As Barry Jenkins sits down to discuss disruption, on the eve of his first trip to Cannes—a newly minted Oscar winner—there’s a knock on his front door. A courier has arrived with a very special package. “You’re my best friend, bro,” Jenkins tells the courier. “I have just finally received the card that says, “Best Picture: Moonlight.”
The fabled card. The one held aloft on Oscar night by La La Land producer Jordan Horwitz, to announce to the world that Moonlight had, in fact, been the Academy’s chosen Best Picture. “I have been hunting this down and I’ve finally got it,” Jenkins says. In the confusion that followed, the card went home with Warren Beatty, who had presented the award with Faye Dunaway. Jenkins wasn’t a producer on the project, so he didn’t get a Best Picture statuette—just the Adapted Screenplay prize—“But I wanted the f*cking card. Warren has sent it over, with a handwritten note. My goodness.”
But Jenkins has been one of this industry’s most important disruptors since before Moonlight’s Best Picture drama. The film that captured the imagination of so many last year emerged after years of effort on Jenkins’ part to mount a follow-up to his 2008 debut Medicine For Melancholy. Alongside producers Adele Romanski and Sara Murphy, with whom he formed the production company Pastel, Jenkins is on a mission to introduce audiences to characters and stories that have never before made it to the screen.
How important is this idea of positive disruption for you?
I think it’s absolutely vital to the health of the medium. It’s really easy for things to become homogeneous, both in tone and form, and in theme, even without anybody’s attention. I think whenever we can expand the box of what’s possible in cinema and media, whether through the form or the characters or the actual story, I think it inherently keeps things fresh and makes them vital.
The interesting thing for me—or I should say for us; I’ll speak of myself and Adele Romanski and everybody at Pastel—is that the stories that we’re telling just aren’t stories that are being told very often. I think it’s not that we’re trying to tell them because they’re not told very often, it’s just these are the stories that we seek to tell, and if that causes a disruption, so be it.
Why do you think nobody was telling these stories?
It’s just that there is a lack of certain narratives and a lack of certain characters. The infusion of those characters and narratives, it causes a disruption. But in the case of Moonlight, I have to say because of what happened with the Oscars, the movie was taken from the margins of a conversation and placed in the center of it, which is wonderful.
It would be beautiful if we could get to a time when the word “disruption” was unnecessary because the breadth and sweep of the work being done was so diverse and wide-ranging, but that isn’t the case for now, so we will keep doing what we do.
Your fellow disruptors have spoken about the struggle they had to mount projects they believed in. Comparatively, Moonlight seemed like a pretty smooth road, given the collaborators you assembled.
Exactly; it wasn’t a great struggle, other than the very typical director struggle of self-doubt. A24 and Plan B, they were fully on board. I was with some other indie filmmaking friends just last night, and we were saying just how much of a privilege it is to exist in this moment. It feels like there are a lot of people who invest not necessarily in disruption as a cause, but they want to support the stuff that maybe five or six years ago there wasn’t a place for. The Plan Bs, the A24s, even the Netflixes and the Amazons who I know are causing a stir at Cannes this year.
We didn’t have the struggles that I anticipated in mounting Moonlight, and what I really hope that shows is, for people at the Marché looking at these projects, they will look at things that maybe five years ago they would’ve just taken a glance at. They’ll give a really hard look and go, “Maybe there is a place for this.”
A24 has also made our disruptors list. What do you think they are doing that others aren’t?
They’re the kind of company that can take a movie like The Lobster, which in some ways is a difficult sell, and actually find the audience for that film, even if that audience may not even know they will enjoy that movie. I don’t think disruption is truly caused by filmmakers. I think people see an A24 movie and know it can be anything in the f*cking world, and know it’s going to be interesting. That’s what a true disruption is, when you have financiers, backers, distributors like Neon, A24, even Amazon now, who will step up and say, “We can’t tell you exactly what this, but when you see our emblem, you can trust that this is going to be interesting. It’s going to be worth your time.”
It’s one of those things where I read the book, even before Moonlight premiered, and it wasn’t a very Hollywood thing. I’m an Amazon Prime subscriber, and they delivered this book a day before it released as a Prime perk and I just devoured it. I fell in love with the main character.
It wasn’t that I was looking to go into television. My hope as a kid was to be that director who just makes a movie every year or every other year that opens on the biggest screen possible with a very discerning audience. But talking about disruptors, this is a book that I read, and as a visual storyteller, it felt like it wanted to be six to eight hours. You want to go on this journey with this character. Not the possibility of a continuing series, and 40 hours, but just eight hours. I think we live in a time right now where the market will create the format that is proper for each story. As a filmmaker, you can look around and there are all these different places where stories can be told, and this story felt appropriate for a limited series format.
The idea of hierarchy to these art forms is disappearing. It used to be that cinema was somehow seen as better than television, but that’s no longer true. New forms are emerging and we’re learning how best to use these many forms to tell stories.
That’s a very good point. I know Damien [Chazelle] also announced a TV project recently. I’m going to be at Cannes for the last week of the festival, and I’ve read the uproar about Netflix and the arrival of television at Cannes, but it’s right. I think a story is a story, and right now, the screens at our homes are getting just as big as some of the screens I saw some of my favorite movies on at theaters, because they were such small runs, such small houses, it felt like watching on a 60-inch television in your living room. At a point, those lines become non-distinct to the point that they’re not lines at all.
You had this tremendous success with Moonlight. Everyone is now anticipating the next Barry Jenkins picture. How do you move forward, without being tempted to look back?
First, I have to trust myself and be very aware that Moonlight is the same film it was before anybody else saw it. The fact that it receives these accolades doesn’t change the actual film, or who the filmmaker was that made it. I want to make decisions going forward in the same way that I made decisions about that film, both on set and in regard to my career.
And it’s the power of “no,” and being much more aware of when to say no, how to say no, and why to say no. There are a lot more opportunities. In the past, it was easy to make decisions because there weren’t as many choices. But now, going forward, that is the only thing that has changed. There are just many more choices, and so you have to be much more discerning about when to say yes and when to say no.