Cinematographer James Laxton on Capturing the Romance of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ Close-Ups, and Errol Morris (2022)

Cinematographer James Laxton on Capturing the Romance of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ Close-Ups, and Errol Morris (1)

Jordan Raup

Cinematographer James Laxton on Capturing the Romance of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ Close-Ups, and Errol Morris (2)

Continuing their collaboration since their film school days, cinematographer James Laxton and Barry Jenkins once again create one of lushest, most vibrant films of the year withIf Beale Street Could Talk. Bringing the world of James Baldwin to the screen, their Harlem is one of bright beauty and swoon-worthy colors, a cacophony of visual delight to match the emotional exuberance of the story’s foundational romantic center. Along with the colorful palette, Laxton’s camera movement is something to behold, particularly in the film’s best scene as Brian Tyree Henry and Stephan James’ characters reconnect over a meal and we feel like we’re another member of the table as the frame gracefully glides back and forth.

We talked with the cinematographer about bringing a vibrant romanticism to the film, how they achieve the Jonathan Demme-esque close-ups, being inspired by Errol Morris, seeing KiKi Layne and Stephan James blossom on set, his favorite cinematography of the year, and more.

The Film Stage: I read James Baldwin’s book before seeingthe film and in these apartments, there’s definitely a way this could have been shot where it could have been more play-esque and a little more static, but you breathe a lot of life into these scenes. Could you talk about the setups for those shots and conceiving those apartment shots?

James Laxton: Well, thank you very much, that was definitely a goal for us. Barry and I are always trying to focus on immersive language with the camera, trying to bring the camera within conversations and not have it just be a fly on the wall in a scene but sort of engage with the audience by placing the camera particularly in POV shots or right over the eye-line of someone’s close up. Especially in those scenes with the two families in the same room, where there’s eight different people talking to eight different people, it’s definitely challenging. It’s an amazing scene with some great challenges of course, but definitely something we were, not concerned per say, but we know would be challenging, truly based on how much coverage we knew we needed to get. I think the actors were very patient with us through those couple of days in giving us what we needed to do. It was important to not have the film feel too much like you were reading the novel and more so that you are experiencing the novel, and I think that’s something Barry and I are always sort of obsessed with, trying to bring the audience inside the experience so they can relate to the characters. For example, I’m a white guy from California–I don’t know what it’s like to be Tish and Fonny in that space, but if I can place the camera in a certain way, maybe I can feel like I am experiencing something that culturally I’m not familiar with and that is one reason we try to do our best immerse our audience into those spaces and into those scenes and into those characters.

Cinematographer James Laxton on Capturing the Romance of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ Close-Ups, and Errol Morris (3)

From the opening scene, there’s this rush of color. The opening shot reminded me of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I was curious if you talked about that at all?

I wish, that’s a rad reference. The opening shot and sequences in films for Barry and I are really critical. It’s a time where we get to clue the audience into what the visual vocabulary of the film will be. The opening shot where the camera rotates around and follows them with this big crane movement quickly establishes the patience in which the camera will be moving for the next two hours; more precise, delicate framings and how the light plays within those early scenes. This had a lot to do with how we wanted to establish a certain language that is particular to the film and to the story and allowed us to be creative and sort of present maybe a heightened sense of love and romance.

We interviewed you for Moonlight and you mentioned how you guys had the shared folder of images going back for years thatwere from Wong Kar-Wai or Claire Denis or photographs, but Barry Jenkins has said that for the references herewas just going back to James Baldwin’s descriptions. I was wondering if you could illuminate that process?

I think what he’s talking about there is the sort of literary aspect of it all, coupled with how Mr. Baldwin is so specific at times with a certain jacket or cup or pouch. He can be very descriptive of these environments, and that’s sort of what Barry’s alluding to. Those things don’t particularly reference photography, but Mr. Baldwin’s writing was hugely influential just cinematically as well, but I would say more stemming from this use of language and less from his particularly descriptions of space –that was probably more discussed from a production design or costume design perspective, or maybe even performance. But the way Baldwin writes and speaks had a lot to do with how we wanted to move the camera, the kind of camera we used which was the Alexa 65. A lot of sort of shaping decisions had a lot to do with this novel specifically and even more broadly Mr. Baldwin’s writings and works at large.

I love that there’s so much color in this film. You talked a little bit about that with the opening, but sometimes there can be a bleakness when you’re portraying communities that might not be middle or upper class. Yet in the film, you give this kind of love and life and bring people’s awareness to how much joy there can be along with the hardship. Can you talk a little bit about this from a cinematographer perspective and the kind of awareness you brought to that?

This movie and this book takes on quite a lot of subject. I mean, we’re talking about race relations in the U.S., we’re talking about the prison system, and sexual assault issues, but at the heart of all these things in my mind is the love between Tish and Fonny, and it’s that love connection that seems to be the spine of the story, and the spine of how we viewed every other aspect that the story is discussing. When I think of love and family love or romantic love with Tish and Fonny, it was all about the tones and romantic sensibilities. I think about the iconography of romance that’s in my mind and most likely in a lot of people’s shared visual sensibility. The scene where Tish and Fonny exit the restaurant and have this romantic walk down the road with the umbrella, and the light is sort of backlighting it in this 1950’s cinematic vocabulary, that was very much a part of this depiction of romance of love and affection for one another. I think you see that in the sensuality in their relationship and in the family love, and shared within those scenes of Tish in the family apartment.

So while the movie is about a lot of tragic subjects, I think if we can view that tragedy through a sense of strength and love that the family and characters bring to the story, it’s through that love that all of the other subjects seem to impact me more in a way I can identify with. I mean, I’m a white guy from California. I may not know exactly what it’s like to be black in Harlem in the 1970s, but I do know what love feels like, and I think if we can connect the audiences in that love Fonny and Tish are sharing, and hopefully at some point in our lives we’ve felt that first love that may have meant so much to us, and if we can sort of sense that sensibility, maybe we can empathize at the very least or understand what it’s like to be in Fonny’s shoes or in Tish’s shoes.

Barry Jenkins did an interviewwith Paul Thomas Anderson and the latter said that since he started his career he’s been trying to do these Jonathan Demme-esque close-ups and Barry Jenkins has doneit perfectly in just a few films. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that and what you think of Paul Thomas Anderson’s films, and speaking a little about the execution of these shots.

Well, it’s very flattering, as you can imagine. I’m a big PTA fan and have been for a great deal of time. I think the world of his films generally and visually to be pretty spectacular, and I have to say let’s not forget his ability for cutting such powerful and unique close-ups as well. So I’d like to write back to him and say his work is clearly amazing. It’s flattering, I don’t know what else to say about it besides that.

You know, those close-ups are really amazing, and the way they happen, which Barry sort of talked about in that interview, is that they are pretty spontaneous. I think that maybe a reason as to why they might work is that even though they might be quite stylized at times to have a character look into the lens, it isn’t so necessarily so thought out, and it’s just moments where Barry and I realized we’re getting something that is almost like a crescendo of heightened sensibility, where we get sucked into the monitor and you can see our faces six inches from the monitor because we want to be close. And it’s one of those moments where we look each other and decide that this may be deserving of one of those moments and then we end up shooting it, and we take a moment before we move on to make sure we get something like that. I don’t find what we do in those moments to be any more unique than other aspects in our process. Of course we’re not spending six hours on one of those close-ups but maybe 20 minutes or something like that if we’re lucky. It’s hard to know or even discuss what’s going on there but it’s probably just Barry and I–and more simply Barry–just deciding these are moments that can stand up that level of stylization. I think that is something that Barry navigates very well. If it’s a scene or it’s a moment that was maybe not ringing with as much strength, I’m not sure if those moments would work. It’s about realizing what moments can stand up to that level of stylization.

Cinematographer James Laxton on Capturing the Romance of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ Close-Ups, and Errol Morris (4)

Speaking of the actors, you mentioned how you used for the prison sequence an Interrotron. Can you talk about your idea to do that and how you were pleased with the results?

Well, those scenes aren’t just brief moments, they are long five or so minute sequences where we’re asking KiKi or Stephan to perform the entirety of the scene into the lens. We realized early on that would be a pretty inappropriate request from a filmmaker to the actors so we had to find some way to still achieve these heightened, visual voices while still getting performances that are as meaningful as they ended up in the film to be. So how to do that, I can’t remember how it exactly it happened but I think Barry and I are aware of how Errol Morris was making documentaries for a long time. I’m not sure if he still is using that system, but he had used it for a very long time, and it felt like what a great tool to bring those performances into those close-ups. It just seemed to be aperfect tool for us to still get a scene with this visual approach.

With Moonlight and this film, it must have been pretty amazing for you to witness all of these new actors to blossom on set. I’m curious about when you first sawor talked to KiKi or Stephan on set.

I’m not a director so it’s a little challenging for me to comment on too much, but my role is unique. I’m not talking to them in the same way Barry is, but even as an observer, watching the process happen with each of those young people, they were sort of embodying these characters where there was a sense that when they walked onto the set, I wasn’t really sure I was watching KiKi anymore. I was watching Tish. It was something they took very seriously and they really cared for the process and it’s just that diligence and that professionalism mixed with a real passion and care for the material. I think I realized quickly that these were going to be some great performances and some really talented people were creating this world with us. It was sort of effervescent. It wasn’t complicated. It wasn’t process driven. It was immediate that these two actors had chemistry very quickly.

Cinematographer James Laxton on Capturing the Romance of ‘If Beale Street Could Talk,’ Close-Ups, and Errol Morris (5)

One of my favorite scenes is with Brian Tyree Henry and Stephan over dinner. I haven’t seen a movie in a long time where you feel like you are a part of the conversation, you are just gliding through and you feel like it could have gone on for another hour if you wanted it too. Could you talk about pulling that off?

Man, it was scary. I think that’s a technique that Barry and I have been trying to do for a while. There’s a couple moments of it in Moonlight and I think we finally figured it out, but you know it’s very much all about listening and being in concert with the performance as a camera operator. I know it’s a technically challenging thing to do. You not only need to be moving the camera in a certain way but you also are reacting and listening almost like another actor or character might be within the scene and to do that you need to be quite sensitive and emotionally available to sort of feel the performance a certain way and engage with the process in a different way that isn’t just technical, but emotional. Just again, listening to the performance, really connecting with Brian, really connecting to Stephan and engaging with them on a much more sort of spiritual level than a cinematographer or camera operator might be used too. It’s asking a lot of everybody and I think in that scene particularly all of these things sort of gelledin a way that I think was perfect or close to it anyway.

There’s two montages that bookend the film. Can you talk about as cinematographer, do you have a say in the visual feel of how those images come across, or do you just see it at the end of the process?

No, I wasn’t involved in choosing what photos go in there. There were a couple of photos in the screenplay, I think Gordon Parks was, and the others were largely found in the post-production process. I love them and the choices they made. They are tragically, tonally powerful, but it wasn’t me behind those choices. I wish I could say I was though. They are really strong choices and just wonderful for the film. But no, that wasn’t part of my role.

I was wondering if there’s any films you’ve seen this season or throughout the year that have impressed you?

I’m guessing you are going to give a lot of the same answers. I mean, Roma is stunning I think. What Cuarón does in that film is just really touching in a way that finds such a human spirit behind the visual choices he’s creating in that film. It’s a piece of work I’m inspired by no doubt about it. I also really love The Favourite.I thought Robbie Ryan’s work was really perfect for that film. The energy that he brings with the movement and lens choices and lighting, it just feels part and parcel to the story and to the energy of the film. So I think those two for me are quite standouts. There are so many more, there are so many more to talk about, but I would say Roma and The Favourite are mine.

If Beale Street Could Talk is now theaters.

Continue: The Best Cinematography of 2018

FAQs

Why did James Baldwin wrote If Beale Street could talk? ›

Baldwin's intention was to hold these two storylines—of a couple falling in love and of a family facing adversity—together, to show that they were beautifully, terribly intertwined. Such was the condition of being black in America.

What camera was used for If Beale Street could talk? ›

The movie If Beale Street Could Talk, released in 2018 and directed by Barry Jenkins, was shot on digital using ARRI ALEXA 65 Camera and ARRI Rental Prime DNA Lenses with James Laxton as cinematographer and editing by Joi McMillon, Nat Sanders.

Where did James Baldwin write If Beale Street could talk? ›

His fifth novel (and 13th book overall), it is a love story set in Harlem in the early 1970s. The title is a reference to the 1916 W.C. Handy blues song "Beale Street Blues", named after Beale Street in Downtown Memphis, Tennessee.
...
If Beale Street Could Talk.
First edition
AuthorJames Baldwin
LC ClassPZ4.B18 If3 PS3552.A45
9 more rows

When did James Baldwin write If Beale Street could talk? ›

If Beale Street Could Talk is a 2018 American romantic drama film written and directed by Barry Jenkins, and based on James Baldwin's 1974 novel of the same name.

What does the ending of If Beale Street Could Talk mean? ›

The story concludes with both hope and tragedy. Tish eventually goes into labor when Fonny is out on bail with his trial postponed. However, there's still drama in the novel's ending. Tish's mother reaches out to Victoria and sees the poverty that plagues her life.

Is Beale Street Could Talk summary? ›

What happens to fonny at the end? ›

In her New York Times review of the book, Joyce Carol Oates wrote that at the end, "Fonny is out on bail, his trial postponed indefinitely, neither free nor imprisoned but at least returned to the world of the living." This is a more hopeful conclusion in that readers can choose to believe Fonny and Tish will get to ...

What does love mean to Baldwin? ›

I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace — not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth. Love is not a feeling but a power that transforms us and those with whom we interact.

What is James Baldwin famous quotes? ›

The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.” “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Does fonny get out of jail in If Beale Street Could Talk? ›

In the movie, however, the child, now old enough to talk and walk, goes with his mother to see Fonny, who is still in prison. In a cute but cloying scene, the boy says a prayer over the snacks Tish has brought for Fonny. To be sure, an ominous note lingers; Fonny remains in prison, after all.

How much time did he get in If Beale Street Could Talk? ›

He was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison, and spent the next few years in and out of solitary confinement as he moved between prisons, including Attica, where he survived the famous 1971 uprising.

Is If Beale Street Could Talk on Netflix? ›

Watch all you want.

What is the significance of the title If Beale Street Could Talk? ›

The title is heavily symbolic. Memphis's Beale Street is where the blues were said to have been born, and for Baldwin the story that it would tell is one that would sum up black life in 20th-century America.

Who dies at the end of If Beale Street Could Talk? ›

On the scenes that got cut, Jenkins described “really lovely conversation about unity between Black and brown” with Tish and Pedrocito (Diego Luna) and the death of Fonny's (Stephan James) father Frank (Michael Beach). “The omission of Frank committing suicide was a really big one.

Why did fonny go to jail in If Beale Street Could Talk? ›

A twenty-two-year-old black man in prison because he has been wrongfully accused of raping Mrs. Rogers. Shortly before his arrest, Fonny asks Tish—whom he has known since he was a child—to marry him, and the young couple make plans to start their life together.

What is the conflict in If Beale Street Could Talk? ›

The central conflict of the film arises when Fonny is baselessly accused of sexually assaulting a Hispanic woman named Victoria Rivers (Emily Rios). He is subsequently arrested, despite his well-established alibi and the authentic testimonies offered by Tish and Fonny's friend Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry).

How sad is If Beale Street Could Talk? ›

But If Beale Street Could Talk is also very sad. That the characters' love for each other is true is never in doubt; but the pall of their circumstances is always present as well. The movie is so bittersweet because it centers Black love: Fonny and Tish's young, blossoming love.

What happened between fonny and Officer Bell? ›

Eventually, Officer Bell gets his revenge by framing Fonny for a crime that he did not commit. When two people love each other, when they really love each other, everything that happens between them has something of a sacramental air.

Is If Beale Street Could Talk feminist? ›

Though James Baldwin never claimed he was a feminist, we attempt to argue that If Beale Street Could Talk can also be read as a “revisionist text,” a feminist text, a text in which Baldwin gives voice to an African American female narrator living in a patriarchal society, for the first time in his fiction, as all the ...

Did fonny ever get out of jail? ›

In her New York Times review of the book, Joyce Carol Oates wrote that at the end, "Fonny is out on bail, his trial postponed indefinitely, neither free nor imprisoned but at least returned to the world of the living." This is a more hopeful conclusion in that readers can choose to believe Fonny and Tish will get to ...

What is James Baldwin famous quotes? ›

The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.” “Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Why did fonny go to jail in If Beale Street Could Talk? ›

A twenty-two-year-old black man in prison because he has been wrongfully accused of raping Mrs. Rogers. Shortly before his arrest, Fonny asks Tish—whom he has known since he was a child—to marry him, and the young couple make plans to start their life together.

Who dies at the end of If Beale Street Could Talk? ›

On the scenes that got cut, Jenkins described “really lovely conversation about unity between Black and brown” with Tish and Pedrocito (Diego Luna) and the death of Fonny's (Stephan James) father Frank (Michael Beach). “The omission of Frank committing suicide was a really big one.

What does Mrs Hunt do when she finds out that Tish is pregnant? ›

Mrs. Hunt curses Tish, and tells her the child is born from sin and is going to shrivel in her womb – and Frank punches her, hard. Everyone scrambles, Joseph takes Frank out, and Mrs. Hunt's daughters help her up.

How much time did he get in If Beale Street Could Talk? ›

He was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison, and spent the next few years in and out of solitary confinement as he moved between prisons, including Attica, where he survived the famous 1971 uprising.

Who was James Baldwin's lover? ›

In 1949 Baldwin met and fell in love with a Swiss man, Lucien Happersberger, whom he met in Paris.

Why is James Baldwin important? ›

Baldwin's works helped to raise public awareness of racial and sexual oppression. His honest portrayal of his personal experiences in a national context challenged America to uphold the values it promised on equality and justice.

Who said we can disagree and still love each other? ›

"We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist." James Baldwin was born #OTD in 1924.

What is the conflict in If Beale Street Could Talk? ›

The central conflict of the film arises when Fonny is baselessly accused of sexually assaulting a Hispanic woman named Victoria Rivers (Emily Rios). He is subsequently arrested, despite his well-established alibi and the authentic testimonies offered by Tish and Fonny's friend Daniel Carty (Brian Tyree Henry).

Is Beale Street a true story? ›

About the movie:

"If Beale Street Could Talk" is set in Harlem in the early 1970s. Reportedly inspired by Baldwin's own friends' experiences, it tells a story of a young couple Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne) who were childhood friends that fell in love as young adults.

How sad is If Beale Street Could Talk? ›

But If Beale Street Could Talk is also very sad. That the characters' love for each other is true is never in doubt; but the pall of their circumstances is always present as well. The movie is so bittersweet because it centers Black love: Fonny and Tish's young, blossoming love.

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