Script Apart is a podcast series, in which journalist Al Horner invites screenwriters behind famous films to share their script first drafts, and discuss what changed, what didn’t and why on its journey to the big screen. Read on to find out what 3 rrramble writers made of Episode 6: ‘Moonlight’ with Barry Jenkins…
Stick to the…?
I first watched Moonlight in my third year university house after finding a copy at my local CEX whilst on the hunt for Oscars nominated films, and knew I had hit the jackpot by finding an Oscars winner. At the time, a small group of friends and I would get together once a week to cook dinner and watch a film; usually poking fun at embarrassing movie tropes or getting lost in conversation and missing crucial plot points – ya know, the usual. With Moonlight, though, the four of us huddled together around one whirring laptop in my eclectically furnished student living room – faces occasionally tinged with pink or blue by the residual light of the film’s trademark colour scheme – and we were silent for the full 111 minutes.
That same silence resurfaced for me when listening to this episode of Script Apart. Script Apart is inherently pensive – Al Horner does a brilliant job as host at finding the balance between filling the space and suggesting topics, whilst leaving room for guests and audiences alike to really explore, digest and reflect on the content. In light of this, what really surprised me was how pensive I became as a listener. As Barry Jenkins talked about his life, his artistic process, places he’d travelled, and the real people and communities that Moonlight’s characters represent; I found myself contemplating artistic questions that I hadn’t dared to tackle in a while (and certainly hadn’t anticipated I’d be tackling in the wake of this podcast), like who is art really for? And, why does art matter? Wild concepts for a mid-week podcast listening session, but certainly ones that I’m walking away from the podcast feeling grateful for being encouraged to think about again. If I’m being honest, I’m not sure I’ve been thinking about art with that frame of mind since university – where I did a theatre degree, and had lofty, indulgent conversations about the purpose of art – often initiated by purists and mansplainers – on the regular (which wasn’t quite as fun as contemplating it alone in my bathtub whilst listening to this podcast).
In general, I think my main takeaway from listening to this podcast episode is how important it is to both allow space for artwork in which the conceiver represents their lived experiences authentically, and ensure that the right people are there to support the creation of those projects. It’s evident that Moonlight would not have been the seminal film that it is without the raw experiences and bold playwriting of Tarell Alvin McCraney, or without Barry Jenkins’ cinematic eye and lived experience of some of the film’s central themes. To really support the generation of this kind of artistic content in future, the creative industries desperately needs an overhaul with regards to where its power lies – and more importantly, who the power lies with. To see more successes like Moonlight, we need to see creatives from diverse communities at every level – as directors, writers, performers, producers, funders, sound designers, stage managers, cinematographers, etc. – across the sector, who are able to play a hand in the creation of art that they identify with, and which speaks to their experience. It sounds like a simple and obvious premise, but it bears repeating – I don’t think the industry has got the memo just yet. I can’t wait to continue listening to episodes of Script Apart – if you fancy some quiet reflection on life, love and the pursuit of great artwork, this one’s for you.
“told you I was taller…”
About four years ago now, in the living room of my best friend’s university house on her well-worn laptop (no this isn’t a coincidence, I am in fact referring to our very own Abbie Reeve) I watched Moonlight for the first time. Years later, I have yet to revisit the 2017 best picture winner. However, the impact the story had on me then has once again reared its head as I tidy away my weeks mess; headphones in ears and window cleaner in hand, I press play on this episode and look back on the evolution of a play turned script turned film and delve into how such an impactful masterpiece began.
Now, unfortunately for friends that have the misfortune of watching a film with me, I am the kind of film/television fanatic who itches to inform others of behind-the-scenes facts; yes, this does include Viggo Mortensen breaking his toe in the second Lord of the Rings film. This isn’t to show off however, it’s because I’m genuinely interested (nosey). If you’re like me and enjoy plaguing your pals with these details, then honestly look no further then Script Apart. Not only does Horner and the team behind this excellent podcast acquire intricate and detailed information regarding the formation of some of our most beloved films (Attack the Block, A Quiet Place and Zodiac to name a few) the conversations go beyond the trivial and into the bare bones of why this story, why now and where did it all begin.
As I listened to the cool, soothing voices of Script Apart’s presenter Al Horner and Moonlight’s scriptwriter Barry Jenkins talk through how Jenkins lived experience wove onto the page and how he battled with his place in relation to our main characters story I found myself nodding along, as though I was with them in that room (or at least the zoom call…sigh) and that really is a testament to the format of this podcast. I felt as much a part of this conversation as the newly adopted puppy who sits with Jenkins as he speaks, it is that personal. It is in turn funny, astounding, heartbreakingly accurate and awe inspiring to hear the details of how such a story became what it is today. From the trips Jenkins took to local bars whilst writing in Europe after finishing each “chapter” to the album he listened to whilst pouring his heart and soul onto the page, these enrich the story and completely transform the film from something great to something personal.
Did I finish my cleaning? No not exactly. I found myself sat on the edge of my bed holding back tears as Jenkins talks through the legacy of Moonlight and how moved he still is that people relate to the characters he adapted and how, in his own words, the film and the character of Chiron gave him back his life. Yes, I recall those four years ago being incredibly moved by Moonlight and to this day it is one of the most beautiful pieces of art I have ever seen, and I didn’t think I could have more admiration for the people involved – however, this podcast proved me wrong. I could go on and on about the stories and anecdotes the two discuss in this hour episode, but I won’t ruin it…Instead I shall leave you with this. If you have yet to see Moonlight I beg that you take the time to, and then listen to this podcast, you won’t regret it.
Just over a month ago I completed my screenwriting dissertation (phew!). And after going through the exciting and at times exhausting process of writing a screenplay, I was really interested in hearing other writers’ experiences, as well as hopefully learning from the Academy Award winning professionals. Call me dramatic, but I’m still recovering a little from dissertation stress, however this podcast really made me want to jump back into writing again, and reminded me why I love the process so much. It was also incredibly reassuring to learn from Barry Jenkins that “people with oscars get stressed too!” I entered this podcast having heard a lot about Moonlight but having not watched the movie, so it felt a bit like I was doing things backwards; I’m really looking forward to watching this incredible film having had an in depth look at the skeleton of it. Listening to Barry Jenkins recount his experience of adapting Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s novel, you could tell how heavily intertwined their lives were with the piece, making it a really intimate interview; it was great to get such a fascinating insight into the background of the film, but even more so, to be allowed an insight into the lives of the writers, and to see how vital their unique stories and truths were in the creation of the narrative.
Al Horner detailed Barry Jenkins sitting with an “adorable and well-behaved puppy”, and like this image, the podcast felt really comforting, relaxed and conversational. It is strange to think about the powerful screenwriting entities in the quiet, low impact lockdown situation that we are currently in. Jenkins described how it felt looking back on the screenplay several years after its release in 2016 saying that “it’s not this special thing, it’s just this thing, it now feels a bit less shiny.” He also described himself as having had moments of “extreme self doubt” following a six year gap from his last produced screenplay Medicine for Melancholy which was screened in 2008. The theme of self-doubt in the podcast brought Jenkins, an incredibly accomplished and important screenwriter, together with the experience of self-doubt felt by all writers. The theme of time was prominent throughout the podcast as well. After a long break from writing, Jenkins said that he completed the first draft of Moonlight in ten days, that it just all spilled out, and that this was partly due to the story, originally written by McCraney, felt like a combined autobiography with Jenkins’ own experience.
Perspective and experience played a big role in the conversation and writing of the screenplay. Jenkins spoke about wanting to create a sense of voyeurism in the film, to create a feeling of connectedness with the protagonist. He also spoke about a shorthand in the film, that only those who grew up in that setting would understand; how growing up he had to catch up with the code of experience in “Full House” and “The Brady Bunch”, Moonlight was his chance to create a film that people like himself could see themselves and their lives in. As the first LGBTQ and black narrative to win an academy award, it is so ironic that people would even think to describe Moonlight as ‘oscar bait’. The autobiographical nature of the film made it really useful to hear firsthand the lived experience of writing it, and I am so excited to now watch Moonlight.
Check out the entire Script Apart back catalogue on their website.