Caroline Waxler: I’m Caroline Waxler and you’re listening to OnWriting, a podcast from the Writers Guild of America, East. In each episode, you’ll hear from writers in film, television, news, and new media about their work from pitching to production, from process to favorite lines, and everything in between.
Caroline Waxler: Today, we welcome Barry Jenkins, writer and director of If Beale Street Could Talk, a film adaption of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel. If Beale Street Could Talk is Jenkins’ extraordinary followup to 2016’s Moonlight, which won the Writers Guild Award for original screenplay, and the Academy Award for best picture. We’re also joined today by Jenna Bond, who leads the WGAE Indie Film Caucus. Welcome.
Jenna Bond: Hi, how are you?
Caroline Waxler: Hi, Barry. Thanks so much for joining us.
Barry Jenkins: Thanks for having me.
Caroline Waxler: So, let’s just dive in. If Beale Street Could Talk is the first film James Baldwin’s family has given permission to be adapted into an English language film. I want to start off by asking about the process of acquiring the rights from the estate and what your approach was to adapting his work?
Barry Jenkins: Yeah, it was an interesting process. It’s kind of funny now, because Moonlight happened and people are aware of me, I guess, because of that film and the award season run that film had. I actually wrote the first draft of that script and this script in the summer of 2013.
Caroline Waxler: Busy summer.
Barry Jenkins: It was, and it wasn’t. My producer, Adele Romanski got together, I think it was $8,000 because I told her, “If I’m going to write, I need to just go somewhere where I have no distractions,” and that somewhere was Europe emulating James Baldwin. I went over there, and over the course of about eight weeks, wrote the first draft of Moonlight and the first draft of this book. I frame it that way because I just went. I didn’t make any contact with the estate, had no plans to actually option the novel. I was like, “I just want to see if I can adapt this book.”
Barry Jenkins: It wasn’t until after I returned with the first draft of the script that I then realized, “Okay, I need to rewrite this and polish it, and now I need to contact the James Baldwin Estate.” Then it took about four years, while we were deciding we were going make Moonlight, to actually get to know the estate and to get them to open their hearts and trust me with the story.
Caroline Waxler: What was your courtship process like?
Barry Jenkins: There was a professor of English Literature at the University of Georgia named Ed Pavlic. He was friendly with the estate and he had seen my first feature Medicine for Melancholy made for a budget of $15,000, and I reached out to him. I said, “Hey, I adapted If Beale Street Could Talk, and I have no way of contacting anyone from the estate.” He gave me an email address and a phone number.
Caroline Waxler: That’s awesome.
Barry Jenkins: I made a call, sent an email. The email did not get returned because the James Baldwin Estate does not really do email.
Caroline Waxler: Old school.
Barry Jenkins: He gave me a phone number and an address, and I just put a package in the mail. I did what they teach you to do in film school. I printed out a couple of copies of the script, wrote a letter, put it in the mail. Then about a month later, a letter came back typewritten like almost on a typewriter’s, it seemed like or a word processor-
Caroline Waxler: That’s great.
Barry Jenkins: … came back in the mail saying, “Hello Mr. Jenkins, we received your script. You seem like a very nice young man. Please be patient with us.”
Caroline Waxler: Oh, that’s wonderful.
Barry Jenkins: That began the four-year process of getting to know the estate, them getting to know me, and more and more people in the estate reading the script I’ve written.
Caroline Waxler: Wow.
Jenna Bond: I guess, how many drafts were done? Was there’s no work in the courting process, or were the drafts done after?
Barry Jenkins: It was cool to have written both Moonlight and this at the same time because this is the Writers Guild, writing is rewriting. As we were getting Moonlight into shape, and as I was starting to engage with the estate, I had done maybe three drafts post the one I had written in Berlin. Around the third or fourth draft, I felt comfortable sharing it with them. Then as they were reading it, I was still trying to advance the script, trying to evolve the characters, especially when you deal with a literary adaption, especially when you adapt James Baldwin who’s so … The interior voice in his writing is so rich.
Barry Jenkins: It was a process, step-by-step, draft-by-draft of getting it out of his language and into mine to be honest, and taking it from a place where it’s like all this interior voice can be felt to try and translate it in a way where the interior voice could be seen.
Caroline Waxler: How did you choose this particular work of James Baldwin’s?
Barry Jenkins: It was a process of elimination, to be honest. I mean, my favorite James Baldwin novel is Giovanni’s Room, but I think being very pragmatic about it, I understood there was no way I would be able to achieve the rights to adapt Giovanni’s Room.
Caroline Waxler: Why?
Barry Jenkins: It’s Baldwin’s most celebrated novel, to be honest. Again, this is before I had made Moonlight. I had only made a $15,000 budget film, and so I think when you’re reaching into any author’s canon, I feel like the lesser known works are the ones that may be, an estate, anyone protecting someone’s legacy would be more willing to listen to, but even beyond that, that’s thinking pragmatically.
Barry Jenkins: I think intellectually, Baldwin had so many voices he wrote in. The two most prominent voices were the ones that were obsessed with sensuality, romance, interpersonal relationships. Then the other one, of course, we see in The Fire Next Time and all those essayistic works where he’s basically calling out all these systemic injustices, the ways in which systems in American society disenfranchised the lives and souls of black folks. I felt in this book, those two voices were perfectly fused.
Barry Jenkins: I think the story of Tish and Fonny, and their families, and the ordeal, the circumstances they find themselves in were just organically fused in If Beale Street Could Talk. I think for that reason I thought, “Oh, this is the one I want to adapt.”
Jenna Bond: Did you know where you’re going to focus within that first draft? It seems like you did a good job sifting out different themes because it could have been a movie about everything?
Barry Jenkins: Yeah. I did, and I didn’t. This was a very interesting time in my life. I can’t write a script in six weeks to save my life now. I wrote two rough drafts in the span of six weeks, over this time in Europe. It was a very chaotic, almost like live jazz kind of process, but for me, the thing that really stood out in that first pass, one, again I was trying to be very pragmatic about it.
Barry Jenkins: I found a PDF of the book. Again without the estate, I just found a PDF of the book. Thank you to all the educators in the world. Some high school teacher had somehow … I don’t know if he had a student transcribe the book, whatever, but I found a full eight and a half by 11 PDF of the book, printed it out, and I just redlined the hell out of it, just redlined it. I made an outline off that redline, and then from that I made the script.
Barry Jenkins: For me, the thing was … Again, there’s this duality in Mr. Baldwin’s voice. The one that’s obsessed with sensuality, the one that’s obsessed with systemic injustice, and I have to think of it as chemistry. In chemistry, certain properties are denser than others, and so you need less of them to arrive at parity. For me, I felt like the love story, the romance of Tish and Fonny, the life that they potentially could have of this thing, the circumstances that befall them, that was going to be the thing that ruled the day. Then, it was about finding out how much of the systemic injustice, how much of this voice of Baldwin we needed in the script to arrive at parity.
Jenna Bond: That’s interesting. I remember your conversation at New York Film Festival during the … I guess no one had seen it yet, but you were talking … I didn’t notice it, but it was true that sometimes James Baldwin writes as James Baldwin, and then sometimes he writes in character.
Barry Jenkins: Exactly.
Jenna Bond: I just was impressed by your ability to … It’s funny. I don’t remember the literal everything I loved about the book, but the movie felt like the book. I’m wondering, are you naturally just good at pulling out what makes something universal or emotionally connecting?
Barry Jenkins: No, no, not that so much. I think, especially I revere James Baldwin. It was terrifying to adapt him. Again, this all happened before I was someone who had won a WGA award, who had won an Academy Award. It was very, very like, “Who the hell am I? I’ve made a $15,000 feature, I am not someone who can adapt James Baldwin.” I got into this mind state where I wasn’t adapting James Baldwin, I was telling the story through Tish.
Barry Jenkins: I think telling the story from her perspective, it just opened up all these worlds of possibility. What does a 19-year-old girl think like? What does she feel like? Sometimes, Baldwin does write in his own voice and not in the voice of Tish, but if Tish is speaking Baldwin’s thoughts, how does that feel? I think once I really hit on that, not that everything became clear, but it was definitely more manageable.
Caroline Waxler: The movie feels like it has so much optimism in it. No matter what they’re facing, the optimism pervades. Was that helped by putting it through the lens of Tish?
Barry Jenkins: It was. I think Fonny particularly. Fonny, is definitely an optimist. He rejects so many things that society is placing upon him. I’m not going to go to vocational school, and get a job working in a factory, have two and a half kids and live happily ever after. I’m going to move down to the village and work as a short order cook, and I’m going to just sculpt in this little tiny flat that I can afford.
Barry Jenkins: I think that optimism bleeds into to Tish. She’s like, “I love this man, and we’re going to get married,” as she should. She’s a 19-year-old young woman who’s found love. She should be optimistic. Then I think for me, the task of myself and the film is how do you create a non-linear narrative where you can organically see that optimism bleed away, where you can see how the circumstances of their condition is now corrupting this optimism.
Barry Jenkins: Now, I’ll speak as a director. I’m knowing that the person writing the script is going to be the person who ends up directing it as well. So, all these things you can do, or that I’m thinking ahead of how the optimism you’re speaking of needs to be very potent in the first third of the film. Then the task of myself and the actors, Nicholas Britell our composer, is going to be to very consciously, organically, bleed all those things away. I don’t know why I keep using the word bleed. It’s like bloodletting in a certain way.
Caroline Waxler: It’s very visceral.
Barry Jenkins: I think sometimes, especially for these two characters and people like them, that’s essentially what happens. Children are born into the world full of optimism. Then, the world shows them that that optimism is there to be corrupted.
Caroline Waxler: What was going on in your life, the summer when you wrote both of these?
Barry Jenkins: Oh my God, I was so sad. I was so sad. I had made my first feature, Medicine for Melancholy in 2008, or it was released film festival 2008, and then released in theaters 2009 by IFC films. Thank you IFC films.
Caroline Waxler: Yeah, IFC.
Barry Jenkins: It was [inaudible 00:10:27] that year alongside Bright Star, which I was like, “Oh my God, this is amazing.”
Caroline Waxler: Wow.
Barry Jenkins: All these possibilities were happening. Then, just nothing really came of it. I actually remember, this is why I love being a WGA member. I adapted a work for an independent producer on good faith, and through a series of events, that thing just fell apart. It fell apart in a way that I was not happy with. It felt just not right. My producer, Adele Romanski called me up and said, “We’ve got to do something. You have to find something that you truly want to do, that you truly want to write.”
Barry Jenkins: I’d hit rock bottom. I thought, “Well, I’m at bottom, so what can I do?” Let me just throw caution to the wind and just try to do everything I absolutely want to do.” Those two things, I ultimately ended up being adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney and James Baldwin, but I don’t have any rights to either of them. I had no rights to Moonlight at the time. I knew Tarell, so I figured I could get them if he liked the script, but I had no contact with the Baldwin Estates. I was in a very low place, and one thing I could think to do to get out of it was to create.
Caroline Waxler: Yeah. You wrote your way out of it.
Barry Jenkins: I wrote my way out of it, yeah, which every writer in the world is like, “What? Ha?” Because you write your way into it, into the low place.
Caroline Waxler: Exactly.
Jenna Bond: I guess that takes me to two different things. I didn’t realize you did have work in between Medicine and Moonlight.
Barry Jenkins: I wrote quite a few things between Medicine and Moonlight.
Jenna Bond: Was life pure despair? Were you climbing the dark or were you?
Caroline Waxler: You have Strike Anywhere.
Barry Jenkins: No, no. It wasn’t pure despair. I did have a company called Strike Anywhere as a director making commercials brand and content. What I like to say is, it was my plan B. I was looking at the Bay Area. There’s a lot of tech companies up there. I think a lot of content. The plan B ultimately becomes the plan, if you get too good at it. So, it was that.
Caroline Waxler: So, well said.
Barry Jenkins: I developed a script that focused features that I was really proud of, but it didn’t work. It was about Stevie Wonder, and time travel, and just all that the Equal Rights Amendment, just like really, really, cool stuff, didn’t work. Then, I adapted this memoir that also didn’t work.
Caroline Waxler: Which memoir was it?
Barry Jenkins: I think I can say it open. It was a Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man. I adapted that. It’s written by Bill Clegg. I was really happy with the writing but the project just didn’t really go. It wasn’t a story that I was directly connected to.
Caroline Waxler: Yup.
Barry Jenkins: I think what had to happen for things to break for me was that I had to really get back to who I was. Both the Stevie Wonder project and Portrait of an Addict, I did find in very visceral way to see myself in those pieces. I was really proud of the work on Portrait of an Addict because it’s so far removed from who I am. I mean, that’s a whole different world. It’s very exciting to work on, but it wasn’t really, really me.
Caroline Waxler: Yes.
Barry Jenkins: I think being at that low place and they say make it personal, I think it had to become viscerally personal in order for me to get out of that low place. That was what I saw in Moonlight, in Beale Street.
Caroline Waxler: So, are you working on anything personal next?
Barry Jenkins: No. I’m swinging back the other way. I mean, yes and no. I think even Beale Street in a way it’s personal but not in the way that Moonlight was. I’m not literally in Beale Street. I think Moonlight is such a male perspective that it was really interesting to now write from the female perspective, or write in the voice of a character who was not my same gender. It was really interesting. Now, I’m working on Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and it’s like an extension of that, although that’s a 10-hour thing that I’m working on with four other writers. It’s been really cool. I’m trying to now stretch myself.
Caroline Waxler: How is it working with Colson Whitehead?
Barry Jenkins: Really cool. Colson’s pretty hands off. I’ll ping him every now and then. He always responds right away. Just like working on Beale Street, I think the literary text is one thing, and the cinematic text is another thing. What I really enjoy about the adaptation process is trying to take the energy of something, the energy of something and really bring it into our medium in a way that’s visceral for an audience. It’s unfortunate but people are watching more than they’re reading these days.
Caroline Waxler: Yes.
Barry Jenkins: I think now, being a visual storyteller, people just aren’t reading as much as they are watching. I think with Beale Street, hopefully more people would discover the work of James Baldwin, but also with The Underground Railroad because I remember as a kid, that was a very visual story for me. People will say, “Oh, the underground river.” I would imagine black people on choo-choo trains underground.
Barry Jenkins: Colson somehow created this wonderful narrative, which is in some ways grounded science-fi, historical fiction in a certain way where that actually happens, where black people have built trains and ran underground. So, it was really exciting to work on.
Jenna Bond: I think the first time I knew I wanted to be close as possible to film was watching Jean-Luc Godard and those sorts of films, and I see that in your work. As you’re describing that history of harp of films, I’m wondering, it seems like a faith. I feel your works so much broader than this point, but it seems that you put effort into presenting a public understanding of black as innocent or tender. I’m wondering if you see-
Barry Jenkins: Yes, it is.
Jenna Bond: It is, it is.
Barry Jenkins: There is innocence and tenderness in blackness. It’s just unfortunate that in the works that we received that actually break out, that innocence, that tenderness is not often a part of the work. At least, not to the degree that is in our own personal lives. I think, especially the work I’ve done to this point. It’s just reflection of the life that I’ve lived in a certain way, and the life that people around me have lived. I think that innocence and tenderness that you’re speaking on comes part and parcel with that.
Jenna Bond: I’m also wondering what do you do. Are you self-conscious about Afrikana films, storytelling versus western storytelling? Because at one point, I was rewatching this, I was like, “Oh, this reminds me.” From the second I saw Lorraine Hansberry, I guess in the home scene I was thinking about that play. Then at another point, the director wasn’t black, but I was thinking about The Landlord. Then, I was thinking about [inaudible 00:16:36]. These are things that aren’t widely known as a black cinema canon. Also, I see that French influence, and I’m wondering how present that is.
Barry Jenkins: It’s interesting. I tried to just really look at the work in front of me in a vacuum. I really try to and not allow any intellectual dogma into the practice. I’m trying to just create from the characters out in a certain way. It’s interesting because both I think as a screenwriter and as a director, I think I can see the influences in my work. I have a degree in creative writing and a degree in filmmaking from the same university, both bachelor’s degrees. I don’t have a graduate degree, but I do have separate degrees in both.
Barry Jenkins: I remember at Florida State, this guy Charles Baxter came to read. He read from one of his books of poetry, Imaginary Paintings, but he also read from things called The Feast of Love, one of his novels. I just love the way he approached prose. There’s this woman named Katharine Noel wrote a book called Halfway House, and I love the way she approached prose. Once I started writing screenplay, I realized very quickly that, “Okay, I’m incorporating Charles Baxter, Katharine Noel, James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway in a certain way, in the way I’m writing screenplays,” because I think those were all very blacky concrete writers. They write in the first person, and they write very ING, things are happening. So, my screenplays are full of just ING.
Caroline Waxler: ING.
Barry Jenkins: Which you shouldn’t do, but I can’t help it. I think in the same way, the way I’m making films as a director … I’ll put it this way. I remember when Moonlight first started going around, people would ask me, “Okay, can you sign my ticket? Can you sign this?” I started signing things, and we know, we all grew up in a time where you did write in cursive a lot, and now we don’t write as much.
Jenna Bond: All right, that one.
Barry Jenkins: Exactly. Now, I’m writing my autograph all the time, and I look down at it and I hate my handwriting.
Jenna Bond: Really?
Barry Jenkins: When I see my handwriting is … Yes, really. When I see my handwriting is my third grade teacher, Ms. Pamela [inaudible 00:18:35] who taught us how to write in cursive. I write like her. So, it’s my signature, but in the DNA, it’s her signature.
Jenna Bond: Right.
Barry Jenkins: When I went to film school, I started watching all these foreign films, Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Asian new wave, Wong Kar-wai, Tsai Ming-liang, and Claire Denis. So, I can see also their signatures in the way I direct. I’m just working purely from my own personal experience, and I think once I come back from 30,000 feet, I’ll start looking at, “Oh, am I western? Am I working in a western style, an Afrikana style, an Asian style, a European style?” Then I get too much in my head. I’m like, “We’ll just go back into the character and work from there both on the page and on the screen?”
Jenna Bond: Was Claire Denis in this film?
Barry Jenkins: Claire Denis is definitely in this film, oh my goodness. I mean, there’s a moment where we just spin 360 degrees around a block of wood. I mean, you can’t get more clearer than that. It’s very concrete oblique object as a symbol for everything. It’s basically the thesis of the film. You can’t get more clearer than that. What I love about her is she builds very complex metaphors and very concrete images, very concrete images. I think for me, that’s when whether it was in the script or whether it’s on the screen, that’s where what we do really comes alive. How complex can the metaphor be from very, very simple concrete element? That’s what I’m always trying to work towards.
Caroline Waxler: Where do you do your best writing?
Barry Jenkins: In cafes, in the window. My favorite place, whether it’s in Europe or in the US, it’s just like a loud bustling café with the stool and the front window looking out on to the world. That’s it. That’s heaven for me. That is heaven for me. It’s how I wrote Moonlight. It’s how I wrote Beale Street. It’s how I wrote Medicine. It’s how I wrote Soul Bowl. The problem with being someone who now has a certain level of notoriety or recognition, is that especially in Los Angeles, now the opportunity to do that is becoming rare and rare because I love writers. I do want to talk and commune with writers, but when I’m writing, I put my headphones in.
Jenna Bond: [crosstalk 00:20:53].
Barry Jenkins: It’s not that bad. It was only that bad immediately after the Oscars. I mean, I don’t want to sound full of myself. It’s definitely not that bad, but you guys know. It’s a very sacred space, and unfortunately I do my best writing in public, but I still want to take the energy of the world and create a sacred space. Yeah, it’s become a little bit trickier with that. I move around cafes. I have a whole circuit of cafés I’m writing now.
Caroline Waxler: What are some that you no longer use because we don’t want to ask you the ones where you’re currently writing?
Barry Jenkins: I used to write … There was a place called a Handsome Coffee in LA and then became a Blue Bottle. I used to write there, some of the arts history because I live downtown. Once Moonlight happened, because as Moonlight was happening, I was doing another pass on Beale Street. I was like, “Oh shit, shit.” Then once the best picture thing happened with the envelope, and I was like, “Oh shit.” Then, you know what? It’s kind of cool because when you make something, we all know, when you something, me in the of the café-
Jenna Bond: Yes.
Barry Jenkins: … especially when you’re redlining your script, just you in your underwear, or on the toilet, or whatever. Now, I’m totally out of myself. You just assume, this is this into a thing I’ve done, this creation, it’s always going to be within me, but I’ve been very heartened because I got this experience from musicians. They just come on tour, I was obsessed with. I’d meet a musician, if they were nice, I’d be like, “This is amazing. The world is beautiful and kind, and maybe I can create something too.”
Barry Jenkins: Sometimes, writers and filmmakers come up to me and they just have the most amazing things to say about Moonlight, now about Beale Street, and I can see because I know what it’s like to be in despair over the work, or over the prospects of a career. I see that people see the journey that we went on with the previous film and not with this one, and they see that as a symbol of hope. I think in that way, if someone tapped me on the shoulder at the café is well worth it.
Caroline Waxler: But only after you’ve done the pages?
Barry Jenkins: I know. [crosstalk 00:22:55]. I got a cup of coffee [inaudible 00:22:59]. 20 minutes into that first cup, you just know for the next 20 minutes, I’m like at three pages in 20 minutes. Then, the tap happens. I’m like, “Shit.”
Jenna Bond: Is your relationship with writing … Is it like you’re intoxicated by it? You just boom, boom, boom, or you like is writing Muhammad Ali, and then finally when you’re about to fall out, the pages happen?
Barry Jenkins: It depends. It depends, it depends. If I can see it, then it really feels like I’m fucking … What that show? TaleSpin, when the kids were like jump out of the plane with little surf board thingy, surf the clouds, there are moments when it just feels like that, when the caffeine really hits you and you’re in the middle of a scene that’s something. On The Underground Railroad right now for example, there are five writers. I’m writing a few of the drafts myself from scratch, but I’m also rewriting the other writers’ drafts.
Jenna Bond: You’re showrunning?
Barry Jenkins: Yes.
Jenna Bond: Okay.
Barry Jenkins: Rewriting through the other writers’ drafts, and sometimes I’ll see a writer do something, and I’m like, “Oh, it’s almost there.” Then, to take that thing and then go, “Let’s take this from here to here,” it’s just like the best feeling in the world. Writing, I enjoy less than directing, but writing just makes me feel … I remember I was walking down the street in LA, and a friend texted me. They passed me in a car on the street and were like, “I don’t know what just happened to you, but you look so fucking happy right now.” I had finished a draft or something, and I was walking home from the café. It’s just a very difficult thing, but I don’t know.
Barry Jenkins: Directing is different because with directing, there’s all these elements. You scout it. You cast it. The cinematographer, so you’re building again out of concrete things. It’s a blank page. It’s a blank page with blank screen, and it’s endlessly possible. You can write anything. I mean, anything. It also makes it really, really, really difficult, arduous-
Jenna Bond: Terrifying.
Barry Jenkins: Terrifying, exactly. When that clicks, when it really truly connects, nothing, very few things in life feel as good as that. I think the fact that you have to go through so much pain and despair to get there makes it extremely rewarding.
Jenna Bond: So, are you happier now?
Barry Jenkins: Happier now in what regards?
Jenna Bond: Than 2013 where you have that summer of despair before you turned out these two?
Barry Jenkins: It depends. It depends. This was a period in my life where I thought I was done. I thought, I’m never going to make another film. I’m never going to finish another script. Nothing I write will ever be “good.” I went off to a very … I mean, it was lonely. It wasn’t a good time, especially looking … It’s easier to look back than just look forward. Looking back and to realize from nothing, you start with a blank page. At that point, I had a blank career to be honest. To go from that point and just own the faith of this woman, my friend, Adele Romanski, “That hey, if you go here and do this, then we can do this.”
Barry Jenkins: Not even arriving at the Oscars, I think just getting on the plane heading back and being like, “Holy shit. Yeah, I left with nothing, and now I have two scripts that I’m really proud of.” I don’t want to say my happiness is tied to achievement, but that was extremely rewarding. Now, it’s just very complicated. Everything’s complicated.
Jenna Bond: Really?
Caroline Waxler: What does that mean?
Jenna Bond: In what way?
Barry Jenkins: For example, we’ve made this film. Moonlight came into the world completely without any trappings. No expectations, just nothing. It was almost like being a kid. It was like you’re running your first race, or you’ve painted your first painting and your parents go, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Whereas now, I was like, “Oh, hmm.” You know what I mean?
Caroline Waxler: Yeah.
Barry Jenkins: It’s different. It’s just different. It’s more complex.
Jenna Bond: Have you learned? I wonder if-
Barry Jenkins: I’m being brutally honest here.
Caroline Waxler: We appreciate it.
Jenna Bond: Is there something you learned between the final draft of Medicine for Melancholy that informed your writing on Moonlight? Is there something you learned during your final draft because you wrote Moonlight before, final draft of Moonlight that taught you how to write Beale Street?
Barry Jenkins: I can’t say.
Jenna Bond: Okay.
Barry Jenkins: I can’t say. Unfortunately, because I’m writing for myself, especially the things I write that I know I’m going to direct is a very different process. I think I take more leeway with the writing, to be honest. I just finished a script for Universal based on the boxer Claressa Shields. I finished the second draft of that, and that was a very different … I did learn things on that because there’s certain things that I know I will see when I’m writing for myself, whether I’m adapting or writing an original.
Barry Jenkins: Medicine’s an original script, whereas Moonlight and Beale are adaptations. There are certain things I’m translating the interiority of literature into cinema that I can do in a script that I know I’m going to end up directing versus writing something where I know someone has to come behind me and direct. I don’t get to do the translation to the screen, someone else has to. That’s different language. A much different language I have to use, and I think I learned a lot on that one.
Barry Jenkins: These two scripts, I think I’m still just refining what I learned as a creative writer. I think the scripts and writing are much more influenced by literature than on the screenplays with the exception of Billy Ray. Billy Ray, my first job out of college was working at Harpo Films. I was a director’s assistant. A guy who is now a producer in my company Pastel, this guy named Mark Ceryak. He was the assistant to an agent named Bruce Kaufman. Bruce Kaufman was the agent for Billy Ray. As someone who wanted to study screenwriting, I was like, “I need to read every script Billy Ray writes.” For about five years, I read everything Billy Ray wrote and hopefully he’s not upset with me like even produced things, I just read them all.
Jenna Bond: Wow.
Barry Jenkins: I think in that way, I’m still refining the voice, how to develop between studying creative writing and literature, and also the work of Billy Ray.
Jenna Bond: I also want to ask you about transitioning to being a showrunner. Again the same question, are you more familiar with yourself as a writer because you have to having been a relationship with other writers?
Barry Jenkins: I am. That process started when I went to the Sundance Episodic Lab back in … When was that? That was 2014, 2015? Maybe 2015. I went to that lab with the project I developed with [inaudible 00:29:30], and Mark Ceryak, and Mark Johnson. Then I met Francesca Orsi, HBO there. Then, Francesca introduced me to Damon Lindelof. I was in the writer’s room of season two The Leftovers for 20 weeks. I learned quite a bit watching Damon operate his room. I took a lot of those things into my room for Underground Railroad and took one of those writers named Jackie Hoyt with me as my right-hand woman.
Barry Jenkins: Watching Damon work with the other writers and watching him both through his creative process, utilize the tools of the other writers to help unlock things in him, and then in turn, turn that around and unlock things. Us, I feel like I was able to take a few lessons from that and apply it to this room, to the point that we actually brought three writers who have never staffed before into that room. Two of them were young black women. I felt like we had to have young black women to adapt this book where the main character is a young black woman, and also felt like because it’s such a female gaze.
Barry Jenkins: This is now how working on Beale Street influenced The Underground Railroad and to check my directorial ego. Speaking as a director, there were thing about this character I didn’t understand. Things about Regina King’s character that I just couldn’t understand. I had to empower Regina, and Kiki, to be like, “You have a disagreement with this? Okay, cool. You win. It’s yours because I’m not a woman. James Baldwin is not a woman.”
Barry Jenkins: Then going into Underground Railroad, I want to make sure there were woman in the room than men. So there we’re five of us, three women, two men. Then there had to be more black people than white people because there were three black people, two white people. Just one of those things, just to reflect what I felt was the energy of the book. It was a really cool process. It was. I mean, am I a showrunner? I don’t think so.
Jenna Bond: Don’t do that. You are.
Barry Jenkins: I had to showrun this show.
Jenna Bond: I love the [inaudible 00:31:17]. It’s so emotionally … I was like, “I wish I could have dinner with so and so.” I was talking to Michael [inaudible 00:31:25] about what I loved about the film. It’s funny, you mentioned leftovers because the Regina King in Puerto Rico, reminded me of Regina King in Leftovers a little bit. Leftover is how I think I learned to be obsessively in love with Regina King. Seriously, I was like, “It just took me to the season three.”
Barry Jenkins: That scene with her and Carrie Coon in season two, which is like, “Woof.”
Jenna Bond: She’s phenomenal. I don’t know. She’s so phenomenal.
Caroline Waxler: Is that how you thought to cast her in Beale Street?
Barry Jenkins: It was my most intense engagement with her for sure, her work on The Leftovers. I do think the worked on The Leftovers I think projected most directly for her work in Beale Street. Then, it’s Regina King.
Caroline Waxler: She’s amazing.
Barry Jenkins: She’s amazing. She’s done so much. I think for this character, I was looking for something. Sometimes, casting is very direct process. There was this article about Steve McQueen’s Widows and how casting Liam Neeson was almost a political act because he’s this guy who because of his biography, his IMD biography, whatever you want to call it. When he walks on screen, he brings certain things with him and that can be a detriment or it can be additive. I think in Widows, it’s additive.
Barry Jenkins: I think in this case, because this character I know deep into the film, it’s going to take over both the screenplay and ultimately the film. 15 minutes, she just takes it over. It’s hers. You want somebody who can bring just this whole world of experience. I’ve said it before, when you see Regina King, you’re seeing your sister, your cousin, your mother, your aunt, all these different women. I think Regina is just so good at bringing these characters with her. She doesn’t just enter a character and then leave it behind. She takes all those experiences with her.
Caroline Waxler: I read that you empowered your actors to make decisions. She chose-
Barry Jenkins: The wig.
Caroline Waxler: … wigs instead of hats for that pivotal scene.
Barry Jenkins: Yeah. That’s when the conversation between the director and the writer is going back and forth because that didn’t happen on set. It was I think two months before we went to production, three months before, Regina and I met and we were discussing the script and the character. As she was describing certain things that clicks for her, I was just jotting down notes, and I went back and do the pass. I did a Regina pass just based on things we had talked about.
Barry Jenkins: There’s that moment when she’s in the hallway, and she’s holding the wall. That wasn’t in the script at that point, and this is actually tied to a scene that we filmed but edited out of the film. Yes, there was a fidelity to the source material where she goes to Puerto Rico, and she’s putting on and taking off his shawl from this hat. Regina said, “I think the women at that time, especially for black women, the armament was this wig.” So, I went into script and now it’s a wig. I think in that way, the director and the writer can help inform one another.
Caroline Waxler: I love that. I know we just have a few more minutes but I want to go back to the staffing of the writer’s room. You said you had a couple of writers who had never been staffed before. How did you connect with them? How did you find out about them?
Barry Jenkins: It was a few different processes. One there’s this young writer. I’d known her in the Bay Area. She also has a playwriting degree from NYU. She had been an assistant in Hollywood. She’d written a few things, but wasn’t literally in the industry. She’s actually living in New York doing her theater thing, but she’d also done these documentary research projects in the south about lynchings in the American South. There was just this connectivity, this synergy. I knew that she was a very interesting thinker, and I wanted interesting thinkers in the room. So, we pulled her.
Barry Jenkins: There’s another young woman who had been a writer’s room assistant around town. She had assisted on this Alan Ball show. When you’re a writer’s room assistant, you sit there. You’re catching everything, just like everything, but her family is from Liberia. Again, she had this thing that I thought has some connective tissue to the story we were telling. Going to the adaptation, we thought everything’s open. Everything’s open. Maybe Liberia will become a part of our narrative. I won’t confirm or deny that but everything was open.
Caroline Waxler: Yes.
Barry Jenkins: I was like, “Well, we could pull from the traditional poll of writers, but we’re going to get the traditional feedback in the room. We’re going to get the traditional perspectives in the room.” So between the two of them, I felt like, “Well, this is something that’s off the wall. Let’s go with it,” and it paid dividends at every turn.”
Caroline Waxler: That’s great.
Jenna Bond: I’m a very much a Harlemite. I’m a transplant. I was wondering as you’re discussing this, did you have to rewrite once you were doing locational views?
Barry Jenkins: Yes.
Jenna Bond: As you’re talking about the DNA that people that write, because I’m assuming with Colson’s work, there’ll be a version of it. In your opinion, looking at your work and other works that you’ve seen based on Harlem, what are some things that’s unique about writing?
Barry Jenkins: I won’t say it’s unique to Harlem per se. I think whenever I make something, it’s all about the location. This one is different. I’ve lived in San Francisco, which where my first film was set. I was born and raised in Miami. I have no real roots in New York. So, it was a lot of being in the city doing visual research, and then diving into the text. I think for me, again, the director and the writer are always in conversation. I think with an adaptation especially one of literary work, I think each iteration of the script, it’s closer and closer into your voice of the writer, of the person doing the adaptation and further away from the source material. That happens in waves.
Barry Jenkins: Over the course of the first four years when I was talking to the estate when we were making Moonlight, it was just about the story. It was about the story, the plot, the narrative, the characters, things like that. Then once the actual concrete elements come into play, we have this location. We have this actor, this actress, this and that. Then, it’s a different kind of rewriting that happens. We’re now writing the film. Now, I’m not adapting from the source material, now I’m really just writing the film itself. The source material doesn’t even matter at this point.
Barry Jenkins: Some really lovely things happen. There’s a scene in the middle of the film. Our two characters are on a search for an apartment. That was something that the kernel of that scene is in the source material, but the location scouting, this whole world opened up of this fantasy, the promise. I think I’m just trying to find, how do you really in a concrete way arrive at a complex metaphor for love and faith? What shows faith and love more than someone promising you something that to your very eyes impossible, and yet you believe them? We came up with this whole riff of, “I’ll put the couch here. I’ll put the bed there.” Then, the joke where they carry the fridge. It’s not in the source material.
Barry Jenkins: The opening of the film where Tish and Fonny are walking on Riverside Park, we were location scouting for the scene where the two dads are hustling. I just looked behind me and saw Riverside Park and just walked off from the scout. As I was walking up those steps, and I’m the director seeing our two main characters introduced to the audience in this very angelic sort of way. Now, the writer goes off and makes …
Barry Jenkins: The biggest one though was the ending of the film, which is the last thing I wrote. The ending of the book and the ending of film diverged. The ending of the book, that just ends with the birth of the child and the death of Fonny’s father who commits suicide, and then the performance stuff on James appear to lose all hope. So, people assumed this character committed suicide as well. For me as the writer, that wasn’t the film that I felt like I set out to make. So, I decided to write an extension to the narrative where you see the family in this coda in the last scene in the film.
Barry Jenkins: I think for me, it’s not necessarily a Harlem thing, but it’s more of as I get from draft, to draft, to draft, the adaptation, it gets further way from. It’s almost on points on a compass on a line. This point is much close to the film in this point as the source material. The further I can get away from the source material, not in a disrespectful way, but the further I get away from the source material, the more I think I am creating an actual work and not just transcribing one.
Jenna Bond: That’s beautiful. That’s amazing.
Caroline Waxler: On that note, we will wrap it up. Thank you so much for coming by.
Barry Jenkins: Thank you guys. This is a pleasure.
Caroline Waxler: This was amazing. That will do it for this episode. OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America, East. Tech production and original music by Stockboy Creative. You can learn about the Writers Guild of America, East online at wgaeast.org and follow the guild on social media at @wgaeast. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. We appreciate your tuning in. Write on.