In 2013, Jenkins traveled to Europe on a writing trip with the goal of adapting James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name into a screenplay. “The whole point of the trip was to make this film,” Jenkins says. “ ‘Moonlight’ was an afterthought, but I didn’t have the rights to [‘Beale Street’ yet], so this one came second.”
The film, like the book, follows the relationship between Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), childhood sweethearts who get engaged and have a child in 1970s Harlem. Their happily-ever-after gets derailed when Fonny is falsely accused of rape, due to the efforts of a racist police officer.
“It’s not a book that screams ‘screenplay,’ ” Jenkins says of the novel, which has a nonlinear structure and relies heavily on Tish’s interior monologue, rather than dialogue. “The challenge was striking the balance between what I saw as limitations of the screenplay format in referencing interior voice, but still bringing the book into the screenplay format, where that interior voice came with that adaptation.”
To communicate characters’ emotional states, Jenkins utilized a stylistic technique prevalent in “Moonlight” — actors look directly and silently into the camera, sometimes for extended periods. It’s something Layne had to learn on the fly.
“Acting is communication. It’s giving and receiving,” Layne says. “The challenge for me in those moments is I am giving so much, but I can’t immediately feel what I’m getting back. [Jenkins] would do that in the [character’s] most vulnerable moments, when there is so much going on internally.”
Jenkins doesn’t decide ahead of time what those moments might be. “They just arise spontaneously,” he says. “This thing happens sometimes when you can see an actor go into an almost meditative state, and when that happens I feel like the actor and character have kind of become one just for a moment. And that’s when I want them to look directly at the audience.”
The unusual approach threw Layne, a relative newcomer making her feature film debut. “Initially, there was a lot of thinking, ‘What am I supposed to be doing?’ ” Layne says. “Then, once I got past that, it’s like, ‘I’m just here.’ We all have those moments when you’re sitting in your feelings and you’re sitting in your thoughts and you’re taking in what your current situation is. I’m giving all of that to the audience so they can take it in as well.”
When shooting those moments, Jenkins all but steps out of the way entirely — he doesn’t give the actors any direction, just the space and time to communicate their internal feelings. “It’s just a moment between them and the lens,” Jenkins says of the technique. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t — but when it works, it really works.”