Category Archives: Indie Film

The A-List: Moonlight director Barry Jenkins

By Iain Blair

Moonlight may only be Barry Jenkins’ second film — his first was the 2008 low-budget debut Medicine for Melancholy — but he’s already established himself as a filmmaker to watch. Written and directed by Jenkins, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.

At once a vital portrait of contemporary African-American life and an intensely personal and poetic meditation on identity, family, friendship and love, Moonlight focuses on the particular, but reverberates with universal truths. Anchored by performances from an ensemble cast that includes Naomie Harris, André Holland, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Trevante Rhodes, Alex R. Hibbert and Jharrel Jerome, the film is a moving portrayal of the moments, people and unknowable forces that shape our lives and make us who we are, and since its premiere at Telluride is justifiably getting a lot of awards buzz.

Our writer Iain Blair and Moonlight director Barry Jenkins.

I recently met up with Jenkins to talk about the process of making Moonlight.

Can you talk about the film a bit?
It’s based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, which is a coming-of-age story that not so much defied the genre, but that more readily captured what it was like to grow up where we both did, in Miami. It focuses on three different times in this kid’s life, so instead of all the usual beats we take these three big beats and dramatize them in realtime.

You use three actors to portray those different times as the kid wrestles with his sexual identity and what it means to be a gay black man, but you’re not gay. Did you have any trepidation taking this on?
At the start, I felt it might be too much of a stretch, as I tend to feel certain stories need to be told by the people who lived them. But at the same time, in talking with Tarell, I knew he trusted me to present his voice and to be empathetic.

The film was shot by cinematographer James Laxton. He shot your last film and was nominated for an Indie Spirit award. What did he bring to the film?
He didn’t want to compromise the visual aesthetic, despite the very low budget we had, so we worked with a smaller crew and a few more days than we could afford — and even then we did this in just 25 days. The other thing is, there are always problems and mistakes on the shoot that you can fix in post, but we had so little money that we were very limited in what we could do. Thankfully, we had some partners who did us a lot of favors.

You shot on location in the pretty rough area of Liberty Square in Miami. How hard was that?
It wasn’t hard at all, once we had made the inroads. That neighborhood hasn’t changed much in the past 25 years, so there was this real patina and authentic look that we didn’t have to create.

MoonlightDo you like the post process?
I love it, but to be really honest, I love production more, as it’s less finite. Post is so finite, and it’s a very complex puzzle you have to solve. When we shot the swimming scene, we thought we had six hours, but it turned out we only had 90 minutes. You feel anything’s possible in those 90 minutes, whereas in post you’re trying to find the best shot, the best footage to tell the story, and the pressure’s on. (Laughs) And then the post budget was very small.

You edited the film with two editors — Nat Sanders who cut your first film, and Joi McMillon. Tell us how that relationship worked.
We used this system called the Atomos Samurai, since they weren’t on set. We didn’t have the budget to fly them out, plus they were cutting Season 5 of HBO’s Girls when we started.

So the way this system works is that our DIT on set was basically duplicating all the dailies in HD, and it was like a mirror image of the actual dailies — with a very simple LUT placed on them — and then they were shipped to LA. Nat and Joi worked off that for the entire process. Both of them were at film school with me, and I think the original plan was that Joi would be Nat’s assistant, but as the footage began to come in, and as there were these three distinct stories to cut, it just made sense that Joi would take one of the stories. That’s how it happened.

MoonlightSo they did an assembly while I was shooting, and then when I got back, we rented a small office in downtown LA, and that’s where we cut the whole film. We edited for roughly four months. I’d go in and sit with them pretty much every day. We were all in the same room, with me in between, so I could just turn and see his cut, and then what she was doing. It was a great set-up, and it also meant that they each got fresh eyes to view the material, as they weren’t often working on the same story at the same time.

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
It’s huge. I wanted this to be totally immersive, and as the character’s adopting all the trappings of hyper-masculinity, all the other elements around him echo that, like the hip-hop stuff. And composer Nick Britell did all this great chopping and screwing with the orchestra.

Where did you mix the sound?
We did it at Wildfire here in LA.

This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but effects must have played a significant role in the final look?
Absolutely, and VFX house Significant Others worked hand in hand with our colorist Alex Bickel at Color Collective. Both are in New York, and the VFX house did us a huge solid. The biggest thing they did was where we have the opening Steadicam shot. We were shooting anamorphic, usually wide open, and there was a focus gaffe, and they went in and just nailed it.

There was a mic pack they had to erase, and a bunch of creative stuff they did — like where a shot begins, and it’s not Steadicam but then becomes Steadicam. They also comped in the ocean in one shot at the end, where it was just too dark to see it.

How important was the DI on this and where did you do it?
Extremely important. We did it at Color Collective, and Alex Bickel (who used Resolve 12) was the third person I hired, right after the DP. I knew it was so crucial, and we spent a lot of time getting the look just right.

There’s been so much talk in Hollywood about the lack of diversity — in front of and behind the camera. What’s your take?
It’s tricky. There are so many films this year that are being framed as addressing this lack of diversity — and the outrage that’s arisen, but it takes so long to make a film. I think it’s the build-up of frustration over the past four or five years that’s just bubbled over in the past year.

As a fairly rare sight in Hollywood — a black filmmaker — do you feel you’ve had to struggle a lot to get this far? After all, it’s taken you eight long years to make this.
I think there are certain struggles when you’re a black filmmaker making black stories, and they’re mostly based on myths — black audiences only like this, black characters act like that, and so on. But for me, my last film, relative to its budget, was pretty popular, and the long gap between my films is all down to me; it’s doesn’t have anything to do with the system.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

John Schneider’s Louisiana studio: 58 acres, edit suites and more

By Randi Altman

Long before he ever stepped into Hazzard County or behind the wheel of the General Lee, John Schneider was a kid from Mount Kisco, New York, making movies with a Super 8 camera and cutting them the old-fashioned way — with razors and tape. And while he loved acting, starting in theater at the age of 8, it was the art of filmmaking that was his real passion.

“Acting was a diversion… Dukes of Hazzard was a diversion,” shares actor/writer/director/editor John Schneider, who is probably best known for his iconic role as Bo Duke on the popular TV series that ran from 1979-1985, as well as for playing Superman’s dad on Smallville. “I was a kid, shooting 50 feet of film at a time and waiting a week or more for it to be developed at my local Caldor. I was cutting footage together on a shag carpet with, basically, a razor blade, and I put it together with what was essentially Scotch tape.”

Schneider started on Dukes — what he refers to as a “fantastic time” — when he was 18, but the filmmaking bug that he caught so early never left. “I would watch movies and study the good ways to tell stories, the bad ways to tell stories and the better ways to tell stories. It occurred to me during that time that it had more to do with writing and editing than it had to do with acting.”

I recently spoke to Schneider as he sat in an edit suite at his John Schneider Studios (JSS) in Louisiana, which is equidistant between the Baton Rouge and New Orleans airports. JSS offers 58 acres to shoot on, with such varied locations as a river, a lake, a swamp, a baseball field, an Olympic-size swimming pool and five acres of Southeast Asia-like bamboo forest. In other words, it offers filmmakers many different settings in one location. There are also two 5,000-square-foot soundstages and two large houses on the property, one of which houses two edit suites.

Would you say your time on Dukes gave you an opportunity to learn even more about production and post?
Yes, in fact, I wrote and directed the last episode of Dukes. I don’t know if that is a testimony to my writing or not (he laughs). I also spent a lot of time in Russ Livingstone‘s edit room; we cut Dukes on a Moviola, but I remember when the flatbed came in. This thing was a revolutionary step up from the Moviola, and I just loved it. I know why bins in NLEs are called bins: because there were bins hanging from the back of my green Moviola!

Schneider during an edit.

I have always wondered what the difference between Sam Peckinpah and everybody else was. What the difference between Howard Hawks and John Ford was. How did they tell stories differently? Likely, it’s through editing. As the saying goes, “You shoot something, and then the editor makes the movie.” I’m the editor and the writer.

What did it feel like the first time you got your hands on a nonlinear editor?
Premiere was my foray into nonlinear editing. Then there was Final Cut, but then came version 10, which i feel destroyed the professional view of Final Cut. I started using Avid Media Composer when it came to the cloud and they allowed you to pay for it monthly. Once I learned it, Avid became my favorite of the bunch.

What do you use for storage?
I use a few different things, but my favorite is the big LaCie. It’s got eight drives in it, it’s flat and it weighs about 45 pounds. It’s pretty bulletproof and fast. I also use a WD My Book, which is a 4TB drive.

Let’s take you out of the edit bay for a bit. What prompted you to buy 58 acres in Louisiana and start your own studio?
I’ve wanted to make and tell my stories since I was eight years old. Then I saw this place. I discovered it when scouting locations for my horror/comedy Smothered, which came out in late March. That was the first film I shot here.

I believe that there are places that embrace you, and this particular 58 acres of land seems to be one of those places. Sometimes the actors and crew who shoot here don’t want to leave. They got their rental cars parked outside ready to go; they are an hour from New Orleans, but nobody winds up leaving. They stay by the fireplace or the fire pit outside and they wander through the bamboo forest (below, left). It’s a great testimony to the heart of this place.

newbamboo      river pier

So they stay overnight?
Many of the directors who’ve worked here stay, as do their first ADs. That way they can be here early in the morning ready to go. There are four bunk beds in the mess hall, and another room with two queen-sized beds, so if you are a fan of cozy, this is great. If you are like, “I want room service,” then this is not for you.

What kinds of projects are being shot at John Schneider Studios?
Sean Brosnan shot and directed My Father Die here. It’s a motorcycle/almost horror film that is really graphic and features rough territory… prisoners running through a swamp and stuff like that. I play a detective in that one. Then there was the horror film Exit 14, directed by Joe Salcedo. That shot here and featured Tom Sizemore and myself. In terms of commercials, the Louisiana Department of Tourism was here — they needed hills,  cypress leaves, a river, old barns and things. We had everything they needed in one place.

The cool thing about this studio is if you’re looking for a controllable wilderness or environment, we can do that. There are no hikers, or traffic or people that are wandering by asking what you are doing. Plus you can post here. A recent movie that shot here was Ozark Shark, and they were doing a rough cut while they were filming. I think two days into shooting they had a rough cut, which is a great because you have all that stuff fresh in your mind as a director.

What about your own films?
We did three films last year, and it worked out great. While we were filming Inadmissible, there was a rough assembly getting put together, and we had a rough about 10 days after we finished filming. Alicia Allain, my producing partner, and I went away for a week and when we came back it was time for me to jump into the cut. I like that.

Where do you go for finishing?
I will take my hard drives down to friends of mine at Celtic, which is in Baton Rouge. We’ll do the color correction, the audio mixing and the ADR there. The goal is to have all of that in-house at some point. Actually, as soon as we add a monitor, we will be offering color correction here via Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve. It’s just amazing.

We have a 30-seat theater where we watch dailies and screenings, so I’m thinking about turning that into the sound mixing room. When we put in the edit bay, we wired it so we could watch dailies in the room right next door.

How do all these different parts of you — writer, director, actor, editor — inform the other parts?
That is such a great question. I’ve been wearing one hat or another since 1968, and what I’ve learned is what not to worry about. Because I’m an actor, I want actors to enjoy themselves. I want them to explore and have a great time. I want them to be better than they are. The biggest compliment that John Schneider, the actor, can give a director is, “You made me better than I am.” You have to trust that the director knows what they’re doing, because you’re basically putting your heart and soul in their hands. I make people comfortable. If they mess up a line, I say, “I promise that when I cut this together, I won’t use anything that sucked. Nobody will know.”

The editor in me knows what pieces he needs, and if something goes a little south while we’re filming I don’t worry because we are going to have to cut-away, so we better shoot this cut-away while we’re sitting here. It’s all quite wonderful. I don’t know how directors who have not acted, or directors who have not cut their own film together, can possibly know what not to do. There are a lot of things to do, and you can be taught that, but you have to actually be in the trenches to know what not to do, and what not to worry about.

You sound pretty happy doing what you do.
I love every minute of it — getting a group of creative people together and fleshing out a story. I am so fortunate that I get to do this, pretty much every day, in this magic place here in Louisiana.

G-Tech 6-15

Catching up with ‘Long Nights Short Mornings’ editor Bryan Gaynor

His thoughts on the film, working with director Chadd Harbold and his process.

By Cory Choy

The narrative lineup at March’s SXSW was strong. So strong, in fact, that in addition to the 10 movies in competition for the Jury Award, there was also a Narrative Spotlight category. One of the films in that category was director Chadd Harbold’s Long Nights Short Mornings, featuring the main character James, who is sowing his wild oats but also finding out what it’s like to be an adult.

This film movie sports an unusual structure. It’s almost a series of shorts, that all have a character in common, but if the order they were told in changed, both the overall story and our perception of the main character would also change quite drastically. I found this method of telling a story fascinating, so I sought out the film’s editor, Bryan Gaynor, for an interview.

Bryan and Chad

L-R: Bryan Gaynor and Chadd Harbold

How did you meet the director Chadd Harbold?
Chadd and I met in freshman year at NYU. He was friends with a few of my friends, but he was always angry about something and very opinionated. He was also kinda loud! I was like, “Who the f— is this dude?’ My friends swore he was cool, and over time I found myself agreeing with them. We quickly became best friends. We have very similar tastes — and views on the world — and that’s probably why we clashed at first, because we were so alike.

What was your first collaboration with Chadd?
The first time he had me edit, we were trying to produce stuff outside of college because we felt like there wasn’t enough production happening at NYU. So we made a short. I wrote it, he shot it. Then he wrote a short that I edited. Then we made Asshole.

Um, Asshole?
I wrote a script in college called Asshole, but it wasn’t well received. I wrote it for a class and everybody hated it. I threw it in the trash, but Chadd picked it out and said if I wasn’t going to do anything with it, he would.

We found (executive producer) Gavin McInnes and we made that movie for like a buck. It was just a little short, but it got into Sundance. I didn’t even know we had submitted it to Sundance. I didn’t understand how film festivals worked back then. I think I was 19. So yeah, we got in, and the rest is history. I’ve pretty much edited everything he’s made since we met in college.

How many features did you collaborate on before Long Nights Short Mornings?
We did How to Be a Man, which we co-wrote with Gavin McInnes. Chadd directed and I cut. That one moved very quickly. We shot that in like 12 or 13 days. I had a cut done two days after it wrapped because we were on a really tight deadline to get it over to Sundance. It was shot in September or October, so it had to be a lightning fast edit. We had been working together so much, him directing and me editing — short films, commercials and music videos — it came together very quickly. We have different skill sets, but we tend to agree stylistically, so it’s really a very seamless collaboration.

Next was Long Nights Short Mornings?
Yes, that was his next feature. We had a tight deadline, and the budget was very not big, so we only had a certain amount of time. I was there (on set) to pick up drives and start cutting what had been shot, but I would stick around and see what was going on and talk to Chadd about what I had done so far. I started editing on the second day of shooting. I got the drive, popped it in and started editing.

No transcoding, just straight from the drive?
Yeah, they gave me these little shuttle drives and then I would put them on a hard drive. It was Thunderbolt, a G-RAID from G-Tech. They were shooting on an Arri Alexa in ProRes 4:4:4. (David Feeney-Mosier was the DP.)

Wait, you took that raw footage, straight into your computer — running off a thunderbolt drive — and edited the movie?
Yeah. Which was, I now know, a fucking terrible idea.

Why?
Because it just slows down the system. With shorts or commercials, I got it done, but when I started editing this feature it slowed me down. I thought it was because my computer was getting old, but even after I got a new one I had a lot of technical issues with Adobe Premiere and cutting raw footage on a Mac. So now I refuse to not transcode. It was kind of a nightmare really…

Have you always edited on Premiere? Do you care which NLE you’re editing on?
I taught myself Final Cut very early on. When I was a kid, I was shooting little videos — editing them on VHS decks, back and forth from a 8mm. It was really annoying. I then figured out that if I bought a Sony digital camera I could edit my footage in software. I tried Sony’s editing software but needed something different. I did some research and found a program called Pinnacle, and that worked for a while — it was almost like Final Cut, but probably more like what iMovie was. I really enjoyed the editing, and after more research I found Final Cut Pro and convinced the art teacher at my school to start a film club, which meant buying an Apple computer with Final Cut Pro. I loved it.

Why Adobe Premiere for this project?
I had been cutting on Premiere prior to this project. I switched over because, as you know, Final Cut 7 is becoming antiquated.

Was the move from Final Cut 7 to Premiere difficult?
I was against it for a while. I hadn’t taken Premiere seriously. I think I played with it once or twice when I was in high school and it didn’t seem like it had the same type of power that Final Cut did. That all changed with the Creative Cloud version of Premiere Pro.

After college I was doing a lot of freelance work, and I was told I needed to know Premiere. I watched a tutorial on Lynda.com and realized it was basically Final Cut with a few nice additions — it essentially worked the same way. It even had a keyboard shortcut setting that matched Final Cut.

I see the movie almost like a series of short films. When editing, were you thinking of it as a whole or were you thinking of it as separate pieces?
I read the script early on, and it always played like that. That’s something Chadd always had in mind. There was a focus on the women. I liked how he didn’t give you much about the main character, and if you saw every chapter on its own you would think that the protagonist was the girl. I really liked that, and I think it adds a bit of mysteriousness to him. So it’s both.

I basically cut things as I got them, in the order that they shot them, which I wouldn’t have done if I didn’t have to. I would have done things in script order. They would shoot out an actor, so for the most part it was vignette by vignette. I cut each scene and pieced it together from there. I trimmed the fat, swapped some scenes, lost some scenes and added some moments.

Music was a big thing. Luckily, the guy who did the score had a catalog of music that he gave me, so I was trying to work that into the edit.

Can you talk about the importance of music to you, the relationship that you have with music when editing narrative?
Music is really important, and it’s something that — I don’t know how other editors do this — I have to handpick as I’m cutting for a scene to really work for me. I hate to throw together a scene and just have it be dry when it’s not supposed to be. If it’s supposed to have music, I want it to have music and I want to try it with music, and make sure that the thing works.

Did Chadd dictate which scenes were going to have music, or did you decide where the music was?
There were certain scenes where the music’s diegetic, so obviously that’s written in. I have to give credit to Dan Berk (one of the film’s producers) for DJ-ing on set and picking really good stuff that worked in the scenes. That was really hard to replace, but luckily I had rights to most of it. I think my very early cut was dry, because I remember asking for music, and I didn’t get any until I sat down with Chadd.

One of the first things we did was sit down and score the whole thing together. Red (Redding Hunter), the composer, gave us an incredible song library of his music to work with. He is the glue to the whole film. He would record and replace score, bit by bit. We were like, “We are throwing in this song of yours because it kind of has the right tone, but it doesn’t work exactly,” so he would have to score something completely new for us. There was a lot of that. I think music really informs the edit, so I like to get it in there, as early as possible.

What was your biggest role on this film as a collaborator? What would not have happened without you?
That’s tough. Well, somebody once said that in each stage of filmmaking you make a different film. You write a script, and that’s one. Then when you’re shooting and you’re also re-writing. And then when you edit, and yet again, you re-write.

When you see the film put together it’s not what the script was or what the shoot was. It’s something else. As an editor, you want to make that thing work the best it can. I think Chadd’s really good about that — about throwing out the script during each stage of the process and focusing on the movie in front of him. Maybe that’s what I bring to the table: a fresh perspective. I try to see footage for what it is, which isn’t always necessarily what’s written in the script. I ask, “Do we need to sell the audience these things? Do they need to see this? Is it more interesting if we just cut in on this and the audience will understand?”

Cory Choy is a post professional and co-owner of Silver Sound Studios in New York City.