On Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk—the Oscar winner’s follow-up to Moonlight—editors Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon came up against an age-old question. With a narrative based on existing material—spoiled by awareness or historical fact—what is the best approach? How can a story be brought to life with such emotional vitality that facts become an afterthought?
An adaptation of a classic James Baldwin novel, Beale Street tells the story of 19-year-old Tish, an African-American woman in ’70s Harlem, who is forced to grow up fast, with a child on the way and a fiancé in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
For Jenkins’ editors, contemplating the director’s longtime passion project, there were a number of factors with which to contend, shaping the story and its final moments. Of primary importance was careful attention to Baldwin’s intention with his work. And yet, Beale Street seemed torn in multiple directions. As a love story, it called for meaningful resolution; as a social critique, it defied one, hinting at future decades of police corruption, false imprisonment and racial injustice, deflating though true.
“I think in a typical Hollywood story, Fonny would get out and there would be a parade. Everyone would go home being like, ‘Things aren’t so bad!’” McMillon says. “But that’s not the story.”
In retrospect, the editors see their ending as a Rorschach test, reflecting the life experiences of those who come to see it, though it was only one of a number of quandaries to face with a work so ambitious in its portrait of time, with such ineffable power. Spending months refining the film’s structure, Sanders and McMillon took no moment for granted—and thus, they came to an end.
When did Barry Jenkins approach you about bringing Beale Street to life? When you read his script, what were your impressions?
Nat Sanders: In the summer of 2013, he went to Europe, wrote Moonlight and adapted Beale Street during the same trip. He didn’t have the rights, but he’d begun speaking with the Baldwin family years before, so he was hopeful. I read it sometime not too long after that because we’d made his first movie, Medicine for Melancholy, together, and I was hoping that this was just going to keep rolling into the next one. But years went by—by that point, I think it had been five or six years, so I was always trying to do my small part to encourage him. We all knew what a massive talent he was and just encouraged him to keep working on the next thing.
I read it sometime in there, and all the same things that hopefully are conveyed in the finished film, I felt when reading it. James Baldwin was such an amazing mind. The way he was able to cut to the heart of all these complicated issues around race and everything else, and just have that insight…He’s an amazing person. So, we all felt a real duty to honor him and do right by him.
Joi McMillon: After Moonlight, I knew it was either going to be Beale Street or Underground that we were going to start on. Then, once it was confirmed that it was Beale Street, I was really excited to take on a James Baldwin piece of work, but also a little nervous, knowing that it is Baldwin, and he is so iconic. There’s a lot of scrutiny that comes with trying to adapt one of his pieces. But I knew that in Barry’s hands, we would be in good hands. When I first read the script, it just had so much detail to it, and so much of it was Baldwin. I knew the audience was going to appreciate how much Baldwin’s presence was felt in the film. That was one of the things that, throughout our whole evolution of creating this film, Barry was very adamant about, keeping Baldwin’s presence throughout, [ensuring] that it didn’t get lost.
Sanders: Joi and I were also strong advocates for trying to keep Baldwin’s voice in there as much as possible. There was a lot of discussion about the voiceover amongst producers and everyone else because some people thought it was a little incongruous that sometimes, Tish’s voiceover was in the voice of a 19-year-old girl, like she is, and some of it was in James Baldwin’s voice—a much wiser, knowing voice. Some people couldn’t reconcile those two things. I think for me, Joi and Barry, that didn’t really matter. But there were definitely stages where there was a possibility that some of that voiceover was going to get cut back.
As editors, how do you evaluate scripts? Did you have a sense with Beale Street of what might be exciting on a craft level?
Sanders: I’ve always loved reading Barry’s scripts; it’s like reading prose and poetry combined. He broke all the screenwriting techniques, the things we were taught in film school—the biggest thing being, don’t write anything that you won’t be able to see on screen. Barry writes smells, and very textural and tactile things. He just brings such a sense of place in the stage directions in his scripts.
McMillon: One of the things that I enjoy is that sometimes, he will speak about a freeze frame, or he’ll talk about how he actually may see the cuts happening in his head. Or he’ll allude to some type of music cue that he would like to see. So, a lot of his scripts are like a blueprint for editors, to see what he’s thinking about in certain situations.
What was your approach to wrangling Beale Street’s intricate, nonlinear structure?
McMillon: Staying in the present and then dipping into the past, a lot of it was written that way. [Given] the way the film is laid out, I think that some people thought that we could kind of choose our own adventure with when we went into the past and when we were in the present. But I would say probably a third of our way through the process, we realized that the story could only function in a certain way, so we spent a lot of time in front of our continuity board trying to figure that out.
I think what we went back to was the three-act structure, how each of these acts should end, and what each of these acts was actually about. For my sections, a lot of it didn’t necessarily change a ton, but Nat can speak to his sections because I think that’s the area that we played with the most.
Sanders: We definitely messed with structure in this film more than is normal. We got all the individual scene cuts in really good shape quickly, but we probably spent several months where structure was almost the main thing that we were working on, where we had our board with a screen grab of every scene on it, and we would move them around and talk about the good things that would happen if we did that, and the negative things, and the ripple effects.
The first act has its own structure, going back and forth between Tish and Fonny in the past and in the present. After that, it really kaleidoscopes out. It’s jumping between characters, and it’s not necessarily the most plot-driven film where it’s cause and effect, and this happens because of this. It’s more tone poem-y. It’s just a looser structure, so it was something where everybody had an opinion about where things could go—“Why don’t we break up this long scene and do half of it here, and move the other half back?” We tried all those things and spent a lot of time with them, and we did end up changing some things.
There were a couple big things when we first watched the assembly together, me, Joi and Barry, where we saw that the movie got bogged down in the middle, and it wasn’t playing the way we wanted it to. Even aside from the fact that first cuts are always long, there were just some things that needed to be worked out structurally. There’s a big montage that leads into Puerto Rico, where everybody’s doing things: The dads have their hustles going, and the lawyer is seeing that maybe things aren’t the way he thought. That came much earlier originally. It really creates this momentum, a drive towards something. But then as it was scripted, we didn’t go to Puerto Rico for another 20 minutes, and there were just more dialogue scenes after it. So, that was one thing that we decided to move further back.
Then we also pushed back the scene with Officer Bell, where you find out what happened to Fonny, why he got put in prison. It kind of took the air out of things because when you knew, there wasn’t much tension afterwards. It’s one of our climactic, peak scenes, and it was just coming too early. So we found a way to move that back as well. Once we made some changes, the movie started to find its voice and define itself.
What work was necessary to support the film’s atmosphere and tone?
Sanders: Joi and I have each known Barry close to 20 years now. We know his voice so well that we definitely know the tone and the style of what he’s looking for. It’s really in the footage, as well; all the footage just speaks to you as you see it and tells you what to do with it.
One of the biggest things is that we do try to keep the pacing up and keep it moving as much as possible while still maintaining Barry’s voice, because he does sometimes like things to be a little more languorous and to take their time. We definitely try to preserve that. You have to stay organic to the way they shot the film, but at the same time, we didn’t want this movie to be two hours and 20 minutes, so it’s about finding the balance between pacing it up as much as you can, but keeping that organic to Barry’s voice and true to him.
How did you approach the challenge of cutting a film featuring a huge roster of talented actors, where screen time is so precious?
McMillon: Even though certain people are only on the screen for a certain amount of time, we wanted you to still feel their presence even when they’re off screen. That’s one of the things that we definitely worked on, making sure every person and every character stand out to you, so that you’ll remember them down the road, even though you’re no longer seeing them.
Sanders:Sometimes they left too much of an impression. Like, Teyonah [Parris], who plays Ernestine, everyone loves her so much, and she wasn’t really in the second half of the film, which is just how it is. But everyone misses her because she was so dynamic and so great.
How did a series of period black-and-white stills enter the final film?
Sanders: Those were in the script. In the past, in Medicine, we had a two-minute documentary scene cut in the middle of a narrative film. He’s definitely not shy about breaking a narrative, a rule, and doing that. To me, those were very important. Those Baldwin lines in the first photo montage, about these kids—“One segment of society might see them as being these problem kids. In reality, this life is all they’ve ever known. The world’s been telling them over and over, ‘This is all you are.’”
Those words are so insightful and powerful and that particular sequence was one that some people thought maybe wasn’t moving the plot forward, that was on the chopping block—and I really dug my heels in. It was gone for a couple months, and then it came back.
McMillon: That last photo montage, I felt like it was one of those things where you want the ending to be hopeful, but you also want people to be reminded of the situation that this couple is going through. Fonny and Tish represent so much more than just a young black couple. I think they represent all the hopes and dreams that a lot of black people had starting out, and how these dreams can go away so quickly.
Bringing that photo montage in towards the end just allows you to see that Fonny is one of many.