Barry Jenkins' journey from 'Medicine for Melancholy' to 'Moonlight' & beyond, as told by the filmmaker
Photo Credit: Photo: Village Voice
Film , Interviews

Barry Jenkins' journey from 'Medicine for Melancholy' to 'Moonlight' & beyond, as told by the filmmaker

Seven months since his much-loved sophomore feature film Moonlight, hailed by critics as the best film of 2016 and lavishly praised with over 140 awards, shocked the world by winning the industry’s top prize (the Oscar for Best Picture, and more that night), it’s certainly fair to say that writer/director Barry Jenkins is still very much having a “moment.” It’s a much-deserved spotlight that is a decade or so in the making (counting his short films prior to, and after his debut feature, Medicine for Melancholy); although an argument could be made that it’s a lifetime in the making, as our life experiences inform how we each grow and evolve through time.

A groundbreaking film on many levels, Moonlight is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. The strong emotional reception to the film by many viewers resonated (and still does resonate) with Jenkins’ own experience: “That means the world to me, because I know what it’s like to feel voiceless and unseen. When we don’t see images outside of ourselves, we feel invisible,” says the acclaimed writer/director, who studied film at Florida State University.

He certainly didn’t take much time after Oscar night to set up his next feature project – momentum in this business is key, which is why being ready can’t be emphasized enough. As Barry says…

Currently in pre-production on what will be his Moonlight follow-up, Mr. Jenkins has adapted and will direct If Beale Street Could Talk, based on the James Baldwin novel of the same name, originally published in 1974.

The filmmaker is also currently developing an adaption of Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, which is set up as a limited series at Amazon.

In addition, Jenkins’ newly-formed production company, Pastel, has inked a two-year production deal with Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, the first deal for the young Pastel headed by Jenkins and his Moonlight producer Adele Romanski, as well as Sara Murphy and Mark Ceryak.

But this is far from anything that I’d call an overnight success, especially for those who only very recently discovered Barry via Moonlight. A somewhat tumultuous decade of grit and grind, many important lessons learned, and much personal growth made, have all led to this significant moment in time for the filmmaker. And he’s certainly not reticent about sharing his lengthy journey and imparting the wisdom he’s gained from all his experiences, onto others.

At the IFP’s annual Independent Film Week event this month (September) – the is a one-of-a-kind New York City-set fall program where the international film and media community meet to advance new voices and projects on the independent scene – Jenkins was on hand to headline an hour-long conversation, along with his producer Adele Romanski, in a thoroughly engaging and informative, wide-ranging talk moderated by Scott Macaulay (Filmmaker Magazine).

It’s essentially a “masterclass” during which the filmmaker spoke in depth about his journey from Medicine for Melancholy to Moonlight; his various trials and triumphs as a filmmaker of his background and with his artistic sensibilities; his newfound seemingly skyrocketing success and handling being a celebrity; his introduction to James Baldwin and the late author/activist’s influence on him; his new production company Pastel and its ambitions; the ongoing Netflix versus theatrical debate, and more.

It’s all very enlightening, entertaining and revealing, as you’ll read of some behind-the-scenes stories that may not have been public info previously.

A transcript of the lengthy conversation (edited for clarity), spotlighting Barry specifically, follows below:


On how Jenkins and producer Adele Romanski came together:

Photo: NY Mag
Photo: NY Mag

Adele (wife of James Laxton, DP on all of Jenkins’ features) was actually there from the first day of shooting Medicine for Melancholy. She wasn’t really part of the crew, but she helped in the makeup department, teaching our producers how to take the grey out of star (Medicine for Melancholy star) Wyatt Cenac’s beard. Then she went to Detroit to start early pre-production on David Robert Mitchell’s film (The Myth of the American Sleepover), his first feature. And so, because of the connection with my cinematographer James Laxton, we always knew what the other was working on professionally. We were all making these independent, super low budget films. But we really didn’t make the decision until about 5 or 6 years after Medicine for Melancholy. Prior to that, Adele was more of an editor than a producer, so after The Myth of the American Sleepover, she’d gotten her feet wet producing, and had solidified herself as a producer; and I had gotten to the point when I figured that I needed to make something else after Medicine for Melancholy; and I’d say that was when we decided that we were going to work together.

On his professional life right after Medicine for Melancholy:

I made Medicine for Melancholy pursuant to the budget, and the release did really well. I remember walking up to the IFC Center (in NYC) to see on the marquee, “Steve Soderberg’s Che,” and then in very small letters next to it “Medicine for Melancholy,” and that was the highlight of my life at the time. But a few really cool things happened. We opened Super Bowl weekend, which meant that there were no other films opening new that weekend. It was strategic because there wasn’t anything else for A.O. Scott (film critic for the New York Times) to review. And he reviewed Medicine for Melancholy making it a New York Times “Critics Pick.” And I think a month later, I got signed to CAA. I also got a deal at Focus Features to make this Stevie Wonder time travel project. It was a cool idea actually. We had cast Solange (Knowles), and it also had (writer, director and star of An Oversimplification of Her Beauty) Terrence Nance in it. But going from a $13K budget for Medicine for Melancholy to a Stevie Wonder time travel sci-fi thing didn’t really compute at the time. So I was trying to close that deal, while also taking a lot of other meetings, and was offered projects that I really didn’t want to do, while also not getting offered things that I did want to do. At the time I was doing short films and commercials in the San Francisco bay area, with a group called Strike Anywhere Films, which still exists. We were 4 independent filmmakers trying to build a business. Advertising is a business. And because we didn’t have any business acumen, what would normally take a business person 3 days to figure out, it would take us 3 weeks. It was a lot of work that I wasn’t built for. But my plan B at that point was to use the motion I got from Medicine for Melancholy to infiltrate Hollywood. And that plan B was to make these short films and commercials to pay the bills. But what happens is that your plan B ultimately becomes the only plan. And suddenly, I woke up and 5 years had passed since Medicine for Melancholy. But to be completely honest, I didn’t do anything well around that time period. What I should’ve been doing is writing. I should’ve been writing for myself. I hadn’t written Moonlight or Beale Street at that point. I kind of stopped writing things like that because my thinking was that they were too *small*, and I needed to be making Stevie Wonder time travel sci-fi movies and shit like that. So no, at that time, I wasn’t writing any personal films; but I also wasn’t really trying to get hired as a writer of other things, which is what Damien Chazelle did between Whiplash and La La Land. So I just wasn’t wise at all. I was really, really not wise about the whole process. And that’s when Adele called me up and basically said, why are you being such a dumbass. And that started the process of Moonlight and Beale Street.

On surviving during the leaner years after Medicine for Melancholy:

I think surviving needs to be defined. Surviving is in some ways, especially in the world we live in now, very literally putting food on the table and paying the rent. But you also have to be able to wake up and feel good about what you’re going on set to do. You have to feel good about what you’re bringing your friends on set to do. And that’s sometimes not surviving at all. I look at the list of things I’ve done between Medicine for Melancholy and Moonlight, and I feel a bit guilty because there should be more work that says the name James Laxton (his DP) between those 2 films. There should be more features, because that’s my guy, and I wasn’t there for him. So surviving takes on different definitions. I do want to say, Cinereach, some years ago, decided to create what I now refer to as filmmaker therapy. They chose 3 or 4 filmmakers, including myself, and we would come in once a month and just sit on the couch and pour our hearts out, about why our careers aren’t doing this, and why I’m not writing that, or why I feel like this, etc. That shit went on for about a year. And I remember about 7 months into it, this coincides with Adele and I getting together and deciding that we were going to make something, when I had a breakthrough on the couch at Cinereach, and realizing at Strike Anywhere films (a company that literally paid my rent for many years) wasn’t the kind of surviving that I needed at that time. So I went to Brussels because I was told that I wouldn’t be distracted there. I did that, and I wrote Moonlight very fast, in like 10 days. And then I left Brussels and went to Berlin, and there I wrote Beale Street. And that was at the end of my Cinereach fellowship. So, I pretty much just got up off my couch, and went and wrote a feature that would go on to win Best Picture at the Oscars, which is insane!

On how Moonlight came about:

Around the same time, Adele was about to go make another film and had a bad experience, and I was adapting a memoir and had my own bad experience. This was 5 years after  Medicine for Melancholy. Through my agent, this gorgeous memoir came to me. It was something that I would’ve never expected anyone to come to me for, and nothing that I don’t think anyone would’ve expected me to do. It was called Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man by Bill Clegg. A New York story. I adapted that, but something went very wrong with that process. And Adele was working on a film, and something went very wrong with that process. So she called me up, and we shared our individual bad experiences, and decided that we wouldn’t ever go through those kinds of experiences again with people we don’t know or care about. If we go through these things, they should be with people that we love. She was in LA and I in San Francisco, and she said, once a month, I’m going to check in with you, and we’ll just talk until we figure out a film to do. And slowly, we whittled down this list, and over the course of 6 or 7 months, we narrowed the list down to Beale Street and Moonlight. I wrote Beale Street on spec, because I didn’t have the rights to it. And then I realized that James Baldwin hadn’t really been adapted for the screen. It only happened once, and that was about 20 years ago. So we realized that getting rights to Beale Street was going to be difficult, so we decided to instead focus on the other idea, which is when we started putting Moonlight together.

On handling his newfound celebrity personally and professional:

It’s been a blessing and a curse. The next day after the Oscars, I’m downtown LA, and people are honking their horns at me, grabbing me on sidewalks, and I thought, this could be cool for a week, maybe for a month, for 3 months, for 5 months. I remember, the other day, we were location scouting in the Village (NYC), and this dude starts yelling out to me, “Hey! Hey! Barry! What’s up brother!” But it’s cool because I know that it comes from a place of pride. But I’m not an actor, so I just never thought that anonymity would be something that I’d have to fight for, or go out of my way to create. So it’s been really tricky. But that’s in public life. In my professional life, I think initially, before Oscar night, industry people were looking at us like, yeah, these kids are kind of cool, and that was about it. But now, after the Oscars, that’s changed. Now we have a company and we’re being taken more seriously. And so, in that way, being seen is fucking awesome!

On the ambitions of his production company Pastel:

It’s the second company I’ve been in that’s built around filmmakers. But, to be brutally honest, I love that this one is starting in a place of power. There’s a piece of work we’ve done (Moonlight) that people can actually look to, and that we’re looking to build upon everyday. And I’m trying to apply my past mistakes from the first company, Strike Anywhere Films, to this one. And I think, in that way, it’s a really kind of hopeful, beautiful experiment. The biggest adjustment for me has been to figure out a new approach to time management. My manager said to me, it’s a blessing and curse when all of your dreams come true because you just start dreaming up new shit, and more new shit, and if you’re not careful, you could get caught up in just dreaming up new shit. It’s like you have to find the time for the new dreams. I always considered myself a write/director and I always want to be writing, even though it tortures me, and it takes too much time to do it properly. So I’ve been trying to figure out how to both be responsible and respectful of my duties at the company as a producer, while still focusing on writing whatever it is that I’m writing as a director. So I’ve pretty much had no life since February 27, 2017, because my life has been fully contained in manifesting these dreams. It’s an ongoing process. We’re evolving.

Photo: A24
Photo: A24

I typically work with a casting director. On Medicine for Melancholy we kind of did it ourselves and that was an interesting process. But I typically work with a casting director, and we cast a pretty wide net. Moonlight is a perfect example. There are maybe 3 professional actors in that film. There’s Mahershala Ali, who is awesome, and then Naomi Harris and Andre Holland. Everyone else are people that either Adele and I found through community centers in Miami, or through our casting director Yesi Ramirez. But yeah, we cast a pretty wide net. It was just announced that the lead for Beale Street is a young lady named Kiki Lane who maybe has 2 credits on her resume. So far, I’ve had the privilege of casting actors who I think best represent the character in my head and in my heart, regardless of how much experience they have. And that’s what we’ll continue to do going forward. It depends on what end you’re working towards. For a piece like Moonlight, we wanted something that was a bit more raw than refined. But for Beale Street, for the language of Baldwin, you need a group of thespians. So I’ve been much more thespian-focused in my process on this film.

On his past work having a strong moral POV and whether that will continue under Pastel:

The budget of the films I’ve done so far has been non-existent, and I think the lower the budget, the more leeway you have to do that. And the more the actors – people like Mahershala Ali who came to work for really no money – will come for the love of the work, and for the opportunity to work on something like Moonlight. But we hope that Pastel continues that tradition. We, thankfully – through our connection with Brad Pitt’s Plan B and distributor A24 – have this space that was created for us to be able to do what we want to do. We had to look long and hard to find our team. And we hope that Pastel is a place where, because of what people see in either Moonlight or Beale Street – they see that this is a production house where I can create that kind of work. But it’s not easy because you make these projects, but at some point, investors have to make their money back. And in a certain way, there’s this idea that audiences aren’t going to show for pieces that don’t have a clear moral story at the forefront. But you just have to keep creating the work. And until the model is broken, we’ll keep plugging things into it.

On regrets during his leaner years, post-Medicine for Melancholy, and what he might have done differently:

One of my favorite Arcade Fire songs is The Suburbs (continued) which has a line that goes, “If I could have it back all the time that we wasted, I’d only waste it again.” And I think if I could do it all over again, I would probably end up doing the same damn thing. I was always creating. I think some of the things that we did in Moonlight visually, were developed or riffed in spots I created at Strike Anywhere for companies like Facebook, or this spot for Google, or this short film for ITVS. So I was always working, but I wasn’t writing the things that I really cared about. I was in San Franciso, which, like NYC is very expensive, and I don’t think I was, as a person, bold enough to say, you know what, I don’t give a shit about eating. I’m just going to eat Ramen and I’m going to write. Because, at some point, that’s a choice you may have to make. In essence, I’m going to work the bare minimum and I’m going to live in the cheapest of conditions, even if it’s way outside my comfort zone, away from the big city amenities I love, and I’m just going to write. I wasn’t ready to make that commitment and so it took much longer to get to this spot. So no, I’m not going to sit here and lie and say, if I could do it all over again, I would’ve written every minute of every day. That’s bullshit to me. I just wasn’t ready to make that commitment. I like my good coffee. I like my avocado toast. And so, I did my plan B branded content thing at Strike Anywhere to pay for my avocado toast. But I think you have to keep struggling. I think the struggles you go through, you have to mine them productively. IFP Week is a perfect example. We did not have financing the year that we came to IFP week with Moonlight. I came and I did the whole IFP week thing, although we didn’t get the financing out of being at IFP week. But I learned a lot about what I was saying in my pitches that was making the film seem un-fundable to potential investors. I was describing the film in a way that was more about the themes and the moral value, etc, but I wasn’t describing it in a way that would’ve been much more useful to me, as in, this is how I’m going to make it, this is what it’s going to look like, this is what it’s going to sound like. I just wasn’t doing those key things. So we left IFP week that year, went back and refined what it was that we were going to do with the project, and then the pitch got better. So now I look back at that struggle and can say that something very productive came out of that. So you just have to keep struggling and learning from those struggles. And one big thing, which we alluded to earlier, is that I told myself that I would only surround myself with people that I would like to struggle with, and everything just changed after that. Everything.

 

On Moonlight reaching a mainstream audience:

Photo: A24
Photo: A24

I would say “somewhat mainstream” because it didn’t make a ton of money. It did make good money for its budget, but not that big time mainstream movie money. And it also spread to an LGBTQ audience; specifically an LGBTQ audience of color, who were really a target in our marketing. But the best thing I can say about the process of making Moonlight – and this is where I get to name-drop Brad Pitt – is that we had somebody with shiny golden blonde hair who makes a lot of money for the industry. It used to be, 10+ years ago, that person opens the door for you to walk through and sits you down to tell you exactly how you’re going to proceed. But in our case with Moonlight and Plan B as our partner, we just got to do whatever the hell we wanted. So the idea was, go and make the film you want to make, and do whatever weird things you want to do, and, in the end, just bring us the best version of that. And so we went off and made the film, casting whoever we wanted to cast, etc. And then (distributor) A24 built a marketing and release strategy that was very clear from the beginning. And where I’ll give them credit, which is something that I didn’t see initially, was that they said, we’re going to put the film in theaters, and we’re going to leave it in theaters. And to predict that in June or July is really, really ballsy as hell. Because you don’t know if audiences are going to be there on opening weekend, and even if they are, are they still going to be there 2 months after? They even believed, right from the get-go, that the film had a good chance of getting Oscar recognition. So they strategized the whole damn thing, and slowly, everything they predicted and planned for, came true. We didn’t make the film with any expectation of what would eventually happen to it. But once A24 saw it, I think it was in the spring of 2016, they sat us down with a whole plan already laid out. I thought, shit, this is impressive. Still, to this day I think, holy shit, considering what they did and how everything just unfolded as planned. I’m in NYC right now for Beale Street, and I left all my awards stuff in LA so that I don’t have to look at it, because, still, unless I actually look at it, it all just doesn’t seem true. But it was all thanks to A24 and their strategy.

On what kinds of films need to be released theatrically and which are more suitable for Netflix:

It’s complicated. There’s a version of the world where (distributor) A24 sees Moonlight and decides not to put it in theaters. If the dynamics of the business say that’s the case, then so be it. I try not to think about that stuff as a creator. But I think the film itself, as well as the filmmaker, will demand the visual language it should be told and exhibited in. There’s a version of Moonlight made for $20K and takes place in 3 rooms: one room for story 1; one room for story 2; and one for story 3. Is that movie going to stay in theaters for 20 weeks? Probably not. But I don’t think there’s some big conspiracy that says the big films are going to get one type of release, and the small films get this other kind of release. I think that it’s a crapshoot. I was quite particular about saying, throughout the awards season process, that there are movies that have been made by friends of mine that have been just as interesting and dynamic as Moonlight, and that what happened to our film doesn’t happen to those other films. That’s not because I’m just some awesome fucking filmmaker; it’s just that the dominoes fell in a particular way.

 

On making passion projects versus projects strictly for a paycheck

It depends on where you are in your career. When I was at Strike Anywhere, if there were more than 3 zeroes on a check, you kind of had to do that job, because you gotta pay the bills. But where I am right now, it’s a different conversation. It has to be the right fit. So if it were the right fit, yeah. I like zeroes; I have no problem with zeroes. But I haven’t been in a situation where I got asked to do something that had a lot of zeroes on the checks, that I didn’t want to do, or that I was passionate about; but I also haven’t been offered anything with a lot of zeroes on the check that I am passionate about. So its still to be determined.

On pitching projects and how you sell yourself, especially if you’re from an underrepresented group (person of color, woman, etc):

Fortunately, my experience with that now is different than what it was before, and I didn’t do a lot of it before. But pitching sucks! I don’t care who you are; you could be the whitest, blue blood dude from Harvard, Dartmouth or Yale; pitching still sucks. It just does. It’s very difficult. But, from my experience, I’ll say this, if you’re selling in the pitch, that’s usually a bad sign. Whereas if you are presenting, projecting, translating what’s awesome about you and how that connects to the piece that you’re pitching, that’s the way to go. We just pitched (Colson Whitehead’s) The Underground Railroad to Amazon after having a writers room on it, and it was just me talking for about 3 hours, just pitching, breaking down each character, mood, setting, feeling, etc. But it went super well. However, here’s the thing, I have a fucking Oscar, and even walking into that pitching room with that Oscar behind me, I still feel the uncertainty, the insecurity, the concerns that the people in the room won’t get it because of where I’m from and who I am. Those thoughts are probably always going to be there. But once I slip into the love of what I’m doing, that shit just disappears. And then it’s just presenting what it is I love about the piece, what I think is interesting about me, and how those things connect. But it’s always going to be hard. Always.

On James Baldwin’s influence:

I was in college, and a professor recommended that I read The Fire Next Time which I hadn’t read before. It wasn’t even on our syllabus, but he felt that I should read it. So I read it, and was blown away. And after reading it, I looked him up (this was before Google, when you could just google shit). But I looked him up after that to find out that he was gay, which I also didn’t know. And after that, I looked for more of his work that I could read, and discovered Giovanni’s Room. And being a dude born and raised in the projects of Miami, it was my very first experience with any sort of queer literature. And by the way, this particular queer literature was written by the black man who wrote The Fire Next Time, and the main protagonist (of Giovanni’s Room) is a white man. And I thought, wow, this is amazing. And then I just went on a tear, reading all the Baldwin that I could, while being in film school, and it just stayed with me. I was struck by how clear his voice was, and how there wasn’t a distinction between his voice and his passion. Very eloquent, very passionate at the same time. A very elevate individual and very black as fuck at the same time. And I thought, ok, this is dope; I’m going to take all this in. But I never thought I would ever work on anything related to Mr. Baldwin. It was a friend of mine who would later send me a copy of Beale Street, which I read and immediately thought, there’s definitely a movie in this, one that I could see myself doing. And so it’s been this kind of beautiful cycle going back to 2001/2002. And now because of the success of Moonlight, I get to bring Baldwin’s work to the screen. It’s insane. It’s literally because of the kindness of the professor who slipped me The Fire Next Time when I was college, who wouldn’t tell me what it was about, and just recommended that I read it. And in him giving it to me, there was a choice; he didn’t demand that I read it; he didn’t push me to read it. I think the idea was, if I did read it, I’d find something in there for me. I feel the same way about people who watch my movies. I hope nobody is forcing them to; but if they do watch, my films, I hope that they find something in the work for themselves.

Jenkins is currently halfway through pre-production on If Beale Street Could Talk, with an October principal photography start date eyed, and a likely 2018 premiere on the international film festival circuit. Is there a second Oscar for the filmmaker in Beale Street? Given the source material and the talent involved, quite possibly. In addition, we’re also most certainly looking forward to what projects emerge from his production company Pastel.

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