- Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016
James Laxton first met Barry Jenkins at Florida State University film school. “I shot Barry’s last two student films,” recalled Laxton. “We just got along. Our friendship dates back to 2001 or so. There’s a lot of trust in our relationship.”
That trust extended to their professional careers as Laxton lensed writer-director Jenkins’ first feature, Medicine For Melancholy, a movie which earned Laxton an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Cinematography.
The two friends have most recently again come together for Moonlight (A24), an acclaimed feature which is prominent in the Oscar conversation, having made its mark on the festival circuit, a tour which included its debut at Telluride and then turns at the Toronto and New York film festivals.
Moonlight follows a boy named Chiron whom we see struggle to find himself across three defining chapters in his life--as a lad (portrayed by Alex Hibbert), a teen (Ashton Sanders) and then a young man (Trevante Rhodes). The authenticity and vulnerability of Chiron’s character has resonated with audiences and earned praise from critics. We see Chiron having to deal with a harsh reality which includes a drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) and kids who mercilessly bully him. Through happenstance, Chiron finds refuge in the home of a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend (Janelle Monae). Our protagonist also 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.
For Laxton, the lensing of Moonlight entailed maintaining a delicate balance--an intimate story to which he and Jenkins wanted to bring a larger scope. Laxton deployed an Arri Alexa camera and shot in anamorphic to create what he described as “a widescreen image that is often associated with large tentpole films. But we wanted to apply this anamorphic quality to a nuanced story. Our intent was to elevate the scope of the film while still telling an emotional, personal coming-of-age story.
Attaining that balance of a grounded story that is at the same time visually heightened was a challenge defined and addressed in conversations between Laxton and Jenkins early on in the process. “We are friends and tend to have conversations about what a film should feel like visually way before we even formally start on a project,” said Laxton. “When we started actual pre-pro, the look of this film was already realized in our minds, coming from our sharing images with one another. We had very simple discussions up front as to what we wanted Moonlight to look like. By the time we got to Miami to shoot, we had already made key choices so we could become much more nuanced at that point, working on fine details.”
Jenkins adapted Moonlight from a never produced story by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.”Much of Moonlight was shot in the Liberty Square neighborhood of Miami, which is frequently cited as among the most dangerous places in the U.S. Both Jenkins and McCraney both grew up in Liberty Square though they didn’t know each other at that time.
While it’s a depressed area, Liberty Square is full of vibrant colors and inspired backdrops, reflecting different cultures and influences. This too is part of what Laxton and Jenkins wanted to capture, Miami’s unique blend of light and color.
For Laxton, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area before moving to Florida to attend college, filming in and around Liberty Square was creatively and personally inspiring. “The people living in that community see a lifetime in ten years in terms of the struggles they face on a daily basis,” observed Laxton. “What we try and show in Moonlight is the strength of those communities. It’s a different side of a place most of us have only seen on the evening news in connection with violence or tragedy.”
Throughout Moonlight, the blending of story and place is eloquently captured. There’s a strikingly beautifully shot and pivotal nighttime beach scene in which Chiron bonds with Kevin in an unexpected way. It’s a romantic encounter between the teens which is a critical dramatic moment for both characters. Again, an organic mesh of personal intimate story with the scope and scale of nature’s surroundings is realized.
Just as Moonlight was a coming-of-age story, so too did Laxton feel that he grew from the experience of shooting the film. “I want to seek out projects more akin to this one, telling important stories that touch people. This helped me find out what I most enjoy as a cinematographer. My big takeaway is to in the future express myself boldly and to be free in the kinds of images I want to create, to not be inhibited as I look for the best way to tell a story.”
Laxton’s filmography extends beyond his notable collaborations with Jenkins. For example, Laxton was DP on The Myth of the American Sleepover which marked the acclaimed writing/directing feature debut of David Mitchell. The Myth of the American Sleepover made its world premiere at South by Southwest in 2010 and went on to screen at the Cannes Film Festival. Other lensing credits for Laxton include Peter Suttler’s Camp X-Ray (Sundance Film Festival, 2014) and Kevin Smith’s Tusk and Yoga Hosers (Sundance 2016).
This is the third in 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.
Barry Jenkins, director/screenwriter; James Laxton, DP