Barry Jenkins on Moonlight

Feature by Philip Concannon | 10 Feb 2017

Moonlight, a gorgeous and deeply-moving character study of a young black man grappling with his sexuality in working-class Miami, is the year's most talked about indie film. Director Barry Jenkins talks us through its inception

We are in a plush hotel room in central London, and Barry Jenkins is sitting on the floor. He is slumped against a wall with his legs outstretched as he recreates the moment when playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney saw Jenkins' Moonlight for the first time. “Oh, I'll never forget it,” he recalls with a chuckle. “I showed it to him at a private screening room. The movie ended, and he got up, he sat on the floor, and he stared at his feet for like 20 minutes.

"It was him, myself and André Holland – because him and André go way back – and he said, 'I don't know how many times I can watch that, because you've brought to life some things I haven't been able to think about for so long.'” As he returns to his chair, Jenkins admits that this felt like the first significant milestone on Moonlight's journey. “Thankfully great things continue to happen, but at that point I was like, alright, I'm good.”

The great things that have happened to Moonlight since that first screening have included universal acclaim, box-office success, and an apparently endless series of prizes from critics groups and awards bodies, including one from the British Independent Film Awards that Jenkins collected the night before our interview. His adaptation of McCraney's story In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue follows a young man named Chiron through his troubled childhood, adolescence and adulthood in Miami, and the film is rooted in the experiences of both McCraney and Jenkins, who grew up nearby and in similar circumstances without knowing each other. For Jenkins, this personal investment is the key to the film’s widespread success.

“I think because we didn't try to make the movie for everyone, people really respond to that,” he explains. “I think we live in a time now where, because of the business dynamics of what we do, the imperative is to make something that everyone can love. With this film I was trying to make a movie for an audience of two, myself and Tarell, because the movie is more or less about the two of us. I think when you do that, people respect it, you know. It passes the bullshit test.”

McCraney wrote In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue in 2003 but it was never produced for the stage, and watching the film it’s difficult to see how it would have worked in that environment. Moonlight is a richly cinematic work with so many of its key moments resting on gestures, glances, close-ups and physical intimacy, and Jenkins agrees that the screen is its natural home.

“I don't think it would have ever worked on a stage, and I don't think Tarell ever wrote it intending it to be on a stage,” he says. “Now I also don't think that the first version I read would have worked in the format it was on screen. I always describe it as being halfway between the stage and the screen, but it was inherently visual, even when he first wrote it, and like you my first instinct was, this is not going to work on the stage but there are some very interesting visuals here.

"The original piece was like 47 pages, so there was a lot of space within it and there was a lot of room for me to extend and create. I always knew that I wanted to make a film that would live on faces and physical gestures, and it was wonderful to have his language to connect those very silent beats.”

To make a film that lives on faces you need to make sure you get the right faces, and one key to Moonlight’s impact is the way the three inexperienced and very different actors cast as Chiron – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes – create a fully realised character, with physical and emotional details echoing across the stories. “It’s magic,” Jenkins says with a laugh when asked how he pulled this off, before amending his answer to “magic and a great casting director”, but it’s true that there seems to be a mysterious kind of alchemy at work as this character develops during the course of the film.

“We ended up in a place where they were organically feeling the same thing because it is the same character, just becoming a different person,” he says. “There's this idea that no matter what version of Chiron you're watching, and no matter what version the character is performing for the outside world, internally he's still the same person. I've said this a lot, but we were casting them based on this feeling in their eyes, and that's why the poster works, because they all have the same deep vulnerability in their eyes.”

Moonlight is a small film, made for roughly $5 million, but it’s still a big leap forward from Jenkin’s mumblecore romance Medicine for Melancholy, his only previous feature. That film was made in 2008. Does it feel like the work of a different filmmaker? “Nah, same filmmaker, different circumstances, different resources,” he says. “I do think I'm a different person. I think I'm definitely more mature. I could make Medicine today, but I could not have made Moonlight eight years ago. So I think there has been, not an evolution but I think I have evolved and matured in certain ways, less aesthetically and more emotionally.”

He has spent much of the intervening eight years working on commercials, shorts and branded content, a worthwhile learning experience that he credits with sharpening his filmmaking instincts and teaching him to work with large crews, but he also had a couple of features that he failed to get off the ground in that time. “But you know what? They weren't personal enough,” he admits. “I'm not saying that every movie you do has to be as personal as this one has been, but I do think – to circle back to the beginning of our conversation – that people are responding to this film the way they are because it's clearly so personal; they respect that. The things I was working on before, I probably didn't care about as much as I cared about this one, so I've got to be very good about finding things that I can genuinely care about.”

He’s not thinking about that yet, however. For now, Jenkins is happy to stay on the road, taking Moonlight from one country to another and discovering how disparate audiences react to the very personal and specific story that he and McCraney have created. “The best thing about winning the BIFA last night was thinking, holy shit, we're a long way from Miami. I mean a long way away – and yet, people are still seeing themselves in the film,” he says.

“I want to go to Turkmenistan to see if people can see themselves in the film there. No matter what community you go to, there are people who feel ostracised or othered, and they rarely see narratives about ostracised or other characters where those characters have their full humanity on display and intact, so I think it's in some ways important to take the film as far as it can go. I'm not speaking of awards and things like that, but physically to just get the movie to as many people as possible.”

Moonlight is released 17 Feb by Altitude

Follow Philip Concannonon Twitter at @Phil_on_Film