Barry Jenkins burst onto the scene with his adaptation of the play Moonlight. His follow up, If Beale Street Could Talk, is another romance that challenges us to see why love is so important, and how resilience can carry you. It's based on the book by James Baldwin.
If you're unfamiliar with the book, this is what Joyce Carol Oates said in her review for The New Yorker back in 1974:
"'If Beale Street Could Talk' is a moving, painful story. It is so vividly human and so obviously based upon reality, that it strikes us as timeless--an art that has not the slightest need of esthetic tricks, and even less need of fashionable apocalyptic excesses."
Sounds great, but also daunting in terms of an adaptation.
Today we're going to look at a few interesting items from the If Beale Street Could Talk screenplay and also chat about formatting and how there are no rules in screenwriting.
How did Barry Jenkins adapt James Baldwin's novel into a screenplay?
Have you ever just been floored by a book you read? Barry Jenkins was given a copy of Beale Street by a friend and the novel immediately grabbed him. In an interview with IndieWire, Jenkins talks about what drew him to the work:
“I was really excited about two things: One, before I read it, I didn’t realize it was basically like James Baldwin writing a thriller, which I thought was cool. Then I was really moved by how romantic it is on one hand, and then how biting it is on the other.”
So, he had to set out securing the rights. His strategy was different and braver than any I have ever taken, actually writing the screenplay before he approached Baldwin's estate. His script allowed him to show his devotion to the material as well as the care he would take to get it to the big screen.
But Baldwin's book is highly emotional and internal. How would that translate to a movie?
Check out this brief clip of Jenkins at AFI talking about the cinema of the interior.
As he mentioned in the clip, Baldwin's book was hard to crack. As Jenkins puts it, "The cinema is not agreeable with interiority."
Much of Jenkins' time was spent finding tangible actions that would help be evocative of the emotions on the page. Jenkins told IndieWire:
"We finally hit on this idea that the first act need not flow the same way the second act does...There’s a really hard delineation between the storytelling style between them. The first act is procedural, going back and forth between the past and present with Tish and Fonny. And the second is looser, jumping between characters, more poetic in tone."
This was a brave move because it could wind up making the acts feel like different movies. Instead, Jenkins was able to make them feel united and really get into the minds of the characters by using voiceover.
Voiceover in the If Beale Street Could Talk screenplay
How do you get feelings off the page and onto the screen? One option is the use of one of the most hated plot devices: voiceover.
The clip of Jenkins earlier showed how hard it was to take an internal book and create an external screenplay. Continuing with his IndieWire interview, Jenkins talked about how he decided to incorporate voiceover within the screenplay.
“It was one of the very first choices I made, because, part of that was, shit, Baldwin’s voice is amazing...I mean, it’s Tish’s voice we’re hearing, but really, ultimately it’s Baldwin’s. And I had it in my head of having this young woman speaking these very potent, considered words.”
One thing I want to point out here is how the voiceover is formatted.
Look, we've gone over the idea that there are no screenwriting rules. While script formatting can be strict, the one thing you need to know is that as long as your script translates your message, the way you do it is less important. Case in point, check out this page from the If Beale Street Could Talk screenplay.
For educational purposes only.
As you can see, the voiceover is done in the action lines, in italics. Is this proper screenplay format? I have news for you, no one cares. Bad writing advice is all over. They care that your message comes across. As long as you get the big stuff standard, you can take liberties with the small stuff.
Jenkins adeptly uses this script to show the difference between the VO and what we're reading that occurs in the present.
Tish's internal thoughts help bring Baldwin's novel to life and bring the internal external.
What's next? Read the script for There Will Be Blood!
Paul Thomas Anderson has been one of the most talked about writer-directors since he came onto the scene with Hard Eight. Since then, his movies have been must-see theatrical experiences. But none more so than There Will Be Blood. When There Will Be Blood burst into cinemas it was a tour-de-force of acting, directing, cinematography, and musical scores.
Let's dig for that screenwriting oil. and other terrible metaphors!
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