How Silence Proved Golden for 'Moonlight'

"Barry [Jenkins] likes to play up the silences and allow the viewer to process what the character is thinking," says one of the film's editors, Joi McMillon.
Courtesy of David Bornfriend/A24
Images of Alex Hibbert, as Little, begin and end the movie.

Moonlight opens with its protagonist Chiron, nicknamed Little, as a child (played by Alex Hibbert) meeting protective drug dealer Juan (portrayed by Mahershala Ali), and that presented a challenge to the film's editors, Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, friends with director Barry Jenkins since their student days at Florida State University. They had to find the "balance so that Juan doesn't overtake Little's story," explains Sanders. "It was a bit of a discovery process."

Notes McMillon, "Little doesn't talk for the first 10 minutes, so we needed to find his voice in the movie." In fact, they experimented with the movie's opening, at one point starting with Little dancing in a bathroom, imitating Michael Jackson, but they agreed that the added levity wasn't required.

For each of the film's three acts, the editors actually started by giving the viewer an opportunity to get acquainted with Chiron at each stage of his life.

For that reason, the scene during which the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) visits his mother (Naomie Harris) was moved back from where it originally was scripted. "We thought the visit to his mother came too early in Act 3," says McMillon. "We wanted to give the audience a chance to catch up with Chiron." And so the pair created a montage that was a sort of "day in his life" before moving on to Chiron's meeting with his mother.

The climactic Act 3 scenes in which Chiron reconnects with childhood friend Kevin (Andre Holland) proved the biggest challenge. "We're in the diner for four to five scenes," explains McMillon. "You don't want to overstay your welcome but do it at a pace that allows them to reconnect after a very long time. Barry likes to play up the silences and allow the viewer to process what the character is thinking. But we had to also keep the audience engaged."

This story first appeared in the Jan. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.