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In His Own Words: Barry Jenkins Discusses an Exclusive Clip from "Medicine For Melancholy"

By Indiewire | Indiewire January 30, 2009 at 1:00AM

On the surface, "Medicine For Melancholy" is about two strangers getting to know one another in the aftermath of a one night stand. Beyond that, though, it's about coming to terms with one's identity, with the place you call home and how our location effects our emotional, intellectual lives. The film presents a scenario where these things we usually think about bubble to the surface through this chance encounter between Micah and Jo', two African-American twenty-somethings coming from different schools of thought on race and identity.
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On the surface, "Medicine For Melancholy" is about two strangers getting to know one another in the aftermath of a one night stand. Beyond that, though, it's about coming to terms with one's identity, with the place you call home and how our location effects our emotional, intellectual lives. The film presents a scenario where these things we usually think about bubble to the surface through this chance encounter between Micah and Jo', two African-American twenty-somethings coming from different schools of thought on race and identity.

"Medicine For Melancholy," from IFC Films, opens January 30th in New York City and will be available on VOD on February 4th.

The setting

Everything begins and ends with San Francisco in this film. We never decided to set the movie here; it naturally sprung from my experiences. The characters' views and interactions stem directly from their relationship to the city, its effect on them. This is a place whose physical beauty inspires people from many walks of life, and it's those people who take their inspiration from the city that create its true beauty, this undeniable energy that sustains that San Francisco mystique. This is what San Francisco means to me, this energy that connects us all walking these seven by seven miles, a small, intimate city. The increasing homogeny of the place is threatening all that. This is where "Medicine For Melancholy" takes it cue from the city of San Francisco.

A Scene from "Medicine For Melancholy

The scene we are sharing here falls 2/3rd of the way through the film and is a great window into the flick and our process of making it. I think the scene we chose encompasses the main theme of the film, this notion of sharing our thoughts with another person, trusting them with these views that essentially make up the foundation of who we are. This scene in particular is the first instance in the film when the characters lay all their cards on the table, essentially admit to the other character, "this is who I am." This is why, for me, it works to have the film begin after a one-night stand. The characters have already reached the height of a certain physical intimacy, two strangers sharing their bodies before the film even begins, paving the way for this other, more intellectual sharing.

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We shot this scene during our last week of shooting, probably the 13th day of a 15 day shoot. It was shot on location in my friend Angela's apartment in the Tenderloin. It's a tiny, tiny place, a studio apartment the size of a modest home's kitchen. On this night, we shot everything in sequence, so before the scene viewed in this clip we also shot a funny bit where the characters smoke joints and compare the merits of Rick James and MC Hammer videos. Getting everyone loose with the comedic scene really paid dividends when it came time to do the heavy lifting of this more dramatic beat. The actors were so relaxed by the light-hearted feel of the set that it made this much more breezy in practice. We covered both Tracey and Wyatt in a single shot for the duration of this scene; there were no more than three takes for either of them. On set, it felt like we'd stumbled across a couple having a conversation on the street. Which, of course, was perfect. We went with it, and when we got the scene in post, Nat (our editor) did a great job of stripping the scene down to its essence, letting the beats breathe when the actors dictated, just really paring things down.

In depth

At the beginning here our lead actor, Wyatt Cenac, gives a great, GREAT adlib out of the need to physically alter the blocking of the scene; we had to get the bike to the other side of the room for a payoff in the film's final moments, and when we went ahead to shoot this, Wyatt delivered a wonderful adlib about astronaut Mae Jemison that really set the stage for the "serious" discussion that follows.

The Mae Jemison line works so well because it gives a great example of the role class plays in the racial makeup of the city, something Wyatt acheives by mentioning Tracey's charcater as being "the first black woman in the Marina." Wyatt and I were literally living in the Marina during shooting, in the house used in the film as Jo's home. I'd gotten it as a housesitting gig the week we started shooting and immediatey knew it should be in the film. Wyatt's line brings all those elements together.

Once the bike is moved and Micah provides the tonal shift of having this pseudo-intellectual debate with Jo', we tried to remove ourselves from the process and just let Tracey and Wyatt perform. From the time Wyatt rises to move the bike to the time he and Tracey leave the apartment, the coverage, the lighting, the sound, it's all simple, incredibly simple. Each character is covered from a single angle, there's no score, no focus pulling or any of the other flourishes we use other places in the film. For me, it was a place where the things the characters are saying would only play if they were said with feeling, some real emotion, and so to give our actors the best chance to get there, we simplified our process, the crew's process. Hopefully for them, it was like we weren't even there.

Coming out of the scene, funny man Wyatt Cenac delivers this great bit about smokin' weed and riding bikes. We actually lit to cover this moment in singles but stepping back from the blocking, I noticed Tracey playing the reaction in this dip of her hips and decided that just this wide from the hallway was all the coverage we needed.

Thinking about the film today

Thankfully, I look at the film now and I see a FORMER version of myself. It all seemed so personal to me, like tunnel vision, especially the way we incorporated the city into the film as a character. But when I look at it now, I see how universal the characters' struggles are, how they're flawed in ways we all fundamentally are. People just want to identify with something, and I never thought I could create something others could identify with, but then I look at the film and there they are, these two people I've created, and people see themselves in them. That's all I could ask for.

'Preciate you for tuning in and watching this clip. Making this film with my friends was one of the greatest experiences of my life. If you get a chance to see it, I hope some of that joy comes right on through to you.

"Medicine For Melancholy," from IFC Films, opens January 30th in New York City and will be available on VOD on February 4th.