Monday, November 20, 2017
  • Friday, Dec. 16, 2016
Oscar Season Insights From Directors Jenkins, Scorsese, Larrain, DPs Young, Sandgren
"Moonlight" writer-director Barry Jenkins (photo courtesy of A24 Films)
Perspectives on "Moonlight," "Silence," "Jackie," "Neruda," "Arrival," "La La Land"

Before his first feature, the well-received Medicine for Melancholy, director Barry Jenkins made an early mark as a filmmaker with a 2013 short titled Chlorophyl, an evocation of his native Miami emphasizing changes wrought through urban renewal. The film premiered at the local Borscht Film Festival. 

Now fast forward to his second feature—the recently released Moonlight (A24 Films)—and we find that Jenkins has returned to his Miami roots.

Moonlight is a coming of age story that centers on Chiron whom we follow through three distinct chapters in his life—as a boy (portrayed by Alex Hibbert), a teen (Ashton Sanders) and then a young man (Trevante Rhodes). Growing up in the perilous Liberty Square neighborhood of Miami, the vulnerable, quiet Chiron copes as best he can with a harsh reality which includes a drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and kids who mercilessly bully him. However, Chiron finds camaraderie and intimacy in a childhood friend, Kevin, played at different ages by Jaden Piner as a lad, Jharrel Jerome as a teen and Andre Holland as a young adult.

Just as Chiron and Kevin form a special bond, so too do director Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney enjoy a special connection. Jenkins adapted Moonlight from a never produced story by McCraney titled “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” Jenkins and McCraney did not know each other in childhood and through their teen years like Chiron and Kevin. However, in real life Jenkins and McCraney grew up in Liberty Square, attended the same elementary and middle schools around the same time and both went on to become artists. 

While Jenkins is straight and McCraney is gay, the two African-Americans have a familial parallel as each had a mother who struggled with drug addiction. Jenkins’ mom survived her battle and has remained HIV positive for 24 years while McCraney’s mother passed away from AIDS. Jenkins told SHOOT that Naomie Harris’ character is a composite of his and McCraney’s mothers. 

This coming together to form a flawed yet ultimately repentant maternal figure has its own backstory. McCraney first submitted the short work “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” to the aforementioned Borscht Film Fest which is dedicated to showcasing works by regional artists forging the cinematic identity of Miami through stories that “go beyond the typical portrayal of a beautiful but vapid party town.” Heading off to London for a writing residency with the Royal Shakespeare Company, McCraney all but forgot about the piece. 

Fortuitously “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” resurfaced as producer Adele Romanski, a friend of Jenkins since college, was sifting through prospective projects for the director after his successful Medicine for Melancholy. McCraney’s story of his own youth in Miami came to Jenkins and Romanski through a Borscht collective member. Romanski and Jenkins gravitated towards the piece. Jenkins empathized with McCraney’s work, noting that adapting the screenplay “was one of the most fluid processes I had experienced. Tarell did a great job of capturing growing up in the housing projects of Miami. He put energy and vibrancy in the source material. My job was to not fuck it up and extend it in an organic way to the screen that was true to his voice.”

Bringing that story to the screen entailed Jenkins calling on a mix of artisans ranging from ongoing to first-time collaborators. Among the former were DP James Laxton (Romanski’s husband) who shot Chlorophyl and Medicine for Melancholy, and editors Nat Sanders and Joi McMillion. Sanders cut Medicine for Melancholy. McMillion cut Chlorophyl. Jenkins went to Florida State University Film School with Laxton, Sanders and McMillion. “We all share a language,” related Jenkins. “For example, James shot my work at film school. It was great to work with a cinematographer whom I know so well and go back with a ways because this was a movie which had me going back home to make a film about this place I know very well—and that James has a distinct sense of. This made it easier for us to find the right visual way to express myself and tell the story.”

At the same time, Jenkins reached out to a first-time collaborator, production designer Hannah Beachler, to help realize his Moonlight vision. “I’m friends with [director] Ryan Coogler who worked with Hannah on Creed and Fruitvale Station,” related Jenkins. “So she knew both sides—a bigger budgeted movie as well as working within the confines of a more modestly budgeted picture. She did not bring a small-budget aesthetic to Moonlight even though it had a much smaller budget than Creed. Her creative attention to detail is amazing. For example, the last five minutes of Moonlight have the two main characters [Chiron and Kevin] talking in the kitchen. That conversation was supposed to take place in the living room. But Hannah had done such a thorough job of designing that apartment to the point where the kitchen space turned out to be ideal. The kitchen was supposed to be a tight space with a stove and a pot sitting atop it—nothing more than that. But she did so much with that space that it just felt right for their conversation to take place there.”

Getting that “right” feeling was a constant pursuit for Jenkins on Moonlight who said a prime challenge was working with different actors playing the protagonists at different stages of their lives. “We made the film in 25 days with three different actors on both sides—one portraying Chiron as a child, another as a teen and then a young adult, and three doing the same for Kevin. Jenkins said he was striving “to attain consistency of performance across the board yet to make each actor distinct. Working with James [Laxton], we had to trust our actors, trust in our training and the process.”

Martin Scorsese
Nominated eight times for the Best Director Oscar—and winning in 2007 for The Departed—Martin Scorsese has for most of that stretch of excellence spanning several decades harbored a passion project which faced varied financial, legal and logistical obstacles. It began in 1989 when he read Silence, a 1966 novel by Shūsaku Endō. The story of religious faith and somehow maintaining it in the face of unthinkable violence struck a responsive chord for Scorsese, taking him on an off and on-again journey which finally yielded a motion picture which will be released later this month in the U.S. Paramount Pictures’ Silence is a historical drama set in the 17th century, centered on two Portuguese Jesuit priests (portrayed by Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) who face peril and persecution when they surreptitiously travel to Japan to locate their mentor (Liam Neeson) who is rumored to have renounced his religion after being tortured. In remote Japanese villages, Garfield and Driver tend to the religious needs of devout Christians who practice their religion in secrecy for fear of government retribution.

After a preview screening of the film in Westwood, Calif., Scorsese discussed the film, accompanied by several of his collaborators. Once he read Endō’s novel, Scorsese recalled thinking that if he could “express how the book made me feel” through a movie, it would not only be a worthwhile artistic endeavor but also “a religious act” for him personally.

Scorsese and Jay Cocks ultimately teamed on a screenplay. But getting to that point was a struggle for Scorsese as he grappled with his changing views of faith and religion over the decades, feeling at times that he was about to “grab” the gist of the story only to fall back and find translating it into a movie to be quite “elusive.” 

At times, even if he were to attain a script that worked for him, Scorsese thought it would be virtually impossible to get Silence made—that is until venerable producer Irwin Winkler visited him on the set of Hugo. Winkler, who was also on stage in Westwood with Scorsese after the Silence screening, recollected asking Scorsese during the Hugo shoot what ever happened to that project that had long been gestating. This led to Winkler coming aboard to help bring Silence to fruition, navigating legal and other entanglements to help Scorsese realize his vision.

Among others on stage with Messrs Scorsese and Winkler was Garfield. Silence marked Garfield’s first time working with Scorsese. He described the director as having “divine confidence” in his vision tempered by “doubts” which keep him open to “allowing moments to happen.” Through all of this, Garfield said of Scorsese, “When he has caught lightning, he knows it.” Garfield added that the director wants his actors at their most “wild,” “unconscious” and “uncomfortable.” Garfield affirmed that collaborating with Scorsese was “the greatest experience I’ve had as an actor.”

Pablo Larrain
For filmmaker Pablo Larrain, the Oscar conversation is in stereo. Not only has his Jackie (Fox Searchlight) starring Natalie Portman as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy garnered acclaim but so too has Neruda (U.S. distribution being handled by The Orchard) in which Luis Gnecco portrays Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Neruda was selected as Chile’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar consideration.

Jackie marks the first English-language film for Chilean director Larrain. To entrust him with the story of the iconic First Lady as she copes with her husband’s assassination and struggles to regain her faith, console her children and help define President JFK’s historic legacy would seem a leap of faith to say the least. However, it wasn’t such a leap for acclaimed filmmaker Darren Aronofsky who served as a producer on Jackie. Aronofsky was president of the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival jury which bestowed the Silver Berlin Bear upon Larrain’s The Club.

“I met Darren at an after party in Berlin,” recalled Larrain. “He said, ‘why don’t we work together?’ I thought it was just party talk. A week later he sent me the script for Jackie.

Larrain noted that Aronofsky was “very generous to me” and seemed to think having someone not American directing this movie could prove advantageous, bringing a fresh outsider perspective to Jacqueline Kennedy’s story. “I had a superficial idea of who Jackie Kennedy was—someone who defined and was concerned about style and fashion. But in researching and digging deeper into who she was, I found this sophisticated, educated, brilliant person who had a great instinctive nose in terms of her political sensibilities. There are very few people who have even half of her brilliance. While there are tons of biographies about her, she is one of the most unknown of the known people in the 20th century. I wanted to do justice to her—and that was the biggest challenge. People think my biggest challenge was to make a movie in English. But in fact the biggest challenge was to make a movie about a woman. I had dealt with male subjects all my life. I had to capture her sensibilities and I found her story to be mostly about a mother, a woman who put grief on her back and pushed through it.”

Integral to telling Jackie’s story was casting Portman in the role, and changing the original orientation of the film. On the former score, Larrain simply related that he would direct the film only if Portman portrayed the First Lady. Aronofsky called Portman, whom he directed in her Best Actress Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan, and helped to secure her for Jackie.

Regarding a shift in orientation, Larrain said he suggested to writer Noah Oppenheim that the perspective of certain scenes change so that “almost every shot is seen through Jackie’s eyes.” Larrain also found that when he was shooting medium and wide scenes, he kind of naturally wound up coming in closer and closer to Portman. “There’s a mystery about Jackie. We want to know what’s going on inside her. Those eyes are the doors to the unknown. I felt we needed to be very close on her with the camera and the more we did that, the cinema started to work. We got really, really close to Natalie and she was not intimidated. We had an incredible DP [Stéphane Fontaine] who was great at putting the camera on his shoulder and ‘dancing’ with her.”

Larrain also had the comfort factor of working with two trusted collaborators with whom he had a long track record—his brother, Juan de Dios Larraín who was a producer on Jackie (and all of the director’s films), and editor Sebastian Sepulveda. Larrain credited Sepulveda with the idea that they cut based on the emotional chords struck by Portman. Her performance became the backbone of the edit, especially facial expressions.

Larrain’s research led to another key element as he found online the famed televised White House tour conducted by the First Lady. Larrain encouraged Oppenheim to add the tour to the story. For Jackie, the White House tour was recreated shot for shot and even married with some of the original TV footage. The tour dovetailed with the aftermath of JFK’s assassination. Just as she revamped and showcased the White House to restore its history for the American people, so too did she later make a concerted effort to ensure that JFK’s legacy would burn bright, a “Camelot” for all to remember.

As he did with Jackie, Larrain thought outside the biopic box for Neruda. While he had to get up to speed on Jacqueline Kennedy, Larrain was all too familiar with Pablo Neruda. “He was a diplomat, a collector, a woman lover, a politician, a poet, a communist leader, almost president of Chile and one of the biggest writers in our country,” said Larrain of Neruda. “He was an elusive, incredible, ungrabbable cosmic guy. We couldn’t do a conventional biopic about him. We worked more with his cosmos and spirit for this film.”

Neruda thus is a lyrical, at times whimsical mesh of fact and fiction that takes the form of a detective story/thriller caper set in the late 1940s with a police commissioner (Gael Garcia Bernal) in pursuit of Neruda who is in hiding from a dictatorial government looking to capture and make an example of him. In some respects, observed Larrain, Neruda is more ‘a Nerudian story or novel that he might have written or at least enjoyed” and less a chronicle of his life. But by going this unconventional route, Larrain looks to convey the essence of Neruda, showing his artistry, his courage, his foibles, his sense of farce, love of the absurd, and commitment to social justice. Larrain looked to translate Neruda’s poetry into cinematic expression, making a movie that is both narrative and surreal.

Bradford Young, ASC
The cinematography of Bradford Young, ASC, on director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (Paramount Pictures) has already received awards season recognition, winning the Silver Frog at this year’s Camerimage.

Based on “Story of Your Life,” a short story by Ted Chiang, Arrival depicts alien beings who bring spacecrafts to Earth, hovering slightly above terra firma at sites throughout the globe. A team is assembled—which includes linguist Louise Banks (portrayed by Amy Adams), mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker)—to investigate and communicate with the other worldly lifeforms. Is their visit to our planet a prelude to a global/galactic war? Or does it signal an opportunity for peace and unprecedented scientific and societal progress based on technologies and knowledge from a civilization more advanced than ours?

Arrival is a multi-faceted, intelligent, emotional form of science-fiction that touches the heart and mind, departing from the Hollywood norm in depicting alien lifeforms and telling otherworldly stories. Drawing Young to Arrival were Villeneuve and the story. “I’m a big fan of Denis,” affirmed Young. “I’ve studied his work and technique. I almost didn’t care what the material was as long as I got to work with him. But the material also spoke to me in a real personal way. I’m a brand new father. And the question of mortality around your children [as experienced by Amy Adam’s character] seems unimaginable yet resonated and crystallized with me in a really deep way. To go on a journey with an artist you admire while telling a story you feel a connection to represented the perfect combination.”

The humanity in Arrival was attained in part thanks to the humanity of Young’s dealings with Villeneuve. “A lot of our preparation was my being able to break bread at Denis’ table, to get to know him. We clicked instantly. It was necessary for this story for us not to be just technicians. We had to be people, human beings telling a human journey, relating it to fathers and parents. Our process was steeped in brotherhood. From that deep personal place, we were able to put our arms around the material.”

As for the creative challenges that Arrival posed to him as a cinematographer, Young shared, “This was my first visual effects film. I hadn’t done much of that work except for some basic bluescreen from time to time. So for Arrival I had to extend my imagination beyond what was in front of me—which is a muscle I hadn’t worked a lot prior to this film. My experience had been about grounding images and what’s happening right in front of the camera, and then responding to that. I had to incorporate the visual effects in my mind to help create the visual landscape that Denis and I envisioned.”

Young shot Arrival digitally, deploying the Alexa XT, and for flash forward sequences the Alexa M camera. “Denis enjoyed shooting digital earlier with Roger [Deakins, ASC, BSC, on Sicario] and he likes the idea of seeing what he’s getting,” related Young. “It was our first visual effects movie of this scale and having that element of control means one less mystery out of a list of mysteries. You don’t have to stress at night about the dailies. We saw what we got, and that we could achieve the intimacy we wanted by shooting digitally.”

Arrival adds to a Young filmography which includes director Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which earned him an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Cinematography, the Dee Rees-helmed Pariah which won the Best Dramatic Cinematography Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2011, and filmmaker David Lowery’s Ain’t Them Body Saints and director Andrew Dosunmu’s Mother of George which tied for the Sundance Drama Cinematography Award in 2013.

Linus Sandgren
Recently earning Cinematographer of the Year distinction at the Hollywood Film Awards for his lensing of La La Land (Lionsgate), DP Linus Sandgren recalled that his work for director David O. Russell, including American Hustle and Joy, helped him land the movie musical gig. “I got a call from Damien Chazelle about La La Land,” related Sandgren. “He was interested in me from watching American Hustle and being drawn to its camera movement and style. We met and I showed him pictures from Joy which I had just finished. In our discussion, we found that we had similar situations—foreigners moving to L.A.—and that we shared similar sensibilities. I loved Damien’s work on Whiplash. For me he was a very interesting director to meet and talk with. He’s an inspiring person and knows where he wants to take a film—I find that to be the case especially when you work with directors who have written the script. I was inspired by his vision for La La Land. He played music for me. It was melancholy which surprised me for a musical, made me even more interested. What was supposed to be an hour meeting lasted at least two hours. I left with a real understanding of what he was after and it laid the foundation for a common friendship.”

La La Land tells the story of Mia (portrayed by Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a dedicated jazz musician, who are struggling to make ends meet in a city known for crushing hopes and breaking hearts. Set in modern-day Los Angeles, this original musical about everyday life explores the joy and pain of pursuing your dreams.

The movie is the latest music chapter in Chazelle’s career. His debut, Guy And Madeline On A Park Bench (2009), was a loving ode to the city of New York, and to being young and in love; and then his feature Whiplash (2014) offered an intense take on a young drummer’s self-destructively ambitious pursuit of music-making. Whiplash garnered Chazelle a Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination in 2015.

Chazelle’s vision as writer/director for La La Land “was very ambitious in terms of the musical numbers,” said Sandgren. “He wanted long single unbroken takes—continuous action without cutting. He didn’t want any coverage. He was so sure that the single take was the only way to do it. The reason behind it was to give the audience a sense of being in the moment of a given sequence. It helps the viewer to feel that he or she is another character actually present in the scene. In the old days there were musicals with those unbroken takes but the camera moves were simple back then. Now with more modern equipment like cranes and Steadicam-like breakthroughs, we could be far more three-dimensional in our approach. Adding to the challenge was Damien wanting a lot of those scenes in magic hour, meaning we had to work within a very small time frame.”

Chazelle and Sandgren opted to shoot La La Land on film in Cinemascope. “For Damien that is the most Hollywood epic sort of classic format,” explained Sandgren. “It was akin to A Star is Born or one of those kinds of 1950s’ movies—as well as musicals back in the day. He didn’t want to cheat. The work should be like it was back in the day when you crafted a film without cheating by fixing things in postproduction. We could have shot certain scenes using green screen but didn’t—only did so in one scene because the actors were floating in space. Otherwise it was all in camera.”

Sandgren said that he and Chazelle developed a healthy give and take. “We live three blocks from each other,” said Sandgren. “Every morning in prep we met at his house for three hours. We went over every scene, came up with how to shoot everything in combination with scouting and rehearsals for the dancing. He already had strong ideas for how the camera was to move during musical numbers—which we had to adjust for locations and camera technicalities that I knew about. The production was set up so we had all the departments including dance, choreography, the art department, et cetera, on the same lot. You could walk back and forth between everything—in addition to Damien and I being able to readily get together to figure things out.”

Lighting was deployed to heighten the emotional feel of select scenes. “When Ryan plays the piano, for instance, in this film about dreamers, we enhance that by adopting something more along the lines of stage lighting, helping the audience to better connect with the character,” explained Sandgren. “We used a mix of theatrical and stage lighting. There was almost an emotional connection with the light. The cinematography had to interact almost more like a character, being emotional and not just an observer. That was one of my big takeaways from this film—not just being a camera that observes but one that is more involved.”

This is the sixth 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 SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards. The Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 26, 2017, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live by the ABC Television Network. The Oscar presentation also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.