Why Barry Jenkins Makes You Look in His ‘Beale Street’ Characters’ Eyes

TheWrap Screening Series: Director talks about using his experience on “Moonlight” to strengthen “Beale Street”

Last Updated: January 8, 2019 @ 8:35 AM

Barry Jenkins wants to get personal. In his latest film, “If Beale Street Could Talk,” the Oscar-winning director uses close-ups so the audience can stare directly into the eyes of his characters. By looking at the characters at their most vulnerable, the viewer can’t deny them their humanity. Audiences can begin to understand their emotion. Their pain. Their loss. 

“Every now and then, if you have to look someone in the eye, you sit up,” Jenkins told TheWrap’s Steve Pond on Friday at a screening of “Beale Street,” Jenkins’ follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Moonlight.”

Adapted from the best-selling James Baldwin book of the same name, “If Beale Street Could Talk” follows the journey of a young Harlem couple in the ’70s with a perilous future. Stephan James plays sculptor Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt, a man thrown in jail after being put in a police lineup for a rape he didn’t commit. The injustice causes his pregnant girlfriend Tish (KiKi Layne) and her family to fight for his freedom.

The movie is ultimately a love story that grapples with loss in a very intimate way. It’s not the loss of a life that Jenkins examines, however, but the loss of time.

Throughout the film, we see moments when Fonny and Tish’s relationship blossoms: the night they first make love, the day they find their first house. The sense of intimacy in their scenes is due in part to the film’s use of close-up shots that find the actors looking directly into the camera. Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton say they took the lessons they learned working on “Moonlight” to make a film where the photography helps “passive empathy become active.”

Laxton, who was also at the Q&A along with film composer Nicholas Britell and editor Joi McMillon, told the audience at Laemmle Hall in Los Angeles that those “Moonlight” close-ups were critical, but also incidental. When Laxton and Jenkins were shooting a scene from “Moonlight” in which Naomie Harris’ character confronts her son (played by Ashton Sanders) in the courtyard, Jenkins felt like the right emotion he was trying to get across wasn’t coming through. So they improvised.

Laxton put the camera in front of Harris. It was intended as a way to make the audience “walk a mile in her shoes,” Jenkins said. The idea worked, teaching Laxton and Jenkins that a close-up shot of the actor looking into the camera was “the most visceral way” to connect with the character.

“It’s like sculpting. You keep sculpting and sculpting until you find it,” Laxton said of the filmmaking process.

Laxton used a two-way mirror called the Interrotron to get the right level of emotion during those intimate close-ups. For each scene in which a character has to look into the camera, the actor is not actually looking at a lens.

“Imagine a teleprompter, but you’re now looking at your co-star,” Laxton explained.

Regina King, who plays Tish’s unwavering mother, has a scene in “Beale Street” that finds her putting on a wig in front of a mirror. Jenkins said that before filming began, this was the only scene in which he knew he wanted to use the Interrotron close-up. King would later win Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture at the Golden Globes on Sunday for her performance.

The film was also nominated at the Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture in the drama category and Best Screenplay.

“For ‘Moonlight,’ we were making decisions fearfully,” Jenkins told Pond. “This time we wanted to make sure we were making decisions confidently.”