Barry Jenkins deconstructs the swimming lesson scene from 'Moonlight'
'It became this really beautiful moment for me personally as a filmmaker'
In Moonlight, director Barry Jenkins weaves a tender but powerful coming-of-age story, chronicling the life of a Miami boy named Chiron over the course of three acts. The film is packed with breathtaking sequences and emotional moments in Chiron’s life, but one of Moonlight‘s most gorgeous and memorable scenes comes in the first act, as drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches the young Chiron (known then as “Little” and played by Alex Hibbert) how to swim.
EW sat down with Jenkins to break down the scene and talk about why it was so important to get this moment just right.
“I felt like there needed to be this moment of spiritual transference between the character Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, and the character Little, played by Alex Hibbert,” Jenkins explained. “So for the first 15 minutes of the film, these two characters are still strangers. And I knew there needed to be this moment where they intimately bonded, and this idea of a swimming lesson was sort of where I landed.”
Not only is the result an emotional sequence that serves the narrative, but it also holds a personal significance for Jenkins and his co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney.
“That scene, in particular, growing up in Miami, the ocean has this sort of charge, this energy,” Jenkins said. “It’s something you can always feel. Sometimes you can even smell it, despite the fact that it might be two miles away. I wanted the audience to get that sensation that Tarell and I had growing up.”
Jenkins added that although he made specific camera choices as the director to make the swimming sequence as powerful as possible, unexpected circumstances on the day they shot the scene added another layer.
“We placed the camera on the horizon,” he said. “The same way Little the character is bobbing in and out of the water, the audience is bobbing in and out of the water. It became this really beautiful sort of moment for me personally as a filmmaker, because this storm was coming in, and all these plans that I had for what the scene was supposed to be went out of the water. And Alex Hibbert the actor does not know how to swim, so you’re actually watching Mahershala Ali teach this kid how to swim in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean as a storm is rolling in. Things like that, I can’t plan for. I don’t even like to say that I orchestrate them. But once they’re there, I think the beauty of making this film was the cast, the crew, all these elements come together to capture what the world is presenting us.”
Moonlight is out now.