people to say yes. And now my career has to be, by necessity, an exercise of understanding when – and quite often – to say no. I think personally I used to, I never really believed in myself or my self-worth. I’ve had to really take stock of how fortunate and privileged I’ve been and continue to be. I’ve had to really disabuse myself of that notion and actually take responsibility for the possibilities and the ability that I guess I have.
Were you were you offered big Hollywood projects after the Oscars?
Not big Hollywood projects. I mean, there were a few very, you know, very connected people who saw the film and really loved it and appreciated it. They were very curious if there was a way for me to apply that aesthetic, that voice you know in a larger sandbox. But I knew that Beale Street was going to be the next thing and I’ve never been someone who wants to play it out five or six years into the future, the Underground Railroad was already sort of in motion at the time too. So, some very nice conversations and overtures but nothing serious.
Is there a genre that you want to tackle outside of small, ensemble-y dramas?
I love sci-fi and I also love this idea of like ripped from the headlines, you know, like grounded in reality, like genre dramas. I’ve always wanted to make one of those films. But the industry is making less and less of those films now. So it’s interesting to see people like Ryan [Coogler] and people like Damien [Chazelle] really find a way to take their voice, their aesthetic and put it into this bigger box without losing their voice. It’s something you know that I want to try to find a way to do myself.
I feel like there’s a Barry Jenkins High Life somewhere down the road.
(laughs) Yes but, I mean High Life though. This is not this is not the bigger box that we’re talking about. High Life is like Beau Travail in space. (laughs again)
You showed Beale Street at the Apollo Theater at the New York Film Festival, which is the first time they’ve ever shown a film there. I watched the videos and it looked like an extremely personal experience for many people, both in the audience and onstage. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Yeah, the New York Film Festival had never a been up to 125th Street but because of this film, because Baldwin was born and raised in Harlem, the book is set in Harlem, the movie was filmed in Harlem. There’s just so many things about it that just made sense and I’ll say publicly thank you to Kit Jones and the New York Film Society for allowing us to do that. I think about Moonlight when I think about this because was there was no way we could have had a screening like this for Moonlight in Miami because there just aren’t any movie theaters in the neighborhood in which the film was made. You have to go outside the neighborhood to experience visual treatment of the place it’s set. With Beale Street, because of the Apollo Theater, we had this wonderful opportunity to the audience something that’s from the place that the movie is set, from the place that the author is from, some of them have to leave their homes and venture into someone else’s realm to experience their lives – we had this wonderful opportunity to bring the film back home. It was it was really extremely emotional and the Baldwin family was there and spoke very eloquently. I mean, it was, it just went outside. It went beyond film festivals and film screenings and things like that. You know, it really felt like a church.
I think it’s it’s hard not to talk about Beale Street or Moonlight without acknowledging that you work with such a core group of people that you’ve known for a very long time. This is also in your second film with Plan B. Tell me a little bit how that helps you as a filmmaker to have that tight knit family.
I think a film is a series of choices. You’re always making all these choices. And I think when you’re working with people who are familiar with you and who understand where you’re coming from, you develop a different language. You kind of cut the bullshit in a certain way. I think that’s been the biggest thing about why my movies have have arrived in the condition that they have. I feel like there are certain things about Moonlight, certain things about this film that are a bit unorthodox; certain things about the films that maybe defy expectations and expectations of the audience, and also with both being an adaptation, expectations of how you adapt a piece from this realm into that realm. And I just love working with partners who understand that it’s part and parcel with how we’re going to approach the piece. Some of these choices, whether it be casting unknowns as the leads and Moonlight or here in Beale Street or it’s just like aesthetically whether it be the score or the cinematography, just doing things a little bit left or right of center and trusting in me and also the audience that the audience will follow those choices. It’s that support. So it’s been a really beautiful crutch, I’ll say, because movies are difficult to make under any circumstances. But I think with these two films, dealing with subject matter that they do, made in the way that they were made, it’s just really lovely to be able to turn to your producer and hug them. You know, if a hug is what’s needed.
Speaking of first time actors, this is KiKi Layne’s first feature and even though this is an ensemble she really has to carry this film like she’s carrying that baby. There is a lot put on her but she clearly was up to the task for it. How was working with her as a first-timer together with the ensemble?
Working with her was interesting, you know, just like with Moonlight it’s also an ensemble. There are many characters in that film that are not all in the film at once the way all the characters in this film are, especially in that big scene in the living room. But I feel like each actor has an individual language that they demand to be spoken to. They’re all individual people; they exist, they approach the work in a different way and in their lives, their personal lives in a different way. So with KiKi being so new it was a process of finding the language that would best serve our relationship working together on this film. And this really lovely thing happened, that I was hoping would happen, which was we cast KiKi and Stephan [James] first and then we tried to build these families around them and you could really see that Regina King, Colman Domingo and Teyonah [Parris] that they all kind of took KiKi under their wings and they nurtured her and helped her find the language that would work best for her stepping into this new realm. She has quite a bit of experience in theater coming out of DePaul but this was a whole new beast because the audience is out there in the theater but the camera is right here. Sometimes you’re looking directly into itself. I think working with her and working with the ensemble went hand-in-hand because it was really beautiful and the same thing happened with Alex Hibbert watching Mahershala Ali [on Moonlight]. You could see her watching the other actors and picking up the language and the rhythm and the pace of how to carry yourself and how to get through this because, she’s probably going to punch me for saying this but, we were doing the scene with the lawyer at the top of the second act and we were filming coverage of Finn Wittrock first because of the light. And I remember just hearing the sound off screen and I looked over and KiKi was just like bawling. She was like bawling and I ran in and was like ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa…you have to save that!’ (laughs)
I mean, it’s great for Finn but we’re not there yet, we have to turn around! But it was amazing and very quickly she got it and she could control it. But it was like yes, there’s a way to do this and watch Regina and watch how she turns it on when she has to.
Ooh, speaking of Regina, I want to talk about the living room scene because it’s just so iconic and when people see it I think that’s what they’re gonna really talk about a lot.
You know, when I did the podcast with Justin Simien, Don’t @ Me, that’s the scene I was talking about. I was like this is the scene, this is the blackest scene in any movie I’ve ever made. I mean it is black as hell and at a test screening a man stood up and started snapping his fingers during that scene.
For me, it was terrifying because in my first two films I think there weren’t any scenes where there’s more than three characters having a conversation and then in this scene I think maybe nine actors are in an actual living room with two cameras. You want them to all have the space to really get into the performance and really sort of take the words and finesse them and make them their own. So, the biggest thing for me was how do I give all these performers the space because it’s not just about the dialogue. It’s also about the reactions, the things that are happening in moments of repose, in moments of aggression. Working with somebody some new like KiKi and she’s in the scene surrounded by all these people, what I loved about that was just watching the actors always come back to each other and go ‘Was that good?’ ‘Did I give you enough to do what you’re doing because I can turn it on even more to make sure you have what you need.’ When it’s that many actors it takes a while to get around to everybody and sometimes you’re in an environment where people don’t care about each other and they’re ‘I’m all in it for me and then I’m just going to coast for you.’ And we didn’t have that, everybody just felt a part of this family.
It’s such an intense scene because it feels like you know these two warring factions or he’s you know two groups of lions that kind of meet a very small space and you can feel how small the space is just the way that it’s shot and blocked and it just kind of keeps building. Yeah but I think the thing that is so successful about it is that it’s never campy, it steps just back from that. I mean, it does hit some heights of some actressing…
Yes! Especially as it’s written. I’m curious, as a straight director how you managed to thread that needle because with certain audiences there might be some some snaps.
Which I welcome, I welcome. I think at that point in the film the audience is allowed to really enter that mode and really celebrate because in some ways it’s ridiculous but it’s not so ridiculous that – I’ve seen this conversation take place and I have seen people in the room respond in certain ways, you know? It happens. I think Baldwin had his finger on the pulse and I’m very, very pleased that working with these actors and translating it to the screen that pulse is still there, in a certain way. The thing I said to someone was we’re not laughing on set. Everything that the actors are doing in there they’re doing it straight. I think the ridiculousness comes out of the fact of these things, that these juxtapositions are happening so rapidly against one another and yet this is how the conversation evolves in these rooms. I’ve sat at the cookout and watched these conversations pop off and then 10 minutes later we’re all doing the electric slide. You know, that’s just how it is. But the one thing I love about this sequence is that there are all these moments of very high emotion, like HIGH emotion. But within one of my favorite moments in that whole sequence is an act of domestic violence happens and very quickly and you see Sharon [King] tell Joseph [Colman Domingo] ‘ Go on, go. We don’t need you here.’ He says OK. She sends him out. He goes out after Michael Beach, the other dad. The first thing she does is she goes right to the door, closes behind them and locks it from the inside because the men are out there the women are in here. It’s like quotation marks “You are safe. However, now let me read your ass.” (both laughing)
That’s exactly what I mean, just so carefully threading that needle.
Yeah, it’s funny. I was nervous as hell. Like, how the fuck is this going to play? Then as we started showing the film I was like oh, I’m not worried about that, let’s not worry about that (laughs).
You know, I’ve got to say that’s Baldwin though. I think it’s interesting because even the character [Mrs. Hunt] played by Aunjanue Ellis, who I think gives a fantastic performance, the religiosity of that character…it’s a cynical read of the film that the film is picking on or making fun of her religiosity. I don’t feel that way at all. I feel like there is a tragic quality to it, to the way that character is portrayed in the book. But I think that Aunjanue does very well with bringing her to the screen because as she’s on her way out and her and Regina are having that standoff when she invokes that child…everything, all these things, all the waves, the highs and the finger snapping, all of it comes right back to yes, what are we going to do about this child. And she goes off to sits down and cries because nobody knows how they’re going to protect this child. So I think it’s just the brilliance of Baldwin that the conversation just goes around and around this journey. And yet somehow ends up back at the essence of what the film is, which is what is going to happen with this child.
I think it’s going to hit everybody a little bit differently.
Exactly. Exactly right. I mean, watching this scene at the Apollo…watching that scene at Mill Valley. Very different. (at that point we both erupt in laughter)
If Beale Street Could Talk opens in select theaters on December 14th from Annapurna Pictures and then wide on Christmas Day.