Working with director Barry Jenkins over more than a decade since they first met, as Florida State University students, cinematographer James Laxton has attracted due notice this season for his work in Jenkins’ Moonlight, the director’s first feature since 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy. As with editor Nat Sanders, Laxton’s continued work with Jenkins is demonstrative of the director’s proclivity for keeping his collaborators close, resulting in a trust and kinship unique to his sets. And while Jenkins and Laxton have climbed to a place of esteem and recognition in the industry, with Plan B and A24 teaming up to produce their latest, their collaborative process nonetheless remains much the same. Speaking to Deadline, Laxton breaks down the core ideas behind the film’s emotionally affecting aesthetic choices.
Moonlight—or alternatively, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Those are pretty richly evocative titles from which to begin your work.
Yes. [Laughs] It’s a little daunting of course, but it’s also incredibly inspiring, so the stakes are high.
Your relationship with Barry Jenkins goes back a ways. What was it about Moonlight that inspired you, as a cinematographer?
I guess the answer is, everything about it was fantastic. Working with Barry is such a joy and an honor. I think the world of him, and our relationship goes back at this point 15 or 17 years now. Working with someone that you have that kind of trust and that kind of rapport with, it means a lot, just the creative process. That was paramount, obviously, to go in, but then also given the script, and what a wonderful script it was, gave us all I think a canvas to make some really fantastic work.
How has the process in working with Jenkins changed since your film school days?
I think the biggest thing about working with Barry, we have just an incredible amount of trust between the two of us. Trust is something that really is integral to any sort of collaboration, and I think because we have that, that’s the biggest thing that I can point to, in terms of what’s so important to our creative process. But little things, I guess, have changed over the years.
Like anything, as you learn more and more, you can become a bit more sophisticated with the techniques and the approaches that you are tackling. I guess things got more specific and things got more sophisticated, but the truth is I think on some level, we really haven’t changed a whole lot. Even some of the references we had, I can point to as references for our first [project], bouncing early on in our relationship, creatively, that I think still hold water today.
Where was the thinking in finding your approach to color in Moonlight?
I think the script really started this whole process by being a story with such powerful and intense emotions, and so I think the entire team, from whatever part of the filmmaking team, we all tried to attempt to match that amount of emotional power that the story had within it. For me, that had to do obviously with the way it was shot, and the lighting, and definitely in terms of our treatment of color in the DI process, all those decisions stemmed from this concept of wanting to create an image, and a film, generally, that intended to evoke some very intense emotions.
In incorporating the feel and flavor of the Florida setting into the image, did you spend time immersing yourself in that particular world?
I think Miami definitely plays a massive role in terms of how the film looks. Miami is a city like no other place in the country, really. I find the color palette, the light that exists in that city to be almost akin to a Caribbean country, or a Caribbean city, that has a certain kind of almost pastel colors of buildings. You have those baby blues and sky blues, and obviously the green of the natural environment impacted the intense greens that you see in the film, as well. It’s a really colorful, vibrant city generally, and so yes, I think the way we intended to use it was just to lean into those colors, and lean into that amount of saturation that already existed within the city itself.
In a sense, the film seems to float between realms, at various points grounded in its tone and style, and then heightened.
I think there’s a lot of things to point to in that sense. Maybe I can speak to one of them, in the way in which we move the camera in the film—the speed and the delicacy that we’re employing with those movements, I think, speak to that kind of sentiment that the film intends to pursue.
The framing is fairly specific well—often, we are met with wide shots, which create a specific feeling.
Sure, yes. The vastness and the wide angle lenses in certain moments, I think, intended to show the main character’s sense of isolation within his community, so we tried at times to use framing devices and use camera movements to amplify that sentiment to have a very meaningful impact.
Lucky for us, we had some really amazing actors, and the cast generally was such a joy to work with, and also just delivered some really wonderful performances. I think they’re able to do some amazing work, just in terms of their emotions conveyed through their space specifically. It gave us an opportunity to just be as simple as a close-up and not have to do too much at times.
Certain shots and certain scenes, for example, we were able to not attempt to do anything too stylistic with the camera, and let the performances dictate so much, and I think those kind of close-ups, for example, when the cast looked directly into the lens, those moments are so emotionally impactful. I think that had a lot to do with how great their performances were.
What has it meant to see the way in which the film has already connected with a broad audience?
The truth is, it’s incredibly humbling, obviously. I think hopefully, it’s an indication that we can get back to work. [Laughs]
I think all artists intend to have our work resonate with people—at least that’s why I make films—and that’s why I chose the career path that I wanted, and just to be able to communicate ideas that I have in my head and then to be lucky enough to be able to work on projects like these, and then to have those resonate with people, is everything. Truthfully, it’s what I get up in the morning for, and so I feel very blessed and really humbled to have this opportunity.