Barry Jenkins 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.

(Laughs)

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.

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