Making 'Moonlight': Festival fave's director on shooting his tough, tender film

Barry Jenkins can go home again.

Over the years, the Los Angeles filmmaker has returned repeatedly to Liberty City, the predominantly black Miami neighborhood where he grew up.

But going home to see friends and family is one thing. Going home to shoot a movie on the blocks where he once roamed as a kid, sometimes running into his mother, to tell the semiautobiographical story of a boy growing up in 1980s Liberty City . . . that was something else.

"It was cathartic, and I mean that both emotionally and artistically," says the director, talking about making Moonlight - his extraordinarily tough, tender coming-of-age tale. Fresh from a Centerpiece screening at the Philadelphia Film Festival, and from ecstatically received debuts at the Telluride and Toronto fests, Jenkins' three-part film opens Nov. 4 at the Ritz East.

Adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney's play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film stars newcomer Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes all as Chiron, the storm-tossed protagonist - in grade school, as a teen, and as a man, respectively. Mahershala Ali (Remy Danton in House of Cards) and Naomie Harris (Miss Moneypenny in the Daniel Craig 007 series) also star.

"I didn't get into filmmaking before I left Miami," Jenkins said last week by phone as he was traveling the East Coast. "It wasn't until I had gone off to college [Florida State University, Tallahassee].

"So my art, my filmmaking voice, has been separate from my personal story. And going back home to make this film, it brought those two things colliding together for the first time.

"It was strange to be walking these places, and to be there as deeply embedded as I was," he added. "People just wanted to make sure that we weren't there to exploit the neighborhood. I had to demonstrate, to assure, that I am from this place, that I'm here to dig deep and really tell the story of my life here."

Moonlight is and isn't the story of Jenkins' life. Like Chiron's mother in the film, Jenkins' mother was an addict. Like Chiron's father in the film, Jenkins' father was nowhere to be seen. But it is McCraney, the Miami-born and -raised playwright, whose sexuality is reflected in Chiron. In a strikingly poignant, surprising, pivotal scene, the teenage Chiron has sex with another boy, a classmate. On the beach, in the moonlight.

"The movie is not fully autobiographical, for either myself or Tarell," said Jenkins, who turns 37 next month. "And I would say that it's more autobiographical for Tarell than it is for me. And yet, I went through the same things that this character Chiron goes through with his mother, with the character of Paula.

"And so by far the most difficult thing for me to do was the work that we did with Naomie Harris. . . . The catharsis of watching Naomie Harris essentially inhabit this composite of my mom and Tarell's mom, it was like live therapy."

The British actress, who shot all of her Moonlight scenes in just a week's visit to Miami, delivers a crushing portrait of a hospital aide and single mom turned desperate junkie. Jenkins was in awe of what she accomplished.

"To be honest, because Naomie has said this in interviews, she had her own judgment about the character, and an ambivalence about taking on the role," Jenkins said. "Naomie is a teetotaler. She doesn't drink, she doesn't smoke, she doesn't even drink coffee. She barely even drinks tea, and she's English.

"So I think there was so much thoughtfulness and work that went into building the character, that could become caricature in the wrong hands, but I was never really worried about that. . . . I love what Naomie did, because she's not working from a place of personal experience: 'Oh, I know what it's like to be drunk, to be high.' Not that.

"She's completely building this character through empathy, through instinct, through skill."

Empathy, Jenkins says, is also what gives him - a straight man - the license to tell a gay man's story. And he says it's the same question that inevitably arises when a white filmmaker, say, wants to tell the story of a black man.

"We've seen artists try to make films about 'others,' without being 'others' themselves, working purely with empathy and lacking that first-person perspective," Jenkins said. "And it's honorable and maybe interesting, even if they don't fully succeed.

"And, right, I'm a straight guy, making a film about a gay character. And yet, I felt like since the source material originates with Tarell - an openly gay black playwright, where his sexuality is a key component of his work - by being respectful of that and by preserving his voice, I felt like I could wed that with my active empathy. I felt like an ally, like I could get to a place where I could take authorship of the material. . . .

"At the same time, I couldn't have made this film without Tarell's voice. It had to originate with him. And because it did, we end up in a place where people see this film and it feels true. At least, that's been the reaction of audiences that I've seen the film with.

"And it's the thing that I'm the most proud of."

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