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Movies

Moonlight writer-director shares secrets from the most suspenseful scene

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In the lead-up to this year’s Academy Awards on Feb. 26, EW is taking a closer look at some of the screenplays honored in the original and adapted categories. The nominated writers will break down select pages that were essential to the stories they were telling.

The Tarell Alvin McCraney play that serves as the basis for Moonlight ends before the main character is ever able to meet up with the man that has played such a large role in his formation. When writer-director Barry Jenkins, who’s nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, reapproached the material as a film, he wanted to give the center of the film that one last encounter.

The sequence plays out much more slowly than the rest of the film, Black (Trevante Rhodes), the oldest version of the main character Chiron, travels to Miami to meet up with his childhood friend-turned-one-time-lover, Kevin, at a diner. The two have a few short, tense exchanges, before Kevin plays the song that reminded him of Chiron and spurred a late-night phone call.

Here, Jenkins explain his incorporation of the song “Hello Stranger” by Barbara Lewis into the fabric of his screenplay and how he created dialogue out of exchanged glances. (Warning: Strong language below)

The idea for me was to place the characters in a scenario where there was no room for evasion. I wanted them, in very simple terms, to have to look at one another in the eye, more for Chiron’s benefit and engagement than for Kevin’s. It was wonderful to have a situation where we could see what time had done to these two people, to see how the world had reshaped them. It was about trying to find the simplest setting for that.

Some things come to you intellectually, and some things come to you emotionally and just spontaneously. This is one of those things that just lodged into my head. That was more a feeling than an intellectual point on a character’s story arch. It just felt like everything was building to this halo of space that was going to be created by the wonder of the song.

Everything slows down. And Kevin, he’s busy. He’s working. He’s up, he’s down, he’s up, he’s down. Finally, at the end, there’s no one else, and he sits down. He’s just there, and it’s clear that he’s not going to get up again. Of all the circular conversations they’ve been having, now it’s almost like something is going down a drain. There’s a spiral, but the circumference is getting smaller and smaller. Now it’s right there in front of them, and it’s about that song.

I was sitting in a bar in San Francisco called The Make Out Room, and there was this soul night, where the DJs would spin what they called “slow soul.” It was only vinyl 45s, and this guy, this hipster San Francisco dude put on this record. I don’t know what I was going through at the time. Maybe I was going through a breakup or something, but it just knocked me down. Later when I was writing, I’m basically sitting in a bar in Brussels, and I’m hearing this song in my head and typing the lyrics into the script, which I never do. It was one of those things, again, where it didn’t come to me intellectually. The song had wormed its way into my heart.

I just love that there’s all this talk these guys have been doing. It’s a circular conversation, but it’s not a big talk out. But there is: it’s with their eyes, because there is nowhere else to look. They have to sit right across from one another to look each other in the eye. I think nothing is more dangerous for this character of Chiron, for someone who truly knows him to look him in the eye and actually see Alex Hibbert, actually see Ashton Sanders. 

That’s the currency of what’s occurring in that moment. It was even the currency of that moment in the script. I hadn’t read it in at least a year, and when I pulled the pages, I was like, “Oh, s—. Yeah, that is kind of how I wrote it.”

I want the actors when they’re reading the script to understand why certain things are occurring and what my intentions are. [Things like “f— it”] are for the reader. The script is a blueprint, but I think because often times you don’t get to spend every second with the actors or the cinematographer or the sound person, so I like to put a little blood — I like to say — in the script. It can’t just all be brain. It’s got to be a little bit of blood.

I knew that we had to do something to help reorient the audience. It’s why the two longest shots are immediately at the beginning of the diner. Black pulls up, and we watch him put his shirt on. We watch him walk all the way over to the door. Then he walks in, and the camera’s drifting. We’re watching as he sits down and Andre takes the plate. Then finally, Andre walks over, and we cut right into Andre’s face. That’s intentional. It’s to  help me, knowing what the writer has done, the director is now going, “Ok, I have to help the audience understand that time is about to pass differently here.”

It’s interesting because even in this script, we have these door bells visually, but even those were written into the script. The whole sequence in the diner is meant to function as time outside time because this character is being shaped by society so much. Once we’re in this diner, society doesn’t exist. It’s just me and another human being. If you want to choose to not open, it’s a choice. It’s not the result of outside pressure. That was the guiding principle for the whole sequence, but it was meant to come to a head in this booth.