A Conversation with the Writer, Director, and Star of Moonlight

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

While for many, 2016 will be remembered as the year of La La Land, others have been more taken with a powerful story that defied all odds and became the only film that could take the big prize away from the grand Hollywood musical – Moonlight.

Without the star power of Stone and Gosling, the film presents the coming of age of a young black man struggling with life and his own sexuality – a journey most had never seen portrayed on the big screen ever before. Based on the life of its writer, Tarell Alvin McCraney, we watch a life in three acts. Director, Barry Jenkins, who grew up in the same neighborhood as McCraney, co-wrote the film with him and witnessed many of the events in the film personally.

Moonlight’s main character, Chiron, walks through the nuances of family pain and hope from the most unlikely of sources. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, a drug dealer named Juan, played by Oscar-nominee Mahershala Ali, tells young Chiron that in the clear moonlight, black boys look blue. The power of the image, the metaphor, the performances, and the story itself can be seen just as clearly.

LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher had the opportunity to talk to McCraney, Jenkins, and Ali, about some of the elements that make the film feel so transcendent.

Bucher: Can you talk about what it was like to write about moments and people that really existed in your life?

McCraney: What I was thinking when I sat down and wrote these scenes, these characters, is that these are people that are slipping from my memory every day. Every day they get further and further from my memory, so much so that I cannot remember their faces. I am surrounded by people who do not look like me, who do not come from where I come from, who do not socially locate the way I do, and do not have the same anxieties that I have in the world. So, what I wanted to do was pin those characters down the best way I could, in the fevered memories of them that I have. I’d love to tell you that I just made up all these interesting characters, like the drug dealer who did noble things. But the truth is one day, a drug dealer got off his crate and taught me how to ride a bike. That happened. That was real in my life. To me, that experience was slipping away like sand, and if I didn’t get it down somewhere, someone wouldn’t believe me.

Bucher: Would you explain the use and symbolism of water in the script?

Jenkins: In Tarell’s source material, you always saw these patterns in each act of Chiron’s life. You saw Little wake up. You saw Chiron wake up. You saw Black wake up. You saw Little go to school. You saw Chiron go to school. You saw Black go to the corner. When you pull the stories apart, you have all these things that “rhyme,” in a sense. There was water in Little’s life. Water in Chiron’s life. Water in Black’s life. It echoes really beautifully when you see the same ripple – the same effect.

Even though Tarell and I grew up in the same place, I went to the beach maybe three times. But when I saw Tarrell’s story, it was clear that water was such an important element. It became my chance to reclaim this water that I grew up around, that was so close to me. I saw it as an opportunity. Even when you don’t see the water, you hear the sound of the ocean throughout the film. The sound of waves under the musical sound track are actually what opens the story.

Ali: To me, one of the most impactful moments in the film is when Little is heating up the water for his bath. In that scene, he’s the most alone you see him in the entire film. When I see that scene, it breaks my heart.

Jenkins: That’s the scene that no matter where I go, people talk about that moment. Anybody who’s been poor knows that you can make heat, even when you don’t have electricity, to make a hot bath. The specific moments in a story end up being what’s universal. People can relate to that one gesture of self-care.

Bucher: I actually feel like a better human being having seen Moonlight. Were their films that affected you that way, growing up, Tarell?

McCraney: Definitely.  I remember seeing this movie called Fresh when I was a teenager. It was the film that made me think I could make a film about my life. I remember seeing it and thinking that someone might care enough to chart my journey.

Ali: When people see stories that they relate to strongly, like Fresh, like Moonlight, people need to talk about them. I have run into so many people lately that recognize me from the film, and they really need a moment. I’ve done my fair share of projects and no one really stops me to have a conversation about Mockingjay, but they do want to talk about this film.

McCraney: For the record, I would love to have a conversation about Mockingjay. Big fan.

Moonlight is in theaters now. Find tickets near you:

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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