Exclusive: ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ DP James Laxton on Color, Closeups, and Barry Jenkins

     December 16, 2018

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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.

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Photo by Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures

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.

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Image via Annapurna Pictures

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.

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.

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Image via Annapurna Pictures

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.

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