Watch: Cinematographer James Laxton on the making of Moonlight above.
In 2019, Rotten Tomatoes turns 21, and to mark the occasion we’re celebrating the 21 Most Memorable Moments from the movies over the last 21 years. In this special video series, we speak to the actors and filmmakers who made those moments happen, revealing behind-the-scenes details of how they came to be and diving deep into why they’ve stuck with us for so long. Once we’ve announced all 21, it will be up to you, the fans, to vote for which is the most memorable moment of all. In this episode of our ‘21 Most Memorable Moments’ series, Moonlight cinematographer James Laxton shares how a surprise storm disrupted production, but added lasting richness to the film’s most enduring scene.
Moonlight is by any measure a landmark film: the first LGBTQ-themed movie to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards, the first film with a mostly black cast to win that prize, too, and, according to our Tomatometer, the best-reviewed LGBTQ film of all time. And yet beyond the accolades, and laurels, and Certified Fresh badges, the movie was and remains potent because the story it splashed onto the screen – in so many vivid hues – was one most viewers had never seen. That story began life in 2003 as the semi-autobiographical In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, an unpublished play by writer Tarell Alvin McCraney (whose Choir Boy is up for Best Play at this year’s Tony Awards). Screenwriter and director Barry Jenkins would adapt it for the big screen some 12 years later, breaking out its tale of Chiron, a black man in Miami whose homosexuality is at war with his and his world’s expectations of masculinity, into three distinct chapters: “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black.” Each showed Chiron at a different age, played by different actors, at different points of his struggle. Jenkins enlisted college friend and cinematographer James Laxton, who had lensed the director’s debut film Medicine for Melancholy, to give each section, and the film itself, a distinct look. Here, Laxton reveals how he worked to achieve Jenkins’ vision and tell Chiron’s story.
“I first met Barry Jenkins when I was 20. I think he was maybe 21. We were at Florida State University Film School in Tallahassee, Florida, two young kids who found our way into this film education world. We were really excited about trying to find new ways to express ourselves, and I think first bonded over the things that kids bond over all the time: similar tastes in music, or food. Once we became friends, we started talking about films, and all of a sudden also seemed to share a great interest in the kinds of films we were interested in watching. Then, as happens in film school, you start to think about what kind of films you want to make, and then for me, what those films look like. We started to realize we shared a great deal in aesthetics and in terms of how we wanted to visually tell stories. That friendship very quickly became a collaborative one. I don’t know that much has changed, to be totally honest, in whatever it’s been… 17, 18 years or so of this relationship. It’s a really wonderful one.”
“Learning about what films Barry wants to make is an interesting thing. It’s different than any other director I work with in that I find out about [projects in] whispery, secret-y sort of side conversations. He won’t be all official like, ‘Let’s have a meeting on Wednesday and let’s sit down and read the script together, and hash it out.’ It evolves over long periods of time; over dinner, or at a friend’s house, he’ll mention he’s working on something, and it’s about kids in Miami, or he found a project he’s interested in, and it sounds like we’ll maybe make this in the near future. So it first starts there. I feel like I heard about Moonlight first in a very casual setting. It was sort of [the way] you might find out your friend is getting married in a few months, or is engaged.”
“I think we started to share imagery back and forth [in the lead up to Moonlight], which is what we often do: So I’ll send him a series of photographs, he’ll send me a series of photographs. Very quickly after sharing of images back and forth, it became clear the movie wanted to have a very, very bold sensibility visually, and have images that would really grab you by the scruff of your neck and take you inside this world and not let you look away from the screen. To us, that had to do with strong color palettes with shooting in anamorphic aesthetics, where you’re having these epic sensibilities apply to what in the material was very subtle and nuanced. That combination of epicness and intimacy is what Moonlight came to look like. That’s how I see it, anyway, and that’s largely to do with just those early conversations about wanting those bold sensibilities to be at the forefront of our storytelling.”
In the first chapter of Moonlight, “Little,” Jenkins offers one of the most moving and often surprising relationships between a boy and a father figure we’ve seen in cinema. Juan (played by Mahershala Ali, who would win the first of his two Best Supporting Actor Oscars for the role) is a drug dealer whose softer, nurturing side is drawn out by Chiron, known as Little here. In a scene that defines the relationship, and came to define the film for many, Juan takes Chiron out off of a Miami Beach and teaches him to swim. Laxton was in the water with Ali and young actor Alex Hibbert as the moment unfolded.
“One of the concepts in the film that’s discussed is this idea of love generally, and more specifically trust in our parental figures. I think there’s a lot of conflict within Moonlight‘s coming-of-age [story], of Chiron’s journey finding adult figures that can help guide him through some difficult moments in his youth. Juan is one of these characters who really champions and gives this sense of trust to Little, or to Chiron. I think he does that specifically within this swimming scene, which for us had to have a sense of intimacy and a sense of struggle with it. There’s a lot of symbolism that is going on in that scene, especially visually. That iconic imagery that is epic in its sort of nature… we knew that was going to be part of the scene. Our approach in terms of camera work was to try to make the scene feel intimate, and as nuanced, and small, in a way, because the scene conceptually was going to be so big. If we could provide an intimate portrayal of it, in terms of how the scene is lensed, we felt like that would be the trick, so to speak. That would be the way into our audience’s hearts and minds. That was how we came about this idea of, well, let’s get the camera out into the water.”
“There are some pictures of me online struggling with this massive, behemoth underwater housing [a substantial camera case] – and we shot this film anamorphically, before some of these cameras that now are much smaller were available to us, so it was a very large contraption that you see me wrestling around the surf with. But I think that was in many ways part of it. Barry and I are so often trying to find ways to visually represent a character’s perspective; [that’s] how we go about making choices photographically. It’s all about character for us, and so for me, it was about trying to have a swimming lesson on my own in many ways, trying to learn how to use this camera in the water. I by no means am an underwater cinematographer. I mean, there are people who do that job specifically, and they’re really great at it. We didn’t necessarily want that, though. We wanted it to feel like a struggle… throwing me out there with this big thing and trying to fight the currents myself in the same way that Little is fighting the currents. We felt like there would be something in there, in the struggle between how it’s being visually represented and then what the scene is about at its core – this sense of trust that Juan is giving this young man in the water.”
“I think we had scheduled at least half a day to shoot this scene, specifically the water, swimming portion of the scene; we thought we had about six hours or so. So, we’re setting up the equipment, we’re getting the camera into the water, which takes a little while. Meanwhile, Barry, who’s from Miami, is ankle deep in the surf looking out at the horizon. I’m not from Florida myself, but he quickly, being native to the space, realized, ‘Oh, look. There’s a storm coming.’ He might as well be a meteorologist. I think he said that we have about an hour-and-a-half to get this scene shot. He was probably about right: it was about an hour-and-a-half or so later we had to run for cover, because a massive rainstorm had come. We had to hide underneath all kinds of tents and take a very long break. I mean, it was hours before we got back out there. When Barry alerted us to the storm approaching, we gathered our equipment together as quickly as possible, ran out into the water, and in some respects… I don’t want to say improvised, because what is in the script is on camera, if not in the exact way it was depicted. But we had a lot more shots in our shot list, and [were going to be] much more organized about capturing it. But I think because of the elements approaching, we had to really get out there and just specifically have a swimming lesson, and let Mahershala as Juan guide this young man, and [have] me out in the water, as well, trying to capture this swimming lesson as it came. It [was shot] almost like a documentary, less so like a film in some respects. I think in the end, all for the good. Sometimes your reaction to moments is as good as a well detailed plan might be. Sometimes it’s even better.”
“The sky does change on us at some point. We begin the scene in beautiful, somewhat partially clouded skies, and by the end of it, these dark rainclouds have kind of come over us, and as we end that scene, it kind of alludes to what is coming in the journey of Chiron, this impending cloud.”
Moonlight‘s success announced some major new talents. Ali, Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Hibbert, and Janelle Monae would all become in-demand actors – especially Ali, who would win a second Academy Award for Green Book in 2019. McCraney would write a TV series for OWN and win stage acclaim on Broadway for Choir Boy. Jenkins’ follow-up film, the adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, was one of the most anticipated movies of the fall last year, and would go on to become one of the best-reviewed films of the year (Jenkins would win Best Director at the 2019 Independent Spirit Awards and the film would win Best Picture that same night). Laxton was nominated for an Oscar for his work on Moonlight, and his work on Beale Street honored throughout last year’s awards season. The cinematographer says he didn’t expect all the red carpets when Moonlight wrapped its 21-day shoot in Miami back in 2015; he simply says the crew were proud of the work they’d done. Today, he says he’s proud that the work they did has connected with so many people, and continues to do so.
“Mahershala definitely brings a number of things with him when he comes on to a set. There’s a professionalism, of course, but there’s a strength, and there’s also a calmness; there’s just someone there who is ready for anything. I don’t know Mahershala really well; I know him from this experience filming the movie. But at the same time, he’s such a giver. I think in a way he brought not just him as Juan [to the scene], but there’s something of Mahershala in there, too. I don’t think Alex knew how to swim, or at least proficiently swim in that moment, and so, I think, yeah, Mahershala, again, in the sense of really getting out there and us all, camera included, kind of going through a swimming lesson in real life, in real time, with the storm coming over us… I don’t think that a different person could’ve done that. I think it’s so him. The part wasn’t necessarily written for him, I don’t believe, but he brought himself into that role in a way that I think very clearly comes out in that swimming scene.”
“I first saw the film from start to finish as a rough cut screening that we had in Los Angeles months before we presented at Telluride. The swimming scene definitely stood out to me, almost like a marker within the entire narrative that kind of stuck with you, as these important moments do. I think we all have those in our lives, markers that we can all kind of recall as adults now that shape our journey on some level, whether that’s a swimming lesson, or a bike riding lesson, or getting to college and meeting Barry Jenkins – or whatever these things are that find ways to change and alter your own personal narrative are wonderful. I feel very lucky, again, to have met Barry when I did. I feel very lucky to be at the beach that day with them; I feel like I participated in capturing a story and a scene that I think has a lot of meaning for people.”