There has never been a movie that looks and feels quite like “If Beale Street Could Talk.” Whereas most films about love are designed to make you desire two characters, kept apart by narrative conflict, to come together; director Barry Jenkins invites his audience into the expansive feeling of love. Jenkins attributes the uniqueness of his film to the fact there has never been a feature-film adaptation in English of author James Baldwin before.
“I think one of the really beautiful things about adapting this work from the page to the screen is intellectually, as you read it, Baldwin can describe how that love feels,” said Jenkins. “The way Baldwin writes, you’ll look at a paragraph and there’s no periods in it. It’s just this running collection of moods and thoughts and feelings, that feel like these waves cascading across one another.”
To find and fine-tune the precise visual grammar of Baldwin’s mastery Jenkins followed a process that served him so well with his previous Oscar-winner. One of the keys to “Moonlight” transcending the limitations of its $1.5 million budget – trading docu-realism for crafted visual poetry of the highest level – was the years the director and his close friend and collaborator, cinematographer James Laxton, spent creating the visual language of their eventual Oscar-winner.
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“It’s an incredible luxury in that these are conversations that sort out over months, sometimes years” said Laxton. “For example, we may reference aspects of a certain photographer and having those ideas sink in for a couple weeks. Coming back to having a drink or a dinner with Barry a month or two later, and thinking like, ‘You know that conversation we had back in May, now that’s taking on a new meaning for me and a new idea. What do you think about this kind of perspective?’”
Instead of riffing off their influences (stretching from the films of Wong Kar-wai to Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail”) like they did on “Moonlight,” Jenkins and Laxton needed to thread the needle of how to capture the seemingly contradictory aspects of Baldwin’s greatness: The strength and power of the author’s words, but with the nuance and sensitivity of the story; a sense of period, but that felt modern and as much about today as it did the 1970s; the social protest realism and wrongful imprisonment of African Americans, but a story that dwelled in the beauty and power of Black Love.
According to Laxton, the first important decision was the choice of shooting in a large format with the Arri Alexa 65. The 65mm sensor capturing a high resolution image with incredible detail, a wide dynamic range for exposure, and large color spectrum, supplied the intimate film with a bold, strong image Laxton felt matched the way Baldwin’s words could cut so deep.
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“It wasn’t only just the format itself, but also the lenses we used,” said Laxton, in reference to the Arri DNA primes. “These lenses are again, sort of high resolution lenses with fine detail work. They’re sharp, but they’re also quiet. They have a vintage feeling made from glass of a previous era.”
The larger format also means that a 50mm lens has approximately the same field of view as a wider 25mm lens has when shooting on the more common 35mm format.
“So you have the same sort of presence of being, of seeing like you’re in a close up of someone,” said Laxton. ”But now you also see much more expression, and much more of the physical performance someone is giving.”
For the audience the combination can feel almost off-setting, different than we are used to seeing, which manifests itself beautifully in Jenkins and Laxtons’ unique use of close-up with the characters looking directly into the lens.
“Those close-ups are driven by trying to engage the audience into the scene, to really bring them into these spaces that is intended to feel very intimate, and very powerful,” said Laxton. “These are very bold choices and ways in which I think we’re adapting James Baldwin’s work in terms of cinematography.”
The large format also allowed Laxton to capture and emphasize the deep, saturated color palette in how costume designer Caroline Eselin dressed the characters and production designer Mark Friedberg built into the sets and locations. For Jenkins the direct reference to the Technicolor “kitchen sink” melodramas of Hollywood’s Golden Era, and the films of Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli, was, in part, to work against the elements of “Beale Street” that touch on the well-tread story of African-American pain and imprisonment.
“Just like with ‘Moonlight,’ it would have felt false to have tried to paint the entire picture in the energy of Fonny (Stephan James) behind glass,” said Jenkins of the story of young lovers separated by wrongful imprisonment. “To me there was this idea in the writing of this ecstatic nature of black folks when they are surrounded by family, by community, or when they allow themselves to live fully in their love and so I think part of the film wanted to replicate or reflect that ecstatic feeling, I call it the ‘aesthetic of the ecstatic.’ And it’s why some of the colors pulse and saturate, I think with the pulsing and saturation of Tish and Fonny’s love.”
It was something Laxton was constantly aware of, always looking for ways to create images that reference the feel of classical cinematic history. One of his favorites being when Tish and Fonny walk out of the restaurant on an early date – the camera pushing behind them as they walk, beautifully backlit, into a rainy New York City night – that has the feel of 1940s studio film.
“[It’s in] association with those classic romantic films of the ‘40s and puts these two young African-American people in that moment,” said Laxton. “That convergence of history, or what was happening with race relations in the 1970s, mixing that with classical Hollywood of the ’40s is a powerful statement, a powerful message and a powerful image. When I see it, and I hope when audiences see it, there’s a real sense of strength or how powerful love can be.”
And yet, almost paradoxically, there is a realism in Laxton and Jenkins’ images. “Beale Street” is visually grounded in Baldwin’s Harlem, part of which comes from shooting in Harlem locations as much as possible.
“We found ourselves looking at a lot of still photography of the period, the work of Roy Decarava, Gordon Parks, anybody who had been in Harlem and was really documenting the spaces and places,” said Jenkins. “There’s [a scene] where the camera pans over to the left and there’s these kids jumping up and down on like a burned out car, a rusted car, that’s taken directly from visual research, because there were all these vacant lots in Harlem and the kids would basically, through ingenuity, fashion them into playgrounds: ‘The city isn’t going to come uptown to tow that car, great, we’ll just jump on the hood, it’s really bouncy.’”
As the “Beale Street” team surrounded themselves with these photographs, wallpapering their production offices with their favorites for inspiration, Laxton became increasingly obsessed with the texture, feel and color rendition of the era’s photography. He turned to his “Moonlight” colorist Alex Bickel to research what still film stocks had been used and how they could emulate certain qualities of them in “Beale Street.”
“Both Ektachrome and Provia were popular at the time,” said Bickel. “I think we all responded positively to Provia’s somewhat unsettling color palette. Images shot with Provia film take on a slightly unexpected, unsettling sensibility. There is an integral metallic feeling across cooler hues, and highlights tend to bloom and run away from you.”
Laxton, Jenkins and Bickel loved the idea that these qualities would be instantly recognizable of the era, without having to fade or make the image feel like a vintage memory. The aesthetic of the film mandated rich skin tones, so the one concern was whatever LUT Bickel created would need to respond well to a wide variety of tones.
“As part of the development process, I took my old 35mm SLR, loaded it up with some Provia film, went to Madison Square Park and took portraits of a diverse cross section of New Yorkers who were generous enough to sit and allow me to take their photograph,” said Bickel. “These images, along with color test charts also shot on Provia still film, formed the basis by which our color scientist defined the lookup table [LUT]. The end result is an Arri Alexa 65 camera that very much feels like it’s shooting Provia reversal film.”
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Laxton also studied the photography in an effort to emulate the unique way sunlight falls in Harlem.
“If this movie took place in Los Angeles or Ohio, it would be very different choices,” said Laxton. “For us, it was important to try to make sure we were being true to how light works in New York and this is a very unique place obviously for how light plays.”
Laxton points to his lighting design for Fonny’s garden studio/apartment, which is partially subterranean in front and opens in back, to highlight how lighting was used to make the film feel realistic. And yet within that lighting design of Fonny’s apartment, Laxton demonstrated what an expressionistic brush stroke he used to give “Beale Street” so much of its power. The smoky tungsten warmth of the couple’s love. The incredibly sensitive, almost lingering camera movement that captures a suspended-in-time feeling that Tish is experiencing as she makes love for the first time. The heightened reality of light blazing down on Fonny as he dreams of practicing the art that has been taken from him in jail. The almost Malick-like light seeping in from the windows as their child, and hope, is born.
It’s for this reason it was surprising to see Laxton and “Beale Street” missing from the American Society of Cinematographers’ list of the five best shot feature films of 2018. A mistake we hope the cinematographers in the Academy don’t repeat in nominating films for the Best Cinematography Oscar.