'If Beale Street Could Talk' Director Barry Jenkins On Collaboration, The Film's Centerpiece Moment, And More [Interview]

Moonlight director Barry Jenkins is back with another knockout drama: If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of author James Baldwin's celebrated novel. The film tells the story of Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), a young black couple who are deeply in love and trying to make it in New York City in the 1970s. But when Fonny is falsely accused of rape, Tish is left to fight to clear his name – and fighting against systemic racism is never easy. (I encourage you to read our review from TIFF here.)

Last month, I sat down with Jenkins to talk about life post-Moonlight, how spontaneity and collaboration resulted in some of Beale Street's most memorable moments, the challenge of adapting such a beloved novel, his work in television (including Dear White People and his upcoming adaptation of The Underground Railroad), and more. Read our full Barry Jenkins interview below.

Congratulations on this movie. It's lovely and heartbreaking – I thought it was excellent. And congratulations on the success of Moonlight. I'm always curious about how directors' lives change after a Best Picture Oscar. Have you noticed a significant shift in opportunities being available to you since then?

Yeah, definitely. What I like to say is, if I send an e-mail now, I actually know there will be a reply. Or if I leave a voicemail, somebody will return, which in this industry, in this town, your career is often geared around first trying to get people to say yes. Now I think my career is about trying to be very diligent and wise about how often to say no. That's been the biggest change.

This movie is sensual in a way that most American movies aren't. Is that feeling just something that's baked into you as a storyteller? Where does that come from for you?

I've gotta say a couple things. I can't say it's baked into me as a storyteller. Both of these films [Beale Street and Moonlight] have been adaptations of other people's work, James Baldwin and Tarell Alvin McCraney. So I think the credit must originate with them for creating these pieces that, one, speak to something very vital about American life, but without sacrificing the sensuality of everyday experience. I can't say "unlike most American films." You said that, not me.


But I think it is something that we encounter in our everyday life. There are many different depictions of sensuality, so I see no reason to take that out of the work or to be afraid to revel in it, which I think, at times, in both these films, we do.

What kind of visual influences did you have for this one?

The biggest one for this – and [cinematographer] James [Laxton] was in Memphis yesterday giving a masterclass on cinematography and talking about this film in particular at Indie Memphis. He was saying, and I agree, is that the energy of James Baldwin, the way he writes – especially in this book – the detail with which he writes, was the primary source of inspiration. And then, the film is not a documentary, but we wanted to find references that really have fidelity to the experience of Harlem in the '60s and early '70s. We found that mostly in still photography and work by Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks. So it was a blend of the lushness of Mr. Baldwin's literal syntax, the way he constructs these sentences, and this beautiful photography of the period. It's why the film is presented 2:1 as opposed to the more common aspect ratios of 1.85 or 2.35.

I think my favorite shot of the movie is of Tish and Fonny walking down a beautifully lit street under a red umbrella. They turn down a one way street – but they go the wrong way. Were those street signs in the script, or was that something that just happen while you were shooting?

See, this is what I love about making movies. All of that, it wasn't an accident, but we didn't bring in rain. It just poured rain that day. So there was not meant to be an umbrella. So much of the way we framed that was not meant to be. But even though this movie had more resources than Moonlight, it's still a modest budget, so we had to work with the elements. So it just poured rain that day, so once we got to the setup, it was just like, "What's the best way to film this gorgeous free rain that we have?" It was [actor] Diego [Luna] who was like, "paraguas," which is how you say "umbrella" in Spanish. The whole thing just took on a life of its own.

As far as walking left vs. right, that road – I don't know if you can tell in the film, but it kind of slopes down just a little bit, and I wanted them to walk uphill as opposed to walking down. So they went right instead of left.

That's so cool that a moment like that which was unplanned sort of gives you more of a look into their intimacy. Just the way that he treats her, how they stand together.

To me, when you make a film or any kind of art, you have to be open to inspiration from the elements, from your collaborators. I think what I see in that scene that's very lovely is, it's one thing for them to walk down the street hand in hand. And this is somewhat patriarchal in a certain way, but for Fonny to hold this umbrella, there's almost this nurturing quality to it. I think it makes the question he poses just that much more delicate, more intimate. "Will you come to my place?"

For sure. A lot of the movie is bathed in yellows and greens. Tell me about how you decided on the color palette.

Yeah, it was a really purely organic process of collaboration. In the run up to production, Mark Friedberg, the production designer, he would host these salons. It would be myself, Mark, Caroline Eselin the costume designer, and James Laxton our cinematographer, and we'd all just get together in Mark's living room/kitchen, drink wine and eat hors d'oeuvres, and we'd just pass around color swatches or little still photos. Slowly, you saw us coalesce around these ideas. Not necessarily color blocking in an intellectual way – "this color means this, this color means that" – but you saw all of us really getting into color as a manifestation of how Tish feels. That became this series of golds and greens. These very warm, saturated colors. In the film, Tish is kind of in purgatory in a certain way. Fonny's dealing with this ordeal, she's bringing this child to term. But when she thinks of these moments, the walk in the rain or the first time they make love, that's filtered through memory, and a very lush, beautiful memory. Almost a heightened depiction of what actually happened. As we had these salons, the colors started to assert themselves, and by the end of pre-production, it was very clear we were going to make this super saturated, vibrantly colored film. Very different than Moonlight.

If Beale Street Could Talk

The scene between Fonny and Daniel in the kitchen is one of the most harrowing things in the movie. How did you feel going into that day of the shoot?

It's a lot of dialogue. It's a lot of dialogue. And it's just two people, like you and I, sitting across a table. So there's always two questions in my mind: there's so much dialogue, how do I make this comfortable for the actors? Because in filmmaking, typically there's all these different angles and it's hard for actors to get in the flow. They have like 80 lines in that scene. How do we get from line 20 to line 50 in a way that's organic for the actor as opposed to breaking it up in chunks. So that's the first part of it. The second part of it was, there's two people sitting at a table. How do I make that cinematic? But it was the last day of production in New York and principal photography, and we had a lot of time to plan it. The set that it takes place on is a build by Mark Friedberg, so by the time we got to shoot it, we knew the ins and outs of how that set functioned.

It's interesting. I love talking about that scene because it's one of the really lovely experiences for myself and James Laxton, being open to experimentation. Because we filmed that scene entirely one way, very traditional coverage. Then we realize it wasn't operating at the level we wanted it to. So we redid the entire thing by putting the camera on sliders and panning the image from one actor to the other. So a lot of this shoot was dual cameras. We started off filming that scene with two cameras, but by the end of it, we were like, "No, we don't need two cameras." So instead of separating them, a camera on him, a camera on him, let's pan from one to the other and share the energy from Fonny to Daniel. That's when the whole thing came together.

It was not as terrifying as the scene with the two families in a living room, because the idea of Barry Jenkins having eight actors in a room talking is just insane. It's not anything I ever thought I'd want to do. So that was much more terrifying than the scene with Stephan [James] and Brian [Tyree Henry].

Brian is incredible in that scene. What was your relationship like with him? It seems like that's his centerpiece moment in the film.

It is. It's kind of a centerpiece moment for the film in general. We have all these still images in the first five minutes and the last five minutes of the film, we cut to what I would call documentary photography of the era, and you see these series of many black men. I think when Brian Tyree shows up as Daniel, you kind of see a collection of all these experiences, but made personal in the experience of Daniel Carty. What I said to all of the actors was I felt like it was going to be a faithful adaptation. So it takes 20 hours to read the book, it takes 2 hours to watch the film. What happens to those 18 hours? For Brian's character, Daniel, there's so much interior life of that character in the book. He still only shows up for two or three scenes, but you get much more of what Hemingway called "the iceberg," all these things beneath the surface.

So I said to Brian, who's a big fan of James Baldwin himself, "You can bring all of those things into the performance. You're not going to speak these things, but you can bring the feeling of all of that into the scene." And he got it, because he loved the source material as much as I did.

You've mentioned Baldwin a couple times. Can you talk about the challenge of adaptation for this project? How did you approach that?

I mean...man. The film is non-linear, the book is non-linear, and then with Baldwin, so much of the power in his writing – the story is interesting, of course, the "narrative," I'll say, the plot is interesting, of course – but so much of the power of his writing is how he goes into the interior lives of the characters. So you understand how the story is making these characters feel and what those feelings are saying about life in America, about American society. So the challenge was, how do you make a film, which is not interior text, which is all surface in a certain way – you're outside them, you're not inside of their heads – but how do you still translate this interior voice? That was, by far, the biggest challenge for me. We have voiceover narration in the film, so that's one way. But it still wasn't coming to me, to build a film that was a landscape of faces, so you can really identify and empathize with how the characters feel instead of Baldwin reading to you how the characters feel, which is the luxury of writing a novel.

Barry Jenkins Next Movie

Right. And obviously Baldwin's legacy looms large over this movie, but after you finished writing the script, did you ever feel a sense of ownership over it?

I did, but not in the sense that it was mine. The ownership I felt was the responsibility to bring this into the world in tact, and the responsibility to preserve and not alter the energy of Mr. Baldwin's work. That was mine, the thing I possessed. But to take over the story entirely, I never felt that. Especially at the script stage. I think once you get on set and you're working with the actors, then that's where, "OK, now this is mine." But in the writing, it was always about, "This is so damn beautiful. Why would I ever want to take this over?" It's almost like being in a relationship. I think in the best relationships, the two individuals remain individuals, and they support each others' individuality, and they grow together because of it. That's how I felt the process of adapting Baldwin was.

Going back to that Fonny and Daniel scene for a minute, I've noticed several scenes in your work that begin with a seemingly normal situation, but slowly shift into something more unnerving. Is that creeping unease that occasionally encroaches into your work a conscious theme you like to include?

It's funny. I don't think I do it consciously, but no doubt, I'm with you. I see that it happens. To me, that's how real life kinda happens, you know? I think when people get into arguments, they're very afraid to express their angst, so you tiptoe in. But these two pieces in particular because they revolve [around] – Beale Street less directly – this idea of black men and them accessing their vulnerability, their insecurities. That's not something that happens very easily. So I think in the scenes with Kevin and Chiron in Moonlight and the scenes that are exclusively between black men in this film, with Brian Tyree and Stephan and then Michael Beach and Colman [Domingo], for me, it was very necessary to have fidelity to what I feel like is the lived experience.

You have to start off bulls***ting – let's just call it what it is – you have to start off bulls***ting to get to the point where you can be real. I'm really proud of especially the scene we just talked about with Stephan and Brian, because these are the same men we meet on the sidewalk with big smiles, cracking jokes. The same men. And then ten minutes later, it's like, "Holy s***, is this person going to be able to get up and go to work the next morning?" To me, that's how life is actually lived. It's funny, it's not something I ever set out to do. Intellectually, I don't think of it that way. But once we get in post, it's clear the energy that was put into it.

Yeah, I was thinking of those scenes and even the scene in the Dear White People episode you directed, too, where that party scene takes a turn.

Yeah! Now look, here's the beauty of these things. Maybe someday – and I'm sure my publicist is listening to this and she's going to cringe – but maybe someday I'll just stop writing. Because Dear White People is Justin Simien, Moonlight is Tarell McCraney, and Beale Street is James Baldwin. I'm just taking the energy that these men – who, by the way, all happen to be gay black men. I don't know what that is. Someone pointed that out to me. I'm just taking the energy and the things they're revealing about these characters, and again, trying not to fuck it up. I think what I see, as a visual storyteller, the best way to relay those things, is through the prism of duration. The scene in Beale Street is an extreme version of duration cinema, where it's a twelve minute scene between two people. But I do feel like through duration, you chart the empathy in a way that you can actually grab onto it and feel it. And you can see the beginning, middle, and end, which allows you to trace the root of it.

Dear White People S1E5

Do you think your schedule will allow you to come back direct another episode of Dear White People?

I want to, man! Justin and I were talking about that. I feel so damn bad that I've not been able to get back. We did that, there was a ten day window I had during Moonlight awards season, ten days off, and they carved it out for me, my publicist and everyone who's amazing. They carved it out and I went and did the episode, and I was so damn glad I did. I think filmmaking is this muscle that you have to continuously exercise. And when you're doing this thing [gestures to us], talking about work, whether the work is good or bad, so far it seems like people think the work is good, it can kind of get inside your head a bit. It was nice to be on set and have this huge problem, which is, "I don't know these characters. I don't know this world. How do I make it mine?" And through the voice of Justin Simien, you are correct: we were able to somehow end up doing the same thing. That party starts off like, "Hey!" just cracking jokes, and by the end of it, it's like, wow. Wow. I forgot about that episode. Thank you for the reminder.

No problem! You were talking about TV a little bit, and I know you're working with Amazon on The Underground Railroad. Do you think that your experience on Dear White People – the scale and scope of TV is so much faster than film. Did that –

It did. Undoubtedly. It gave me more confidence to go into making Underground Railroad, not necessarily with Amazon, but just making it, period. Much more confidence. Justin was really good about inviting me into the process. So when he was doing the writers' room, I had no input on the script, but I would check in with him and he would let me know how it was going. And then once we got there to make the [episode], all of it was physically together in the same space. They were writing and editing and filming, and all those things was a lovely crash course. I'm really glad you brought that up, because this happened even before Moonlight, and I don't know that I would have gotten a chance to direct television in a pre-Moonlight world had it not been for Justin Simien, so hats off to him. I was also in the writers' room on The Leftovers, so all these experiences I think gave me the confidence to go down the road. Because The Underground Railroad is a really, really big undertaking. The biggest thing I've ever done. But I do have experience to fall back on that's helped me through the process.

I know that you just got a development deal with Amazon that was announced recently as well. Can you tell me about any of the new projects you're developing there?

Yeah. I can't tell you about projects specifically, but I think the process of working on Underground, which we've been working with them, we had a writers' room for the show right before going into production on Beale Street, has been so wonderful and fluid. It's like, "Well, we're going to be here making this thing. Why don't we make more things together?" And what I love about that deal is, it's not a Barry Jenkins deal. It's a deal with Pastel. So myself, Adele Romanski, Mark Ceryak, and Sara Murphy, my partners in the company, we're not just here to make Barry Jenkins work. We're trying to bring all these voices that either have a Moonlight in them, a True Detective in them, whatever it is, but don't have access to the tools that Amazon provides. We're hoping to usher new voices into this realm alongside mine.

Beale Street yell

Very cool. I think have time for one more question, and I'm going to end on a weird one. I'm going to leave this entirely up to your interpretation: if you had to choose the most "Barry Jenkins" moment from Beale Street, what would it be and why?

I know that one. [Has instant realization] Aw, s***! I'm going to give two.

It would either be when Regina King as Sharon arrives in Puerto Rico and she's looking at her reflection in the mirror and to decide who she's going to be. To me, this idea of identity, this idea of placing on a false strength or the projection of strength to protect others around you, and those things coming undone, I just love the simplicity of it. Again, it's not literature, it's not theater, it's cinema. Regina lands in Puerto Rico, there's not a single word for four minutes. Not a single word. Yet you understand everything that character is feeling. It's very well-known that I worship [French director] Claire Denis, and that, to me, is me as a student of Claire Denis really utilizing cinema, which is not literature and not theater, and really taking the actor, full bodied, and presenting them in a way that gets at a metaphor that I couldn't get to with words.

The other one is so fucking super melodramatic and lush and saturated, but not in the book. After Tish and Fonny get the apartment, they have this conversation with the Dave Franco character Levy, they're walking down the street and they just yell to the sky. That, to me, is peak gooey, sentimental, soft Barry Jenkins, which is an impulse I try to reject. But I think people need to – especially young black people – need to be able to unleash joy in an unbridled way, and that moment for me is my favorite moment in the film. Because I want that for those characters so badly. So badly. And Stephan and KiKi [Layne] are so committed to it. When you grow up as a child and you understand what relationships are, families, you're watching The Brady Bunch, that moment – what they do in that scene – is kind of like the embodiment of it. It's something that's not in the novel and I felt like it had to be in the film, and it's not my best impulses, but fuck it. I just love it.

And that's also one of the most heartbreaking moments in the movie. Fonny says, "We've got all the time in the world," and you know that's not true.

He also says "Are you ready for this?" which is a mirror. In the opening scene, she asks him, "Are you ready for this?" "I've never been more ready for anything in my life," he says. And then, because the whole movie is framed through her consciousness, he asks her, "Are you ready for this?" and she says, "I've never been more ready for anything in my whole life." But are they ready? Are they ready? How could anybody fucking be? Is Regina ready to go to Puerto Rico? No! But she has to go, and these kids have to live their lives.


If Beale Street Could Talk opens in Los Angeles and New York on December 14, 2018 and hits theaters nationwide on December 25, 2018.