The movie business can often be cutthroat. But this Oscar season may be most distinct for the number of loyal friendships that have imprinted on the nominated works.
Whether it’s the longstanding collaboration between “La La Land’s” director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz or Denzel Washington’s and Viola Davis’ patience in bringing “Fences” from Broadway to the big screen, there are unique cinematic families that have found the spotlight over the last few months.
One of those is the 13-year collaboration between director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton. The latter has shot every short and feature Jenkins has made, culminating in the much lauded best picture nominee, “Moonlight,” the coming-of-age story of a gay black man growing up in the drug-infested Liberty City area of Miami.
Laxton and Jenkins attended Florida State University at the same time and have worked together ever since. And it should be noted that Adele Romanski, also a Florida State alum and Laxton’s wife, is a producer on “Moonlight.” For this particular film, Laxton had to find a way to portray three eras in the life of its main character, Chiron (played chronologically by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), with Miami as a backdrop.
“The big rooted concept behind the visual approach to the film was this idea of immersiveness and this idea of subjective perspectives,” Laxton says. “The attempt was to create a visual language that put the audience directly in the experience of Chiron. There’s even moments when he looks into a lens and breaks that fourth wall, and you have characters even speaking into the lens at times.
“The naturalism and that realism in the film comes directly from shooting in Miami specifically, in real locations.”
Laxton and Jenkins collaborated on a number of standout moments, including Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaching “Little” Chiron (Hibbert) how to swim in the ocean and the shot of Chiron’s drug-addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), screaming in slow motion against the pink neon light spilling out behind her. But there is one remarkable scene that wowed even the most astute cinephiles. In the film’s second act, a teenage Chiron (Sanders) has a life-changing moment with his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) on South Beach under the light of the moon. It was shot on the beach at night and Laxton says it was the one scene he was most nervous about.
“It’s rare when you approach a film when one of the most important scenes in the film is also the most challenging,” Laxton says. “I was very apprehensive about it and knew a great deal of forethought and planning and resources had to be allocated to that scene.”
The problem? The beach had no man-made lights illuminating it. Laxton remembers Jenkins had been certain they’d have enough ambient light spilling from the nearby clubs and hotels and bars. That wasn’t the case.
“In the end, with my meter, nothing was reading. I knew then I needed to provide everything if it was going to be photographable within the scene,” Laxton says. “Which was daunting, but at the same time, in some respects, very creatively freeing too, because now we can invent what moonlight looks like for us in the film. Obviously, it’s the name of the movie. It’s an incredibly important image in the film. It evokes a tonality and an emotional chord that is not only important but lays the groundwork for so much emotional value that comes throughout the film.”
The solution came in the form of a large soft box with 14 LED lights known as flo flos that was suspended over the actors. Because it was exceptionally windy during the beach shoot the box was only about 12 feet off the ground. That caused Laxton to have to dim the lights more than he expected, which, “in the end, actually created a very different quality of light that worked really well for us.”
After almost a decade as a professional cinematographer, “Moonlight” has become Laxton’s calling card and he’s been rewarded with his first Oscar and American Society of Cinematographers Award nominations. But finding the right next project is more important to him than landing a guaranteed blockbuster.
“‘Moonlight’ wanted from me what my voice is, I think, on some level. I found that with ‘Moonlight’ and I found that with Barry. Finding that with a director is super special,” Laxton says. “While I’ve seen and read some fantastic screenplays and met with some directors that I’m massive fans of, I need that next movie to need something from me that I want to give.”