Hobo #21 — New York, September 2018. Love should be the prism, it should be the lens by which we view the material through, and all the choices we make in the cinematography process—the lens choices, the lighting choices, the color palette we play with—all I think were at the service of expressing the deep love that Tish and Fonny feel between each other and we felt that if we could provide that, the other parts of the narrative—race relations in the USA, the prison system being a difficult one to navigate—audiences and us as filmmakers could find that deep connection to the characters. If we can base everything within love, then we can now all relate and all participate in the journey. — James Laxton
Shawn Dogimont — You must be pretty happy with the cast you put together in this last one.
Barry Jenkins — Yeah, yeah I am.
— How does that work, is it similar, you go through a lot of people?
— You go through a lot of people but for me with this one it was about trying to build families, like Fonny has a family, Tish has a family and it was a family dynamic and you’ve seen the film, it was very important to the piece. I often watch movies and I think, those people don’t seem like a family, they’re pretending to be a family so it was really important, especially with Tish’s family, with Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris.
— What a great mom.
— She’s so great, right? It was about really trying to build, once we cast Kiki [Layne] and Stephan [James] as the leads, to really build an organic family around them and we did it piecemeal. If Kiki’s a different actress or if that character Tish is cast a different way, then maybe the sister has to be different, and maybe the parents have to be different so it was really about trying to build this nucleus around our two leads and working with them was just amazing. It’s one of the few instances where, because the movie is an adaptation of a novel, it has all this back story that’s right there in the text for all the actors to engage if they choose and in this case, everybody read the novel. They’d show up and we’d be filming scenes and be like “remember that thing and blah blah blah blah” and like yeah, that’s in the novel, not in the movie but you can put it in the performance, so it was a really lovely process of that.
— No one pulled a Marlon Brando and came not having read Heart of Darkness?
— [laughs] No, is that a true story?
— I think so yeah.
— No that wasn’t the case, you know I think for people who grew up how we did, for most African Americans, most black folks you know James Baldwin is an idol you know, he’s a trail blazer, a path finder, he’s on the mountain top, the Mount Rushmore of black folks. So everyone approached it with great reverence for the text and so I didn’t even have to ask people to read the novel, you know people would read the script and before they came into audition they would read the novel you know and I think because of that, Baldwin’s spirit is really present in the film.
— The story feels more 50s to me in a way, I know it was set in the 70s, in the early 70s, and it also feels, like you were saying, more encompassing than the horror of the situation and the injustice it depicts. It’s really lush and joyful and the look of the film that you made too, was that intentional? I love the black and white photos and how it contrasted with those.
— It comes from reading too many Hobo magazines [laughs]. You know we were aiming for a timelessness in a certain way because the book was written from let’s say ‘68 to ‘73, published in ‘74 and it’s non linear. So it’s jumping all around the time. So there are moments when you are, not necessarily 1950’s but there are moments, when they are kids, when you’re in the mid ‘60s or the late ‘60s or the early ‘60s and so for us it wasn’t important to put a stamp on—this is 1973—but to sort of like exist on a continuum where that era itself was kind of tangible and to flash more importantly through their lives where you kind of as you say have this contrast where there are moments where everything seems possible, where the joy, the love, the romance feels limitless and then in the very next scene, everything seems impossible because the systemic injustice is so present and I thought the juxtaposition of the two would make each one more present, more powerful. It’s funny, there was a critic that said the same thing, that it felt almost like the 1950s in a certain way and I think the reason for that is because the 1950s is kind of like the last era we think of where America was this beautiful, lush, innocent you know, place where the romanticism of the American dream was a fact. You move into the ‘60s and then very quickly people begin to get assassinated.
You know Jim Crow can’t be hidden and that was front and centre and then you get to the ‘70s and all hell has broken loose with Vietnam and everything, so its interesting that the more lush moments, the more Kodachrome, saturated, just beautiful bright colours, the reds and golds and greens reminds people of the 50s because I think that is the last period in this ideal of Americana.
— How did you recreate that?
— It was our production designer, all the text in this film, you know James, you’re going to talk to him for this right?1 So you know between James, our composer Nick Brittel and costume designer Caroline Eselin.
— That’s the second time you’ve worked together.
— Yeah, Yeah, we worked together on Moonlight.
— That’s a whole other side film isn’t it?
— It is, it is, you know Nick and I, I went and saw him yesterday because we are touching up a few things that we are going to put in on Monday, but we were talking about it and we feel like we make albums you know, Moonlight was an album, kind of like an EP because there was only about twenty-seven minutes of music. This is like an hour of music.
— I was discreetly trying to Shazam stuff and of course it wasn’t coming up. There are so many references to music in the novel …
— So many.
— You’ve got “Respect” by Aretha Franklin, you’ve got Ray Charles, “My Man” by Billie Holiday, which was originally a French song…
— Can’t afford, can’t afford, can’t afford… [laughs]
— Is that really what it is? I thought that maybe today, theses choices would have felt too obvious to you.
— Well, Aretha would have been too obvious, but the Billie Holiday would have been great, but we still have Nina in the film and you know Coltrane, Miles Davis. Part of it was, it’s a very faithful adaptation, as you probably know from reading the book, a lot of the dialogue was taken straight from the book, a lot of the voice over, taken straight from the book. But I felt like it couldn’t be literally a translation, one is for financial reasons, all these songs come at a cost but also two, the film wants to insist itself of what music is necessary and then for me as the filmmaker, I’ve always wanted to use that Miles Davis track, “Blue and Green” in a film. This filmmaker named Sally Potter used it very briefly in a film called Ginger and Rosa and the way she uses it is super subtle and just very simple. But there’s that scene between Stephan James and Brian Tyree Henry and I just thought: the conversation they’re having is what this song has always felt like to me.
— Yeah, it’s one of the best scenes in the film.
— I shouldn’t say it, but I agree and I thought: Oh, I’m finally going to use this song , and I’m going to stand up and demand that I use this song and here’s the beauty of the collaborators that I work with.
Nick and I were sitting in a scoring session and were watching our scene and Nick said, “I think we definitely need to score here” and I was like, “I agree” and typically if you have a needle drop going when the score comes in, you take the needle drop out. But we took it out and started to score and then I was like: well, do we have to take it out? Why don’t you treat it as an instrument, why don’t you play “Blue and Green” so that’s when it starts to go into reverb and the Miles Davis is floating around the room and it’s coming in and coming out, and that’s because Nick now is taking the Miles Davis and using it as an instrument because the room is starting to tilt and swirl as the conversation was getting darker and darker and so it’s just a wonderful process, and I can’t do that with “Respect”. [laughs]
— No, right, of course, and as fate is closing in on him while the Daniel character is talking, things seem to speed up a little and it’s powerful.
— It’s always nice to me when you can take the elements, whether it’s the cinematography, the score, the sound design and the sound effects, the backgrounds, and you can take them and sort of start to filter them through the character because I think in that room, those two men, they can’t really hear the Miles Davis anymore, you know, they just feel this chasm opening. The music, the Miles Davis track, is so potent, so rich and it’s so in tune with the emotions they are exhibiting so that it comes in and it comes out and every now and then a little bit of Miles going, almost like church, like Amen, like YES, Hallelujah. That’s what we’re trying to do with the “Blue and Green” there and whenever I can do something like that and it feels like it organically arises from the character, that’s when I feel like okay, this is why this is a film and not just a novel.
— Exactly yeah. I love the men in this movie, Colman Domingo and of course Brian Tyree Henry.
— There’s two of these men talking conversations, there’s the one between Daniel and Fonny but then the two fathers meet up at the bar and they have a very intense conversation as well. You know in Moonlight, Kevin and Chiron, they do have a couple of conversations but because of the subject matter and what they’re talking about, there’s this extreme hesitation, they’re talking around each other you know until at the very end in the kitchen when Trevente [Rhodes], when Black can finally say what he’s been trying to say.
In this film though, because the stakes are so high, the conversations are very direct, they’re very blunt, also because Baldwin is just a blunt writer so it was really important to me because I feel like black men, mostly black men in America, probably black men everywhere, it’s not impossible but it’s very difficult to have a conversation that is that blunt because you always have to project that you’re okay, everything is alright. What’s up man? I’m good. ALWAYS. I’m good, you know, but if you talk through that, then you reveal, no I’m actually not so good, when I say I’m good this is what I mean you know, the world is killing me and so it was really important to me to preserve those conversations from the book and just show that it is okay to have this really blunt, up front conversation and to not pretend that your good although the one with Brian and Stephan we do do the full bleed where it starts off, I’m good and then ten minutes later, oh no, I am a shell of myself.
— I just can’t imagine it, you’ve got so many elements taking shape simultaneously in a film, were there a couple of things that were really important for you to get right?
— There were, this is the first film I’ve ever made, first feature film I’ve ever made with a female protagonist. Baldwin is a man, I’m a man, neither one of us is a woman.
— And a young one at that.
— And a young one at that, exactly. So I was really mindful to try to cinematically, visually, approach things from a female point of view and to also be really diligent about listening to the women on set, especially the actors who were playing these women because there’s just no way I know more about these characters’ experience than they do, so I had to listen even more to what they were saying. In a nice way it kind of made it a much denser collaboration between me and the actors, between me and the female actors in the film because I couldn’t say… when an actor asks you a question and you give an answer, as the director it’s like you’re dictating how you would like it to be done. In this case, if the actor asks me a question, I can give an answer but I couldn’t be fully sure in that answer, I was waiting for a response to my answer. I have to listen now because I’m not a woman and there’s no way I can tell a woman how a woman should feel especially if that woman is telling me I don’t feel that way or I don’t think the character will feel that way.
— Did that happen a few times? [laughs]
— Oh yeah, oh yeah, but as it should because there’s a limit to my experience and how it dove tails with these characters’ experiences.
— I wish you could have seen it with an audience, because there’s some gallows humour in the film, like quite a bit of it and when you watch it with an audience, partly because the situation is so dire, people are looking for a moment of levity and there’s quite a few laughs spread throughout.
— You’re going to get asked this question, the ending…
— The ending, yes because you read the book. We filmed the ending as written in the book, the script was very faithful and if you watch the teaser, if you watch it with a very keen eye, you’ll see that we filmed the ending as written in the book and we use part of it in the teaser even though it’s not in the film. There were a couple of things, one the film becomes so heavy in its final stage, just like the book does, that this moment when Joseph comes in and is like, they found Frank, you know, that Fonny’s father commited suicide, I just didn’t want to kill another black patriarch in this film, I just didn’t want to fracture a black family at that point in the narrative. I don’t say it didn’t happen and so I think if you’re familiar with the book, you can infer that that still happens, off screen, out of story, off camera. The other thing was, I know that in the book it’s almost like Baldwin is trading life for a life, Frank commits suicide and now here comes the baby, but I think in film as you’re watching this thing over two hours as opposed to reading over twenty hours, it casts a dark shadow over the baby’s birth and even though I think the movie is grounded and realistic in its depiction on how the systemic injustice is tearing at these people, I still thought there was a way to be grounded and yet hopeful. And so we extended the ending because I’ll be honest, Stephan is so strong in that last prison scene. By strong I mean he looks like he’s lost it, he looks like he’s slipping away, he’s losing his grip on reality that people honestly questioned, you know, is he going to make it, is the family going to make it, how can this baby live a healthy life if the family is being so torn apart? So I just wanted to confirm that the family unit was still intact.
— That’s such an important aim, it makes me think of that quote by Truffaut wherein he says: Tomorrow’s film will be an act of love.
— You’ve got to send me that bruh. You’ve got to send me that.
— I was reading the essay Joyce Carol Oates wrote on the novel. She was saying that as society disintegrates in a collective sense, a smaller human unity would be more and more important and that the human bond, love, can save you and that those without it may not survive.
— Exactly, exactly
— So you know, Fonny, he has love but perhaps his father not as much in the sense that he’s a little bit on his own with the women in his family and of course the Daniel character, are they going to make it?
— I mean, you know, again there are all these little things that we wanted to do to at the very least hint that they are going to make it and so after that scene with Daniel where Brian Tyree Henry basically sheds everything in the course of ten minutes, we follow it up with this Nina Simone dinner, Grace laughing you know and to me what I hope is clear is that whenever he needs, he can come over and have that moment. In the book he asks as he’s leaving, “do you guys mind if I swing by from time to time,” and they’re like yeah, of course. I think that the simple gesture of that last scene which for me was very difficult to write because I revere Baldwin so much, I revere the novel so much that it was very strange to see, it was very strange to insert myself into the narrative that way by writing this extension to the ending but I felt it was important. It was actually in response to exactly what you just pointed out, I wanted it to be clear that these people have not been broken. That yes they will suffer the consequences of being simply black in America, because the system is so tilted against them but they won’t be broken, you know, the baby is healthy, Fonny somehow kept it together, they’re visiting, there are all these things and I hope that in seeing Tish, Fonny and the baby together you can then project that well, maybe Daniel has a family of his own now and maybe Frank didn’t commit suicide. It just leaves open the possibility that the glass can be half full and not fully empty, that’s all. But man it was tough, I didn’t want to do it.
— Oh really, you doubted?
— I didn’t want to do it, you know, I thought that the way the book ended, yes it’s very ambiguous.
— Yes, he’s neither free nor incarcerated.
— Exactly which is a very strange ending but I think for me that felt realistic.
— I like it, I think it’s a really modern touch.
— The ending of the book right?
— Your ending.
— Oh, thank you man, thank you, and again it was terrifying, terrifying, then also too, just about all the voice over in the film is taken directly from the book but because this extended ending is not in the book that’s me then paring Baldwin.
— [laughs] You’re going to have some Baldwin scholars analyze it in minute detail.
— I know man, trust me I know.
Read the beginning and end of our interview in Hobo #21.