As praise for the Miami-made film Moonlight continues to build, its filmmakers and actors gathered at Miami Beach Cinematheque Thursday for a local look inside its creation. Actors Alex Hibbert and Jaden Piner, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, and director Barry Jenkins discussed the film in a Speaking in Cinema conversation led by Borscht Film Festival cofounder Lucas Leyva, resulting in one of the most revealing conversations about the film to date.
Where most discussions have leaned toward presenting clips, Lucas brought two things that stood out. The first was a series of emails from 2011 detailing the inception of Moonlight. The second was a presentation showing McCraney's original script, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, alongside stills from the completed feature.
Barry explained that “as a visual storyteller, you feel like you’ve been given a gift” with Tarell’s script. “He laid out this experience he’d been through, and it’s my job as a filmmaker to try and balance two things: What’s the best way for the character to manifest the emotions of this scene, and what’s the best way to have the audience experience it? What I wanted to do was take this intellectual thing and have it be experienced from the inside.”
In that, he was successful, McCraney said: “Barry intuits so much that I didn’t write in the original, and I was always like, ‘How did you know that?’” For example, in the original script, McCraney explained, a bully punches Chiron in a schoolyard fight based on a real experience of McCraney's. Jenkins altered that scene for the film, making Chiron's love interest Kevin hit him instead. That's eerily intuitive, McCraney explained, because in real life, the person who inspired the Kevin character was the one who actually punched him in the schoolyard.
Moonlight has been praised for its unique perspective on a part of Miami most moviegoers have never seen on the big screen. “It’s always been about figuring out a way to get Miami to pay attention to itself," McCraney said. "How do I get Miami to look at itself so I don’t feel that feeling of not hearing your own voice?”
During the audience Q&A, one question — about whether the film was therapeutic to create — struck a nerve. Jenkins admitted, “The stuff with Naomie Harris was therapeutic in a certain way but also really beautiful. I thought I could hide behind Tarell in making this piece. There was a project when I wrote about my mom in Liberty City that we thought about making, and I thought it was too personal and couldn’t do it. When we got to Tarell’s piece, I thought, Oh, great. It’s personal for this cat, but not personal for me. I tricked myself.
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“And working with Naomie Harris, who is to me a composite of my mom and Tarell’s mom, and doing some of these things in Liberty City, it’s therapeutic now, but not in the making of it. It was very visceral, like working with an open wound," he continued. "But it was cool because it’s the only thing in my life I’ve done that felt that way, and I think creatively, from a craft standpoint, there are things that came out of that that wouldn’t have come out in the process otherwise.”
McCraney said the experience was not therapeutic for him. He recalled a story about being at the Toronto International Film Festival and watching Moonlight with that audience. “It hit me like, Wait, oh no, we’re watching this. This is about me; that’s my life; those are people I love. You can’t have them. They’re mine. And No, stop that, you don’t know that. I was there. I was getting emotional, and then they tell me we gotta go up on this dais and people are giving me a standing ovation, and I’m like, Don’t applaud. I’m upset. I miss these people. I’m so upset, and I love them and miss them.
“And I go backstage, and Mahershala [Ali] was like, ‘Hey, man, let me fix your tie.’ Now, Marhershala plays Juan. Juan is based on a man named Blu who was an actual person in my life who raised me and was in my life till I was 7 or 8, and then he passed away," McCraney said. "So this man is backstage fixing my tie, and I just grabbed him and started crying, and he kind of recoiled at first but then grabbed me back. There was no moment for me to breathe; I’m crying, I’m upset, I’m not gonna forgive this guy,” he gestured at Barry, “for doing what he did. Because it was so accurate that it began to blur in my mind. In that moment, I saw this man that I hadn’t seen in 20 years. And that was an extraordinary feeling.”
Moonlight is playing in theaters everywhere and will be shown at Miami Beach Cinematheque January 1, 2017, as part of the Independent Spirit Awards Nominee Retrospective. All Speaking in Cinema event recordings are available for viewing by appointment at the Cinematheque as part of its archive. Visit mbcinema.org.