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Tarell Alvin McCraney On ‘Moonlight’s Message: “I Think People Were Hungry For That”

Deadline logo Deadline 2/17/2017 Amanda N'Duka

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Not many of us get the chance to re-visit moments from our past—let alone have them play out for the world to see—but for Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight was that vehicle. Based on his play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film follows a young boy’s arduous journey of self-discovery while growing up in Miami’s low-income housing projects with a drug-stricken mother.  McCraney, who wrote the script during a turbulent period in his young adult life, is up for an Oscar for Best Adapted screenplay, a nomination he shares with the film’s writer/director Barry Jenkins. McCraney insisted that Moonlight wasn’t a reflection of every black gay man’s plight, but the film does showcase a universal commonality of the human experience, which culminates into our fight for unconditional acceptance.

Let’s just start just start from the beginning. Is it true that you wrote this script as a college project while you were at Yale?

No, it was two summers before I went to Yale. I wrote it the summer of 2003 and I had just graduated from DePaul University. My mother died of aids-related complications a month later. I had taken the year off to do a job with Peter Brook and I had already gotten into Yale but then my mom passed away and I tried to take a year to deal with that. The person who had given me the year, the chair of the department, then left, and so that went away and so did the play with Peter Brook, so I kind of had nothing.

I spent the next four to five months really just trying to figure out where my life was going. That moment really felt like times before in my life where I often think things are going to go OK, when things are looking fine, and then they go askew. Specifically, when I was six or seven years old I came home one day and the person I thought of as father figure—the person who Juan is based on—was shot and killed. So my mother told me he was gone and that was the beginning of me sort of figuring out every sort of moment where you take your eye off the ball hoping something might happen. That’s why I wrote the piece.

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Did you always expect you’d reach a point where you’d write a piece about your life?

Well every piece I’ve written has some part of my life experience in it. So, the short answer, I guess, is yes. But did I think I would write a piece this specific? No. Again, this piece came out of a moment of trying to just really put pieces together. If I was a scientist, I would’ve tried to put a hypothesis together to figure out some alchemy to make me understand this better, but I was an artist so I decided to write it down to see what it looked like. You know, how did I get to the place I was at, and was there was an alternative to the steps that I’d taken to get to the 22 year old, 23 year old that I was looking at?

Fast forward 10 or so years later and you’re approached by Barry Jenkins to adapt this into a film. I’ve read that you always saw this story and this script as a film, but what was your initial thought or reaction when you were approached to actually make it into a feature?

Barry and I have a mutual friend at the Borscht Corporation in Miami, who wanted to get artists who lived in Miami—who were from Miami—to create work in, around and about Miami. He was working with Barry at the time and asked me if I had anything. So I gave him that piece because it was always written in the way you would write a script for film. Sadly, you know, it was my first attempt, so I had a lot of the holdovers from the theater. There was a whole lot of dialogue, but it also held the format of ‘interior/exterior’, ‘cut to’, all of that. So it was always designed to sort of shape in the way that it needed to be filmed. And then Barry got a hold it. I think it took him a minute to read it, and when he finally read it he said, “hey I think I see what you’re trying to do here. Here are some ideas of ways to make this better.” We started bandying notes back and forth to make the script better.

Previous to that, there had been a couple times that friends had known of my plays and wanted to see if I had anything that might be suited for film or television, and had read the script and thought, “OK, great,” but they wanted to set it at Chicago or, you know, extend it into some sort of revenge movie, and I just wasn’t interested in that. So those were easy nos. Barry was very generous and he just understood the kind of lexicon that the piece needed to be in the world. He’d lived in those projects. He’d lived down the street. He knew what the summers felt like, what the winters felt like. What an event it was to actually go to the beach and how lonely and or brave that could be. And so it was a very easy process to say yes when he decided to adapt that script into the three chapter script, which became Moonlight.

You guys grew up in the same city, right?

The same housing project. We grew up three blocks away from each other.

Do you think that’s what contributed to how Barry’s vision kind of aligned with yours? Maybe because you guys had very similar experiences or similar upbringings?

Absolutely. Barry’s only nine months older than me so we’re in the same schools at the same time. We were certainly under the same moon, so the same moon that I was talking to as a kid was shining on him playing football in the same lot that I was running away from bullies. A lot of other mothers were suffering from addiction pretty much at the same time that we were both living in the same projects three blocks away. Going to school, trying to go to school, trying to figure out how to get lotion because if you don’t have any, well… Making sure the lights stay on or leaning on people in the neighborhood so they take care of us because our parents might not have been doing the best job.

What was the experience like of being present for those first screenings?

I was at Toronto, which was pretty spectacular. I remember we were in this huge theater—a stadium size theater—and people were standing up clapping for the piece, so I felt overwhelmed for sure. It has felt in some ways rewarding, in some ways invasive. At least it did at first. That’s a part of the work. The piece is that intimate because it needs to be. Other people want to feel and be that intimate in experiences like it too. And so I’m lucky that people are hungry for that, because it very well could be a time when people are like, “No, we don’t even want to go that deep, we’d rather sort of stay somewhere a little more surface-y.”

But Barry and his wisdom drop you right into the middle of those men’s lives. And you’re with them so close, and people are hungry for that. Some people are totally uninterested, but they can’t say that the film doesn’t do a hell of a job of inviting. I wasn’t shocked when Barry received all the accolades he’s received. Even though the story’s very personal to me, I could understand and see very well that he had done something unique and brave. He decided to go all-in on a choice rather than sort of timidly and trepidatiously try something. He put his full powers to it and people have got to notice that. So they can say a lot about the concept but they can’t say a lot about the craft. He just really did an incredible job.

It didn’t feel invasive the first time I saw the film. When Barry showed it to me, it felt great and wonderful to be there, and I was excited. I think what I realized is that people had engaged in a way that I had similarly been engaged, and I just wasn’t used to it, so I didn’t know how to handle it, sitting there with nearly a thousand people feeling the way I feel about certain things. But I swiftly got over it. Mostly because the outpouring from people afterwards. I needed that. I can now talk about X,Y,Z. My own feelings are the same, but I now feel like I can talk about so much more of myself from a firmer place because of this. It’s so intimate that way.

This film has been highly revered throughout this award season. So many people have said they have some kind of connection to it, to your story. Why do you think that your particular experience resonated with such a wide audience?

I don’t know if it’s necessarily my particular story but the way in which it was offered to the audience. And I know it sounds like I’m pandering but honestly Barry made a very brave and smooth choice. We could have easily shot this film almost like a documentary. “Oh, look at these poor, black, queer-identifying, not-identifying, we-don’t-really-know people from this removed place.” Even in the camerawork he could have just sat back and done wide shots and been like, “Look at their lives.” Instead, he put that camera right in their face. He put the camera right in their eyes. He put the camera right in their point of view. He shows you the world as they’re looking at it, as they’re spinning, as they’re trying to hold on to things.

I think what happens is people are seeing those memories that I created on the page. Barry framed them in ways that you could be inside of them. And the thing about memory is that it’s not what was remembered visually or sonically, or even what we smell. The memory is the feeling. And what triggers that memory is something that we see. So you see something that looks like something you remember. Or you smell your grandmothers cooking and you know it takes you back to this time and it takes you back to that feeling instantly. I think that’s what the film does. It locates you into a feeling in a way that I think only movies can. And I think people were hungry for that. Again, there are people who are not about it. And to those people I say cool, tell somebody else.

It’s a story of the universal concept of acceptance, accepting ourselves as well as others accepting us for who we are. And I think that really spoke to the masses because whatever issues in our minds that are kind of turning us, it comes back to that conflict that we all have within us.

Yeah, exactly. And that’s why I would go so far to say it reminded you of the time you weren’t accepted, right? And that’s important. I could say, “It’s important for acceptance,” right? And that means little to nothing to you until you go, “You know what, I remember the day that happened to me.” Or, “I remember this feeling and it did not feel good.” Then from that place it’s easier for us to move on. It’s easy for us to move together because we’re both in the feeling and in the memory of what that feels like. And I just think none of us want to suffer alone. We love company.

I also think the film has a lot of light in it. I mean, it does have some pretty dark stuff, but it also shows how a very dangerous and deadly situation turns out not so much. It turns out with two people who are still alive and able to come across a bridge to maintain each other and maintain their conversation with each other. A lot of people kept saying things like, “Well, what do they do next?” To me, that’s a good sign because it means you’re invested in the days ahead, not in the, “Oh well, that happened, good I’m going to go buy my salami sandwich.” You’re literally thinking about what are their next steps? What is their life like? They’re staying with you because you’re still trying to play out what the possibilities could be. And how many times do we do possibility in a film about poverty? Especially black poverty.

With the success of this movie, what do you feel it means for the African-American community particularly when it comes to this issue?

Well this particular film I think brings up some questions that are difficult for any community, particularly the African-American community, because it doesn’t it doesn’t deliver any clear narrative. I see people debating on whether they think black is gay or not, or how we identify. I will say that this is a story about a specific man’s experience in that neighborhood. There were kids who were gay. And I don’t mean they were effeminate and so we called them that. No, that they identified as homosexual. They were our age and they didn’t receive the same kind of treatment. And for the life of me I could not tell you why they didn’t. I could not say what was different from me that they didn’t suffer in that way. I’m sure they had other battles and that story is probably thrilling and intricate to tell.

But one of the things that Barry and I were very clear about is that this isn’t every gay black person’s story or queer black person’s story. This is one specifically. The community should look at what this life looks like in the tapestry of the village. To me, if we can line up our stories next to each other and see how they exist, and how they make us unique and beautiful, we can go a long way. Homophobia exists here. So does misogyny and anti-feminism, which you know is pervasive in a lot of ways. And in tackling those things, we have to be careful about making sure we see the moments where people are allowed to be and figuring what that means, and why others aren’t. What does that mean? What do we do? So I think it allows us a conversation that is difficult to have. But it’s one only we can have with ourselves. We can’t allow ourselves to sort of branch out to other communities for their advice on this. We’ve got to do the hard and dirty work of investigating ourselves fully. And I think the zone makes us do that in a lot of ways.

To be fair, it was hard for me to know who this narrative was for because it was my own. I had a very terrible feeling about sharing it and now I feel all empowered to put it forward because 12 people got into a hot van and came to my Miami and decided to make the film. They used all of their resources and powers. They could have easily passed on it, and some people did. They could have easily been like “No, this isn’t for me.” But they didn’t. Mahershala Ali showed up, and Naomie Harris, Ashton [Sanders], Jharrel Jerome, you know who are 17, 18, 19 at the time easily could have shied away from this but they stood up in this. They said, “This is an important story I want to tell.” Those young boys, Alex [Hibbert] and Jaden [Piner], who were nine or ten at the time, were like, “Yeah I need to tell this story.” They wanted to be a part of this. And still are repping their decision to do so all around. That’s made me understand the importance of it, because the community can come together to tell its story. Even that’s powerful to me.

So are we going see anything else from you in the future? Are you getting more offers to do films? And I know you also act too. Are we going to be seeing you on the big or small screen?

I have no idea. I know you will see me at Yale School of Drama in the Fall.

You’re teaching right now.

Not only teaching, I’ve become the head of the program, which is terrifying. But at the same time it’s rewarding.

I have really incredibly talented friends I’m working with. My friend Andre Holland, who’s in the film, we worked on plays together. I have friends who just are trying to figure out really great projects for us to tell and I’m just trying to figure out how I can be helpful or not helpful on all of those. That’s really what I’ll be doing. I’ve been kind of just trying to make myself available in ways that are most helpful. And it’s rewarding that way. Instead of just trying to pack up your bag full of scripts and shop around. It’s really great to sort of go up to somebody and say, “What are you working on? What do you want to work on? How can I be of help? Can I be of help? Can I be a sounding board? Am I in the way? How do I get out of this?” All those things.

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