When he first read Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” back in 2016 with the hope of adapting it for screen, Barry Jenkins knew it couldn’t be a movie.
“That was actually one of the earliest conversations I had with Colson,” Jenkins said during a panel for TheWrap’s Emmy Season Screening Series on Monday. “I thought the best way to do this was to be really clear, and be really honest. So I told him I had no interest in making it as a feature film. It had to be a television show.”
What he and cinematographer James Laxton (a frequent collaborator of Jenkins’ who worked on both “Moonlight” and “If Beale Street Could Talk”) didn’t know at the time was how ambitious that goal would turn out to be. Complicating things even further, Jenkins signed on to direct all 10 episodes of the Amazon limited series, with Laxton working on every episode as well.
The duo earned themselves a warning from one senior crew member: “You’re going to kill yourselves. It’ll be worth it, but I’m telling you, you’re going to die making this.”
“There’s just so much in there,” Laxton said of Whitehead’s novel. “It’s a very dense story. I think when you have a much longer runtime to express yourself, you can get much more nuanced, and make much more specific and unique choices.”
But even within the show’s tight schedule, Jenkins and Laxton found another project calling for their attention. Released before the premiere of “Underground Railroad,” the non-narrative short film “The Gaze” serves as a companion piece for the show, featuring background actors staring unflinchingly back at the camera.
“I looked across the set and realized I was looking at my ancestors, a group of people whose images have been largely lost to the historical record,” Jenkins said in a statement at the time of “The Gaze’s” release.
The idea was born out of the show’s “day zero” shoot, when the crew visited the show’s locations for camera tests. “I sometimes would just get inspired and be like, I want to get a shot at that person,” Jenkins said. The project would become a 52-minute short featuring original music from composer Nicholas Brittell (another frequent Jenkins collaborator who also provided the score for “Underground Railroad.”)
“I’m shocked that James went with it because there was so much material to cover, and every moment that we dedicate to doing one of these portraits at the moment, we’re not dedicated to actually getting the show in the can,” Jenkins said. “And yet, I think we both have faith that something about that was just as important as the scene work.”
“To me, witnessing the production was actually really inspiring … and when the extras arrived, all of a sudden, it just took to life,” said Laxton. “All of a sudden had this different scope. You could understand that Cora’s journey was also many people’s journeys in some other ways. So it just sort of felt like, of course, we’ll do these. They mean so much to the series, to the story. Also our experience as well.”
That goal of correcting and maintaining the historical record with honest human stories is a common theme throughout much of Jenkins’ work. The necessity of that effort was made clear to Jenkins when, during the post-production stage of “Underground Railroad,” a group of Donald Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building.
“Even without sound, I knew exactly what it was I was seeing. And now here we are, a year-and-a-half later, and there are people in this country still debating what it is we saw,” Jenkins said. “I think that’s a perfect example of the need to continue telling the truth — through visual imagery — about what it is that is actually happening.”
“I think as artists, we have a responsibility to keep doing that. Absolutely,” he said.