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Cinematographer James Laxton Discusses His Oscar Nominated Work In “Moonlight”

By: Marjorie Galas

Director Barry Jenkins called upon several of his former Florida State Film School classmates to help him bring his vision of “Moonlight” to life. Based on a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight” follows Chiron, a young, gay black man, through three phases of his life.  The classmates who joined him not only created an unique and beautifully crafted coming of tale for the big screen, they walked away with Oscar nominations as well, members of the films eight total nominations, including producer Adele Romnski, editors Joi McMillon and Nate Sanders, and cinematographer James Laxton.  (New members to Jenkins fold, composer Nicholas Britell and actors Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris also received nods).

While each film school alum worked on and off with Jenkins on his post-graduation shorts and commercials, Laxton often had previous work commitments that prevented him from tackling many of the director’s early professional vehicles. Fortunately, he was able to join the director on his directorial debut, “Medicine for Melancholy.”  This experience, coupled with his background with Jenkins, fortified his understanding of the director’s needs and styles.  Variety 411 recently caught up with Laxton to discuss his collaboration on the film.

Variety 411: There are some interesting camera movements throughout the course of “Moonlight”. While the film doesn’t remind me of a commercial or music video, the movements sometimes did.

James Laxton: When Barry and I get together or text, there’s always a “Hey check out this link to something.”  And a lot of those links are commercials or music videos or things we watched earlier in film school.  We watched a lot of music videos for DJ Shadow that I think Wong Kar Wai directed.  It’s a great video, beautiful.  A lot of our references are from film directors and sometimes still photographers.  I think, as people who digest a lot of media, we pull from a lot of different places.

V411: What were some of those early conversations regarding the look of “Moonlight”?   And, especially, did Barry have a story board before you guys started?

JL: We generally don’t have a lot of time, so our process when we are getting started consists of the shot list.  I don’t think we’ve ever done anything as big as story boards.   Location is something that is really crucial to both of us so we tend to not be so specific in the storyboarding because we like the location to dictate a lot of things to us.  We knew we wanted to make a film with a very strong, bold voice, and create some images that had some strength and emotional value to them. And I think that stems from having a fantastic screenplay, and also having fantastic performers that can match that strength in terms of the visual language as well, because it would be a shame, if we were just to apply a visual stylization on something that didn’t want it or need it. Our creative process, inherently because of the way we make movies, has a great deal of adaptability in it.

V411: It is interesting to open the movie with the circular motion spinning around the characters. What was the decision to do that?

JL: First and formost, it was a bit about establishing a language.  I think the first few scenes in any movie, part of what is important there is to make sure that the audience, you are getting the sense of what this moving is going to be giving you for the next 90 minutes, in terms of its visual language.  For us, moving the camera in that way attempted to create very quickly an immersive experience that you as an audience member you are now, going to be thrown into these conversations in these rooms, in these hallways, in these parks, on these beaches, and you are going to feel like you are in that space.  That was the intention that the audiences feels them as if they are a character.

V411: It’s one of many technically challenging camera situations in “Moonlight” – the circular movement, the under-water shooting, the driving sequences. It is a little crazy actually!

JL: Yeah, but I think it is also what gives the movie a certain visual energy that comes with that territory as well. Shooting people sitting around a dining room table and talking can sometimes be a little visually repetitive.  These challenges that you are speaking about, they are inspirational more than anything else.   As much as it was a challenge to be stuck in the backseat of a car with a camera on my shoulder trying to capture things, there is something inherently beautiful and energetic about that that I think is also captivating.  We had a great crew on that film that made sure we got all that stuff.

V411: Were you working with a crew of people you primarily worked with before?

JL: I brought out my gaffer and key grip, but everyone else from my department was local to Miami.  Miami is a great town, there are some fantastic people down there, and we were shooting (at a competitive time for booking crew).  “Bloodline”, other projects, it was the height of the commercial season, so it was definitely a challenge to find some great people but we did and they definitely helped us make sure all those technical things were possible.  I will put it this way: Barry very rarely will hear a no from me.  I will very rarely hear a no from Barry.  So when one of us has an idea that may sound challenging or difficult, since we have so much trust embedded in our relationship, we want to go for it, and we want to get there. There isn’t much hesitation to “well, oh we can’t do that because that seems difficult or scheduling wise that is going to take too much time.”  We try not to let those things deter us from making those decisions.

V411: The movie was shot in a tight budget and short time line. Did you have flexibility with rehearsing the challenging shots such as driving in a car and being cognizant of lights outside the window, and that sort of thing?

JL: We didn’t have a lot of time but I think we use that to our advantage to a certain level. The energy and the pace that happens naturally when you are working quickly can sometimes be a creatively very inspiring thing.  And so, sure, we all want more time to tweak and do little adjustments and things like that, but what I find more important and more validating is using that energy and that momentum.

V411: I’m really curious about the color timing. There is this draining out of color that really forces characters to the forefront of the image that I found really interesting. Were you involved with that in post?

JL: I was involved, it is part of the process I actually really enjoy.  We work with a colorist named Alex Bickel, I think this is my seventh film with him.  Just like Barry, we have a great history and working relationship and collaboration.  In preparation we shot some tests that we sent to Alex in NY and he applied what he thought were some interesting ideas.  He informed us on how expose for a certain vibe or what colors to use in lighting, so it did inform us a little bit (when shooting.)  When it came time for that process Barry and I went to NY together and started to work with Alex for a week or so, and really dialed in some specific ideas that just felt appropriate to each moment.  We don’t tend to over analyze our decisions.  I find that, as an artist, you can talk yourself into anything on some level.  And so, we try to pay more close attention to how things feel emotionally, and how we respond to an image on an emotional level, and think about how that would reflect what the character’s journeys are at that particular moment.  That is generally how we make our decisions.

V411: In addition to color, the natural lighting also helped set mood and tone. Can you talk a bit about lighting the scenes or using natural light?

JL: There are some great technical tools that allow you to be very low profile in terms of working in real locations and small spaces that we were implementing.  We tend to walk into a set, a real place like the room we are in now, and maybe we’ll turn on a lamp, and sort of look at how that effects the scene, and augment from there.  Or if there is a certain light coming in from the window that seems appropriate emotionally or creatively, we will put a light outside the window to make sure it continues throughout the day.   We tend to be inspired by what the city of Miami or certain apartments or certain homes give us, then we allow those things, or manipulate those things, to work into our overall design of the film.

V411: Editor Joi McMillon and I talked about the deliberate coverage captured for the scenes without a lot of b-roll.  Is there an example of a scene where you can describe the coverage you were aiming for?

JL: This was a one camera film, so that decision was all about making sure the camera was experiencing the specificity of Chiron’s perspective.  The type of coverage we were choosing was very deliberate that it all seemed to want to come from that perspective and his point of view, even in terms of lighting.  You know, I can remember one example.  When Juan brings Chiron back to his home the first time and he serves him that dinner, the camera seems to sort of pan across their faces as they perform the scene.  It’s not dollying or moving, the camera is just sort of panning back and forth.  To me it feels as if you, the audience, is just another person at the table there, and experiencing it in that sense.