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After Barry Jenkins’ second feature, Moonlight, earned best picture at the 2017 Academy Awards — where he also scored a best adapted screenplay win, shared with Tarell Alvin McCraney — the director likely could have picked anything he wanted as his follow-up. He turned to American literature, first adapting James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk (the film would earn Regina King a 2018 Oscar for best supporting actress) and then to Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning 2016 novel, The Underground Railroad.
The latter, now nominated for seven Emmys, including outstanding limited series, is much larger in scale and scope than Jenkins’ feature films. The 10-part Amazon project follows Cora (Thuso Mbedu), a young enslaved woman who escapes a Georgia plantation and heads north via the abolitionist network — which in the series is depicted quite literally as a vast nation-spanning system of trains that delivers the formerly enslaved to safety in Canada. The result is a Swiftian journey that is more magical realism than historical fiction. As she advances north, Cora discovers that each state of the Union has its own culture, mores and rules — and she is pursued by a slave catcher named Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), elevating the stakes of her escape as she narrowly avoids danger at every turn.
Jenkins, also nominated for directing the limited series, spoke to THR about the particular challenges he took on as a showrunner for a television series, his approach to bending the episodic format with varying episode lengths and how cinema is actively evolving into an experience that no longer requires watching something in a theater.
How did you get attached to the project? Was the book something that you read on your own, and you decided you wanted to adapt?
I’d always been a fan of Colson’s writing. When it was first published, I had already preordered it on Amazon — I wanted it the minute it dropped. I read it even before Moonlight premiered at Telluride [in September 2016], and I just really loved it. In my first conversation with Colson, I said, “Look, I don’t want to do this as a feature film. I think it has to be a limited series.” And he agreed.
Was it daunting to do a multipart series after making three features?
Yeah, it was. I had been a part of Sundance’s episodic lab, with a project that I ultimately tried to develop with the late Chadwick Boseman. In that lab, you go through the whole process from beginning to end to create a season of television. From that experience, I was staffed in the writers room of Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers for season two. So, I got a couple experiences watching people do it, and I did have some understanding of what the difference would be from making, say, a Moonlight versus being the showrunner for a writers room, with a 116-day shoot of roughly 40 to 50 pages [an episode]. I was kind of prepared for it, mentally.
What was the writing process like for you? Television is a much more collaborative environment with a writers room, but the limited series format can be auteur-driven for a writer-director.
I don’t know how [writers] have the time to write every single episode. The protagonist is a woman, you know — the author of the book is a male, I’m male. I really wanted to create an environment where we could have folks who weren’t men get inside this book and try to excavate all these different things that you could sense were beneath the surface. We had a very short, intense room. I think we were only in the room for about eight or nine weeks.
The book itself is so episodic in nature. Our protagonist goes from state to state, chapter to chapter, and it just felt like television. The best way into our job in the writers room was to figure out who gravitated to which stories. And then, what was the subtext that we felt could be translated into visual language? I don’t think I could have done this by myself, it would have been overwhelming.
Because the book is episodic, was it easy to stick to the plot Whitehead established? Or did you imagine it almost as 10 stand-alone stories, and was it then a challenge to make it feel cohesive?
Yeah, it was a challenge. One of the things that’s really impressive about television is how every episode is the same length, and because of audience expectations, every episode charts the same journey — you know, this beat is going to follow this minute and then it’s going to propel us into this beat at this minute. It’s really impressive. I think because each state is kind of its own world, it disengages from those expectations a bit, because building one world sometimes requires different storytelling demands than building a [second or third] world. Also, we have some states where we’re spending two hours and other states where we’re spending 40 or 20 minutes, and with new acting troupes for each setting.
Television is this format that came onto the scene more than a half-century ago. At that time, the screens in the theaters were much larger than the screens at home, and that was the case for the first 50 years of television. In the past 15 to 20 years, the screens at home got bigger — not only [that], their fidelity is getting higher, the definition is getting higher, their ability to reproduce colors is getting brighter. For so long, the medium has been about language, language, language. I think there’s almost a third art form that is coming out of the television experience. It’s not just about text, not just about dialogue, not just about story. Now it is about this visual language.
Technically, this is a TV show. But I also see it as cinema, in the same way that Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage is considered a film despite it first airing on Swedish television as a miniseries. What are your thoughts on how the boundaries of “cinema” are expanding?
I remember when there wasn’t a Criterion Channel. Netflix was one of the first streaming apps that had an app on the iPhone, and I remember pulling up [Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi drama] Solaris on my iPhone and being just gobsmacked by the image quality of the streaming transfer, and the fact that I can now watch this thing in my pocket. Remember when HBO first came out? What a great fucking piece of marketing: “It’s not TV, it’s HBO.” There were certain things you could not do on network television that you could do on HBO. There were images you could see in a cinema that the televisions at home were just not capable of displaying. Those barriers are quickly going away. You can get a 4K projector and put it against a white wall in your house. Do you have a cinema in your home? The distinction between the two is subjective. We used to think it was quite literal, but now there are things like Steve McQueen’s Small Axe. As we build these categories, we do have to be more reflexive. The work, the art, is ahead of the categorization of it and we’re still in a catch-up process. The cool shit, for creators, is that [we can say], “Let me pitch you something. I can’t say exactly where it fits, but I’m telling you it’s dope.” Just go make the thing and figure out the rest afterward — that was my approach to making The Underground Railroad.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
And the Odds Are…
An Oscar-winning director’s adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about race in America, released in 2021? There are almost too many expectations to cram into one project without sinking it under the weight. But Barry Jenkins’ The Underground Railroad easily won critics over when it premiered in May. If it has a handicap, it might be visibility. Anecdotally, Hollywood players haven’t flocked to the series in the same way they have its more commercial competition. — Mikey O’Connell
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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