“There’s a great benefit from the depths of the relationships at play here....Barry comes over every Sunday night for roast chicken. We sit around a table, talk art, and the work. That’s not on the clock, but I think it is sort of inherent in the final film.”
Adele Romanski, Producer of the Film Moonlight.
We don't often think about the great relationships that bedrock great art. We often think of artists as lone, capricious madmen (often men) manically driving others to realise their vision. We don't consider the years artists spend collaborating and wrangling ideas with each other.
The importance of relationships lay at the heart of our In Conversation With event with Oscar nominated film director Barry Jenkins and MacArthur Genius playwright Tarell Alvin Mccraney. Jenkins adapted Mccraney’s play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, for the screen - a partnership that led to America’s most extraordinary film of the year.
For an intimate hour we talked about the art of adapting personal stories for the screen, the management of filmmaking, the manipulation of sound and music. However, it was witnessing the tender relationship that existed between the two men that most resonated.
The same could be said about the film Moonlight. The film is a masterclass in the art of filmmaking but it’s the unusual depiction of sensitive male relationships that has moved many.
Mccraney and Jenkins first met in 2012 but happened to be born on the same Miami housing projects about a year apart. Eight months to be exact, Jenkins made sure to state playfully. Both also grew up with drug-addicted mothers and both are now at the top of their artform game. If that wasn’t extraordinary enough, fluke, fate, the ancestors – whichever you choose to believe - brought them together to produce their most personal work. Returning to the scene of their painful pasts together would prove life changing for both.
Mccraney didn't exactly think of production when writing the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. He wrote the piece to make sense of his experience growing up gay, black, male and alienated. However he loved Jenkins’ first film Medicine for Melancholy so much that when the opportunity came to work with the director, he took the meeting.
When he discovered they shared roots, he was even more certain. Jenkins joked that Mccraney seemed more interested in his star sign than the collaborative process. Jenkins is a Scorpio, Mccraney half-joked back. Jenkins might have a sting in his tale but Mccraney was sure he would remain loyal.
Half jest, half revelation perhaps. Mccraney first had to implicitly trust Jenkins to gift a precious piece of himself.
The question of trust anchors Moonlight. It is a betrayal of trust that creates the pivotal turning point in the film and trust provides the foundation of the filmmaking process. Everybody involved in the film cared deeply Jenkins said. That's why the film feels the way it does. How did he make his team care I asked.
“I coached them”, he said, citing his own football training as inspiration. “I created a situation where everyone knew it was ok to fail and to contribute”. He gave an example from the Medicine for Melancholy shoot. Rather than lambast a sound recordist for offering him directorial notes, Jenkins welcomed the contribution and used the suggestion to reshape a pivotal scene.
That takes vulnerability doesn't it? I asked. I mean, aren't directors supposed to show they're in control? Barry smiled. Oh, I am always in control he countered.
Years later, Moonlight, his second film, is nominated for 8 Oscars. And two men who once passed a dream back and forth, now sit side by side, smile, joke, listen deeply to each other and touch tenderly.
I am currently growing a project called Art of the Impossible which studies the processes that go into making great works of art. Madmen don't become great artists or at least they don't sustain careers like Martin Scorcese or Viola Davis or Peter Brook or Toni Morrison or Barry Jenkins or Tarell Alvin Mccraney.
Those who do are able to hold a range of fragile, human processes while trusting others with their vulnerabilities. And they check the horoscopes. I'm with Mccraney on that one.
The In Conversation with Tarrell McCraney and Barry Jenkins took place at the BFI on 14th Feb 2017. The event was a partnership between WriteTalkListen, bfi Net.Work and Altitude Distributors.
Photos by Yves Salmon. Click here for full slideshow.