If no film this year has been as uniformly praised as Moonlight, it’s natural that the cinematography has impressed just about anybody, believer or otherwise, who comes into contact. Barry Jenkins based his second feature on Tarell McCraney‘s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the evocative title of which marks a good precedent for what’s being visually communicated — a story of love, time, and discovery that serves to show how a perception of things plays into our lives as much as the facts themselves.
Cinematography James Laxton will undoubtedly find himself making a big step forward, so it’s good to speak with him now, as the movie continues rolling out across the U.S. and other parts of the world. We sat down in Bydgoszcz, Poland, at the Camerimage International Film Festival, where he helped peel back the production process of a film many will discover and cherish for years to come.
The Film Stage: You’re here, now, after Moonlight has opened in the U.S., and it’s been a huge critical success. I’m curious about reading the praise for your own work: if it’s a funny thing when people, myself included, who don’t have a knowledge of the cinematographic process offer praise. It’s often reduced to “this looks beautiful.” I assume it’s gratifying, at least.
James Laxton: No, of course. It always feels good to have someone feel like you did a good job, and obviously that makes you feel like you should keep going. But I see your point, on some level: our job is odd, in that you’re not necessarily meant to understand why it works. Whether this is true of Moonlight or not, it’s hard to say, but we are taught, on some level, in film school to make your work sort of unnoticeable, and to sort of be a servant to story and performance and those things. With Moonlight, we maybe pushed that envelope a bit, because our look is somewhat bold at times, and things like this.
But sure, yeah, the job is difficult to critique — a little bit, possibly. But it’s funny, because here we are at a film festival that’s full of a bunch of cinematographers, and we get to critique each other in these contexts — which is sort of different than most festivals or theater experiences. I’ve met a lot of people I’ve looked up to for a long time. A lot of people I’ve obsessively read articles about for the last ten years as a student, and continue to, after school, read up on; people I feel are my heroes, honestly. So to meet them here and have discussions about our process and our work is unique in that way.
You go to parties here, and you have, say, Ed Lachman holding court. He’s almost like a mafia don, sitting down with his big hat as people come up and shake his hand.
He’s a charmer. When I met Ed the first night I was here, he was sitting on a couch and I literally just sat on a floor for about 20 minutes just talking to him, because it felt like such a special moment. He has the kind of personality and character that makes you feel very welcome and very open, which is something that’s maybe rare, a bit, in our field. Like I said before, because of how hard it is to critique a cinematographer on some level, because it’s so personal and so… it’s something that I find difficult to talk about in a tangible way, or a theoretical way. I don’t see myself as someone that makes decisions in a conceptual fashion, and so to talk about these things is interesting. To talk with Ed, who is very open and honest… and not just Ed, but the other people I met here, is kind of amazing.
There was an article about Moonlight‘s digital intermediate process, with before-and-after shots showing the effects this has. I’m curious how knowledge of said process — even knowing it’s to come — affects the decisions made on set. The film would be far less powerful if the before image was what we saw.
Yeah, I agree. It’s interesting — especially today, when so much of what we do is shot digitally — to find a way to make your images, and this is a terrible word to use, “special,” or “unique.” The DI process plays a heavy role. In decades previous, you would pick film stocks, maybe process them differently, or cross-process; maybe pull two stops or push two stops. All these things you were able to embed in the image of the negative of the image — such a deep look — and so, today, when we have cameras… like, for example, we shot on the Alexa, which is a fantastic camera. It’s something that we chose to use on Moonlight. We went into Moonlight knowing full well that the DI process was going to be a very special and important process for us. Shooting digitally, that’s the moment when you get to really be bold and make large decisions — in terms of color, obviously.
Do you have trepidation about that? A feeling of “showing how the sausage is made”?
As someone who writes, I’m mortified by the idea of anyone seeing a first draft of something I’ve written.
Sure. No, I understand what you’re saying. I don’t have a problem with it. That’s interesting. The truth is, I’m conflicted. For example, I hate behind-the-scenes special features because, to me, it sort of ruins the magic of the experience of the movie. We all go to see films and look to be impacted by them in very powerful ways. Often that has to do with losing yourself in the film, right? Kind of being open enough and having an experience where you’re impacted in a really meaningful way — so, yeah, if you know all the steps that got the filmmakers to give you that impression and the emotional impact, possibly that diminishes. So it sort of works against you a little bit, in that sense. But for people who are students and learning about filmmaking, and want to find different ways of how things are done, I don’t see a problem with that.
I was a film student once, and I was very eager to absorb and consume how much information I could as to how things were done, so for people like that, I feel perfectly fine, and I support the idea, like you said, of “learning how the sausage is made.” That doesn’t bother me. But I do hope — honestly, on some level; I don’t want to diminish readership — not everyone reads those things. I think it’s not necessarily, like I said, a bad thing in a specific sense — for students, and things like this, to serve those things — but by no means do I hope everyone becomes really aware of how we do things, because I think that might ruin it, on some level — the impact of film.
For better or for worse, my question relates to that. When I spoke to Michael Chapman, he said his favorite job was that of camera operator. Moonlight credits camera operators separate from you and Jenkins.
The only shots that I did not operate were those shot on Steadicam. So I did operate, I don’t know, 98% of the film. Obviously, I can’t count, but there’s a number of Steadicam shots in the film that I didn’t do — but, for the most part, I did.
What’s your participation in that? What is that conversation like?
Actually, it’s a great one. The truth is, working with camera operators can be a wonderful thing as well. These people are trained professionals at that job. Just because I’m a cinematographer and I’m the head of that department, by no means does that mean I’m more or less suitable to perform the camera operations of the film. So it just becomes communication. Camera operators — very strong ones, like the ones we had on this film — are unique and important to the process, I find, and their relationship to the actors and their role in the process, by which images are created… I don’t want to diminish them, because they’re important. But, on set, it just becomes a very specific and detailed conversation you’re having — both with the camera operators and, also, the cast to choreograph and move, like in scene one, that very long Steadicam scene with a lot of choreography.
It just takes communication. “You’ll be here for this line. You’ll then move over here. You’ll then be here for this line.” I just keep it down that path until you tick all the boxes, and then, maybe, you go for rehearsal or start shooting. That’s generally the process. These camera operators also have input, and they’ll maybe see things you don’t see. That can be very, very helpful in aiding that choreography. I definitely don’t want to diminish their role, because it’s actually very important. I do enjoy camera operating in the same way Michael Chapman does: it’s also valued very highly, so I get a lot of gratification out of it. I’m on both sides of the fence, and I don’t mean to straddle it too much, but, the truth is, it’s important, I think, to use them when you need them — and sometimes for me, personally, I enjoy operating myself.
You worked with Jenkins on his only other feature, Medicine for Melancholy. It’s such a long gap between their productions, so I wonder at which point you were brought into the Moonlight fold, and what initial conversations may have been.
Just outside of filmmaking, Barry and I are very close friends, so we get to hang out most weekends — when we’re both in the same town, anyways — get coffees, have dinner. He’ll come over to our house, so we get to talk about things kind of constantly. I was sort of aware of what Moonlight was — a project that he seemed to be very excited about — I would guess, maybe, a year-and-a-half before we started official pre-production. It also helps, too, that one of the producers on the film, Adele Romanski, is my wife as well, so it’s a really sort of family affair, on some level.
I was aware earlier than, I would say, is average, but that doesn’t mean I was brought in for drafts of the script. I think Barry usually saves giving me the script until we’re much closer to going into actual, official pre-production; I think he values fresh eyes at some point in the process. It is different than working with most directors, really because of our friendship and our long history. I even joke that we have a 17-year pre-production history now, which is great. There’s a lot of trust in that relationship, and I think our history really helps us not only have a shorthand, but also helps us push each other in the right ways. We know how to, I think, get the best out of one another.
In screenplays, does he make many specifications about visual components? They’re so key to the development of character and story.
I don’t remember too many. I’ve not read the script in a year or so, so to remember specifically is a challenge, but I don’t think there’s very many descriptions of, like, “And we push in here on the action.” That’s not how Barry writes. He’s a really wonderful writer. I think his scripts, oftentimes, feel like novels, the way he writes things and his descriptions. Not only are they very detailed, but they’re also very eloquently expressed. When reading them, you’re full of emotion — not just necessarily reading, “This character walks from this door to this window.” The way he describes those things in the screenplay is really evocative.
Moonlight looks nothing like Medicine for Melancholy, so at what point did it become clear that this visual approach would be taken? I know you’re both fond of Wong Kar-wai, and that’s clearly there. Did he frame things through that sort of prism? I think there’s even a direct visual reference to Happy Together.
Sure, yeah. We have a Dropbox folder full of images, and there’s definitely some screen grabs from Happy Together in there. Also some other Wong Kar-wai films; also some Hou Hsiao-hsien films and Claire Denis. There’s a pretty large spectrum of what we found was an appropriate reference for this film. It wasn’t, by any means, just one filmmaker or photographer. I think, again, going back to the luxury of having this friendship and this kind of collaboration for a long period of time. I think we’re constantly, for example, sharing links to things — sharing links throughout our years together that our interesting to us and excite us. I think all those things, what happens is, they sink into our subconscious, and into the zeitgeist of the movie that we’re pursuing, somewhat organically.
It’s hard to answer the question, on some level. I don’t exactly remember this moment where he showed me, for example, this image from In the Mood for Love or Happy Together. It didn’t necessarily happen that way. It’s much more organically put in — long before the moment of actually talking about Moonlight, for example. I think these are just filmmakers and images that we respond to as a whole. But, yeah, I’m being very general here. Obviously, once you find out, “Okay, this is the movie we’re going to make,” we just start to whittle all those influences and all those ideas that we’ve been sharing for a number of years previous into a smaller box and say, “Okay, now we have this fantastic language that we love all of these things about. Now that we have this movie, let’s start to whittle those things down to these five or ten ideas that seem really appropriate to, maybe, the movie as a whole, but also these scenes. This reference is good for the beach, or this is a wonderful reference for the diner moment in act three.” I think that’s generally how our conversations happen.
It’s not so finite, so, for example, when we meet to talk about a movie — Moonlight, for example — we start talking over coffee about how good the coffee is, and that conversation turns into, “Oh, man, did you get caught in that storm?” That conversation turns into, “Yeah, the drive over was…” And, all of a sudden, we’re talking about a reference to a film that was inspiring to me six months earlier. So it’s a wonderful friendship in that regard, and we’re very close, in that sense. Maybe that process is unique, because it’s not like, “Okay, we have an hour together. Let’s sit down and bang out these ten things and these five ideas.” We have the luxury of just being able to hang out with each other, generally.
Can you name scenes that are really of your own devising, speaking for composition, angle, lighting, and so on?
I think the answer to that is no. I don’t think I do. I can’t remember what interview this was in or where I heard Barry talk about this; it was a discussion between him and Tarell McCraney, the playwright who wrote the film. I think someone asked them a question similar to that: what scene was more yours or Barry’s? I think the answer was that even they couldn’t remember. I think that’s actually a sign of a great director: they seem to inspire everyone around them to make them always feel like it’s their idea, or maybe you don’t know — maybe it was Barry’s idea.
It’s this wonderful sort of soup that happens, and I don’t think there’s a moment I can think of that was, “Oh, I know that wasn’t Barry’s idea,” and I honestly don’t feel like there was. It just isn’t part of the way our conversations happen, and it isn’t important to us. I don’t think we feel like collaboration works that way. So I think the answer is, I don’t think there’s a scene or shot that I can think of that’s just mine — and I hope Barry feels the same. [Laughs]
Many have obsessed over the shot of André Holland —
Smoking the cigarette? [Laughs]
So if one of you wants to take credit, you’ll become very popular with the ladies.
[Laughs] You know, I’m married, so I’ll give Barry that one. He can have it.
I think it’s in the trailer.
It is in the trailer.
But a lot of GIFs have shown up on Twitter, usually with some desiring caption.
He’s a sexy man, André Holland. No, I hope he’s enjoying himself somewhere.
Certain shots have become my favorites in the month since I saw Moonlight. I’m wondering what your stand-outs might be.
Something I’m very proud of… I’ll answer in two ways. The scene I’m very proud of in the film is the nighttime beach scene in story two. It’s a really wonderful scene. The performances are just astonishing, and what’s going on in that scene is just so emotionally, I don’t know, just wonderful. I was going to say “touching,” which would be a terrible word to use. But it is impactful, in that sense. On a technical level, that’s also a really challenging scene. We put a lot of technical work into making those images the way they were, just in terms of the resources that we had and the time we had. Shooting on a beach, at night, with the wind blowing poses massive challenges to us on a technical level.
So I was very proud of how that scene turned out, in a visual sense. It was something I was very nervous about going into the movie, period. I knew that scene was coming — and it was something I was very apprehensive about — and so to see the images, to see the results of what the work was, I’m very proud of that. The second thing I’m very proud of is the diner scene in story three. I know that’s not necessarily the most bold, stylish camerawork in that scene, but there’s a lot of precision in that sequence and a lot of thought that went into that, in terms of pacing and how the camera’s moving, the choices that we made in pre-production, and the execution of them in post-production. I think that sequence, in general, is something I’m incredibly proud of as well.
Moonlight is now in wide release.