Oscars: 'Moonlight' Producer Talks Casting Mahershala Ali, Challenges of a Shoestring Budget

Courtesy of A24

"It's a story that has nothing to do with me, where I come from or how I grew up. And yet I had such a strong emotional response to it," Adele Romanski tells THR of her initial reaction to reading director Barry Jenkins' heart-rending script.

Adele Romanski, who has been friends with Barry Jenkins since their film-school days at Florida State, knew she was going to produce the director's second feature — she just didn't know what it would be. When they landed on Moonlight, an adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney's unproduced play about an African-American gay man coming of age in Miami, she and the other producers, Plan B's Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, faced the challenge of bringing the emotional tale to life and making it feel universal — all on a shoestring budget. Romanski spoke to THR about her first encounter with the script, overcoming casting challenges and the difficulty of finding a high school in which to shoot.

How did you first sign on?

Barry and I made the decision together that he was going to direct something and I was going to produce it. Moonlight was the one idea that we both felt very strongly about. I think, for Barry, it was something that was deeply personal. For me, it's a story that has nothing to do with me, where I come from or how I grew up. And yet I had such a strong emotional response to it. I don't remember the last time I felt something so powerfully. After reading the first draft, I just sat in my bed for a very long time, not really able to move or speak, and just feeling so much.

What sort of challenges did you face when it came to the budget?

Our budget was $1.5 million, so everything was a limitation — it's hard to just choose one. But we came up in a culture of scrappy independent filmmaking and figuring out how to overcome your budget. We either achieved what was on the page or managed to find another way to do it better or at least on the same level.

You had to find three actors to play the main character. What was the casting process like?

We decided early on that we were going to cast three distinct actors, one for each act. There was some conversation about if we could just use two, that the teenager and adult would be the same — how normal Hollywood movies would do it. It didn't feel appropriate to our piece. Casting the middle act, the Chiron-Kevin combo, was probably the toughest. We actually found Ashton [Sanders] very early in the process, but his Kevin counterpart [Jharrel Jerome] was maybe the last role we cast. I was blessed to have worked with Mahershala Ali on a movie called Kicks, so I knew him personally and professionally. I mentioned to him at lunch one day, "I think I've got this thing for you. I can't share it yet, but I'm going to hit you up." So that was very fortunate, and the rest of the cast came together somewhat beautifully. I don't think we ever asked anyone to do it who said no. Naomie [Harris], Janelle [Monae] and Andre [Holland], they were the first actors that we went to.

What was the toughest aspect of the production?

I was afraid for a very long time that we were not going to get access to a high school, for reasons of the subject matter. The second act is a high school story — how could you not have a high school? We went into production not having one. Of course, we eventually got the permission that we needed from a neighboring county, so it worked out, but that was the toughest thing.

Have you gotten any advice about what to expect at the Oscars?

Everyone says something similar, which is to the effect of, "Enjoy it." Try to experience it and appreciate it because it's insane and it's crazy. It's obviously a campaign — in the most political sense of the word — but it is also a uniquely special and, for some, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

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