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MOVIES Jenkins, McCraney on their powerful film, 'Moonlight'
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times

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The new movie Moonlight has some of the year's best performances and, if there is any justice in the world, it will make a clean sweep come awards season.

It tells the story of a gay protagonist named Chiron in three different stages of life in Miami. Moonlight stars Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland, Janelle Monae, Ashton Sanders and Naomie Harris.

Director Barry Jenkins collaborated with writer Tarell Alvin McCraney to create an unforgettable masterpiece in character study.

Jenkins first project was 2008's Medicine for Melancholy. Moonlight is his second effort and is already earning rave reviews.

McCraney is a member of Teo Castellanos/D Projects Theater Company in Miami. He became a resident playwright at the Royal Shakespeare Company and an ensemble member of the Steppenwolf Theatre.

Windy City Times: You both grew up in Florida?

Tarell Alvin McCraney: Miami, yes. We have known each other for about four years.

WCT: How did you meet?

Barry Jenkins: Through a group called Borscht Corp. They have a mission to take artists who have moved away to come back home to tell stories. They knew Tarell and I were from the same neighborhood. They assumed we had a common experience and holy hell we did.

WCT: So the story of Moonlight was very autobiographical for you, Terrell?

TAM: Yes. It chronicles portions of my life in the original piece called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. It deals up to a certain point where I was trying to track and deal with things poetically. I wanted to iron out how my life turned out. It was a Jimmy Stewart moment of thinking about what I could have done differently. I wrote the original script here in 2003, when I graduated from DePaul.

Friends of Barry's gave him the script in 2012. We had not met before despite the fact that we went to some of the same schools together. We lived within blocks of each other and both our mothers struggled with crack cocaine addiction, depicted by Naomie Harris in the film.

WCT: How did you find the actors? Were many from Florida?

BJ: No; it was a mixture. We had a casting director based in L.A. It was about 60 percent from Miami and the rest from everywhere else. For the character that Naomie plays, Paula, we needed a very skilled actor to play that part. She did all the heavy lifting.

For the main character I was open to fresh faces. We scoured the country and the UK. Piece by piece we built it out.

WCT: I heard Naomie shot her scenes quickly.

BJ: In three days. It wasn't meant to be that way because we shot the movie in sequence. We had to shift the whole schedule because of problems with her visa. It yielded some interesting results. Mahershala Ali worked for 30 straight days because he was filming Luke Cage. He flies back and forth from Miami to New York.

WCT: Andre Holland just told me you made the decision to not have them watch other scenes. What is the story behind that?

BJ: I didn't want people to mimic the other actors. One of the things that struck me in the source material is how each character was shaped by this lack of nurturing. I felt these things were so heavy that they reshaped the character into a different person. I wanted them to be their own being from story to story. Myself and the editor would do the work to unite them.

WCT: I have seen Janelle Monae perform live, but this was very different for her, as an actress.

BJ: I didn't know why Teresa was in the piece. It could have been a grandma or an aunt.

TAM: I did have several women in my life who were really kind to me. They would drop off clothes or cook for us. It was interesting that they would never overstep boundaries or talk bad about my mother.

There were women as well as men who were not biological blood to me but they found a space for me in their life.

BJ: The cool thing about working with Janelle is she understood that, not as an actor but as a person.

WCT: You bring up a good point that, as gay people, we have other forms of family sometimes. This is not shown in movies often.

TAM: We don't see communities that are oppressing us can also nurture us. Sometimes it is the scary part that they do it at the same time. I always ask Barry when can we go back and do something for the community. The same community that threw rocks at me down the street. That was the same community that gave me free dance and acting classes.

WCT: For the emotional scenes, how did you prepare the actors?

BJ: I approached it all the same way. From how an actor puts a pot on the stove to two guys making out. Everything is sacred and nothing is sacred.

The last five minutes of the film were filmed on the last day. I had respect for that. It was the farthest the character was going to go.

WCT: Are there frontrunners for Oscar time, with this being such an ensemble piece?

BJ: I love them all equally. There were no egos on this film. I never expected awards for the film. What I love about it is that there are people now that wouldn't have heard about it otherwise. The more we can spread the word about it will allow someone to see themselves in it.

WCT: Do you think it will have a big crossover appeal?

BJ: I was in New York last week and screening it. There was no crossover needed. The audiences were all ages and all races. Everyone was there to receive the characters and give themselves over to the story. This movie is reaching people!

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