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 bullshitting – let’s just call it what it is – you have to start off bullshitting 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 shit, 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.

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