The first and last sounds you hear in “Moonlight” are ocean waves crashing onto the shore. The movie that takes place between them is set primarily within Liberty City, the historically rich but crime-ridden Miami neighborhood where the young Chiron is being raised by his drug-addicted mother.
The impoverished neighborhood, west of I-95 and north of downtown Miami, is landlocked. But to filmmaker Barry Jenkins and actor/playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, both of whom grew up in Liberty City, the ocean was a constant presence in their childhood.
“Part of the impetus for writing this story was that as a kid, I walked everywhere,” McCraney says. “When I turned 16, everybody else had a car, but I was still walking. One day I was on 62nd Street, and I smelled the ocean. Even though Liberty City is a couple of miles away, we would sometimes get just enough of that ocean breeze to smell it. So I started to walk east until I got to Biscayne, because Legion Park and the bay were right there. And as I was walking this Babalawo [a priest in the Santería order] pulled on me and said ‘She’s calling you. That’s why you’re walking towards her.’
“I was always drawn to the ocean, like a homing device. It’s vast, but it lets you know where you are and who you are within the world. It tells you that you are part of the world in a way, even if everything else is telling you that you’re not.”
This is why the beach and the ocean play small but critical roles in “Moonlight,” the bruising, exquisite movie opening Friday at O Cinema Wynwood and other South Florida theaters about three chapters in the life of a young black gay man growing up bullied and vulnerable in one of Miami’s most dangerous neighborhoods.
“Sometimes, where we lived, we’d catch that same breeze,” Jenkins remembers, smiling. “It would just come through the hood. It would get that far.”
“Moonlight” is based on McCraney’s original work “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” which was intended to be a play but was never produced. The movie was written and directed by Jenkins, who took McCraney’s autobiographical tale and reshaped it with enough of his own ideas and experiences to turn into a different, altogether original piece.
McCraney wrote the first iteration of the story in the summer of 2003, when he graduated from DePaul University with a BFA in acting, applied to the Yale School of Drama and lost his mother to AIDS.
“I tried to piece out these images from my childhood in Miami and my time with my mother and her addiction,” he says. “I finished this script and didn’t know what to do with it. I just wanted to keep working on it. It kept coming to me in waves of things that had happened to me.”
In 2010, McCraney became the 43rd member of the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. When asked if he had any original material available, he shared the play with them.
“Unbeknownst to me back then, they gave it to Barry to read,” McCraney says. “A couple of years later, when Barry showed me the script he had written, I realized the story now had just enough remove that it didn’t feel like I would be having my entire life put on the screen. There were enough interpretations and additions that I could sit through it without feeling I was under a microscope.”
THE BORSCHT CONNECTION
Jenkins, who turns 37 on Nov. 19, graduated from Northwestern High School, where he ran track, played football alongside two future NFL stars and earned grades good enough to attend Florida State University on a scholarship.
Although he intended to major in English and creative writing, he enrolled in FSU’s prestigious College of Motion Picture Arts school in his junior year almost on a whim.
“I had always liked movies, but I never in a million years considered making them,” Jenkins says. “That was something that just didn’t seem possible to me.”
Jenkins has strong memories of going to the movies as a teenager, even though he says he was never a hardcore film buff. “I remember taking the bus to the Omni and feeling really comfortable in the air conditioning watching ‘Coming to America’ or ‘The Color Purple.’ The movie theater was just this place that felt really good. They had this merry-go-round inside the mall that made it look like the Taj Mahal to me.”
But immediately after embarking on his film studies, Jenkins realized he was in over his head. The program was immersive — you learned by doing — and on the first day you were given a Bolex camera and a spool of film and told to go shoot.
“It was intense, because I just stumbled in there with all these other kids, but my work wasn’t as strong as theirs,” he says. “It was a rude awakening. I had to dig deep and understand that this was not because I was black and poor and from Liberty City. This was because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.”
TAKING A HIATUS
So Jenkins took a year off from film school, finished his writing degree and immersed himself in movie culture. He started with French and Asian new wave cinema. He steeped himself in Sight & Sound and Jonathan Rosenbaum. He took a photography course. He attended the Telluride Film Festival Student Symposium and met the makers of “Ratcatcher” and “City of God” and “Russian Ark.”
“My mind was exploding,” he says. “I was seeing some of the best cinema in the world, and here were the directors, and they were real people, not 20-foot giants.”
He went back to school in 2002, this time prepared, and made his first film, the eight-minute short “My Josephine,” a reaction to Sept. 11 inspired by the marquee of a laundromat in Tallahassee that read “American Flags Cleaned Free.” He says in many ways it is still the best thing he’s done.
Four days after graduating from FSU, Jenkins moved to Los Angeles to pursue a filmmaking career. He spent a couple of years working as a production assistant on other people’s projects. His first feature, 2008’s “Medicine for Melancholy,” was shot for $13,000 in San Francisco, where Jenkins was living at that time. The movie, which drew on Jenkins’ recent break-up with his girlfriend, followed a young couple over the course of 24 hours after a drunken one-night stand.
“Medicine for Melancholy” was chosen as one of the best movies of 2009 by The New York Times. Andrew Hevia, a fellow Miamian and co-founder of the Borscht Corp. collective of artists and filmmakers, had been an extra in “Melancholy” and invited Jenkins to return home to direct a short film.
“Everyone was talking about how ‘Melancholy’ was the definitive San Francisco movie,” says Hevia, who is a co-producer on ‘Moonlight.’ “Part of me was offended that no one was making these movies about Miami. I started thinking ‘What do I have to do to get this guy back to Miami?’ That was my mission: To get Barry back here.”
I fell back in love with Miami during the making of this movie.
“Moonlight” writer-director Barry Jenkins
Shot around the booming Wynwood district, “Chlorophyl” was essentially Jenkins’ reaction to the blossoming of a new neighborhood he didn’t know existed in his hometown.
“Even though ‘Chlorophyl’ didn’t make much of an impression on the festival circuit outside Miami, working on it with Barry informed so much of what we did moving forward, such as having small crews and conveying a strong sense of place,” says Borscht co-founder Lucas Leyva. “Cities and spaces are almost characters in his movies. That’s the thing Andrew kept saying: If Barry could do this for San Francisco, which is a city he moved to, imagine what he could do for Miami.”
Hevia stayed in touch with Jenkins after the Borscht shoot, putting him in touch with McCraney and constantly reminding him about the potential inherent in an artistic collaboration.
“For Barry, ‘Chlorophyl’ was a way to explore Miami using a proxy — a Mexican-American woman — that wasn’t him,” Hevia says. “He made a film about a feeling. ‘Moonlight’ was much closer to what I knew Barry had lived, and he was the only person who would get what Tarell was getting at.”
SHOOTING IN MIAMI
Then veteran producer Adele Romanski (“The Myth of the American Sleepover”) took an interest in the project and “Moonlight” found financial backing via Brad Pitt’s production company Plan B and distributor A24 Films. The film was shot over 25 days last October in South Florida on a modest budget, using some of the same crew that had worked on “Chlorophyl,” such as editor Joi McMillon.
The cast is a mixture of professional and first-time actors who were discovered through auditions and open casting calls last fall. Naomie Harris, who played Moneypenny in “Spectre”, shot her scenes as Chiron’s drug-addled mother in three days in order to keep production costs down.
Tanisha Cidel, musical theater director at Norland Middle School’s Performing Arts Magnet Program, says Jenkins called her personally in August to see if she had any students who might be a good fit for the film. They discovered they had a mutual friend — McCraney, who had been a student at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, where Cidel began her teaching career. Jenkins agreed to audition all 15 of her male students, ages 10-15. Two of them — Alex Hibbert, 11, and Jaden Piner, 12 — landed the central roles of the childhood-era Chiron and his friend Kevin. (Two other pairs of actors play the characters in adolescence and adulthood.)
“There was something different about this team,” Cidel says about Jenkins and his crew. “They were so careful about trying to make sure everyone was OK. They realized the subject matter may be offensive to some people, but they dealt with it with such dignity and care. They treated the kids like they were their big brothers. Even after the movie was finished, Barry has kept checking in on them to make sure they’ve been doing what they’re supposed to in school. That’s a different kind of light we don’t see come out of Hollywood a lot. ‘Moonlight’ is just the beginning for Barry, because he’s one of those rarities you don’t often find in the business.”
Jenkins met with the parents of any kid he thought had the potential to be cast and gave them the complete script to read.
“The young kids in the first part of the film have nothing to do with overt sexuality, but I wanted to make sure everyone knew what the story was about,” he says. “The subject matter was never a problem. Even after people realized what the film really was, they were still on board. People welcomed us pretty much everywhere we went. They came to us through the prism of Tarell, who is a very out artist.”
But although Jenkins is straight, “Moonlight” is also his story. While reshaping McCraney’s original material, he drew on his own life for inspiration, such as the scene in which a drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), teaches the young Chiron how to swim by showing him how to float.
“There was a huge storm coming in the day we shot that scene, and we only had like 90 minutes to shoot, so I went back to the time I learned how to swim,” Jenkins says. “When I was at FSU, I was in love with this girl who was going to spend spring break in Cuba as part of a Caribbean studies program, so I took the trip with her. That was also the first time I ever flew in a plane. The water was pristine and super clear. I was a grown-ass man in Havana, being taught to swim by a professor in the Atlantic. He taught me how to float first too.”
Jenkins also made “Moonlight” personal through his use of detail. A scene in which the teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) rides the Metrorail might seem unremarkable to most viewers, but Miami audiences will understand how unusual that aerial point-of-view is for the protagonist.
“That’s what I’m proudest of in the film, these little things you can only know from living here,” Jenkins says. “I remember being on the ground all the time — except for when I rode the Metrorail. You would catch it at 79th Street and ride it into Coconut Grove, and once you got past downtown, you would pass through all these buildings and float above all these palm trees. That’s a view you only got when you rode the Metrorail. So I knew that at some point in this movie, this kid was going to ride the Metrorail!”
“Moonlight” made its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in September, followed by screenings at Toronto, New York and London. It opened in New York and Los Angeles theaters this week and begins a national roll-out Oct. 28. The acclaim has been deafening.
More importantly, for Jenkins, ‘Moonlight’ has rekindled a passion for his hometown that he admits had cooled after years of being away.
“I fell back in love with Miami during the making of this film,” he says. “The reason why there’s a hint of light left in Chiron by the end of the movie is because Miami puts this light in you at your foundation. You’re constantly surrounded by this one amazingly bright sun, but there’s all this naturally self-replenishing natural beauty around you all the time, too. You can never really snuff that completely out.
“And the love from the community was so strong. When we shot at night, parents would come out and tell me ‘We don’t usually let our kids out after dark, because there are no street lights, but since you all got your movie lights, it’s a lot safer.’ Kids would come on the set and sit at the video monitors and watch me work and point at me and tell each other, ‘He grew up here!’ I could tell from their faces that seeing me — this black dude walking around all this machinery, calling action — was an eye-opening experience.
“It was just as eye-opening for me, because I realized at that moment that maybe if I had seen somebody walking around a movie set like this in my neighborhood when I was a kid, I would have gotten to filmmaking a lot sooner.”