Between Barry Jenkins’ two latest features—the Oscar-winning Moonlight, and 2019 contender If Beale Street Could Talk—cinematographer James Laxton has taken two big swings, adapting pre-existing written material for the screen. In the case of the former film, the material at hand was a play, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. While that story was semi-autobiographical and deeply personal to its originator, the stakes were raised even higher with Beale Street, the first English-language feature adaptation of seminal American novelist James Baldwin.
Based on Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, and set in ‘70s Harlem, this was the story of Tish and Fonny, a young African-American couple grappling with the harsh realities of life in their times. With her first child on the way, Tish’s fiancé is sent off to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, leaving this young woman and her family with the impossible task of trying to prove his innocence. As Jenkins has frequently noted this season, Baldwin was an author of two voices and two minds. As consumed as he was by systemic injustice, and the horrific mistreatment of the African-American community, the writer was equally taken in by the beauty and romance he saw in the world, everywhere he looked.
Lensing Jenkins’ latest, Laxton knew it would be important to find a visual language of love that would suit this particular story. An extremely intimate experience, Beale Street makes use of overpowering, hazy close-ups and a saturated color palette to tap into the rapport between its central characters. “The format we chose was the Alexa 65, and the shallow depth of field that one gets when shooting on a large-format camera brings our audiences directly into the face—into the performance—in a way that is unique, and fit our project very well,” the 2017 Oscar nominee notes.
This week on Production Value, Laxton further details aesthetic choices that were made for the film, and how he approaches his craft. Examining the way in which he used lenses and filters to conjure up “ambience and tone,” the DP breaks down the spine of the pre-production process as such. “It begins with general, broad conversations of influences, of concepts in pre-production with the director, and then going more deeply into breaking that down, in terms of making specific choices of what format we’re shooting, what lenses we’re using, what the light looks like, how the camera builds and crescendos in terms of peaks and structures and acts,” he reflects. “Making all those choices clearly supports the script, but also a director’s vision.”
Meeting Jenkins at Florida State University over 15 years ago, Laxton understands his process and his vision like almost no one else can. Shooting the director’s very first short films, including My Josephine and Little Brown Boy, the DP remained at his side through his first feature, Medicine for Melancholy, and into a post-Moonlight world, where opportunities for the pair abound. Looking at the depth of the creative relationships he’s forged over the course of his career, it’s little surprise that for Laxton, the attraction to cinematography isn’t just about craft. Says Laxton, “One reason why I keep coming back to cinematography has a lot to do with people.”
For more from our conversation with the cinematographer, take a look above.