As the A24 logo appears on screen the sound of ocean waves and Boris Gardiner’s soulful 1973 “Every N***r is a Star” comes on the soundtrack. The film then cuts to Juan (Mahershala Ali) pulling onto a quiet, brightly colored residential street in the hot mid-day sun. In a continuous shot, Juan gets out of his car to survey the drug corner he controls. As he converses with one of his dealers and an addict looking to score, the camera swirls around the three men, who fall in and out of frame.
From a narrative standpoint, we are grounded in Juan’s power and control over this patch of Miami, while seeing glimpses of his compassion that will make him the father figure to the film’s protagonist, Chiron. However, that use of sound, movement, light, and color also introduces us to the world of “Moonlight.” Sound and character ground us in the familiar, but that camera refuses to let the viewer grab onto anything solid or settle into the assumption that this will be yet another black urban drug film.
We’ve come to expect that an American independent film that wants to realistically portray what it’s like to grow up during Miami’s crack epidemic (inspired by the real-life childhoods of Jenkins and co-writer Tarell McCraney) would be matched by a realist cinematic style. Yet “Moonlight” defies the handheld improvised naturalism, or documentary style, that’s has become synonymous with indies tackling real-world issues and characters who live on the margins of society.
Alone, the power of Jenkins’ story and characters would have made “Moonlight” one of the better films of 2016, possibly enough to get garner awards attention for acting, script and maybe even a Best Picture nod. However, there’s an element of craft in “Moonlight” that isn’t often seen in a film with a $1.5 million budget, which is why it is the extremely rare indie to also receive below-the-line nominations (Best Score, Cinematography, and Editing) and has a very realistic chance of becoming the first ultra-low-budget American film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
“Moonlight” is filled with countless bold aesthetic choices, each perfectly in sync with Jenkins’ vision of Chiron’s world. Cinematographer James Laxton’s high-contrast, rich color palette photography captures the beauty and harshness of Liberty City. Nicholas Brittel’s chopped-and-screwed score mixes wonderfully with the film’s subjective sound design, bringing us inside Chiron’s emotional world. Editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders seamlessly weave the film’s ocean-inspired dreaminess and violent realities.
Certainly Jenkins and his team of artisans deserve recognition, but it’s also worth exploring how the film was able to defy its limitations. “Moonlight” producer Adele Romanski (“Morris From America,” “Kicks”), a veteran indie producer who worked with Jenkins for years to get this film off the ground, has seen firsthand what can got wrong on a film with a 25-day shoot schedule, four weeks of prep, and not always the most experienced crew.
“I see it happen time and time again,” said Romanski in a recent interview with IndieWire. “You have a good plan going in and that pressure cooker of production where suddenly because of [time and budget] constraints everybody is at risk of failure, which doesn’t lead to a creative work environment. There’s no margin for error and it becomes about getting through the shoot.”
A documentary approach to shooting can give an element of authenticity; it’s also a practical choice when a director’s energy is focused on shaping naturalistic performances — especially when children are involved. This is especially true for low budget filmmakers who often don’t have the luxury of rehearsing with actors before production. These were burdens that Jenkins faced as well, having three days to shoot Oscar nominee Naomi Harris, while fellow nominee Ali flew into Miami on weekends while shooting Marvel’s “Luke Cage” in New York during the week.
What “Moonlight” had going for it was a close group of collaborators approaching their professional peaks. Romanski, Laxton, Jenkins, McMillon, and Sanders have been working together since they met at Florida State film school 15 years ago.
“Barry and I landed in Miami in August and officially we started prepping middle of September, with a four week prep with our team, but we spent three years talking about this movie,” said Romanski, who is married to Laxton. “There’s a great benefit from the depths of the relationships at play here. How long we’ve known each other and the shared aesthetic and shared film language — that’s been allowed to develop over a long period of time. 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.”
Romanski said at the heart of the film’s success is how in sync Laxton and Jenkins were in the filmic language of “Moonlight.” Last month, when Jenkins presented Laxton with the Best Cinematography Award at the New York Film Critics Circle, he recalled how in 2000 he was a kid who grew up in a world very similar to “Moonlight” and knew little about filmmaking.
“[James] came home with two Criterion DVDs, ‘George Washington’ and ‘In the Mood for Love,'” recalled Jenkins. “I had never seen a film with subtitles before and James said, ‘You should watch these.’ Ever since that moment, I knew I wanted him to carry my vision, whatever that would be.”
As Jenkins told IndieWire back in October, the world he and McCraney grew up had a harshness to it, but you could also feel the ocean in the air and there was great natural beauty and color to Liberty City. This led him to want to visually create a “beautiful nightmare” look to the film. To this end, Laxton and Jenkins shot tests and experimented with how to create the film’s high-contrast lighting scheme, while collaborating with colorist Alex Bickel to figure out how to pull rich color from Miami’s pastel colors, lush vegetation, and the actors’ skin tones.
“[James and Barry] worked so quick, man, they just cut through it,” said Romanski. “They say as few words as possible to each other and know what the other is wanting because they’ve been discussing films and film references for over a decade. Barry could take more time to invest in crafting performance of actors who have never met each other, because he knows James is going to prop up the visual side based on the years they spent talking about how they want to the film to look.”
One thing often overlooked in creating the look of a film is the right costumes, the perfect set dressing, and the ideal location mean nothing if they don’t read on camera, something of particular concern given how Laxton and Jenkins pushed the film’s color palette and lighting. That meant coordination and collaboration between department heads and adjusting to each other’s work. Romanski said that the uniquely close collaboration extended well beyond the Florida State crew.
“As an example, we never worked with Caroline Eselin before, our costume designer, and she and James discovered this incredible process working together,” said Romanski. “Caroline has been married for many years to a top cinematographer, so they had a ease of working together and quick, profound respect through the process. There was just a level of coordination you don’t always see on smaller films.”
Romanski also said there was an “egoless-ness” to making “Moonlight.” She attributes that to Jenkins, who had a way of turning the pressure-cooker schedule into a positive, creative environment.
“Something I attribute specifically to Barry in that regard is his ability to really elevate everybody through true appreciation, love, and respect that allow collaborations to really spread,” said Romanski. “This was a big part of why Barry’s vision seeped into every department.”
That also allowed for visual improvisation and adjusting to magic happening on set. One example was the much-discussed scene in which Chiron learns to swim. Once they got into the water, Jenkins decided to try have the camera struggle to stay above water, almost drowning, as Chiron fights the panic mixed with the feeling of freedom.
“There also was the shot of Andre [Holland] smoking the cigarette at the diner,” said Romanski of the romantic, dreamlike cutaways in the film’s final chapter. “We called camera wrap and we were done for the day. I don’t remember if it was James or Barry, but one of them was like, ‘Andre, get against the wall and smoke a cigarette.’ Because it’s such a creatively free and inspiring environment within the structure that Barry set, we were often finding moments of improvisation like this.”
For months leading up to the shooting of “Moonlight,’ Jenkins shared with key team members a Dropbox folder filled with tones and songs as he tried to define his film’s soundscape. Not only had Jenkins written into the script nearby sounds of Miami’s serene beaches breezing through the harsher environments of Chiron’s neighborhood, he also spent months figuring out the tones and songs that would help him capture Chiron’s various mental states, since he often doesn’t connect with the world around him.
“I can actually go back into that ‘Moonlight’ playlist now, and half of it is the tone and feeling of the film and the other half is shit, specifically songs, that [are] in the actual movie,” said Romanski.
In exploring and experimenting with the sound of “Moonlight,” it led to Jenkins bringing in Brittel before production. The composer worked from the same playlist to figure out how his score would weave organically with this soundscape. From this, he found a way to create the same contrast found in the beauty and harshness of the film’s cinematography, manipulating his traditional elegiac score and transforming it into deep, distorted sounds as Chiron’s emotions erupt in the film’s second chapter.
Romanski attributes another key factor that allowed “Moonlight” to operating differently than other low-budget films: A24.
“I think people think that meant we had more money, but what it really meant was they simply wanted to ensure we made the best film. There was not pressure about getting ready for a Sundance deadline or how we’d sell the film,” said Romanski. “There’s confidence from knowing someone is taking care of getting this out in the world, which is part of the pressure cooker of making an indie without distribution. The focus was kept on making the best film we could. “