Interview: Filmmaker Barry Jenkins on Adapting the “Unfilmable,” and Sneaking into Screenings of If Beale Street Could Talk
Writer/director Barry Jenkins has made something bold and beautiful in his third feature, If Beale Street Could Talk, based on a book by James Baldwin that has long been labeled unfilmable. But working meticulously on adapting it since before he made the Oscar-winning Moonlight, Jenkins came up with a structure that not only tells a hypnotic story of a young black couple (played by KiKi Layne and Stephan James—stay tuned for a separate interview with these two) in Harlem dealing with the struggles of her getting pregnant and his getting sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit; it also paints with wide brush strokes a portrait of culture and daily living circa the early 1970s, while never failing to make it clear that some things haven’t changed a bit.[caption id="attachment_44417" align="aligncenter" width="3600"] (l to r.) Actor Stephan James, director Barry Jenkins, and actor KiKi Layne on the set of IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK. Image courtesy of Annapurna Pictures[/caption]
The film features dynamic performances from Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, and Michael Beach, as well as great supporting work from the likes of Diego Luna, Finn Wittrock, Ed Skrein, Brian Tyree Henry, Pedro Pascal and Dave Franco. Jenkins gives them all a chance to shine, while making one of the most beautiful films of the year. I had a chance to sit down with Jenkins recently in Chicago to navigate the process of getting If Beale Street Could Talk adapted and made. Please enjoy…
I know sometimes directors will set up some type of personal challenges—because making a film isn’t challenging enough—to make things more interesting from film to film. To work on a story from an author whose works have been called unfilmable for decades, did you hear that and say “Well, we’ll see about that”?
[laughs] It seems like it, doesn’t it? It was that, but I knew it would be challenging. I’ve always loved this author, and I’d always wondered in the back of my head “How filmable is it?” So I thought it would be unsuccessful but really interesting, or somehow we’d pull it off, and people would say “Holy shit, this is what it’s like to read James Baldwin.” That was my target, to find out what it’s like to read Baldwin in sounds and images. To me, that’s what this film ultimately is.
Tell me about your history with Baldwin and this story in particular.
I discovered him in college and started reading him after graduating undergrad. I wish I’d had, at 15, 16, 17 years old, that formative experience of discovering Baldwin, but I was already 20 when an ex-girlfriend gave me The Fire Next Time. Then when this book came to me, I’d already made Medicine for Melancholy [his feature directing debut], and the heat from that had gone away. A friend who works in film suggested I read this book, and she did say “I think there’s a film in this and that you would be a great choice to make it.” When I read it, I kind of saw what she meant, but I also saw your opening question, which was “Holy hell, how do you film this?”
If I remember correctly, the story in the book does jump around in time quite a bit, like your movie does.
Oh, even more. I think we have somehow arrived at what I think is the perfect in between place of the Baldwinian floating consciousness—something that is graspable for an audience as an organizing principle.
It is remarkable how these issues from the 1970s are exactly the same issues of today.
You’re correct. But in a certain way, it’s unremarkable. There are so many things about modern life that are still persistent. For example, women are 51 percent of the population, yet they are a much lower percentage of many different kinds of work forces. I’m a director. When I went to film school, our class was maybe 45 percent female. So why aren’t the television directors in Hollywood operating at the same ratio? So many of these things remain to be addressed, and that’s why, rather than updating the book and resetting the story in contemporary times, it felt more potent, powerful and to the point to allow it to be set in the period in which it was written.
I think it’s more potent. You could walk in at some point in the middle of the film and not know where you were in history.
Exactly! Even some of the fashion is coming back into fashion.
In the midst of these hard-hitting and sorrowful issues, there’s this love story that pulls you through everything. It made so many other things bearable. Was that one of the challenges, to make certain that one element didn’t overwhelm the others?
It was one of the challenges for certain, but I think it was one that Mr. Baldwin has already wrestled to the ground in the way he constructed the narrative. He had a few different voices, but the two voices in this film are the two voices that are most prevalent in his work. There’s that line from Network—“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more”—and in a certain way, I think that can be applied to one of Mr. Baldwin’s voices, while the other voice was just as obsessed with romance. In the adaptation, there was this idea that we had to find a balance, but to me, where things really clicked was almost like chemistry—certain elements are denser than others, so you need less of them to strike a balance. Once I realized that, then it was like “Okay, the love story can rule the day. It’s the thing that will pull us through the narrative, because these other elements have a richer density. We’ll apply those at different points, just to make sure we’re telling you both stories.”
Those jailhouse scenes are us checking in with this couple to make sure they’re okay, and as long as they are, we can endure whatever comes next.
Did you have the luxury of shooting those few jail scenes in chronological order?
We kind of did them in order. It went 1, 2, 4, and as a treat, we saved the third one for last, just to give them a moment to release the energy, because the third one is the one where she comes in really pregnant. The baby kicks, and they crack a very off-color joke.
Thank you for putting Regina King in a great movie again. She’s one of my all-time favorites, and she’s doing a lot of great TV, but to see her face on a big screen like that warmed my heart.
The thing about Regina is—and I’ll shout-out all the TV work she’s doing—in this film, that character, is—not a stand-in, but she represents so many different aspects of these different women that play a life in all our lives—our moms, our aunts, our sisters, our cousins, our grandmas. I think for Mr. Baldwin, this character was Every Woman, in a certain way. What you see and what is so rich about Regina’s performance is the experience of playing so many different women over the course of the last two or three decades, primarily in television, and you see her bring all of that experience, all that empathy, all that nuance to the fore in this role. I think that’s why it touches people so much.
She’s at the center of the scene where the two families get together. I’m sure it’s the scene that everyone is asking about.
It drove me nuts to film that.
That was my question: how do you stage something like that? It’s a tiny room with people all around it.
It was an interesting lesson. I'm somebody who’s rarely done anything that involved more than two or three people sitting across a table having a conversation. So how do you take eight people in a living room and make it feel the same way, for the actors at least. You want them to feel like “Every single moment, no matter what I do, I am being watched.” Somebody is paying attention. You don’t want the actor to think their performance is not being utilized. For myself and James [Laxton, cinematographer], to have that dynamic and still have it be visually interesting, what I realized was, I had to watch the actors. Give them the room! If you notice, the scene is filmed with cameras pretty much outside the conversation; if there’s an over, it’s a French over because the couches are organized in a T-shape. Otherwise, it was us saying “Okay, guys. You have the floor.” And that way, these very rich, generational, long-simmering grievances that these characters have between one another, you can allow those things to play out in a really, I’ve got to say, delicious way.
You introduce language in that scene that changes the game.
It’s true. But it’s not me; it’s James Baldwin. And what I like about that is, I’ve been at the family reunion or birthday cookout where two relatives who haven’t seen each other for a long time, and there’s this axe that needs to be ground but it’s been buried for a while.
It must never get old being at the back of an audience watching that scene and hearing their reaction.
I sat in an audience in Ladera Heights—as Frank Ocean says, “the black Beverly Hills”—and it was people literally yelling in the theater. It was amazing.
I know you thought about doing this before Moonlight. Did it help to have this screenplay at the ready when Moonlight took off and won all of those awards? So when people asked “What are you doing next?” you could say “This.”
Sure, extremely helpful. I know after the Oscars, it was almost a salve in a certain way not to deal with all the noise. But like you said, during the building of Moonlight to know that I had this other muscle. It was a scary thing, because Moonlight is basically filtered all through men, and this film is primarily filtered through women. I’m not going to be comfortable because I’ve got this next thing that going to completely challenge me.
See? You do like setting challenges for yourself.
Maybe [laughs]. It all comes full circle.
Best of luck with this. Thank you.
I appreciate it, man. Thanks.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4m3t3G3Zqc
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Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.