By Iain Blair
If they handed out Oscars for shots of curling cigarette smoke, Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to his Oscar-winning Moonlight would win hands down. If Beale Street Could Talk looks certain to be an awards show darling, already picking up three Golden Globe nods — Best Drama Motion Picture, Best Screenplay for Jenkins and Best Supporting Actress for Regina King.
Based on the 1974 novel by writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin, it tells the story of a young black couple — Clementine “Tish” Rivers (KiKi Layne) and Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) — who grow up together in Harlem and get engaged. But their romantic dreams soon begin to dissolve under the harsh glare of white authority and racism when Fonny is falsely accused of rape and thrown in jail, just as Tish realizes she is pregnant with their child.
While the couple is the focus of the film, the family drama also features a large ensemble cast that includes King as Tish’s mother and Colman Domingo as her father, along with Michael Beach, Brian Tyree Henry, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal and Dave Franco.
Behind the camera, Jenkins reteamed with Moonlight cinematographer James Laxton, editors Nat Sanders and Joi McMillion, and composer Nick Britell.
I spoke with Jenkins about making the film and workflow.
It’s always a challenge to adapt an acclaimed novel for the screen. How tough was this one?
It was extremely tough, especially since I love James Baldwin so much. Every step of the way you’re deciding at which point you have to be completely faithful to the material and then where it’s OK to break away from the text and make it your own for the movie version.
I first read the novel around 2010, and in 2013 I went to Europe to get away and write the screenplay. I also wrote one for Moonlight, which then ended up happening first. This was a harder project to get made. Moonlight was smaller and more controllable. And this is told from a female’s perspective, so there were a lot of challenges.
What sort of film did you set out to make?
I wanted to take the energy of the novel and its lush romantic sensuality, and then pair it with the more biting, bitter social commentary of Baldwin’s non-fiction work. I see film as a very malleable art form, and I felt I could build it. So at times it could be extremely lush and beautiful — even distractingly so — but then it could turn very dark and angry, and contain all of that.
The film was shot by your go-to cinematographer James Laxton. Talk about the look you wanted and how you got it.
There are a lot of cinema references in Moonlight, but we couldn’t find many for this period set in this sort of neighborhood. There are nods to great directors and stylists, like Douglas Sirk and Hou Hsiao-hsien, but we ended up paying more attention to stills. We studied the work of the great photographers Roy DeCarava and Gordon Parks. I wanted it to look lush and beautiful.
You shot on location, and it’s a period piece. How hard was that?
It was pretty challenging because I’m the kind of guy — and James is too — where we like to have the freedom to point the camera anywhere and just shoot. But when you’re making a period film in New York, which is changing so fast every damn day, you just don’t have that freedom. So it was very constricting, and our production designer Mark Friedberg had to be very inventive and diligent about all the design.
Where did you post?
We split it between New York and partly in LA. We cut the whole film here in LA at this little place in Silverlake called Fancy Post, and did all the sound mix at Formosa. Then we moved to New York since the composer lives there, and we did the DI at Technicolor PostWorks in New York with colorist Alex Bickel, who did Moonlight. We spent a lot of time getting the look just right — all the soft colors. We chose to shoot on the Alexa 65, which is unusual for a small drama, but we loved the intimacy it gave us.
You reteamed with your go-to editors Nat Sanders, who’s cut all three of your films, and Joi McMillion, who cut Moonlight with Nat. Tell us how it worked this time.
Fancy Post is essentially a house, so they each had their own bedroom, and I’d come in each day and check on their progress. Both of them were at film school with me, and we all work really well together, and I love the editing process.
Can you talk about the importance of music and sound in the film?
Sound has always been so important to me, ever since film school. One of my professors there was Richard Portman, who really developed the overlapping, multi-track technique with Robert Altman. I’ll always remember one of the first things he said to us about the importance of sound: a movie is 50 percent image and 50 percent sound, not ninety-five percent image and five percent sound. So that’s how I approach it.
We had a fantastic sound team: supervising sound editor Onnalee Blank and re-recording mixer Matt Waters. They usually do these huge projects with dragons and so on, like Game of Thrones, but they also do small dramas like this. They came on very late, but did incredible, really detailed work with all the dialogue. And there’s a lot of dialogue and conversation, most of it in interiors, and then there’s the whole soundscape that they built up layer by layer, which takes us back in time to the 1970s. They mixed all the dialogue so it comes from the front of the room, but we also created what we called “the voice of God” for all of Tish’s voiceovers.
In this story she really functions as the voice of James Baldwin, and while the voiceovers are in her head, we surround the audience with them. That was the approach. Just as with Moonlight, I feel that a film’s soundscape is beholden to the mental states and consciousness of the main characters, and not necessarily to a genre or story form. So in this, composer Nick Britell and I both felt that the sound of the film is paced by how Tish and Fonny are feeling. That opened it up in so many ways. Initially, we thought we’d have a pure jazz score, since it suited the era and location, but as we watched the actors working it evolved into this jazz chamber orchestra kind of thing.
This is obviously not a VFX-driven piece, but the VFX must have played a role in the final look. What was involved?
Crafty Apes in LA and Phosphene and Significant Others in New York did it all, and we had some period stuff, clean up and some augmentation, but we didn’t use any greenscreens on set. The big thing was that New York in the ‘70s was much grittier and dirtier, so all the graffiti on the subway cars was VFX. I hadn’t really worked much with visual effects before, but I loved it
There’s been so much talk in Hollywood about the lack of diversity — in front of and behind the camera. Do you see much improvement since we last spoke?
Well, look at all the diverse films out last year and now this year — Green Book, The Hate U Give, Black Panther, Widows, BlacKkKlansman — with black directors and casts. So there has been change, and I think Moonlight was part of a wave, increasing visibility around this issue. There’s more accountability now, and we’re in the middle of a cycle that is continuing. Change is a direction, not a destination.
We’re heading into awards season. How important are they for a film like this?
Super important. Look, Moonlight would not have had the commercial success it had if it hadn’t been for all the awards attention and talk.
Where do you keep your Oscar?
I used to keep it on the floor behind my couch, but I got so much shit about keeping it hidden that now it sits up high on a speaker. I’m very proud of it.
I’m getting into TV. I’m doing a limited series for Amazon called The Underground Railroad, and we’re in pre-production. I’ve got a movie thing on the horizon, but my focus is on this right now.
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.