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Playback: Barry Jenkins on ‘Moonlight’ and Making ‘Bittersweet’ Oscar History

Variety logo Variety 2/2/2017 Kristopher Tapley

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast.

On today’s show Jenelle Riley and I run a postmortem on the recent guild and industry group kudos: the ACE Eddie Awards, the SAG Awards and the PGA Awards. So far “La La Land” appears to be on track, but naturally, the frontrunner backlash is right on schedule. We dig into that a little bit and what appears to really be underneath all of it for detractors: the sense that in a year with such inclusion and diversity on display, a movie like “La La Land” running the table somehow flies in the face of all of that.

A little bit later (17:53), I’m talking to “Moonlight” writer-director Barry Jenkins, has scooped up 20 critics’ awards throughout the precursor circuit, more than any other movie.

For more, listen to the latest episode of “Playback” below. Check back next week when I’ll be talking to “Arrival” director Denis Villeneuve, and be sure to subscribe!

The “Moonlight” journey through the season first started at the Telluride Film Festival, a special place for Jenkins who has helped in programming the event for over a decade. Going there was a bit of a homecoming, but also a safe place to bring his very intimate and personal vision out into the world. And the reaction couldn’t have been sweeter. One crowd even burst into spontaneous applause upon seeing him and his team exit the theater after one screening.

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Barry Jenkins photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback podcast

Dan Doperalski for Variety

“That was the moment when I realized, ‘Wow, something different is happening,’ by which I mean something different than my expectations,” Jenkins recalls. “I thought the film would be relatively well received there, but I’m inside the movie, and I had no context to what it would mean to people outside, and when we came out, yeah, it was amazing.”

The film is an adaptation of a Tarell Alvin McCraney short film script, called “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blu” (no “e”). The most notable change Jenkins made in expanding it and deepening it as a piece of cinema was breaking into the structure of the piece, which originally cut back and forth between the stories of Little, Chiron and Black. Instead he broke them down linearly, telling one story completely before moving on to the next chapter.

“When I first read it, I tried to read it as an audience member sitting in the cinema watching this story unfold, and I felt like it was too intellectual to really follow the journey of the boy into the teen into the man,” Jenkins says. “I thought whatever the piece was saying about the world was going to be best digested by the audience over the course of a linear journey with the character, rather than seeing time fold back on itself. And also, I right away thought of the concept of seeing this guy as different people, literally how the world has forced him to manifest himself into a different person, and I thought that if you could really spend time with one version and then jump and spend time with the next version, you’ll see more of the change, you’ll get more of the read of how society has effected this person. It was honestly the breakthrough where I thought, ‘OK, I can take authorship of this piece.'”

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Barry Jenkins photographed exclusively for the Variety Playback podcast

Dan Doperalski for Variety

Meanwhile Jenkins has made history. “Moonlight” is the first film from a black writer-director to be Oscar-nominated for best picture, best director and best screenplay. But what is the overriding emotion there? Is it pride that he’s the one to have broken that ceiling, or is it a longing for a time when stats like that don’t even need to be addressed?

“It’s bittersweet,” Jenkins admits. “There are so many different angles on it. One, I’m getting messages from people back home in Miami now, people living in the world you see depicted in this film. I think when you watch this movie, you don’t assume that Chiron is going to grow up and be nominated for two Academy Awards, and I think people look at me and they see that happen, and their idea of what they are capable of is shifting. That’s amazing. What’s possible is shifting and it’s a beautiful thing. But of course, it’s bittersweet. It’s 2017. There should be no room for firsts anymore.”

Hear about that and a whole lot more via the streaming link above.

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