James Laxton’s history with Barry Jenkins goes back to their university days. Together they studied the language of cinema and together they now seamlessly mesh as cinematographer and director. Like Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk is so richly shot, there’s a vivid softness as we see the love story of Fonny and Tish unfold and face crisis. Through the camera eye, we are immersed in their world as their families struggle to prevail, after Fonny is falsely accused and arrested. In every scene, Jenkins and Laxton make us feel present in the room, almost as participants in the drama.
It’s a beautiful film, and brings James Baldwin’s novel to life. His words, his language is powerfully translated into images that move us with the same poetry.
Laxton talks about setting the emotional landscape in this beautifully tragic love story.
What was the visual conversation you had with Barry over the tone and how did Baldwin’s novel play into that?
The visual conversation stemmed from James Baldwin. The tone was based on the writing in its original format. Clearly, when you adapt a novel, you think of screenplay adaptations. We wanted to do our best to adapt it for a visual language as well that stemmed from James Baldwin’s writing. A lot of our writings came from there. The tone was set from the novel and we tried our best to think about how he writes, the languages he uses, the power, the nuance, and the specificity. We used that to decide how to interpret that in terms of format, how light plays in a scene, or lens choices. It all came from the original source material.
That opening sets the emotional landscape and then we cut to that close up. Walk me through that setup.
The opening shots in Beale Street and Moonlight are very similar in what they’re trying to do in trying to bring our audiences into the film as quickly and as intensely as possible. What you see in Beale Street is the camera wandering across some leaves of a beautiful fall tree and then down to these two young lovers taking a walk down this path in a park. That image of young love is such an iconic thing within all of our lives no matter where you come from in this country or elsewhere. We can remember our youth fondly and through that lens, we try to present it as such. I think the movie at its core is a love story. That edit between them and them on the bridgeway and in love, talking about the love they share. Then cut to the tension and the conflict of the jail. The film encapsulates at that moment. I think that the movie goes on from there to explore those two ideas of love and conflict.
I think it was our attempt in that shot to present one side of it, the love side, the romance of the camera movement. Rotating around the lovers as they walk down the way. Cut to that stark closeup of Tish in jail. The attempt was to make the cut in that edit to become the most contrasting edit we could possibly create.
You have those jail scenes, and a lot of the time you have Fonny starring down the camera. You feel him. We are in his shoes.
The hope was to put our audiences directly in their shoes in those scenes. The way we did that was to have the characters have them look directly at us and through the camera into our own lives. It’s a technique that Barry and I used in certain moments when it felts right and appropriate to the material and those jail scenes speak to that for us. It felt like the moment we needed Fonny and Tish to speak directly to us as the audience in the hope to bring everyone into that moment. That love, that conflict is such a critical thing to the film and hopefully,you get that glimpse.
You also have the birth scene and the camera movement there. Walk me through setting that up.
That was a challenging one technically where the camera floats underneath the water. The camera comes through with the baby as it comes out, it crests the bathtub water and rotates around with this baby into Tish’s arms. It’s a complicated thing. There are some VFX elements married with live action moments. Getting that blend was tricky. We had to find a natural way for the VFX to seamlessly integrate with the moment shared on the set. That was our focus to make it seem natural and not make it feel like a surreal different world. The work we did in pre-vis helped a lot with getting that all right.
The other scene that comes to mind was the scene in the first act with the families.
There are a lot of characters and a lot of dialogue in that scene, the rhythm was fast-paced. Trying to find a way to cover it with the camera and not make it feel like a stage play was figuring out how to bring the camera into the conversation. it was something Barry and I tried to do. Again we wanted the audience to feel as if the audience was in the moment. We didn’t want to feel like we were watching them. We wanted you to feel as if you were a family member.
You and Barry go back. How much trust did he give you?
The word collaboration in its true meaning is how I would describe Barry and I’s relationship. It’s an immense amount of trust and inspiration shared between the two of us. I push him and he pushes me. It’s that space and chemistry we share together. I don’t think either one of us feels like we give one or the other less control. It’s a conversation about how to create and share the process with each other.
Our history of that we share of learning the craft together it goes a long way to trusting that conversation. When you’re posed with a conflict, it’s about looking to the other person and knowing they have your back and we’ll get through this together. It’s a lovely thing that we have together.
Not to go off-topic, the thing with our history, there’s a bit about accents. No matter where you’re from, you learn it with an accent. I think because Barry and I learned the language of cinema at the same place and the same time, we share this accent. With accent comes a language that only you are familiar with within the space you grow up in.
It’s how I think of Barry and I having this background with the same influences, it’s through that accent that we get to speak so well together.
What’s it like for you to work with a renowned piece of art, delving into Baldwin’s world?
I’m a big fan of his work. More broadly, his writings at large are things I’ve read and loved for years. There’s a real sense of combination, a real sense of confluence of nuance and elegance nixed with this great power and strength. He speaks with this strong voice that is subtle and specific, but it’s not aggressive.
We chose to shoot the film on Alexa 65. With that comes a great deal of resolution, dynamic range for exposure and color all things that create a large and impressive imagery that holds in that a great deal of power, but specificity in its resolution. For me, both those things combined represented how we felt about James Baldwin’s writing and written voice and how to commit that voice to a visual language with those choices.