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6 Filmmaking Tips From Barry Jenkins

The filmmaker behind ‘Moonlight’ and ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ discusses radical empathy, perseverance, and the undervalued merits of the voice-over.
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Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Pictures
By  · Published on December 12th, 2018

To a casual bystander, it might seem like Barry Jenkins‘ star rose practically overnight in 2016 with the incredible, Oscar-winning Moonlight, but the reality of the filmmaker’s story is very different. After making his feature film debut in 2008 with the well-received Medicine for Melancholy, a micro-budget ($13,000) indie that premiered at South by Southwest before going on to screen at the Los Angeles Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, Jenkins experienced multiple false starts in trying to get a second film made. He did commercial work to pay the bills while continuing to work on developing his own projects. In 2013, he wrote early drafts of the screenplays of both Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, which would end up becoming his second and third feature films.

While Jenkins’ public profile did rise rapidly over the course of 2016 with the success of Moonlight, with his place in film history solidified through the film’s 2017 Oscar win, it was a long road to get there, and he’s learned a lot of valuable lessons on the way. Here are six of his best tips:

Master the Tools

After getting accepted into the Florida State University film program, Jenkins realized that he knew very little about the filmmaking process. After a semester, he approached the Dean about taking a year off — ‘[to] bring myself up to speed’ — so that he could come back, ready to make the most of the opportunities the program provided. The Dean said yes, and Jenkins has said that this year of independent study is one of the most valuable decisions he’s made in his career. Jenkins elaborated on what this experience taught him in the masterclass he did at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, published online in February 2017: 

“I guess the first lesson I learned in filmmaking was, no matter how strong your voice is, if you don’t have a mastery of the tools, that voice is going to be suffocated. Now, you can work with people who have a mastery of the tools, but I wanted to control the way my voice was going to be filtered through the craft.”

You can watch the full masterclass here (the above quote starts at 15:44):

Make It Personal

Jenkins has shared variations on this piece of advice frequently. Here’s one version that he told M24, the Monocle radio station, in an interview first aired in December 2018:

“I think when you’re sitting in the cinema and you see something that comes from the source, that comes from the heart, that comes from the gut, that is personal, you can feel the difference. And I think in that way, when I meet young filmmakers, and they ask me, ‘What do I have to do to get a career in film?,’ there are only two things I can really tell them with truthfulness and honesty, is to work with your friends and make it personal. I do think we need a more personal aesthetic, a more personal cinema.”

You can listen to the full interview here.

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Jenkins with actor Alex Hibbert on the set of ‘Moonlight’

Productive Images Over Positive Images

One thing that is particularly remarkable about Moonlight is how it features individuals who fill certain highly stereotyped roles — drug dealer, crack addict — but are fully fleshed out, dynamic characters, empathetic without being romanticized. Jenkins elaborated on the mindset that fostered this approach in an interview with The Fader published in October 2016:

“Overt positivity can sometimes deflect attention away from the problem, or create myths that aren’t helpful. The way I described it to the actors was, ‘Everything in this movie is a gray area. The characters are gray, the situations are gray.’ There’s some very dark shit in this movie, but you have to acknowledge the ugliness. You just have to.”

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Jenkins and actor KiKi Layne on the set of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ (Photo Credit: Tatum Mangus / Annapurna Pictures)

Actively Engage Your Audience, Foster Empathy

When addressing an audience member question while visiting as a guest on the BUILD series in November 2018, Jenkins broke down some of the technical considerations behind a scene in If Beale Street Could Talk, which happens to feature shots of actors looking directly into the camera, a technique which Jenkins also used to great effect in Moonlight. His reasoning behind his choices culminated with some pretty awesome advice:

“There’s a moment where this Miles Davis song plays in the background. […] and as we introduce score, we take that song, and now, you’re sitting in an auditorium, just like this — there’s speakers all around — so instead of turning that song off, which you normally do when you introduce score, we took that song, and I wanted it to feel for the audience the way it feels for the characters, and so we start panning it around the room and reverb, it comes in, it comes out, and that, to me, is helping orient you guys — radical empathy — now you’re hearing things the way the characters hear them, as opposed to just being a participant, a passive participant, in an audience. And I think when the characters look you directly in the eye as well, again, instead of being a voyeur, outside, the camera’s always here [gestures away], now the camera’s here [gestures in front of his face], and who’s the camera? You. You. And so I think in that way you can really use the tools of the process to actively engage the audience, activate their empathy.”

You can watch the full interview, which also features If Beale Street Could Talk stars KiKi Layne and Stephan James, below (the quote above starts at 25:30):

Don’t Diss the Voiceover

Show, don’t tell. It’s one of those storytelling mantras that anyone who’s gone through an English curriculum has heard. Beyond its general form, it has many, often more field-specific, variations, including a rather widely held filmmaking belief that voiceover is a sign of laziness. Jenkins, however, begs to differ, as he told The Atlantic in December 2018:

“As somebody who grew up being obsessed with Wong Kar-wai, I’ve always been attracted to narratives that feature voiceover. Part of that is — and I’ve said this in the past — I don’t think cinema is the best medium for interiority. In cinema, everything has to be acted out in flesh and blood. In film school, our professors were like, ‘Voiceover is a trope; it’s a crutch.’ So I always wanted to find a way to defy those teachings. I think when done well, like in the hands of Wong Kar-wai, it can be incredibly evocative.”

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Jenkins and actor Naomie Harris on the set of ‘Moonlight’

Just Keep Making the Work

Jenkins delivered the film keynote at SXSW 2018. His hour-long speech included plenty of great advice, including excerpts from his prepared Best Picture acceptance speech he didn’t get to give in the craziness of the infamous La La Land mixup. He also shared the following words of wisdom regarding the value of perseverance:

“Being talented is not enough. Making a wonderful film is not enough. […] You kind of have to just keep making the work […] and in some way you just have to have faith that as the work gets better, as the skills get better, somehow, not that the industry will come, but you will find your place. You will find a place to apply those skills, and I think, most importantly, be fulfilled both financially and spiritually in the work.”

You can watch the whole speech below (the quote starts at 59:51):

What We Learned

I was lucky enough to be one of the 50 students selected to take part in the 2016 Telluride Student Symposium, and as such got to take part in a Q&A session with Jenkins the day after Moonlight premiered. He was the only guest speaker to go around and ask us all our names, and when the next director slated to speak with us was a no-show, Jenkins stuck around and kept answering questions for another half hour. His hope with Moonlight, he told us, was to reach as wide an audience as possible. Even though we all loved the film, I don’t think anyone brought up the possibility of it going on to win the Oscar for Best Picture. But it did (and the Student Symposium Facebook group page celebrated because we had been rooting for Jenkins all the way).

I share this anecdote because it further illustrates two lessons to be learned from Jenkins as both a filmmaker and a public figure. The first is that small, considerate acts can go a long way — any time you see Jenkins speak at a festival, for instance, you will see him do things like take a moment to spotlight the efforts of the volunteers. His thoughtfulness does not just make him the sort of figure you root for wholeheartedly but also reverberates in his films as a fundamental aspect of their allure. The second is to never underestimate the potential of a great story, well told. The most specific, personal tales can end up proving to have universal appeal.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.