Ashton Sanders (right), as the teenage Chiron, is a theater major at DePaul University, where playwright McCraney, whose life he depicts, also studied.
Ashton Sanders (right), as the teenage Chiron, is a theater major at DePaul University, where playwright McCraney, whose life he depicts, also studied.
David Bornfriend/A24

How 'Moonlight' Became a "Personal Memoir" for Director Barry Jenkins: "I  Knew the Story Like the Back of My Hand"

A coming-of-age story about a black gay man growing up in Miami could have been a hard sell. But Jenkins had no doubts: "Even for me, on set, directing these things, it was like some extremely aggressive therapy. For me, it’s not just a movie."

A massive storm front, with clouds ominously gray, was moving in. Producer Adele Romanski eyed the horizon anxiously. It was near the end of the first week of filming on Moonlight, and with only 25 shooting days and a budget of less than $5 million, she didn't have the luxury of arranging for a cover set should the weather turn bad.

The scene at hand was a crucial one: Moonlight follows the story of a young black boy, adrift and fearful, as he grows into manhood, focusing on three chapters in his life. The day's shoot called for a wary 10-year-old Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert) to accompany Juan (Mahershala Ali) — a local drug dealer who has, in a moment of generosity, befriended him — to a beach near their home in Miami. There, Juan offers to teach Chiron to swim. As they are buffeted by the waves, it becomes a moment of transcendence: The boy learns to trust — both Juan's guidance and his own instincts.

So director Barry Jenkins, 36, did a quick calculation. The schedule called for a five-hour shoot, but he knew he'd only have 90 minutes to capture the sequence before the cast and crew would have to seek shelter. But, he recalls, "Once we realized the weather wasn't going to cooperate, I knew I had two things — a kid who didn't know how to swim and a camera that would be half in, half out of the water." He took Ali aside and told him not to worry about hitting the dialogue, just teach the boy to swim. Nine takes and one lens swap later, they had the footage and beat a hasty retreat. "It was such a joy, having that moment working with Alex, it just felt special," remembers Ali, although cinematographer James Laxton, who had to lug a 200-pound camera in an underwater housing into the pounding waves, admits it also was physically draining.

Jenkins, however, knew he'd gotten what he needed: "What you're watching," he says, "is real life. A grown black man teaching a young black kid how to float and how to swim in the Atlantic Ocean as a storm is coming in. Sometimes pressure and duress work in your favor. If I had tried to get every line we had scripted, I would have tried to control things in a way where we wouldn't have had this moment in the film."

It's a privileged moment — the sequence has the solemnity of a baptism ceremony — in a film full of such privileged moments. "What's a faggot?" the young Chiron asks Juan as he struggles to understand his emerging sexuality, which, later, in his teens, will lead to both a moment of tenderness and an outburst of violence, and, later still, when Chiron has become a muscular but emotionally guarded adult, he finally finds expression in a moment of reconciliation with his past.

Debuting at the Telluride Film Festival, Moonlight was met with ovations. The headline on The New York Times critic A. O. Scott's subsequent review asked, "Is This the Year's Best Movie?" And though distributor A24 is taking a slow, careful approach to its release, in the three weekends after its Oct. 21 debut, the film has grossed more than $3 million in limited release.

That all the elements coalesced so serendipitously could not have been predicted back in the summer of 2003, when then-aspiring playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, in the wake of the death of his mother, who had struggled with crack addiction, sat down to try to make sense of his early life in the hardscrabble Miami neighborhood of Liberty City. What poured out, he says, "was a personal memoir. I was really trying to figure out some hard questions about my life with my mom, my life as a grown man, as a gay-identifying man." The result, which he poetically titled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, amounted to about 60 pages, "but it wasn't a theater piece, and it wasn't necessarily a film."

After showing it to some friends at a Miami nonprofit called Borscht, which supports young filmmakers, he set it aside. But mutual friends at Borscht passed it on to Jenkins, who immediately recognized his own life in what McCraney had written. Although the two had never met, Jenkins also grew up at the same time as McCraney in Liberty City with a mother who also wrestled with addiction. Says Jenkins, "I knew that relationship like the back of my hand because that's where my life and Tarell's overlapped."

At the time, Jenkins' first film, Medicine for Melancholy, a low-budget indie about a young couple discussing class and race as they walk the streets of a gentrifying San Francisco, had become a festival hit, and he was moving on to other projects — developing a film at Focus, writing for HBO's The Leftovers, co-founding the commercial production company Strike Anywhere. But by 2013, Romanski, a friend of his from their film school days at Florida State, began pressing him to get serious about directing another feature. He took another look at McCraney's piece and had what he calls "an aha moment."

In the original pages, the three versions of Chiron — boy, teen, adult — all interacted with one another. Jenkins proposed a new structure: Give each his own chapter. He and McCraney began exchanging what Jenkins calls "loopy emails" as Jenkins tried to persuade McCraney to write the screenplay: "I explained what I saw as the film version, but I'm a straight man and I felt Tarell's voice needed to be preserved." By then, though, McCraney had received a MacArthur Genius Grant, and his playwriting career was in high gear with his Brother/Sister Plays trilogy. So he gave Jenkins his blessing to attempt a screenplay on his own, and Jenkins went off to Brussels — "Friends told me Brussels was the most boring place in Europe in the summer and I would have no distractions" — and in 10 days, the first draft of Moonlight came flowing out of him.

In the meantime, Jenkins also had visited the Telluride Film Festival, where he had been a regular visitor since 2002. After he led a Q&A following the first screening of 12 Years a Slave in 2013, he found himself in conversation with producers Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner, partners with Brad Pitt at Plan B Entertainment. The two had been fans of Medicine and wanted to know what Jenkins planned to do next. He promised to send them the Moonlight screenplay when it was finished.

When he did, they immediately came aboard to produce, securing financing from A24. Says Gardner: "The narrative was so obviously special, and it felt very universal, what the movie talks about — how one finds family, how one suffers to survive, who we let in or who we don't." They weren't concerned that a movie built around a young, black, gay man might, on paper, appear to have limited commercial potential. "If we're having this reaction to the screenplay," Kleiner recalls thinking, "there is an audience for this story."

Jenkins' screenplay also proved persuasive when it came to lining up the adult castmembers. British actress Naomie Harris had vowed she'd never play a crack addict, explaining she didn't want to depict damaged women. "There are enough representations of one-dimensional black women in the media. Coming from a family where my mom raised me as a single parent, my experience had been among strong women," she says. But after reading Jenkins' words and hearing him make a passionate case for the character of Chiron's troubled mother, Paula, she realized "he had a vested interest in ensuring this character didn't become a stereotype and would be given her full humanity."

As production neared, Jenkins huddled with his cinematographer Laxton, another of his buddies from Florida State, to map out the movie in detail. They looked to various films for inspiration: Wong Kar Wai's Happy Together, about a Chinese gay couple living in Argentina; Hou Hsiao-Hsein's Taiwanese film Three Times, for its three-chapter structure; and Spike Lee's Clockers, whose "high-contrast, strong and bold colors" Laxton admired. For despite Moonlight's gritty subject matter, they didn't want a neorealist look. Instead, Laxton shot in widescreen CinemaScope. "We really tried our best to elevate the story and put it on the screen in a big, major way to create a very immersive experience that's almost a dreamlike state," he says.

Working with the actors, though — especially the youngest boys, nonactors recruited from the Miami area — Jenkins aimed for spontaneity. There was no extended rehearsal period. Ali would fly to Miami for a couple of days at a time whenever he wasn't needed on the set of Netflix's Luke Cage, in which he plays the villain Cornell Cottonmouth Stokes. Harris squeezed in her three days of shooting between her promotional duties on the most recent James Bond movie, Spectre, in which she appears as Miss Moneypenny.

Trevante Rhodes, a former UT Austin track star taking on his first major film role, was cast as the adult Chiron. He kept asking Jenkins to let him watch the performances of the two younger versions of Chiron, but while all the actors were given the full script, Jenkins ruled against their watching one another's work. "I felt bad for Trevante," he admits. "He was the one with the most information to gain, but I didn't want the guys to bear the responsibility of trying to carry the same walking style, the same delivery of certain lines. I felt that would take them out of their own bodies." Instead, Rhodes prepared by "walking around L.A. feeling as if I had a secret, not being able to connect to anyone because I thought if I did, they would see my insecurities and weaknesses and not be able to love me. Chiron didn't have love from his mother, so he couldn't love others. It really was about embodying that, carrying that weight."

Watching how Jenkins handled the challenges the film posed, Kleiner was struck by the director's methodical approach. "The degree of difficulty was extraordinarily high," the producer says. "He was working with limited resources. He cast some non-actors. He cast some actors who had to be the same person without physically resembling each other. But Barry is the consummate professional. He handles everything with enormous grace and poise. He calls directing 'chopping wood.' He'll say, 'I'm chopping wood here. I'm getting through my pile of wood and then I'll have another pile of wood.'"

While they were working together on The Big Short, Kleiner told composer Nicholas Britell that he, too, needed to read Jenkins' script. "I was really overwhelmed by it," Britell says. "One of the first takeaways I had was that it felt like poetry — beautiful, intimate, sensitive." And so Kleiner arranged a meeting, and Jenkins and Britell immediately clicked.

"I had the same feeling of poetry when I saw the early cuts of the film," the composer says, "and that immediately impacted the musical ideas. I started asking myself right away, 'What is the musical analog to the movie's poetry?' Among the first things I sent to Barry was a piece called 'Piano and Violin Poem,' which became 'Little's Theme' in chapter one and evolves into 'Chiron's Theme' in chapter two and then becomes what we call 'Black's Theme' in chapter three. So those immediate feelings I had about the screenplay and the film really paved the way for some of the groundwork of what the movie would become."

Jenkins also told Britell of his love of "chopped and screwed" music, a style of Southern hip-hop where music tracks are slowed way down. "When you slow them, the pitch goes down," Britell explains. "So you get these tracks that are deepened and enriched in their sonic quality. I said to Barry, 'What if we applied that technique to the orchestral technique? What would happen?'"

Experimenting with the idea, he began slowing and bending the piano-and-violin theme he'd written. In the schoolyard fight in chapter two, for example, Britell slowed it way down, nearly three octaves down, layering the piece on top of itself and running it through vinyl so it has a vinyl hiss. "It's almost unrecognizable," he says. "It's like a rumbling in the subwoofers of the theater. You can hear what almost sounds like bells, but that's actually the piano notes that have morphed into this totally other formation."

After editing the film's footage in Los Angeles, Jenkins screened a version for McCraney, who was thrilled to see the care with which his deeply personal story had been translated for the screen. "He didn't deliver any blindsides," says the writer.

For Jenkins, though, all the critical raves take a backseat to the one verdict that most matters to him — that of his own mother. Although she has conquered her addictions — "she's fine and has been for years," says her son — she has been reluctant to confront the movie. "She's been close to watching but decided she wasn't ready," Jenkins goes on. "I understand it because there are things in the film that are hard for me to watch, so they could be doubly hard for her. Some of the things that have been written about Naomie's performance — she knows it's going to be a visceral watch. Even for me, on set, directing these things, it was like some extremely aggressive therapy. For me, it's not just a movie."

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

comments powered by Disqus