'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Barry Jenkins ('Moonlight')

The 37-year-old who could become the first black filmmaker to win the best director Oscar reflects on how his tumultuous childhood has informed his work, the pals who have been by his side ever since film school and the causes and effects of the eight-year gap between his debut feature and his taboo-busting masterpiece.
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Barry Jenkins

"I have this fundamental block — maybe I'll always have it, maybe I'll get past it — but I am essentially [the Moonlight character] Chiron, I grew up like this kid and there are just certain ceilings that I never can imagine myself breaking through," says Barry Jenkins, the writer and director of the film, as we sit down in his downtown Los Angeles apartment to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "When they happen," the 37-year-old continues, "they genuinely are an extreme surprise. And for whatever reason, I can't get through this block that Chiron does not grow up and make a film that gets eight Academy Award nominations." He then pauses, smiles and quietly adds, "But I guess he does."

Jenkins, for his work on the acclaimed drama about a young man growing up black and gay in Miami (he is black but not gay), is Oscar-nominated for best director and, alongside Tarell Alvin McCraney, best adapted screenplay. His film — only the second feature he has directed, following 2008's critically applauded but underseen Medicine for Melancholy — is nominated for best picture. Whatever happens on Feb. 26, he has had one hell of an awards season. Moonlight was unveiled over Labor Day Weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, was greeted with massive acclaim and only continued to gain momentum, ending 2016 as one of the year’s best reviewed film (it has a 98 percent favorable rating on RottenTomatoes.com).

Oh, and Jenkins was chosen as the year’s best director by the National Society of Film Critics, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review, and was nominated for that distinction by the Directors Guild of America and both Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice voters. Meanwhile, the script that he and McCraney adapted from McCraney's unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue won the USC Scripter and Gotham awards for best screenplay and was nominated for that distinction by Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice and BAFTA voters. The script also is nominated for a Writers Guild Award, and both Jenkins’ direction and the script are nominated for Spirit Awards.

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Born and raised in a Miami public housing complex, Jenkins grew up "very, very poor," not knowing his father and largely estranged from his mother, a drug addict who couldn't care for him. "It was a very broken family," he says. Nevertheless, as early as elementary school, he displayed great promise as a writer and storyteller, and ultimately won a place at Florida State University, where he changed majors several times before stumbling upon and transferring into FSU's film program. He quickly got "a rude awakening," though, when he realized how little he knew about the history and workings of cinema. He recalls, "I asked myself the question, 'Am I not good at this because I'm poor, and I'm black, and my mom was addicted to drugs and I have no idea who my father is, or do I just not have the tools to do this, and can I go and step aside and and teach myself these tools and come back and prove that I can do this, and prove that my voice can stand beside these others?'" In pursuit of the answer, Jenkins took a year off from classes and put himself through an intensive crash-course on the art form. When he returned a year later, in 2003, he made a seven-minute short, My Josephine, that blew people away and left no doubt that he was capable of great things.

After graduating, Jenkins landed his first real-world job as an executive's assistant at Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Films in Los Angeles. He eventually left the company and cashed in his 401k for $8,000, which he used to see other parts of America. He wound up in San Francisco, where he and a white woman entered into a romantic relationship, the breakup of which left him friendless and feeling conflicted about being black in that city. That became the subject of his 2008 feature directorial debut, Medicine for Melancholy, which he made in just two weeks, for just $13,000 (from an FSU classmate and with other FSU classmates forming the five-person crew), while continuing to hold down his day job on the shipment crew at Banana Republic. The DIY film was considered part of the mumblecore movement that then was in vogue and, accordingly, it premiered at the SXSW Film Festival, where it was warmly embraced.

Over the next eight years, though, little was heard of the promising auteur. "I was not a happy guy," Jenkins says, recalling that one promising feature after another seemed to fall apart, including a Stevie Wonder time-travel movie and an adaptation of Bill Clegg's memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. He wound up making shorts and commercials to pay the bills, and almost threw in the towel. "I was like, 'I guess I'm done,'" he recalls. "At that point, the plan B had become the plan A." But in 2011, a Miami acquaintance who had worked as a production assistant on Medicine visited San Francisco and urged Jenkins to make a movie back home. He sent him McCraney's unproduced play and, Jenkins says, "That was how the whole thing began."

Jenkins initially did not want to adapt McCraney's work, feeling that it hit too close to home for him. But eventually he was convinced to take a stab at it, collaborating with McCraney — who he previously did not know but came to like very much — to change its structure (breaking it into three clearly-defined acts) and incorporate more aspects of his own experience into that of its protagonist Chiron. In August 2013, having completed a first draft, he headed to the Telluride Film Festival, which had been a second home to him since he first visited it as a college student in 2002 — he returned every year thereafter, working his way up from intern to full-time programmer — where he was asked to moderate the Q&A following the world premiere of 12 Years a Slave. "It went so well," Jenkins recalls, and at the end of it the film's producers — Plan B's Brad Pitt, Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner — asked him what he was working on. He told them about Moonlight and, soon thereafter, they signed on to produce it with A24.

Jenkins cast three rookie actors to play Chiron in different decades of his life — "I was looking for this feeling in their eyes," he says, more than any greater physical resemblance — and also lined up Mahershala Ali, with whom he'd previously collaborated; Naomie Harris, the only performer who appears in each act; and first-timer Janelle Monae. Together with them and with his old FSU coteries, he made the film for only $1.5 million in just 25 days and with but one camera. Jenkins reflects, "It was beyond cathartic. Some of it was very painful, too. But I think that pain elevated the craft."

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