Academy award-winning writer-director Barry Jenkins recently discussed his latest film If Beale Street Could Talk based on Jame’s Baldwin’s beloved 1974 novel about a young couple in love, whose lives are torn apart by a false arrest, at this year’s Toronto Film Festival.
The hotly anticipated follow up to Moonlight (2016) is set in an idealised 1970s depiction of New York’s Harlem, and tells an African American love story about Tish Rivers (Kiki Lane), whose fiancé Fonny (Stephan James) finds himself arrested for a crime he didn’t commit.
Through the poetic examination of the intense racial tensions of the time, Jenkins’s tragic romance leaves audiences with uneasy questions and parallels to today’s ongoing conflicts over police brutality and the mistreatment of black men in America.
If Beal Street Could Talk Official Trailer - courtesy of Annapurna Pictures
Following the Toronto premiere of the film, Jenkins sat down for a Q & A and offered the following insights into his approach to directing and casting the project:
Can you discuss how you accomplished creating a period piece in which the characters accurately speak in the vernacular of the time?
BJ: Yeah, you know, it was an adaptation of the James Baldwin novel which was published in 1974, and so, most of the dialogue is taken from the book.
Really, it was casting more than anything else. The job I felt like I had was to cast actors who could take the language and finesse it; still speak those exact words, but to quote Regina: “To not make it sound like jive.”
So, it was really about finding actors who could caress the words, and caress the language, and make it feel lived in; but still feel period-appropriate.
Can you speak to the process of adapting this film from the novel?
BJ: Yeah, I mean, the book is wild, man. There is some wild shit in the book that is not in this movie. The movie is challenging in a way; we don’t have time stamps. Now we’re in the past, and now we’re in the present, and now we’re in the kinda past, but now we’re in the really past. It was tough ‘cause (of) some of that stuff.
But, the movie is already just about two hours and I don’t want to put y’all through two hours and 45 minutes of this.
I’d like to talk about your relationship with James Laxton–your cinematographer. Can you speak about your working relationship with him?
BJ: Yeah, so James and I went to film school together. I've known him since I was like 20 or 21 and we actually were roommates in film school. We were like the inner ‘film nerd circle’ kind of thing. And so, we have this language. We have kind of like...just a second hand with each other. We've made so many films now.
You know, James is actually a white man. But, he's now become like the celebrated author of melanin on film because we've been working together for so long. And most of the stories I tell do feature black actors. So, he has developed an eye and a sensitivity to the way...especially with the history. I don't want to go into it.
The history of emotion and black skin is a very complicated history and he and I have worked over the years to find a way to go against the grain and present black skin and black faces on screen in the way I saw them in my childhood.
You know, one of the really cool things that we've started doing is these Jonathan Demme-inspired direct-to-camera sort of scenes; these portraits. We never tell the actors when we're going to do them and sometimes (James and I), if we feel the performance is in the right place—we just know it's time to do the portrait.
It's been really great to work with someone who's so fluid that we can veer from the plan and then come up with another plan that's more organic; that arises from the characters.
What was your experience like as a filmmaker after winning the Academy Award for Moonlight?
BJ: Yeah, I mean, because of the way we won the Academy Award, my experience…it's been interesting. I mean, look, it's like people return my phone calls now, people reply to my emails now—that's the biggest thing.
I work with all my friends: my producers are the people I went to film school with. My editors, I went to film school with. My cinematographer, I went to film school with.
And so, those people have seen me at the lowest low, you know? They've also seen me be really ridiculous. And so, when I get ridiculous—they remind me.
Can you tell us about your casting process?
BJ: My casting process, thank you. I like the way you say it: process.
You know, when I write the script, I very rarely have an actor in mind as I'm writing the screenplay. I'm hoping that an actor will walk in and show me who the character is, you know. The greatest example of that was Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight. I never in a million years pictured somebody like that for that part. He walked in with all his muscles and he clearly rewrote who the part was.
I think, in this film, I was so in love with this novel. But a novel is built of words not images. So, I didn't know what Tish looked like when Kiki Layne walked in. I didn't know what Fonny looked like until Stephan James walked in. And that one was really interesting because colourism is a really big part of the book and Fonny's written to be very, very light-skinned.
I'm always just looking for people to come in, and not that they have to completely align with what's on the page, but to just show me something that I can't see in my head, to make it flesh and blood.
Can you talk about what you're working on next?
Can you tell us about the use of colour in your films? For example, in Moonlight there was that saturated blue throughout. Here there seems to be a lot of yellow. Can you talk about those decisions?
BJ: With Moonlight, there were a lot of cinematic references, and with this one, there were a lot of still photography references. We looked at the work of Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava; these people who really documented Harlem in the period the film is set. It just so happens that a lot of that imagery, either because of aging or because of the film stocks at that time; had this sort of like, this gold, this green, and kind of this warm red patina to it.
The book is at once very beautiful and romantic and lush. But also, the social issues are very, very heavy and I feel like there was no reason to try to paint a very dark depressing image. The literal image ought to tell the story. So yeah, we settled on the reds, and the golds, and the greens.
The film is so beautifully designed. Could you speak about your collaboration with your production designers?
BJ: Yeah, my production designer Mark Friedberg is amazing. None of the interiors in this film are actual existing interiors. Mark Friedberg built all that. Fonny's flat where he lives is on a soundstage Mark built and the house that the family lives in is a gutted brownstone that he rebuilt. In Puerto Rico, the hotel room, you know...it's not a hotel room he just reached in.
You know, this guy's doing the Joker right now with Todd Phillips. But, he is just such a historian. It was so important to him, that you probably don't notice it. But, in the scene with Stephan and Brian Tyree Henry—they're sitting at the table. The table is a bathtub with a piece of wood on top of it. You know—so much detail.
But, behind them there is a crack in the wall and Mark was just so adamant that the only apartment this guy could afford in the East Village was an apartment that was in disrepair. He brought an 80-year-old draftsman out of retirement to come on set and rebuild this crack inch-by-inch. He was just that detailed. He was an absolutely amazing, phenomenal production designer.
In Moonlight and in this film the sound design is meticulous, which we do not see in many other films. Can you speak to that?
Moonlight (2016) official trailer - courtesy of A24
BJ: Yeah, I mean, I learned the hard way in film school that movies are sound and image and I think most of us focus 98% of our attention on the image and 2% on the sound. Yet, I think the sound can be as effective as the imagery. We do take great care with it; with both the score and the sound design.
You know, my sound designers also do Game of Thrones. They won an Emmy last night. Yeah, shout out to Onnalee Blank and Mathew Waters. They did this thing where Pedro Pascal's head got squished. You know, in Game of Thrones. And yet, they're here doing this very small intimate drama; but they bring the same energy to it.
To them: sound design is as important in a film of this scale as it is in a show of that scope and it’s the same thing with Nicholas Britell.
We want to move sound all around the room. I’m working my way up to an Atmos film that's what I really want to do with speakers on the ceiling, and then, you really got some sound design, man. I would take that as a compliment to Nicholas Britell, our composer, and the sound design folks. It's really important to them and it's important to me.
If Beale Street Could Talk made its debut on the 9th of September at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film will be released in cinemas in the USA on the 30th of November and is coming to Australia on the 7th of March early next year.
Special thanks to new writer Haydon Whipp for the edited transcript.
ABOUT THE FILMMAKER
Writer and Director
Barry Jenkins was born on November 19, 1979 in Miami, Florida, USA. He is a director and writer, known for Moonlight (2016), Medicine for Melancholy (2008) and If Beale Street Could Talk (2018). Jenkins won the Academy award for Best Adapted Screenplay shared with Tarell Alvin McCraney and was nominated for Best Achievement in Directing for Moonlight, which launched the careers of break-out acting talents Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, and Alex Hibbert.