Barry Jenkins Only Had 90 Minutes To Shoot One Of Moonlight's Most Important Scenes

Independent filmmaking may give you greater latitude in the kinds of stories you are able to tell, as the risk vs reward on the financial side isn't as great as the mega-blockbusters from Hollywood. While we think of money in a film budget being used for sets, higher-profile actors, and better camera equipment, more money gets you the most valuable currency of all: time. In the world, time is the most precious commodity you can have. Because you are working with finite resources, the margin for error on what you are doing on set is extremely narrow, and you are often operating at a run-and-gun speed.

Though Barry Jenkins' sophomore feature has become a universally beloved film and Best Picture winner, "Moonlight" is a tiny movie with just a $1.5 million budget. While that sounds like a lot of money to you and me, that is pennies for making a movie. It speaks quite a lot about Jenkins and his collaborators that they were able to create something that feels so expansive and beautiful with so few resources.

Oftentimes, indie production is made even more challenging as you are left to the whims of nature. Weather, in particular, can be the bane of many filmmakers' existences, forcing them to compromise on certain scenes or rush to get something in order to beat the elements. 

For one of the most crucial and moving moments of "Moonlight," Jenkins ended up having just an hour and a half to film it because of this, and thanks to the small budget, this was going to be the only time to nail it.

A brief swimming lesson

As someone originally from Florida, I know all too well how quickly (and how frequently) it storms there. It may be the "Sunshine State," but that moniker will always get broken up in the middle of the day at some point. "Moonlight" takes place and was shot in Miami, which is integral to the story's sense of character and specificity. One of the most beautiful scenes in the film is when Little (Alex Hibbert) is taught to swim in the ocean by his surrogate father figure Juan (Mahershala Ali). It is a moment of calm, interpersonal connection that solidifies their relationship into something special. Well, the chance to get this scene right was extremely short, as a classic Florida storm was rolling in. 

Speaking with Sight & Sound five years after the film's release, Barry Jenkins recalled that narrow window:

"We only had 90 minutes to shoot the scene where Juan teaches Little how to swim, because these storms are coming in from the horizon. So instead of this bucolic, golden scene, we have actor Mahershala Ali teaching our young actor Alex Hibbert how to swim as a f****** storm is rolling in. [...] So I told Ali, 'Look, I'm sorry, but this is a baptism and I need you to teach this kid how to swim really fast.'"

The final product ends up being one of the first scenes that pops into my head whenever I think of "Moonlight." It goes to show you that if everyone working on a film is on the same page, both in terms of the logistics and the storytelling, magic can happen. In some cases, that pressure is exactly what everyone needs to work at the top of their game. For "Moonlight," they certainly were.