Barry Jenkins does not want me to call him a romantic. “I am a craftsman,” he insists. His declaration comes a little while after I wonder whether he considers Chiron—the young hero of Jenkins’ Moonlight, who suffers through many injustices of life on the streets of urban Miami as he grapples with his sexuality—to be, at heart, a romantic. After all, people keep talking about the hope of possibility offered by Moonlight‘s touching final scenes. “Man, nah,” Jenkins insists. “He’s someone who’s very curious and open about the world, but that’s slowly beaten out of him by the reaction of the world around him. In love we expand, and in fear we retract. He’s a character that wants to love and be loved.”
But, I ask, isn’t that elaboration in itself evidence of Chiron’s romanticism? “Undoubtedly, yes. But those things are taken away from him.”
Jenkins considers his position for a moment, and then describes a scene in that final act of his unusual three-part coming-of-age story, that runs completely contrary to what he has just said. The now-grown-up Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) shares a look with the object of his earlier desires, Kevin (André Holland), with whom he has just reunited. DP James Laxton’s camera catches the look they share from each perspective, straight down the lens. “The romanticism comes back,” Jenkins says, “and we have André Holland smoking a cigarette right into the lens, right into the audience’s heart.”
At this point, as the two of us eat lunch on the rooftop of the Ace Hotel in Downtown LA, a waiter comes over to gush about Moonlight, and to thank Jenkins for making it. This kind of thing doesn’t happen every day, the director insists (though it will happen twice in the short time we spend together) but it prompts him to ask himself, “What is it about this movie that I could show up here and a straight white guy, working on the roof of a fancy hotel bar, is beside himself? Someone who could not be further removed from the world of these characters, and when I saw his face it was exactly what I remember seeing in Trevante’s face, and in André’s face, in that moment.”
A beat passes, and he laughs. “And now you’ve made me sound like a f–king romantic, and I’m a craftsman. I am a craftsman, I am a craftsman.”
What is it about Moonlight? For the answer to that, we must go back to the moment Jenkins’ friend and Florida State University classmate, Adele Romanski, sat him down to tell him they should make a movie together, years after his debut feature, 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, sparked briefly and then fizzled out, never developing into the career he had longed for. “We would just slog through ideas and, initially, there were no ideas,” Romanski remembers. “Eventually it became a fine process, where there was a list of ideas and we just talked through them.”
One idea on that list, that Romanski liked and wanted to produce, was intensely personal to Jenkins’ own life—a mother-son story set in the Miami projects. But Jenkins dismissed it quickly because he didn’t feel ready to tell such a personal story. “It was basically like a biography of my mom’s life pretty much until the point that I was conceived,” Jenkins recalls.
“But then he agreed with me about Moonlight, and didn’t see the personal in it,” Romanski laughs. “I was like, ‘That’s strange, Barry. You don’t see the…? OK. Alright.’ It tricked him into making him think it was someone else’s story, not his story.”
After all, Jenkins is straight, and Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, is more autobiographically McCraney’s story, about a young boy growing up in those same projects, but struggling with homosexuality in a world determined to reject him. “I think it snuck up on Barry,” Romanski says. “But some of us, myself included, saw that coming. I think he’s really put his heart out there for everyone.”
“With Tarell’s piece, I saw the notion that the character Naomie Harris had to play, Paula, was very close to my mom,” Jenkins says, by way of explanation. “Everything tracked. But because of the distance—because it wasn’t my story—I thought I’d get to the point where I would be watching this kid, Chiron, and I wouldn’t be watching myself. Maybe it was good it came about that way, because it allowed me to remove this block I’d had, that I didn’t want to make a movie about myself.”
Making something personal, Jenkins thought, would muddy his love of cinema and become too much like therapy. He wanted to craft something precise, not wrench it out of himself. “I kept trying to find a way to not turn the making of this film into something ‘important’. I wanted it to be a really strong piece of art, and it seemed like there needed to be a bit of distance in order for that to happen. I kind of tricked myself into believing in that distance, because of course it wasn’t there.”
Jenkins reorganized the play a little, stripping back some of the dialogue to allow Chiron’s interior life to be suggested rather than stated. He also shaped it into the three-act structure of the movie, in which we meet Chiron separately as a child (Alex Hibbert), a teenager (Ashton Sanders) and an adult (Rhodes). A decade divides each chapter, and by the time we catch up with the grown-up Chiron, now going by the nickname “Black”, he has been firmly boxed in by his situation, dealing drugs and projecting an image of stereotypical masculinity.
That wasn’t Jenkins’ destiny; he went to FSU and immersed himself in his love of the cinema. But “there’s an inevitability to the life that Chiron is leading,” Jenkins reflects. “For a lot of young men who grow up in the world Chiron grows up in, that inevitability is built into everyday life. So to me it felt organic that his life tracked that way.”
Going against the grain of artificial cinematic narratives that seem to favor tales of clean breaks from life in the projects—often tied to financial success or fame—Moonlight, then, seems to end on a dour note… Until Chiron and Kevin share that look. “What happens over the last 30 minutes is so intense I can’t even describe it,” Jenkins says. “There is a sadness there, but I do love that people feel like it’s this way of opening up. I do think the way Trevante and André navigate those moments makes it hopeful, ultimately.”
The film ends then. “And maybe when the story continues, Black takes a creative writing course at a community college, and then he writes Moonlight. Maybe there’s a road where that happens, you know. In a Barry Jenkins kind of way, it’s hopeful. It’s not butterflies and rainbows; it isn’t shooting stars.”
It’s real life. Says producer Jeremy Kleiner, at Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment, who boarded the project, “There are people who will see the film and feel somehow less alone than they were when it began. I feel that way, and I don’t have much in common with the literal experience of Chiron. But I feel like I’m watching the most specific human experience and, through that, I access the importance of love and what its absence can do.”
So much of Moonlight’s success is owed to its casting of the three Chirons and the three Kevins. Jenkins and his producers (Romanski, Kleiner and Dede Gardner) all credit Yesi Ramirez for running with the director’s instinct that the 10-year gaps separating each iteration of the characters would make them very different from one another. “I wasn’t trying to drive each of the guys through the same thing,” Jenkins says. “I honestly wanted them to do their own thing, and we had this faith that the process we had built would yield results. It wasn’t engineered to be any kind of mathematical equation. It was much more like poetry, I guess.”
Much has been made of Jenkins keeping the three Chirons apart. He likens the effect to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. “Richard wasn’t spending time with that kid in between the shoots. That kid was off living his life and becoming a different person. I love that you get to see—in that film embodied by one actor—how the world has reshaped him over those 12 years.”
In Moonlight, “Alex, Ashton and Trevante were all at three very different stages of their lives, and while they may be a bit more seasoned now, they were each pretty green as performers.”
Kleiner chuckles at the challenge Jenkins made for himself in wrangling those differences. “On a degree of difficulty meter, you’ve got $1.5 million, you’ve got 25 days, one camera, three non-professional actors,” he says. “For people that make films, when you say, ‘We’re going to cast three people that don’t physically resemble each other and then deny them access to one another so that you’re the only point of connection between them.’ That is insane.”
Kleiner and Gardner first heard about the project at Telluride Film Festival, when Jenkins moderated a Q&A for Plan B’s film 12 Years a Slave. After Medicine for Melancholy, Jenkins and Plan B had kicked around ideas together, but nothing had come to fruition. “We started talking again, and eventually he sent me the script for Moonlight,” Kleiner remembers.
Partnering with Plan B offered the wind under which the Moonlight ship could sail. “They’re a unique species,” says Romanski. “They’re unicorns. They’re a prestige company that can greenlight projects that other companies wouldn’t be able to greenlight, and they are very aware of that position, and the responsibility it entails.”
When Kleiner read Moonlight, “it was one of the most astonishing things I’d ever read,” he says. “I thought it was so complete. Dede and I talk about how it didn’t feel like a broken script. It was probably going to be a lower-budget film than we’d ever worked on, but when you feel that way about something, you try it and follow through. It was something Brad had always taught us. The company’s most essential function is that there are stories that need to be told, and you do what you can to enable, support, facilitate those.”
Kleiner draws a connection with Moonlight to his experience interning for Errol Morris. “I think, as a documentarian, he felt that if he could create proximity with people, a natural empathy emerges,” he says. “I think this film creates that proximity, and in that empathetic response is something very hopeful and very beautiful. It’s the emotional truth of life, and it does it in a way that is so different than we’re used to seeing. It’s not polemical at all. I’m a different person after this experience.”
So, too, is Jenkins, though Romanski says she believes the emotional impact has yet to fully reach him. “Barry hasn’t stopped working on this movie since August 2015. He hasn’t had time to decompress and process where he is now as a man, but professionally, I think it has been seismic.”
“It has had an effect on all of us,” Jenkins considers. “There was a point Ashton Sanders pulled me aside and said, ‘I just want you to know, this is really intense. I never told you this, but I went through some of this stuff with my mom, too.’ I had no clue. At this point I’d been working with the guy off and on through auditions for like two and a half months.”
It was, he says, “this fresh, open wound of an experience. It took us to places that I guess we should have seen coming, but none of us realized how intensely personal it was going to be in the making of it.”
Perhaps the magic, then, of Moonlight is in how its extreme specificity somehow coexists with true universality. Even Naomie Harris, a British teetotaler playing a crack-addicted mother in the Miami projects, talked to me about how personal Moonlight became to her. Its emotional impact is undeniable, regardless of personal circumstances.
“I think it’s a story that feels extremely vital right now,” says Kleiner. “There’s such an active debate about how we define the value of people. Are there people who are the truth, and other people who don’t belong in that? Aren’t those other people coming from a very specific place, like Barry, like Tarell, like Chiron, with their own pain, their own complexity, their own history? We treat them like abstractions, and the achievement of this film is that, through the deep individuality of this person, maybe there’s some way to think about all people, because of how much you come to feel what this person is feeling.”
Certainly it worked on A24, the young upstart distributor founded by Daniel Katz, David Fenkel and John Hodges, who had been making waves with smart acquisitions like Room, Ex Machina and Spring Breakers. Moonlight is their first production. “They said yes, they didn’t ask questions about the movie. They didn’t ask who the audience was for it,” Kleiner notes. “There was no trauma; they just supported us. It was like, ‘What do you need?’”
On January 24th, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences responded to Jenkins’ ode to the perseverance of love with eight Oscar nominations. For him and his FSU classmates Romanski and James Laxton, all first-time nominees, it is the culmination of dreams that were started all those years ago at college.
And yet, like the defiantly hopeful note on which we leave Chiron’s story at the end of Moonlight, it’s also just the start of another journey. There is another film in the offing, Romanski reveals, that will reunite them. One, she hopes, of many. “I think not everything we do will be as incredibly specific,” she says. “But I do think they will all share the same deep compassion for humanity. I think there will be a way to cinematically link them in that regard, even though they will be different stories.”
As for Jenkins, he won’t be pressed on any details. But, he says, “there was a point where I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to make another movie [after Medicine for Melancholy]. The first film I made was $13k, and not a lot of people saw it. So even just getting this film made was a miracle.”
“Moonlight is now the bar and the standard that we must hold ourselves to going forward,” says Romanski. “Sometimes we will fail—it’s a very high standard, I think—but it has helped us better understand what our responsibility is in terms of our art.”
“Adele and I had coffee this morning,” Jenkins says, as a smile crosses his face. “We were just like, ‘What a f–king ride this has been.’ Because I remember those 25 days in Miami, during which we had no expectations, and now here we are…”
He laughs. “I’m not a f–king romantic, alright. Don’t call me a romantic.”