Barry Jenkins Gives Cinematic Voice To "If Beale Street Could Talk"
Barry Jenkins (center) directs Stephan James (l) and KiKi Layne in "If Beale Street Could Talk" (photo by Tatum Mangus/courtesy of Annapurna Pictures)
Production designer insights into "Black Panther," "First Man"
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If Beale Street Could Talk (Annapurna Pictures) marks the first English-language feature based on the work of revered novelist James Baldwin. Doing justice to Baldwin was the prime challenge posed to Barry Jenkins, who not only directed and served as a producer on the film but also wrote the adapted screenplay.

On the latter score, Jenkins shared, “The way James Baldwin structures prose, the way he reveals story is quite complicated. It’s not something that’s easily translatable to the screen. Finding a way to frame the story in a cinematic medium is so very different than literature, especially in the way James Baldwin commands literature, bringing an evocative, almost ethereal feel.”

Furthermore the novel “If Beale Street Could Talk” was written from a woman’s point of view, a departure for Baldwin. “He had written so many things from the perspective of a man, perhaps he was looking for a new challenge,” conjectured Jenkins. “And for me as a director coming off of a previous film with such a male point of view (Best Picture Oscar winner Moonlight) also presented an interesting challenge for me.”

Clearly Jenkins was up to the daunting challenges posed by If Beale Street Could Talk as reflected in early awards season returns which include his recently winning the National Board of Review honor for Best Adapted Screenplay, and earning Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award nominations for Best Screenplay,  Additionally, If Beale Street Could Talk garnered Film Independent Spirit Award noms for Best Feature and Best Director, as well as Gotham Award nods for Best Feature and the Audience Award.

Set in early 1970s’ Harlem, If Beale Street Could Talk is a love story at its core--between 19-year-old Tish Rivers (portrayed by KiKi Layne) and her friend since childhood, her artist fiancé Alonzo Hunt, a.k.a. Fonny (Stephan James). The devoted couple dreams of a bright future together but their plans are derailed when Fonny is arrested for a crime he didn’t commit.

Jenkins said that key to his becoming an effective “agent of empathy” in telling the story was to be honest about where his experience ended and others who were more qualified began. To reflect the woman’s POV, he thus turned to his actresses (including Layne and Regina King who portrays Tish's mom, Sharon) and female filmmaking colleagues (including Joi McMillon, ACE who edited the film in tandem with Nat Sanders, and costume designer Caroline Eselin-Schaefer). “Their proximity to who Tish was is much closer than mine,” explained Jenkins. “I had to check my directorial ego at the door to capture a viewpoint that I didn’t understand as well based on my experience. I had to become a listener and hear from my colleagues about what Tish felt.”

Jenkins has deep collaborative roots with several of those colleagues. He first met Sanders and McMillon, for example, when they were all students at Florida State University Film School. Sanders edited Jenkins’ first feature, Medicine for Melancholy, while McMillon cut a short film, Chlorophyl, as well as several commercials directed by Jenkins over the years. Moonlight became McMillon’s first feature film credit. For her work on Moonlight, McMillon became the first female African American editor ever to land an Academy Award nomination.

Additionally, Eselin-Schaefer served as costume designer on Moonlight. And cinematographer James Laxton was Jenkins’ college roommate for a year. In fact, Laxton lensed Jenkins’ last two student films and went on to do the same for all his features--Medicine for Melancholy for which the DP earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Cinematography, followed by Moonlight, which garnered him Oscar and ASC Award nods, and now If Beale Street Could Talk.

“There’s a luxury in knowing people you work with so well,” observed Jenkins. “You shouldn’t be afraid to fail. But you never know how people will react to failure and setbacks unless you know them. With this group, you can feel free to encourage risk and adventure--experiences that we can learn and grow from.”

At the same time, Jenkins was open to working with talent for the first time, a prime example being production designer Mark Friedberg. “I’m not a New Yorker,” related Jenkins. “James Laxton, none of us are New Yorkers. I wanted someone steeped in New York’s history. Mark is a walking encyclopedia on New York. He brought a high level of intelligence and passion to the project. He captured the essence of place, like the rundown flat Fonny was living in.”

Friedberg’s credits span such directors as Ava DuVernay (Selma), Ang Lee (Billy’s Long Halftime Walk), Darren Aronofsky (Noah), Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou) and Todd Haynes (Far From Heaven, Wonderstruck and the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce).

While that authenticity was embraced by Jenkins, he wanted to strike a delicate balance relative to the period film nature of If Beale Street Could Talk. Being true to the 1970s was important but at the same time he aspired to attain a contemporary feel. “For us,” said Jenkins, “it was about capturing the energy of the story. The movie has to exist in a contemporary context since so much of it is still relevant today. This is Tish’s film. How did she feel is how the movie looks.”

DP Laxton earlier told SHOOT, “We all felt the responsibility of doing justice to James Baldwin’s work. All of us took great care in preserving the novel. Yet while it was a period piece, we didn’t want it to feel too much like a film from the 1970s because we were dealing with contemporary issues such as race relations in America. So we wanted to touch upon the era while being able to look at this film through a more modern prism. That way it would stay relatable to a modern audience.”

Hannah Beachler
Jenkins’ production designer on Moonlight was Hannah Beachler. Now she’s in the Oscar conversation for her work on director/writer Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (Marvel Studios/Disney). The box office hit marked an ongoing collaboration with Coogler as Beachler earlier contributed her talents to his Fruitvale Station and Creed.

Beachler’s production design on Black Panther has won Best Production Design honors recently from the Los Angeles and San Francisco Film Critics, and a Critics’ Choice Award nomination. Last year her efforts on Beyonce: Lemonade--in tandem with art director Chris Britt and set decorator Kimberly Murphy--won an Excellence in Production Design Award from the Art Directors Guild.

Among the prime challenges Beachler encountered on Black Panther was “pulling it off not using so much CGI.” While a prevalent assumption was that CG would play an integral role in creating the ambitious environments for the film, the reality is that some 90 percent of the sets were not CGI. Beachler was directly involved in creating almost all the sets, with a number of them taking months to construct. Among the some 185 sets was the rainforest in Nigeria, with truckloads of dirt and tropical vegetation dropped into place. This creation of a rainforest--set construction combined with effects--underscored Coogler and Beachler’s philosophy as to how to best set the tone, mood and feel for Black Panther. “Ryan and I really wanted the visual effects to act as an extension of the background and not the foreground,” explained Beachler. “Creating sets practically make you feel not like you’re on a different planet but a different place, a different mindset and world.”

Beachler credited the members of her team including a best-in-class ensemble of talent such as supervising art director Alan Hook and art directors Jason T. Clark, Joseph Hiura, Helena Holmes, Alex McCarroll, Jay Pelissler and Jesse Rosenthal, as well as set decorator Jay Hart. Black Panther marked Beachler’s first time working with these artisans, except for Rosenthal whom she had connected with on Creed. “It’s a team that stood by Ryan and me, that believed in what we were trying to do,” assessed Beachler.

That belief permeated the production, according to Beachler who attributed this united front to Coogler. “Ryan took us on this journey which couldn’t have been done with anybody else. The first day on the set he gathered the crew, PAs, grips, electric, catering, everyone, telling us what this story meant to him, what it meant to the characters. He’d talk to everyone for 10 to 15 minutes before getting each day going so we all understood our goals, the purpose behind us being there. He creates a positive emotional experience. He also knows how to bring fun to the set. You need to create that kind of rich experience if you’re asking people to commit a year of their life to a film.”

For Beachler, that commitment also carried historical weight of which she was keenly aware. “Marvel up to that point had not had a female production designer on a film. I would be the first to break that barrier. That was on my mind, to do something that would open the door for others, to show that a woman can do a superhero film. Ryan’s film was very female driven, with strong female characters. It was the right film to usher in a female designer in a sense. I felt the responsibility of being a female African American designer and the opportunities that could be created for others.”

Beachler prepared extensively to get the gig, creating among other elements a giant book of some 500 pages replete with illustrations of and background on the Kingdom of Wakanda. She made a 45-minute presentation to the powers that be, including Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios. She recalled Feige not looking up and engaging her during that meeting, his eyes focused on the contents of the book. At the conclusion of her 45-minute talk, Beachler noted that Feige said, “This is the best presentation I’ve ever seen” and then went back to looking through the book. She got a call the next day and was hired.

Nathan Crowley
Production designer Nathan Crowley’s filmography includes four Academy Award nominations and an Emmy nod. All four Oscar noms were for Christopher Nolan-directed features: The Prestige, The Dark Knight, Interstellar and Dunkirk. The Emmy nomination was for “The Original” episode of Westworld, helmed by Jonathan Nolan.

Now Crowley again finds himself in awards season speculation on the strength of First Man (Universal Pictures), his first collaboration with director Damien Chazelle.

Based on the book by James R. Hansen, First Man chronicles the multi-faceted backstory of the first manned mission to the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong and the decade leading to the historic Apollo 11 flight. A visceral and intimate account told from Armstrong’s perspective, the film explores the triumphs and the cost--on Armstrong, his family, his colleagues and the nation itself—of one of the most dangerous missions in history.

Crowley first met Chazelle at The Carlyle in New York when the director was in the midst of a press tour to promote La La Land. “He told me he wanted to make this film First Man next,” recalled Crowley. “To tell Neil Armstrong’s story drew me in as did the many challenges it presented. The minute he said he wanted to do it in camera, that he wasn’t interested in putting up a green screen, I said, ‘If you want me, I’m in.’”

In the big picture, Crowley observed, “The main challenge for a designer is how to put the audience in the journey. My job is to go unnoticed, to not cause the audience to be distracted. I need to make the believability of each scene true and an immersive experience. You do that in part by giving the editor (Tom Cross, ACE) and DP (Linus Sandgren, FSF) enough different objects, scales and material so that they have the freedom to find something great--whether it be in Armstrong’s residential neighborhood as a period piece or the epic moon landing. 

“This was also a great learning experience,” continued Crowley. “For the first time I had the chance to make miniatures using 3D printers. We used a mix of new technology and old techniques.”

Much of that education was rooted in the two-way dynamic between Crowley and Chazelle. “He was interested in everything I had done and how I did it,” related Crowley. “We talked, compared notes and searched for this film. It was a great working relationship. A designer has to  spend days in plans with the director. You have to become friends. There’s no other way to do it. You spend all this pre-pro time together. You need him filling my brain with what’s in his brain. You need him to be around. Damien’s knowledge of film is immense. His cinematic references are fascinating. We went on this journey together and I hope we can do it again. He’s the real thing.”

This is the seventh of a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards gala ceremony. Nominations for the 91st Academy Awards will be announced on Tuesday, January 22, 2019. The 91st Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 24, 2019, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, Calif.,and will be televised live on the ABC Television Network.  The Oscars also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

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