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August 27, 2008 7:48 AM
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TORONTO '08 DISCOVERY INTERVIEW | "Medicine For Melancholy" Director Barry Jenkins

A scene from Barry Jenkins' "Medicine for Melancholy." Image courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival.

EDITORS NOTE: For the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, indieWIRE will be publishing interviews with filmmakers in the Discovery section of the festival, which TIFF describes as a showcase for new and emerging filmmakers from contemporary international cinema.

Barry Jenkins' "Medicine For Melancholy" is having its Canadian premiere in the Discovery section of the 2008 Toronto International Film Film Festival. The film, which premiered at SXSW earlier this year, is about two African-American twentysomethings who wake up in bed together with no recollection of how they got there. They proceed to wander the streets of San Francisco, discussing issues of race, class, identity and gentrification, exploring sights of the city. Jenkins talked to indieWIRE about the film and his hopes for Toronto.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking and did that interest evolve while making your film?

I slipped into filmmaking through the backdoor, I was literally walking across campus when I saw a sign that said "film school" and decided to apply. That was seven years ago as an undergrad English major at Florida State, so I can't say my interest evolved at all while making "Medicine For Melancholy"; the evolution occurred in the downtime between those two periods. More than anything, making this film only reinforced what drew me to filmmaking in the first place, working with a small group of people I knew intimately who cared about me and the work we were creating. We made this film with about seven people, almost all of whom I went to school with in the undergrad film program at FSU. Making this movie was more a step back to that incubation period at FSU when all I cared about in the world was making films with my friends.


Please discuss how the idea for "Medicine For Melancholy" came about...

This film spun out of breakup (lame, I know) and a filmmaking drought in the four years after graduating college. I hadn't made a film, not even a single short, since leaving film school and this breakup brought me face to face with where I was in my life and where I was and wasn't heading. When you're in a relationship, that union serves as a sort of buffer to the world. It didn't matter that I was a filmmaker, yet wasn't making films. I was in love. Being tossed out of that shell was a wake up call. The film literally grew out of those two realizations, the pain of heartbreak and a desire to prove my chosen craft. Once I opened myself to letting my personal experiences here in San Francisco inform the narrative, the movie was born.


Please elaborate on your approach to making the film, including your influences as well as your overall goals for the project.

From the very first day I sat down to write the script, the idea was to write something my friends and I could make for little to no money, on our own, outside the system and within our means. We decided from the outset to establish our budgetary limitations to better emphasize and exploit them in the actual filmmaking. Doing so -- defining the box we could play in given the tools at our disposal -- completely freed us to make the film in the way we'd been taught, utilizing digital tools to tell the story cinematically, evocatively. I mention this only because there's a stigma to low-budget, digital films, the notion that they can't be evocative on a craft level. That's ridiculous and outdated. We went about making the film without thinking of the image as inferior to what we'd all learned on (Super 16), and in the end I think the film looks, feels, and moves the better for it.

Lynne Ramsay and Claire Denis are my primary influences. The original idea for this film in particular came to me years ago when I saw Ms. Denis' Vendredi Soir. Now, your influences aren't necessarily your aesthetic. Ms. Denis and Ms. Ramsay are amazing filmmakers, absolutely amazing. I've made one feature film. Their work is of a quality folks like me "aspire" to. That said, I'm always working to have as much pride in my work as I assume they have in theirs, their films seemingly uncompromising visions. It's an idea that blends well with the only goal we ever had in making this film, to have pride in the work we put into it, to employ our craft and be proud of ourselves as filmmakers. To me, it was every bit as important as what the film "means" or "says" which, a film being an impossible endeavor and me serving as both writer and director, was obviously damn important to me. And yet...you go so long without doing a thing and you get pretty antsy. We wanted to make films. So we took it upon ourselves to get up and make this film.


What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?

Money! You can only do so much with luck and chance. At some point you need to control the elements and having as few resources as we did nearly broke our backs more than a few times. Even worse was the atrophy of having gone so long without making anything, particularly without making anything within the protective structure of the university setting. We basically jumped out of a plane on this one and the fear (at least on my part) was intense. "Will we do this?" "Can we do this?" Both of those questions had to be faced and answered before we made this film. Addressing them was its own production.


What is your next project?

I'm not sure at the moment. There's a literary adaptation I've always been interested in that may be more attainable now that this film is out in the world. I love filmmaking on its own merits; making this film was a real affirmation of that. It's the work that matters, particularly for guys like Nat Sanders (our editor) and James Laxton (our DP). I love those guys, so hopefully my next project will once again be something I create with them, something we can be proud of.


What are your goals for the Toronto International Film Festival?

I have absolutely none! Going to festivals this year has taught me one thing above all else: have no goals, no expectations. We're extremely grateful to screen at the festival and share this film of ours with the Toronto public. The film is very specific to its setting, so we're always keen to observe how the "setting" of the audience effects their perception of the film. If we have a goal it's that very thing, to share the film with as many people across as diverse a spectrum as possible. The themes articulated in the film are important to me and the crew, and people's reactions to them are every bit as important. Being there on hand to receive such energy is such a privilege. At this festival as every other, we're just hoping to respect that.

We're extremely grateful.

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1 Comment

  • gokinsmen | August 27, 2008 12:17 PMReply

    Great feature. Mr. Jenkins may be a first-time filmmaker, but he's got his head on straight.

    Will definitely look for this film in the future.