If Beale Street Could Talk DP James Laxton on Color, Closeups, and Barry Jenkins (2022)

Between Medicine for Melancholy, Moonlight, and now If Beale Street Could Talk, filmmaker Barry Jenkins makes gorgeous films. But he doesn’t do it alone. He’s been working with cinematographer James Laxton since his very first short films, and the two have been honing their craft alongside one another ever since they first met in film school. If Beale Street Could Talk, an adaptation of the James Baldwin novel of the same name, may be their most impeccably crafted film yet, as their use of color, impeccable shot composition, and radical techniques brings a sense of intimacy and immersion that nearly breaks the boundary between the audience and the characters.

It’s all in service of the story, and at heart If Beale Street Could Talk is a romance. The story follows a young couple, Tish (Kiki Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James), who encounter obstacle after obstacle mere weeks before their first child is due to be born. The story touches on issues of family, institutionalized racism, and what it means to be black in America, but at heart it is truly a romance between these two central characters, and how the love between them is tested every which way.

This story is brought to the screen in sumptuous, intimate detail by Laxton’s cinematography, so when offered the opportunity to talk to him about his work on the film, I jumped at the chance. During our exclusive interview, he talked about his unique relationship and collaboration with Jenkins, how making Beale Street compared to making Moonlight, and how they created a new LUT inspired by 1970s film stock to achieve the colors you see in the movie. He also broke down how they approached shooting a couple of key scenes—the family confrontation and the Brian Tyree Henry monologue—and talked about getting ready to reunite with Jenkins for the Amazon series Underground Railroad.

If Beale Street Could Talk DP James Laxton on Color, Closeups, and Barry Jenkins (1)

Laxton was incredibly forthcoming when it came to breaking down exactly how they approached shooting scenes, which made for an insightful and enlightening discussion for a cinephile like myself—especially considering just how tremendous the cinematography in If Beale Street Could Talk actually is.

So yes, this is ultimately a deep-dive interview with the cinematographer behind one of the best-crafted films of 2018. Hopefully you’ll find the full interview just as engaging as I did. Check it out below. If Beale Street Could Talk is now playing in limited release.

You've been working with Barry for a really long time now, and I was just kind of curious how you guys met and how this collaboration began.

JAMES LAXTON: So we met at film school, we both attended Florida State University Film School in Tallahassee, Florida. I met Barry in the fall of 2001, which is when I started that program, and I think rather quickly we became pretty good friends, just socially and then based around I think our interest in certain kinds of filmmakers, certain aesthetics, certain kinds of stories, and just started sharing ideas and then soon after that started to collaborate on student films in the program. Since then we’ve just been friends, so I think it's just one of those quick collegiate friendships that sort of start and then they never end, and here we are today. So yeah it's cool, there's a lot of shared experiences in like a foundation from learning about filmmaking together. I think we created that foundation of visual language in an early time for us, and it's a great relationship. It's funny, I think about it often times now as almost like an accent of sorts, in some respect. You know when you learn language for the first time, and you learn in it Texas, or New York and you have an accent, I think because we learned the filmmaking language together, there's a bit of a shared accent that we have together now and I think that's sort of—I guess you'd call that a voice. Our work is now in that language.

That's a really interesting way of putting it, but it makes perfect sense. I have to admit I was very heartened to see, after Moonlight, that Barry—he probably could have chosen a lot of different DPs for this film, I was happy that you guys kept working together.

LAXTON: Yeah, no I agree. I think we all recognize that that's where our strengths as filmmakers lie, within the group of us in many ways, I think that's something that we all talk about and share and understand on a deep, deep level, that the strength of our films has to do with all of us being supportive of one another and having such a deep history within all of us. I think it's something that shows. That's my perspective anyway, and I think we all recognize the importance of that. We all know each other’s strengths, we all know each other’s weaknesses, and we all support each other through the process as such.

If Beale Street Could Talk DP James Laxton on Color, Closeups, and Barry Jenkins (2)

Moonlight was so massive for both of you, and it's such a brilliant film and your work on it is really stunning, but I’m curious, when did Barry first start talking to you about Beale Street and what did those initial conversations entail?

LAXTON: So I guess I knew about Beale Street not long after Moonlight, in terms of when it was discussed. He wrote them at the same time, so being a close collaborator of Barry's, I learned about Beale Street around the same time that I learned about Moonlight and then making Moonlight first, but this story and this movie adaptation was long coming. That’s something I think is a good benefit of Barry and I, we get to hash out ideas over the course of months if not years of sharing thoughts and perspectives about a project long before we even get to the set. So while we like to use natural light and work quickly, the basic vocabulary of films, and the more fleshed out concepts of what we apply on screen kind of comes from having conversations weeks, months, years back. So I learned about Beale Street somewhere around 2016 probably, 2015 maybe even.

(Video) The Cinematography of Barry Jenkins with James Laxton | Spotlight

And yeah I think the early conversations were just sort of poking at the surface of an idea of what the language of the film could be. Closer to when the production started, during pre-production I think we talked about sharing Mr. Baldwin’s written vocabulary—how he writes, his style of writing—to try and adapt that to the screen in terms of how do we move the camera. What formats we choose to shoot the movie on, the ones we shoot the movie on, oftentimes stems from conversations about the style of writing of Mr. Baldwin, trying to find a way to read his voice and then interpret that for cinematography.

Well the film is gorgeous. It goes to some dark and upsetting places, but it exudes this warmth that envelops you throughout. How did you go about getting that warmth and romanticism onscreen? Because it is a romantic film but it's not like anything is heightened.

LAXTON: Well, in my mind, everything about the movie is viewed through the prism and the lens of love. It's through love and falling into love, losing each other, hopefully our love as an audience of those characters. I think it’s through that shared bond of love that we witness the conflict of their relationship and what's going on with their family, and the difficulties that they're going through in their early stages of their relationship with Fonny in prison, and then trying to get him out. So I always felt like if we looked at their relationship and at that conflict through the lens of love, it's through that that as an audience we share their trauma, and share their existence and their need to fight for Fonny and Fonny's need to fight for himself, and trying to find a way to heal and bring him back into the fold. And so if we can look at that conflict through love, I think that's sort of how Barry and I had wanted to present the story. So it is romantic, and it's intended to be so. For me, that's how I thought about the relationship and wanting to present to the audience through that warmth and that strength, that even within the darkness of their moments, we share their family and their love with each other.

Specifically I wanted to ask about the big family confrontation scene, which just crackles. It feels like a rollercoaster ride, but it's just people talking. From your standpoint I assume it was really difficult because you have a bunch of different actors, a lot of dialogue, and a number of emotional dramatic beats that all have to hit at their right moments, so how did you guys start tackling that?

LAXTON: Yeah so these scenes—and there's a few of them in the movie,—were some of the most challenging I'd say for us visually, from Barry and I's conversations as to how to photograph them in a way that wasn't just presentational. I think we didn't want this to feel almost like a stage play, which can happen when you have seven or eight people in a room. I think we just wanted to make sure we weren't just on the sidelines watching that. We wanted to make sure the camera was involved and embedded within the room, within the conversations, and moved and panned and the lights shaped in ways that we really hoped would bring you into the conversation as opposed to sitting out and watching. Because we felt like that was where the power would lie ultimately, and the scenes would be strongest if the camera was involved somewhat in there.

And that goes for other scenes as well in the film. I mean the conversation between Fonny and Daniel later on, the way it kind of pans back and forth between those characters, all those movements were intended to bring us in as an audience into those rooms, into those lives. So yeah, technically speaking as we broke it down, it was simple. In its beginnings we just had to break it down in terms of what perspectives we want to see. I mean all those different eyelines needed to sort of be dictated by whom was addressing whom, and so it becomes this massive overhead diagram with lots of lines pointing lots of places, to sort of make sure we finished the day with the right material for the editors to put all together, because ultimately we know that those kinds of scenes are really shaped in the edit room. We just need to give them what they need obviously.

But at the same time we need to make choices. We can’t have literally every eyeline to every action; we need to make the right ones for the material, and the right ones for the right moments. And it was those conversations that Barry and I had in pre-production, to make sure we were being sensitive to you know, “Is this moment being received by Tish? Who is she handing off the energy in the scene back to? Is it a dialogue throw to someone or is a glance? Or is it an emotional edit?” All those things we discussed to sort of make sure that we gave the editors the material and the perspectives to see things the way we hoped to present.

It’s super powerful. I was at the world premiere at TIFF and I mean there were such vocal reactions from the audience throughout that scene. It’s really fun.

LAXTON: Yeah, it's exciting man, it's a favorite of mine as well. I think my favorite line in the whole movie is in that scene, so I'm fan myself for sure.

If Beale Street Could Talk DP James Laxton on Color, Closeups, and Barry Jenkins (4)

Then conversely you have—I mean, it's still powerful and emotional, but you have Brian Tyree Henry's monologue, which is one camera moving back and forth, and it's so gutting and powerful. How did that decision come about? The shot composition and lighting is incredible in that scene.

(Video) 10 Screenwriting Tips from Barry Jenkins on how he wrote Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk

LAXTON: Yeah well thank you very much. This scene is very different obviously. In those scenes you have Tish cooking in the kitchen, but in the focus of that moment it's the two men going through a traumatic experience together, and Daniel expressing what he had to go through, so for us it was about the tension of that conversation. So when you're trying to build tension, pace becomes a big part of that. The pacing of how fast or slow the camera moves are all dictated largely by performance I would suggest, and when I'm on set, trying to figure out with Barry how slow or what line we move from one character to the other. Largely it's a lot of listening to the cast, listening to performance and reacting from what they're giving.

So if you're paying attention and you're being sensitive, you can sort of engage with it in a way that—I like to think of it like, going back to the discussion about immersiveness, if you're in the room listening to those gentlemen speak, where does your emotional gut take you and when do you move from Daniel to Fonny, and back to Daniel? It largely has to do with listening, to being sensitive to the material but also the way in which it's being performed. It's those kinds of cues that we were taking as to when the camera moved and how slowly, and then also how the light played throughout those spaces. I mean it changes too. It’s interesting to see light-wise, because the beginning of that scene starts in the afternoon and daylight is pushing into the room. As the scene progresses and Tish goes to get some food for dinner, it’s more of a twilight sensibility, and the lights become dim, and as they finally sit down for dinner it's night. So all the light play and transition was definitely planned out way in advance to make sure we were using the light to also reflect the conversation they're having and how it builds in tension towards Daniel's monologue of telling Fonny what he had to go through in prison.

It's really spectacular work, from everyone involved. I also wanted to ask about the actors looking directly into the camera, which feels so intimate, but also kind of unsettling, and it really invites you to put yourself in the shoes of these character. What kind of conversations led to that decision?

LAXTON: Yeah Barry and I, we planned that somewhat in advance but also, we definitely occasionally throw them out when we feel on the set that the moment is right to do so. So it's a split as to how much is planned and how much is just listening to cast perform and again, being sensitive to the moment and trying to find when the right moment is to attempt these ideas. You're right though, a lot of it is to basically immerse our audience, as deep as possible. What we use as our crescendo piece of when to hit that perspective as hard as we can is when we ask the cast to look into the lens to perform. Which is challenging. It's a difficult thing for sure, and on a technical side this is the first time we used a different device than we've used previously when we've done this technique. This time around in the prison scenes we used Interrotron, which is what Errol Morris often uses when he interviews people in his documentaries.

If Beale Street Could Talk DP James Laxton on Color, Closeups, and Barry Jenkins (5)

So what we did is we ended up having two systems, and we placed Fonny and Tish, played by Kiki and Stephan, in different sort of ports within the prison cell windows, and we hooked up a live feed from one camera to the other, so as the actors are performing into the lens, they're actually looking at an image of the other cast member. So we did live performance version of the Interrotron system, which is sort of interesting. It’s the first time I've done it with Barry before.

That's crazy. That’s really cool.

LAXTON: Yeah it was hoping to help that challenge of—because I think it’s fair to say that actors obviously want to engage with the other cast member when they're performing. It's important, and so this is a way for us to still use this technique that we feel is very powerful, and at the same time allow them to perform to each other.

Yeah I was watching the Silence of the Lambs Criterion recently and the actors were talking in archival footage about how just how weird it was when Demme asked them to do that.

LAXTON: Yeah I mean, I can't imagine. I'm sure it's very difficult to act with your hands behind your back a little bit.

The colors just kind of popped off the screen in this movie. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about the film’s use of color.

LAXTON: Color is interesting in this film and very different than we did in Moonlight and previous movies between Barry and I. Lots of conversations about what the movie should look like color-wise will happen through early development to pre-production, trying to make sure we felt like the era was a big part of it, the 1970s. Trying to make sure we were presenting the palette that was in that space, and colors affected in that space in terms of film stocks at the time and things like that. One thing that was interesting that we did this time around, that we hadn't done previously, is develop a certain aesthetic LUT. I don't know if you know what a LUT is, but a LUT in digital cameras, it basically changes the color space a little bit in terms of pushing more saturation towards some colors and others, and lots of control over contrast and how highlights blur, etc.

If Beale Street Could Talk DP James Laxton on Color, Closeups, and Barry Jenkins (6)
(Video) Ep 537: James Laxton segment (IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK)

So basically we created a LUT that was engineered based off of a 1970s film stock. In the research that I was doing for the film, I was finding a lot of photographs from the 70s in Harlem, in New York at large, and when I would go into other people’s offices in the pre-production process, Barry's office, our production designer, our costume designer, we were all seeing a lot of the same photographs that we were all finding in our own personal journeys into research. And I basically found out who the photographers were, found out what film stocks they were oftentimes using—because clearly there was something to do with the way these photographs looked that all of us were reacting to it as a whole. I basically asked my colorist Alex Bickel, who I worked with on Moonlight and I worked with on several films before, to help me create a LUT that we can have in production and we would again use in the post-production process finishing the film. That was all based off this particular Fuji film stock that was being used in a lot of these images that we were referencing to the development process.

Oh wow.

LAXTON: And that was great for us, it really helped us shape a lot of choices we made in design, art direction, in costume design as well to make sure we were all really fine tuning some of these choices that were hopefully going to shape our world in terms of creating the color palette of If Beale Street Could Talk.

That's great, I mean it's so striking I feel like that's something a lot of people are going to be talking about when they're coming out of the film. I mean, Moonlight is as well, but the color in this one just pops.

LAXTON: It’s fun man, I think going back to what we said a while ago, this idea of romance, I mean this is a lot of color. In my mind, when I think of romance I think of color, and warmth and pop and brightness and saturation, and so we wanted the images to feel like that, and hopefully we did okay.

How did shooting this movie compare to shooting Moonlight? Was it much different?

LAXTON: I mean, it's tough. There are differences and similarities. Ultimately the same approaches that I remember Barry and I doing when we made student films are very much still part of our journey into both pre-production and also how we make choices on set; it's a very gut-level process where we trust each other immensely and push each other. So all those things are the same, and probably will always be the same, but there's also a lot of differences as well. This was a little bit of a longer shoot, which was wonderful. We had 35 days to shoot this film as opposed to on Moonlight we had 25. So there were some luxuries that came into the film that weren’t there before, but the biggest the difference I would say is the visual language of the film is very different than Moonlight. I think that language stems, like I talked about before, from trying to adapt the voice of Mr. Baldwin's writing in the novel, and it just felt like we couldn't apply the same visual language as Moonlight. It wouldn't have fit. It wouldn't have been successful as a film and wouldn't have as been successful as a look.

If Beale Street Could Talk DP James Laxton on Color, Closeups, and Barry Jenkins (7)

So I would say the biggest change is the visual vocabulary of the film. It's vastly different than Moonlight, which I think is great. I think our voices are still in there somewhere in terms of how Barry and I work, and what techniques and styles are always in ourselves and will always part of the imagery that we create, but the hope very much was to try to make sure this film was using a language that was unique to itself and unique to the material and appropriate to the material for sure.

Yeah it kind of feels like your guys' next album. Like you can tell it's the same artistic voice, but it's a new story, new sound, new things going on.

LAXTON: (Laughs) Yeah, thanks man, I mean I hope that's true, there's definitely specific stuff that we wanted to make sure happened. I think every story needs that clarity. It’d be silly if this film looked like Moonlight or if Moonlight looked like Beale Street, or Medicine for Melancholy for that matter. I think each of these things for us is a different aesthetic and different story and applied very differently so, that's the kind of filmmakers we are. We like to sort of shift things around and never do the same thing twice.

Well on that note, what's next up for you? What are you working on now, or are you getting into Underground Railroad?

(Video) Adele Romanski and James Laxton

LAXTON: I mean the next thing is another Barry Jenkins project. The next shoot that we plan to make is an Amazon Series called Underground Railroad which is based on the Colson Whitehead novel, which we're all very excited about. It's funny, I leave on Sunday to start doing some preliminary location scouts for a few days so it's starting up soon, and that's definitely the focus for me in terms of the next narrative piece. It's a big one. Again, it'll be very different. I mean that story’s unique to itself and different than anything we've done in the past as well, so we'll have to again reimagine our voices according to this new material for sure.

Do you know how long that shoot is, and how many episodes? Are you guys working on every single episode?

LAXTON: Yeah so Barry and I plan to direct and shoot each of the episodes. I don't know exactly how many episodes, I think that I probably should let Barry and the producers speak to more specifics about that, but yeah it's going to be a long one. I think the truth is we'll probably be on that process for most of, if not all of next year. So it's going to be a journey that I think we're all sort of trying to prepare for, in a way that is different than anything we've done in the past.

If Beale Street Could Talk DP James Laxton on Color, Closeups, and Barry Jenkins (8)

That's really exciting, I mean between that and then you've got Ava DuVernay and Bradford Young doing Central Park Five on Netflix, so it's kind of like really striking cinematic cinematography is coming to television in a really great way.

LAXTON: I am very excited about that, I'm very excited about that TV show. I'm clearly big fans of both of theirs and I'm sure it's going to be amazing. I hope that Barry and I can contribute in the same way. But yeah man, TV is new for me. I'm excited about it obviously and don't really know what to do other than approach it in the same way we've always approached everything, Barry and I, so my hope is that we don't change too much to be honest with you, in terms of the format shift or our process, you know? I mean, it's the same, it's image making no matter what, whether it's commercial or music video or television show or film, and for us it's sort of, this is our voice, this is who we are and we hope to present accordingly.

Awesome, that's really cool. And also kind of funny that Damien Chazelle is going to television at the same time, so it's kind of like Damien and Barry are just always interlinked.

LAXTON: (Laughs) Yeah, I don't know what that's about.

It's so funny.

LAXTON: Yeah you’re right, it’s funny. Yeah, you know I think we're all looking for ways to express ourselves honestly, and it's one thing if you have like—when there's opportunities that make sense for each of those guys, I'm sure they take it because they feel it's good for them. So it's just to create, and it's an opportunity in a way. The longform part of the process of TV, it does seem—especially for a writer and director—it does seem like such a wonderful journey to have the length and the space to shape a story in a way that's unique to that format.

If Beale Street Could Talk DP James Laxton on Color, Closeups, and Barry Jenkins (9)
If Beale Street Could Talk DP James Laxton on Color, Closeups, and Barry Jenkins (10)
(Video) DP/30: Moonlight, cinematographer James Laxton

FAQs

Is If Beale Street Could Talk based on 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.

What happens at the end of If Beale Street Could Talk book? ›

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.

Why is the book called If Beale Street could talk? ›

If Beale Street Could Talk is a 1974 novel by American writer James Baldwin. 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.

What happens to fonny in Beale Street? ›

Fonny has been accused of rape by a Puerto Rican woman, who simply claimed that a black man did it; despite the fact that Fonny seems to have been on the other side of the city when she was assaulted, he is put behind bars, anyway, by a racist white cop, Bell, who has long yearned to arrest Fonny.

Is fonny innocent? ›

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 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.

Videos

1. “The Meaning Of” Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk) – Ep94
(First Cut)
2. James Laxton chats about his cinematographer work on 'Moonlight'
(GoldDerby / Gold Derby)
3. Tropic
(Sunday Paper)
4. Session 4 - Revival: Lost Southern Voices 2021
(Georgia Center for the Book)

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