Barry Jenkins on Moonlight
Barry Jenkins discusses making the audience walk a mile in the character’s shoes, the use of waypoints in adaptations, and the importance of poor first drafts.
Moonlight is a film that leaves a mark on those who see it, and is a story you find yourself thinking about hours later, even if you’re not sure why.
And judging by the number of accolades that Moonlight has received, the sentiment is universal. Fresh off receiving six Golden Globe nominations (including a win for Best Motion Picture – Drama), the film is headed to the Academy Awards with another eight nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay nods for writer/director Barry Jenkins.
Based on the semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the story follows Chiron, a young black boy living in a housing project in Miami.
Divided into a three-act structure, the film traces Chiron’s journey from childhood to adulthood, and explores how his experiences and the various people who influence him shape him into the man he becomes, both emotionally, physically and sexually.
Whether it’s through Juan (the father figure who occasionally takes him in to offer some solace from his home life), his drug-addicted mother Paula (a character that hits particularly close to home for both McCraney and Jenkins), or his best friend Kevin, Jenkins portrays Chiron’s difficult world without any of the clichés that often mark a troubled youth’s coming-of-age story.
His first film since 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, Jenkins has clearly struck a collective nerve with Moonlight.
Creative Screenwriting spoke with Jenkins about this project, what stood out to him in the source material, and the emotional journey he wanted to take his audience on.
(Warning: this article contains minor plot spoilers.)
What type of project were you looking for to follow your 2008 film Medicine for Melancholy?
It had been so long at that point, I was really looking for anything I could get excited or passionate about. And to be honest, I just kind of fell into Moonlight. I wasn’t really looking for it. I knew this guy, Andrew Hevia (who was a co-producer on the film), who was trying to find a way to get me to come back to Miami to make a film. And he came across Tarell McCraney’s piece, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.
What stood out to you about it?
It was the voice and the atmosphere. I thought he’d done a great job of capturing the world that we grew up in. And then of course there’s the character played by Naomie Harris in the film, Paula, who I just related to viscerally, intimately. I think it was a combination of those two things.
Was McCraney’s play already in the three-act structure that you use in the film?
No, it wasn’t in that structure at all. It was kind of like a “day in the life” where it jumped back and forth across time amongst the characters. Which was interesting. It was a very audacious point of view, and it said something very interesting about the consciousness of the character – he’s one way as a boy, but is a very defeated sort of grown man, where the life has been taken out of him. It’s interesting to juxtapose the boy and the man in the span of a couple of pages.
But I wanted the audience to follow the journey, to watch each stage of the character’s development in turn.
Did you have to make a lot of other changes, in terms of plot and the supporting characters?
Somewhat, but it was more about extending and filling in some of the blanks. The source material is 45 pages and the finished script is about 100 pages.
So there’s a lot that is different, but there’s also a lot that is the same. I think the essence of the piece remained the same, but the primary difference is that the source material ends about 30 minutes before the film does. The characters don’t reunite in the play, but I just felt that as a viewer, I wanted to see these two men sit across from one another and reconnect.
Let’s go back to Paula’s character. As you mentioned, this was one that was very personal to you, and I understand that it was personal for McCraney as well. How did you approach the writing of Paula?
You know, that character came pretty well-drawn in the source material. The Paula on the page, even at the very beginning, was there and there wasn’t a lot of work that had to be done.
I applaud Tarell, because there were things in that character that I didn’t want to deal with in my work if I could avoid it. I’m talking about both in my personal life and in my craft. And I’m glad that Tarell had gone to that place.
The three actors who played Chiron and the three actors who played Kevin never met their counterparts during filming. What kind of a risk was that, and what was the payoff you were looking for in taking that approach?
I actually didn’t think of it as a risk. I felt like because everybody was aware of what we were doing, and that it was going to become an integrated part of the process.
The cinematographer knew that I wasn’t going to have these three guys meet, and so he knew to do certain things visually to help the audience connect these journeys.
I think when you’re working that way, in a very open sort of way, people often come alongside and share the burden. And so it didn’t feel like a risk at all – we were all aware of what we were doing and why we were doing it.
What I liked about it, was that I wanted the piece to be a comment on the way of the world we live in, and how society has this effect on these young men who grow up in a community like the one depicted in the film. To me, the best way to show that was to illustrate this change in the character, and what happens to the people who are playing him at each stage. The key was for them to carry the spirit across the three chapters, and that’s what I was looking for.
There are some significant events in the storyline that are referred to, almost in passing, but not shown onscreen – such as the death of Juan. Tell me about why you chose this approach.
Because of the structure of the source material. It’s meant to be immersive to the audience.
It’s supposed to function as part of his pain – “you have to walk a mile in my shoes”. All across the US there are these young men like Chiron, and there are these father figures like Juan who take them under their wing. And one day, Chiron came home and Juan was gone, with no explanation. I wanted the audience to feel what that was like.
Because I’m sure the audience has been wondering “Where’s Mahershala Ali? Where’s his character now?” He’s gone. With no explanation for it. So you are now feeling what these young men feel, all the time.
The way we relay information in the film, Chiron already knows, and we find different ways to reference the fact Juan is gone. Like when he’s being bullied and the kid brings it up. But we’re not going to give you the whole information – you have to walk a mile in this kid’s shoes.
Finally, do you have any advice you could offer our readers, either in terms of adaptation, or screenwriting in general?
For adaptations, I use waypoints.
I’m obsessed with aviation, because I’m terrified of flying. I’ve done a lot of research on it, and I like the idea of these waypoints – we fly from New York to LA, and there are certain points you have to hit, and you have a bit of freedom in between. So when I’m outlining an adaptation, I don’t try to outline every single beat. I try to create these waypoints to give myself the freedom to do a lot of filling in in-between.
In the case of Moonlight, it was extremely helpful to do that, because my life and Tarell’s life were so similar to this character’s life and to each other’s, that it was really invigorating to not be completely beholden to what was in the source material, and be able to reach in and rely on our personal experience.
As far as the writing process in general? The first book I read in undergrad about creative writing was Anne Lamont’s Bird by Bird, and I’m a really big fan of shitty first drafts. I just plow through a first draft, because the real writing is definitely the rewriting. So I just like to get things down and get through that first draft.
Featured image: Alex R. Hibbert as Little and Mahershala Ali as Juan in Moonlight.