Barry Jenkins: Long Story Short
Time to retake a guided tour from the Best Picture-winner through his own earlier work.
Barry Jenkins was born and raised in Florida and attended the filmmaking program at Florida State University, where he made his first films. Inspired by his friend and collaborator James Laxton, the director of photography on most of his films, he moved to San Francisco after graduation. That's where he made his first feature, Medicine for Melancholy, about a two young African-Americans in San Francisco who wake up together after a one-night hook-up and spend the next twenty-four hours getting to know each other as they compare notes being a minority in the city and the effects of gentrification. The film picked up three Independent Spirit Award nominations, including Best First Feature and Someone to Watch For, and landed a distributor. Jenkins has been busy developing follow-up features in the years since, including one with Focus Features, but to date nothing has made it to production stage. In the meantime, he's continued to make short films.
"I like making things and every now and then an opportunity presents itself," he explains. "The majority of these films, and I guess it's how it always is with a filmmaker, is someone saying 'Hey, I got a little bit of money, do you want to make something?' and me going, 'Sure, I'll make something.' I'm never going to turn down an opportunity to make something."
Fandor presents eight shorts written and directed by Barry Jenkins, from his college films to his most recent project. We revisited the films with Barry. Here's what he had to say about them.
My Josephine (2003)—A man and a woman in a Laundromat spend the evening reverently cleaning American flags. It was made while Jenkins was attending film school at Florida State University and was inspired by a sign he saw in a Laundromat window while driving through Missouri.
"American Flags cleaned free," that's what the sign said. It was right after 9/11. I was pretty young and you want to make a movie that's about the main issue of the day. I was in Florida but still it was pretty scary when it happened. I remember looking up in the sky expecting planes to start falling out of the sky. I wasn't obsessed with it but it was on my mind and I was trying to find a way that I could make a movie in this small town I was in, Tallahassee, and still address what had happened in New York.
My Josephine was the first film I made after taking a year off [from film school]. I took a still photography class, this is when DVDs and laserdiscs had these amazing commentaries and behind-the-scenes featurettes and I watched all that stuff, I got a subscription to "Sight and Sound." I just tried to teach myself how to make films and what I realized was that my voice wasn't getting through as clearly as I wanted to. All the things that end up in the film are these things that I decided, 'Okay, this is who I am as a filmmaker, this is going to be my shot at trying this again.' I'm probably more proud of it than anything else.
Little Brown Boy (2003)—A young boy picks up a gun dropped in a fight and shoots a young man on a basketball court.
I made My Josephine first. It's an interior monologue, very voice driven, and at the film school I went to you are guaranteed to make two films. I wanted to make what was essentially a silent film, so it's actually kind of a reaction to My Josephine. Again, it was response to what was going on. There were a lot of criminal cases of kids who had accidentally murdered other kids in the state of Florida, usually young black boys, and the kids were being tried as adults—eleven-, twelve-, thirteen-year-old kids—and Little Brown Boy is about a kid who idolizes this drug dealer, he's on a basketball court, the drug dealer gets into a fight, the kid grabs the guy's gun and shoots the guy. Now this isn't his friend, it's just some drug dealer he looks up to, and that happens in the first forty-five or sixty seconds and in the last six minutes, with basically no dialogue, you just follow this kid. It's a tone poem but in a very different way than My Josephine is.
Those first two, My Josephine and Little Brown Boy, were shot on film, which I miss. The only time I shot on film were those two films but we keep shooting in the style as though we were shooting on film.
A Young Couple (2009)—Jenkins interviewed his friends John and Jenny in their San Francisco apartment. It was shot "in the time it takes a San Francisco meter to expire" with his longtime DP James Laxton, who also shot his first shorts and Medicine for Melancholy. These reflections come from an introduction to the film that he wrote in 2009.
We only had one real goal, to capture how these two people live in this space, we made sure to shoot every corner of their tiny apartment. The conversation was off the cuff, and I think John and Jenny were both incredibly honest. This was the first thing we made following Medicine and I think there's a dialogue between the two films. For one, John and Jenny are both in Medicine if you look close enough. And two, this apartment they live in is literally two blocks over from the character Micah's apartment in the film. We could have been having this conversation with John and Jenny while Micah and Jo' were drinking tea on his bed post-carousel. I digs that.
Tall Enough (2009)—A young African-American woman and a young Chinese man talk about their relationship in a film set against the energy and color of New York City.
I'm never going to turn down an opportunity to make something. Tall Enough is basically a commercial. Bloomingdales decided it was smarter to make five short films for $20,000 rather than to take out one one-eighth of a page ad in the Sunday paper so they had these five New York directors who were going to make these short films. One of the directors dropped out so I became the only non-New York director who made one of those shorts.
I'd just seen a photo of two people on a rooftop, it was a fashion ad, and I said, 'I want to make a story of this image,' and I wrote basically a detailed treatment. I'd never made anything in New York, I didn't know the crew at all, and I only had one day to shoot it, and so I went to New York on a Friday and we shot the film the following Monday. I felt that I needed to get the city of New York in the film to almost overcompensate for the fact that I wasn't a New York filmmaker, and the guy who shot it, Adam Newport-Berra, and I allowed ourselves to go off book. About eight hours in I was like, 'You know what? I want to go into the city. Anybody got a DSLR?' and he said, 'Yeah, we got one in the truck,' and it was just me, him and two actors and we literally just went out into the city for that whole montage in the middle.
One Shot (2009)—Like the title suggests, a short film made in one unbroken take.
When I was on tour with Medicine, we got to the Northwest Film Forum [in Seattle] and Adam Sekular used to do this thing where, if you were a visiting filmmaker, he would try his best to convince you to make a one-shot film. One Shot is the film I made over an hour while I was in Seattle at the Northwest Film Forum. It's different from all my other films. There's no dialogue—actually there is a little bit of dialogue—and it's basically a "Little Red Riding Hood" story with two guys and a girl who are fourteen or fifteen. The two guys are these wannabe toughs and the girl is a very beautiful teenage girl who probably hasn't blossomed yet, she just hangs out with these guys and they convince her to steal something from the corner store. Ben Kasulke [Touchy Feely, Safety Not Guaranteed] shot that film and the sound design is crazy. I'll call that one an experimental film.
Remigration (2011)—A quasi science-fiction film set in the near future of San Francisco when the working class is completely displaced from the city due to gentrification. Produced for the series Futurestates by ITVS.
[James Laxton and I] wanted to make something that was a bit more formal, where the filmmaking was a bit more formalized. I'm still a student at this and I hadn't done a film like that before. I had never done a sci-fi film, I had done very few dollies or the sort of huge zooms we did in the montage in the middle of the film.
It was a little bit of a strain because we just didn't have the budget to make the sort of formally, classically, smooth sort of movie, but we made it work. We just had sweat a bit more work than we probably wanted to. And it was the one film in all the shorts that had Hollywood actors: Rick Yune, who was in Snow Falling on Cedars, and Russell Hornsby, who is in a show on NBC [Grimm]. Those guys are used to working in a certain way and it was interesting. I've always made things with my friends and I've always made things where, to be honest, mistakes are made on set. So there was this tension where, you know, "My time isn't being used well right now" and "You're wasting my time and I'm doing you this favor," and so forth. We were juggling a lot of balls on that one. But watch the film, I don't think you can feel it.
Chlorophyl (2011)—A young woman in Miami gets over a bad relationship with the support of her friends. It's an 'improv docu-narrative hybrid' according to Jenkins and it was produced by the Miami arts collective Borscht.
Jenkins: The idea with that film was to not have any guys speak at any point in the film. It was all about the girls. It was actually the one film, the one narrative, I didn't write, I just wrote a rough outline or treatment. There were no actors. I met that girl [Ana Laur Trevino] at a party a year before. Basically Borscht said, 'We have this song, do you want to make a short of it?' I said, 'Yeah, I met this girl at a party once, I'd love to put her in a movie, let me talk to her and we'll try to figure out a story.' Someone very famous owns the house where she housesits and they said, 'You can have this house as a set if you want," and that was how the whole thing came about.
I'm a big fan of Joe Swanberg. When I made Medicine for Melancholy it was because he and Aaron Katz and Lynn Shelton had made all these films they were taking to SXSW. I never made a film the way Joe makes his films so I wanted to make something without a screenplay and that was what Chlorophyl was, just trying to make a film like Joe Swanberg without a screenplay.
King's Gym (2012)—A profile of an Oakland boxing gym
Jenkins: King's Gym is like a documentary tone poem. It's also a piece that I co-directed with a good friend of mine, Mike Jacobs. Basically we were just curious about the culture of a boxing gym and so we found this gym here in Oakland, and we were also curious about the ARRI Alexa, which we hadn't worked with before. So we went to the gym, spent a bit of time there, got to know some of the boxers, and we just went and hung out and shot.
I've always liked [Frederick] Wiseman’s work. His documentary Welfare is amazing and I've always wanted to make something like that. It's not a story, it's just a collection of images of a very honest place that Mike and I ended up at.
One of the most interesting aspects of Barry Jenkins' films is the diversity of cultures and characters in his films. His portrait of young people in America shows a greater variety of experience in this eight films than many filmmakers manage in a career of features.
Jenkins: When I made my feature and I started touring with it, I spoke with kids quite a bit and the kids would always ask me why I did this, why did you do that? I slowly began to realize that the point they were trying to make was that we are image creators and—because I talk a lot of shit every now and then about things that we don't see often enough—as an image creator I have the power to put those images into the marketplace or into the conversation or into the ether, whatever you want to call it.
I think it's interesting that Fandor wanted to put all these short films in one place because for me, it's this safe place where I go to work things out. From one film to the next it depends on what I'm preoccupied with when I make the films and usually it's about how these different cultures in this country interact, how difficult it is to step outside these ideas of who we think we should be and who we think other people are.