Paul Thomas Anderson’s close-ups are widely regarded as the best in the business and second only to the director’s own filmmaking hero Jonathan Demme (there are no shortage of essays and video compilations devoted to Anderson’s use of close-up shots). So imagine how Barry Jenkins must have felt when Anderson admitted to being jealous of the close-ups in “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The two directors appeared on a recent episode of the DGA podcast “The Director’s Cut,” where Anderson called Jenkins the current master of cinematic close-ups.
“I’m very jealous of your close-ups,” Anderson told Jenkins. “There’s a long line of people who have really tried to do Jonathan Demme close-ups and I try all the time, but I have to say, you got it right better than anybody…I’m like how is he doing that? I’ve tried so hard. I suppose it has to do with the right faces, but it has to do a little more than that.”
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Jenkins’ instant reaction to the praise was shock and awe: “Let the record show that Paul Thomas Anderson is jealous of my close-ups! I’m done.”
The “Beale Street” director then took Anderson behind his process of finding the right moments to film a close-up. Jenkins said it starts at a basic level with his actors and trying to find the best faces possible to cast in the film. “I want faces that are open, that will invite the audience in,” the director said about the casting process. More importantly, Jenkins doesn’t try to force a close-up.
“I don’t plan them,” Jenkins said. “Every now and then there’s a moment. Acting is an intellectual thing, so there’s always distance between the actor and the character. Sometimes on set, I’ll just find or feel this moment where the actor and the character, the distance shrinks. There is no distance between them. What the audience is seeing if they are looking directly at them is their soul.”
Jenkins continued, “It sounds like bullshit, but there’s just this moment where the actor, everything just peels away. I tell the actor to just look right into the camera, and usually there is no dialogue. When you introduce dialogue the intellect kicks back in. There’s always a moment, especially in these last two films, where the audience has to look directly into the eyes of the character in order to really feel what they’re feeling.”
The director’s knack for close-ups is front and center in “Beale Street,” which opens in select theaters December 14 from Annapurna Pictures. Listen to Anderson and Jenkins’ full “The Director’s Cut” episode in the embed below.