Fall Preview: Barry Jenkins on adapting James Baldwin
NEW YORK — On one fateful European trip in 2013, Barry Jenkins wrote two scripts: “Moonlight,” from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, and “If Beale Street Could Talk,” from James Baldwin’s novel. “Moonlight” came together over just 10 days in Brussels. “If Beale Street Could Talk” was written over six weeks in Berlin.
Two years after “Moonlight,” Jenkins’ will release the other movie that came out of that luminous burst of creativity, one that he says happened only because he never expected anything to come of it.
Jenkins wrote “If Beale Street Could Talk,” about two young lovers (Kiki Layne, Stephan James) whose budding, radiant love is violently disrupted by the false accusation of a racist police officer, without the rights to Baldwin’s 1974 novel and little hope of getting them. At the time, he had made only the acclaimed micro-budget 2008 drama “Medicine for Melancholy.”
In an interview, Jenkins discussed adapted Baldwin’s deeply beautiful and sorrowful book and moving on from the Oscars. “It’s been a pretty good ride,” said Jenkins. “It feels like a week has passed since the whole ‘Moonlight’ thing started.”
ON WHAT ‘IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK’ HAS MEANT TO HIM
“I’ve always been enamored and humbled by the way Baldwin thinks. I think right now we’re living in a time and a moment where so many things he was writing about are incredibly relevant to the American soul. In this book you have the American soul reflected in a very pure love between two black people. From the very first moment to the moment I sat down to adapt it, that just always stayed with me. I hadn’t really seen a love of that sort of purity, that clarity turned into images. To me, it was about the journey, the challenge of taking the feeling that I found on the page and try to turn that into digital imagery.”
ON WRITING A SCRIPT WITHOUT THE NOVEL’S RIGHTS
“I just didn’t expect much to come of it. I remember writing it and thinking, ‘I’m not going to consider this a waste of time. I’m going to consider the best use of time.’ I had to consider myself that no matter what the outcome was that just the process of adapting it into a script was going to be thanks enough. And so once I really settled into that mind space, it was a really enjoyable writing process. And I think to be honest, the reason things went well with the estate when I came to them is that I wasn’t thirsty, as the kids say. I just said, ‘Hey, I love James Baldwin. I made a film six years ago for $15,000 and I adapted this book. I know I don’t have the rights but if you guys want to read it, you can see exactly what I want to do.’ And they listened. And it still took quite a few years. But without this air of pressure or this air of lustfulness to the material, they responded positively.
ON WRITING ‘MOONLIGHT’ and ‘BEALE STREET’ TOGETHER
“I don’t think it was lightning striking. I really think it was just that I divorced myself from the results. It wasn’t a goal-oriented process. It wasn’t: I’m going to write a script that’s going to get nominated for an Oscar. It wasn’t: I’m going to write a script that’s going to make the estate fall in love with me. It was: I’m going to write a script because I enjoy writing and I haven’t done it in a while. I think I was just in a really, really good place. I think as an artist the air around you kind of affects how you approach your own work. And this was one of those periods in my life where there was just no air around me. It was just me and the work.”
ON HIS CHOICES AFTER ‘MOONLIGHT’
“It was an easy decision. I had said to myself before all these things happen with ‘Moonlight,’ I said to myself that this is what I want to do next. I felt it was important to honor that commitment, both to my collaborators and to the work itself. There was never really any doubt. In all that madness of Oscars, I knew what the next step was.”
ON WINNING BEST PICTURE
“I’m still coming to terms, understanding what the hell all that meant. In the moment I thought, ‘Oh, this is fine. It’s a thing that happened. It’s crazy.’ But the further you get away from it, it still lingers. It’s something that I’m still processing. But at the same time, I also realize that I have this great privilege to create, and I went eight years (between ‘Medicine for Melancholy’ and ‘Moonlight’) without being able to create.”
ON SHOOTING ‘BEALE STREET’
“There were profoundly emotional moments for me. There was a moment where I was sitting in a cafe in Berlin with a few dollars in my pocket and I was writing this thing with no real — if I’m being honest — no real hope that I would ever get to make it. And then here I am on set with all these fantastic actors actually fulfilling this dream. It was cathartic and incredibly emotional.”