Oscar-Winner Barry Jenkins: 'People Told Me 'Moonlight' Would Be Career Suicide'
According to Jenkins, it's not enough to just have talent to become the filmmaker of your dreams. You have to run through walls.
With fifteen days and $12,000, Barry Jenkins made his first feature film; ten years later, he made history at the 89th Academy Awards. How did he get there? On the ground at SXSW 2018, No Film School sat in on Jenkins' Film Keynote. Jenkins struggled as a kid who was born in the projects to a mother who was addicted to crack cocaine. “You don’t assume that is going to give rise to someone who creates art. You just don’t think you’re special.” Jenkins overcame that feeling, allowed himself to dream, and in doing so, paved the way to become one of the boldest new filmmaking voices in this generation. Here is a breakdown from his talk of what Jenkins had to say about his career, and recommend to you.
Running through brick walls
In the beginning, Jenkins thought maybe what he wanted was to become an English teacher. As a kid, all he knew about movies was that he really liked Die Hard. When he saw a sign for “Film School” that was held at the football stadium on the Florida State University campus where he was studying English, his first thought was, “They must make Die Hard there!” He decided that he would go to the film school, not knowing how many other people were also trying to get in to the program. But he was dedicated, and he was specific about what he would do in the program:
“I got accepted because I had a focus. I was going to work so much harder than anyone else…The school was great because they forced you to do everything. If you are a young black boy from the projects who doesn’t know you need light to expose film, they don’t care. They give you a spool of daylight film and tell you to go make a film. I thought my film was going to be awesome! It was not. So I went to the dean. You have to be real with yourself in your life and career. I was real with myself—I was a terrible film student. I didn’t have the tools and skills to make a good film. So I told the dean that I didn’t want to continue because I don’t have the skills my classmates have. Can I come back in a year and learn and come back to my slot?
He said yes. I went to Blockbuster and I watched every foreign film on the shelf. I read all the books in the basement of this building at FSU. I read Sight and Sound; I couldn’t translate Cahiers du Cinema. When I come back, I'm going to show 'em! It should have been to show myself, but I wanted to show everybody.”
And he did.
"Make it personal. Not biographical, but personal."
Be a sponge & make your first short film (then bring it to your job interview)
When Jenkins came back after a year of preparing to be a film student, he was ready to make a film. He met new students in the program who became his collaborators, and he paid attention to the world around him—like his roommate who was a Napolean buff, or a post-9/11 sign from an Arab-American couple running a Laundromat that read, “American Flags. Free, Clean.”
"I just put all that in. At the core, it was about me knowing what it feels like to be a black man in the south. Make it personal. Not biographical, but personal."
The result was a short film just under seven minutes called My Josephine. Ten days after graduating college, he found himself in Los Angeles, bombing an interview to work with Harpo Films. He brought a copy of My Josephine and casually put it on the table where he was being interviewed in a speed-dating group environment.
"She was like 'What’s that?' [mumbling] 'My short films…' She says. 'How long?' 'Seven minutes.' It worked."
After showing his two shorts, Jenkins landed a job that his mother would always be proud of, working for Oprah Winfrey.
Making your first feature for pennies
Jenkins' friends Wes Ball and Justin Barber were working on sets like Big Brother, making great money. He met Barber in San Francisco for a drink. Jenkins told him he had an idea that they could do for cheap. “How cheap?” Jenkins asked him how much he had, and Barber wrote a number down on a napkin and slid it across the table to Jenkins. The number was $12,000.
Soon after, his friend Nat Sanders wanted to be a feature film editor, but nobody gave him a shot. When Jenkins approached him about Medicine for Melancholy, Sanders quit his job, made his way to LA, and rented his own apartment so he could come edit the film. After fifteen days of production with the $12K budget, Jenkins had his first feature. After that, he just had to get it into SXSW.
“When I wrote Medicine for Melancholy, I knew it had to play SXSW. This thing called mumblecore was happening, I’d seen it in [a film by Andrew] Bujalski at SXSW. People were standing in a room and talking. We could do that! But we’d do it our way."
After relentlessly bugging a programmer about his film, he got his chance. The year was 2008.
“No shade to other festivals, where I’ve worked or juried. I have never screened a movie at Sundance...I'm a SXSW filmmaker.”
Making the Best Picture at the Academy Awards
The success of Medicine for Melancholy, which was released theatrically by IFC, got him signed to an agency and a contract with Focus Features. But as Jenkins said, “I don’t handle success well.” He was pitching a Stevie Wonder time-traveling film that would have required a huge budget and been nothing like his first film. No one wanted to make it. He got into a huge argument with his collaborator Adele Romanski. They didn’t speak for over four years. His contract lapsed. Every time Jenkins came to SXSW, everybody kept asking him, “Hey Barry, when are you going to make another film?” He stopped coming to SXSW. Then Romanski gave Jenkins a call.
“She calls me. She said, 'This has to stop. I love you. I think you love me. Neither one of use is doing anything we love in our work. You have to make a film you love. I want to produce a film of someone I love. You’re going to riff ideas, and I’m going to give you feedback. Let’s repair our friendship and fix our fucking careers.”
Then they made Moonlight.
“Whenever I describe my films, people say, 'Who wants to watch that?' I’m like, 'I want to do a triptych, with different actors, who look different from each other, and no one knows who they are.' People told me, 'This is career suicide.' Well, you saw the Oscars.”
We did. Congratulations Barry Jenkins, and thank you!