In Moonlight, coming up the hard way in Miami, a kid named Chiron is on a heartbreaking path from troubled boy to tormented man. Director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton have given us the gift of a visually stunning and deeply original coming-of-age tale that focuses on three defining chapters in Chiron’s life. The filmmaking relationship between Jenkins and Laxton dates back to their first youthful collaborations in film school, and their reunion this year has resulted in one of most highly acclaimed films in recent years.
For our latest installment of Through the Lens, Laxton talks about how he shot the swimming scene at eye level in the water, so he could get in close with the actors, allowing us to literally immerse ourselves in the experience of the characters. Filming in water wasn’t Laxton’s only challenge. A looming storm in the distance reduced their scheduled shooting time from six hours to a mere 90 minutes.
Laxton then dissects the diner scene that comes at the end of the film. Years have passed since their first encounter. Kevin and Chiron are older and in some ways even more damaged than before. They’ve each gone through tough times and they meet again warily after being estranged. Laxton describes the technical challenges he faced that helped create the sensation of awkward tension.
The Swimming Scene:
This takes place between Juan and Chiron. Globally Moonlight, and specifically with this scene, the visual language we wanted to go forward with and use was one that ideally immersed the audience in a dreamlike experience, not one that was based on realism. It was important for us to get the camera out into the water with those characters and be in very close proximity and experience the spiritual experience they’re having with each other, rather than be on a beach with a good tripod and long lens to capture that scene.
It was important for us to make the audience feel as if they were there. We put the camera in an underwater housing case that weighed around 200 pounds, and I was wrestling with the water and the waves, pulling and pushing, trying to capture these characters. They’re also experiencing those same waves and tides and we were all out there together. This environment had an influence on the images we were going to be capturing. It’s something Barry Jenkins does really well, he puts both his actors and crew in scenarios that have a great deal of influence on the outcome of those scenes, and it’s almost as if you can’t help but be inspired by those spaces. That decision to get out there with the characters had a great deal of impact on what that scene looked like.
As for the technical challenge, beyond the 200-pound camera in the water, as it got to the day to shoot the scene, off in the distance and horizon we saw this big dark cloud approaching. The scene was initially scheduled to be shot over six hours. Barry, a native of Miami, has a great barometer. If he wanted to turn into a weatherman for the city of Miami he’d be great. We only had an hour and a half to get the scene done. We got into the water and adapted a bit of our shot list, and the script to allocate for that time crunch. On some level, it was inspiring. Something Barry and I love is when you’re moving quickly as a crew, a creative energy happens when everyone is that focused when you have to pull something off. It’s something both he and I responded to. As much as it was a challenge, it was also inspiring.
That scene begins sun-drenched and then becomes gray and ominous. That changes the emotional investment of the scene.
The Diner Scene:
The diner scene is one of my favorite scenes in the film. I know it’s not one that has bold lighting or even stylized camera movements as we do in other parts of the film, but there’s a precision to the scene, and a delicacy to it that I’m really proud of.
It was a scene that we talked a lot about in pre-production. We planned so much of when we start the scene, what part is handheld, and what part is a dolly. A lot of planning went into it, and I’m really proud of how it turned out in the end.
Going back, the broad concept with how we approached the scene was alluding to some tension. They haven’t seen each other in a long time. We as an audience don’t know how it’s going to go down. Even after they meet and have that embrace, there’s a lot of dialogue that alludes to a conflict between how they’ve grown separately over the course of the years. That tension over how they’ll visually reconnect was something we wanted to represent. Going forward from there, the pace by which we open the scene with that dolly shot, as we see Kevin bussing plates, and then coming to meet Chiron at the counter area, that pace in editorial, alluded to that tension and play into how these two are going to reestablish that relationship they once had years earlier.
Moving forward, we go to the handheld moments between the two of them, disarming the energy, and we go to lock into a camera on a tripod moment where they’re at the table. Almost like a detective, Kevin asks, “What are you doing? How are things with you?” Testing him a little bit, and it turns into a bit of conflict, and we move the camera away, and we swap to a longer lens to create a bit more tension visually anyway.
By the end of it, we’re into tight close-ups right before we cut to the doorbell.
There’s something interesting in this scene, the inside of the diner is lit with incandescent light bulbs that were hung above the tables, and provided a warm glow. There’s a window outside that has blue fluorescent lighting. You can see the exterior and there’s a contrast and alludes to harshness of the outside world. It reminds the audience that while there’s an intimacy happening within the diner, just outside the walls there might be a conflict that’s going on where everything may not be as accepting as the diner feels to them.
This was the only scene where we were able to schedule over the course of two days, whereas everything happened over one day. The value here we held so heavily, we knew it was vital to the film, and we scheduled it over two days.
Barry and I really like that creative energy that happens when you’re working quickly and decisions are made quickly, you don’t have time to second guess yourself and muddle ideas. We both made decisions on gut, and if we made decisions on set, then it’s probably is right for the film. We both trust each other.
Shooting that over a day or so, and the water one in that short time, we look at as an opportunity to try things differently.