If you followed the Twitter feed of Barry Jenkins, the filmmaker who won Oscars for producing and adapting the screenplay for 2016's Moonlight, you know he's an enthusiastic supporter of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.
That film is major studio production overseen by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the filmmakers responsible for, among other things The Legos movie. But after Jenkins saw it recently, he tweeted:
"If you'd told me this was the work of a 24 [year-old] jury prize winner out of @annecyfestival I wouldn't doubt it one bit."
On the phone from New York, he expands on what he means: "The cinematic frame is such a democratized space, especially in the era that we're working in. The same camera that was used to shoot Moonlight was used to shoot Skyfall. In this year, the same camera that we shot [If Beale Street Could Talk] on was used to shoot Star Wars: Rogue One. There's no reason that my close-up of a black woman in her late 40s putting on or taking off a wig and why that should not be as cinematic or picturesque as a big battle scene in Star Wars."
Jenkins' movies thrive on intimate space. Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk fill the screen with actors' faces. It's tempting to wonder if he and cinematographer James Laxton used telephoto lenses, but Jenkins says that he and Laxton had to watch the performances up close to capture those sequences.
"With telephoto lenses, it separates the actors from their surroundings. So the actors are in focus, but everything around them is not. We actually used that technique on Moonlight because with Chiron, all the world around him, he can't quite settle into. In this film, we actually wanted the actors and their surroundings to be equally in focus. For me New York is a landscape of faces and interiors. So we didn't use as long a lens," he explains.
Helping viewers get inside the heads of those characters was another challenge. Jenkins adapted If Beale Street Could Talk from the 1974 novel by James Baldwin. The book leaps in and out of the mind of Tish Rivers (KiKi Lane), who is desperately trying to get her boyfriend Alonzo "Fonny" Hunt (Stephan James) out of jail. He's in the slammer for a rape he didn't commit, and Tish is about to give birth to their child.
Jenkins, who has received dozens nominations for his script, throughout the conversation refers to the original author as, "Mr. Baldwin" and with a tone of consistent reverence. Nonetheless, he admits Baldwin's thoughts don't easily lead to visuals.
"I wanted to make it as dramatically dense as Baldwin's work. Imagine me going, 'How do I do this?,'" he recalls. "It takes roughly 20 hours to read the book, and we have two hours to watch this film. Certain things have to be folded into the performance. Certain things have to exist beneath the surface. ... But the attitude of the book, that to me was the most important thing, the attitude, the mood, the tone. Baldwin had a way of relaying consciousness that wasn't a direct line. It wasn't a straight line. For us with that almost jazzy quality of Mr. Baldwin's writing, if we nailed that the audience was going on a journey with us as well.
The author, thankfully, left behind more than a novel for the filmmaker.
"I got this notebook that Mr. Baldwin wrote in about 1978. He tried to adapt the book himself. It was about two months before we were actually going to sit down in New York to actually make the film that the notebook arrived. I'm glad it arrived when it did. Had it arrived earlier in the process, I'd have felt beholden to the thoughts that he had. But what I really saw in it was a confirmation and an affirmation of the choices I had already made."
The new film doesn't play like a period piece. Like many people who've been through the wrong side of the justice system in the '70s and now, Fonny discovers being innocent means little to a legal machine geared toward plea deals and confessions than finding and punishing the perpetrators.
"If it's happening now, can you imagine how prevalent it was then? We didn't have the benefit of the access to the information we have now. The system is too backlogged, and it's backlogged with too many people funneled into it. This idea of pursuing the truth comes off the table," he says. "I don't even think Fonny has an accuser in this film. Fonny is chosen out of a police lineup. He was placed in a police lineup by an officer who clearly has a vendetta against him. The system has engendered this conflict between two people where no conflict should exist because they've never met each other. The system is not concerned with who did this to this woman."
If the subject matter in Jenkins' film is sobering, it's hardly glum. The film begins with Fonny in jail, but quickly goes back to the moments when Tish and Fonny fall in love. By tweaking the chronology, Jenkins reveals why the community the lovers reside in comes to their defense.
"Part of it was having a fidelity to Mr. Baldwin. The structure of the book is the structure of the film. They're both nonlinear," Jenkins says. "One of the things about the book that was so powerful to me was this idea of this commitment to family and all the many different ways that we look at love: physical love, brotherly love and the love of parents for a child, so many different things."
Perhaps this ability to see the good and the bad in difficult situations enables the director to keep his situation in perspective. He didn't show any shock when he discovered that his film Moonlight had beaten La La Land for a Best Picture Oscar after an envelope mix-up marred the Academy Awards telecast. He also didn't seem to mind that La La Land's Damien Chazelle beat him for a Best Director trophy that same year.
When I spoke with him, it was a couple hours after Regina King had failed to pick up a Screen Actors Guild nomination for her acclaimed turn as Tish's mother in If Beale Street Could Talk.
Over the phone, he demonstrated no disappointment.
"I learned really early I had no control over those things. I released myself from them and tried to make the best movie I can. I think anytime anybody watches this film, I think it's a blessing and a privilege."
MovieStyle on 01/04/2019
Print Headline: Talking tweets and lenses with filmmaker Jenkins