The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Moonlight.
The film has gorgeous cinematography and a beautiful score rooted in classical music. Can you talk about conceiving the look and sound of the film?
Barry Jenkins: When you grow up in a certain kind of place, you contextualize it. So to me, Miami is this very beautiful place. The grass is green, there’s a big sky, and open sun. The neighborhood that we shot in had these beautiful pastel colors that were faded, but they took on this new meaning with this aged look. The score was composed by Nicholas Britell in his private studio near Lincoln Center. One of the beautiful things that Nick did was take my note of not wanting this beautiful classical score to be placed on top of the hood. I wanted to fuse the two things, so he started “chopping and screwing” the orchestra, which is what you hear.
Can you talk about what drew you to your roles?
Trevante Rhodes: The script is first and foremost incredible. I didn’t really have any reservation about the character, but in reading I loved how afraid of himself he was. We all have that at one point or another. I love how he hated himself because he couldn’t find the happiness that he saw in other people, so he hated them as well.
Naomie Harris: I didn’t want to play the part initially because I made a decision to represent women, black women in particular, in a positive light. I initially had difficulty relating to Paula, but then it became a way for me to overcome any judgments of her. Paula is actually a beautiful person who is damaged and she is full of incredible love. The journey of being able to learn how to express love to her son was great. I wanted to portray all of the layers to her, so despite that she’s overcome by this demon of drugs there is still this sensitive, caring, and loving woman underneath her.
Janelle Monáe: I read the script and had a visceral reaction to it. I cried because I knew all of these characters from people I knew. I wanted to make sure that I got on board to be an ally to the LGBT community. Teresa is very near and dear to my heart because she reminded me of my older cousins who would never judge me. They were that constant shoulder that was leaned on. I wanted to make sure that Chiron could come to my house and whatever state he was in he could talk to me.
Mahershala Ali: I hadn’t seen this story before that’s had the camera pointed at these people. What was surprising for me is that there were people that I knew and grew up with in the Bay Area. Filling the shoes and stepping into the role of the mentor was great. Juan sees Chiron as an outsider and takes it upon himself to help him because he recognizes what that is and means.
Andre Holland: I was friends with Tarell McCraney [writer] before and had already done a bunch of his plays. With this script, I found that he does a great job of marrying the everyday of his life with this classical elegance.
What is your process with cinematography? Do you storyboard?
Jenkins: I don’t storyboard. I don’t like to control everything. I do prepare a shot list though, which I then throw out the window once I get to location. I’m not making the script. I’m making what’s in front of me. If I try to force what’s in front of me to become the script, then we have a problem especially with this schedule and budget. When we got to the diner it really does feel different and it’s not that it’s more choreographed. I think the way that we were revealing time at that point has changed and the two longest shots of the film are when he pulls up to the diner, gets out, puts on his shirt, and walks in. When he gets inside, we are just with him until he and Andre have those close-ups. At this point we watch a man reveal himself in real time.