Sunday, May 17, 2009

He's Gotta Have It: a Chat with Barry Jenkins

Medicine for Melancholy is a masterpiece. It is the most important film by a black American director since Charles Burnett's To Sleep With Anger, black American cinema's highest achievement.
-- Charles Mudede, The Stranger

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** ***** *****

From the moment I first heard about Medicine for Melancholy, which was initially described as a sort of African-American spin on mumblecore, I knew I'd like it, and I did. (Even if the dreaded m-word has lost traction in recent years, I still consider myself a fan.)

In fact, the debut feature from Barry Jenkins is one of the finest films of 2009. The voters behind Film Independent's Spirit Awards came to the same conclusion and nominated him for their prestigious One to Watch Award, along with Nina Paley and Seattle’s Lynn Shelton.

I interviewed Jenkins while he was in town earlier this year to introduce Medicine
for Melancholy
at the Northwest Film Forum, and here’s what he had to say...

Click here for my review of the film.

I haven’t seen your bio, but I know some basic facts, and I'm definitely going to be asking you questions you’ve answered before, but they’re kind of important. Since it comes up in the movie—Micah says "born and raised"—I have to ask: were you born and raised in the Bay Area?

No, not at all.

You weren’t? I’m not assuming you're Micah, but I figured you grew up there.

Well, he is, but…I’ve only been living in San Francisco for about three and a half years.

That’s a surprise to me.

I was a regular visitor for six years, because when I first moved to LA, my best friend from film school, James Laxton, the cinematographer, was born and raised there, and I used to visit him all the time, because I did not enjoy LA, so it feels like I’ve been living there for six years.

That’s interesting. I don’t have cable, and had never heard of Wyatt Cenac
before, so I didn’t know he was on The Daily Show. Is he a San Franciscan?

No, he’s not. The only person involved with the film who’s a born and raised
San Franciscan is James, and right now the only person who lives there is me.

The film credits indicate that you spent time in LA.

Yeah, there are a lot of LA names in the special thanks.

Is that how you ended up working on Their Eyes Were Watching God?

Yes, I graduated from film school and moved directly to Los Angeles. I graduated on Decem-
ber 15th and I was in LA by December 21st. I was there before Christmas, which was nuts.


I’d gotten this grant called the Pathfinder Award, which was like a $5,000 grant.

Which is enough to do a move.

It was enough to move, but in retrospect, I should’ve taken that money and gone to Europe
or hobo'ed around the country. Instead, I moved to LA, paid way too much for an apartment, and took a very, very underpaid job as a director’s assistant on Their Eyes Were Watching God.

But it’s nice to be involved with something big like that.

Yeah, and it was the right move. I mean, I was the only person in town, so I was like one
of only three people interviewed for the job—that’s why I got it, despite having no experience, and man, it was like a crash course in how different making movies would be in LA as oppos-
ed to coming from film school where you have to make a movie [during] a certain semes-
ter, and you’re guaranteed a crew and you’re guaranteed film. Nothing’s guaranteed in LA.

Even within that protective Oprah bubble?

Exactly, but when you get to LA, nothing’s guaranteed. Everybody’s fighting for the same few jobs. So, I was the director’s assistant, and I saw that movie from the earliest pre-production
all through post-production, so it was about nine months, and I was fresh out of school.

That seems long for TV—that's longer than a lot of features—but it does look good.

Yeah, I mean, this was the biggest-budgeted TV movie at that point. And then it was the highest-rated television movie in network history, too. So, it was like being on a really big Hollywood set. I mean, you had Halle Berry, and she was on top of the world at that point.

I liked it, but I haven’t read the book [by Zora Neale Hurston], and I know that peop-
le who have are going to be more discriminating. My Mom has recommended it to me.

You see, I had read the book and I was just coming from college. I have a dual degree; a bachelor’s in creative writing and in film, so I read Their Eyes Were Watching God in a serious literary discourse, and then we made the Harpo version, which is just not the same as the book. I was going to say it doesn’t stand up, but I’ll be polite, and say it’s just not the same. [laughs]

And it probably couldn’t have been, even in a feature film. You know,
if it’s within a certain budget, it seems like it would have to have…

With that much money and that many people, you can’t have made the book, there’s no way.

You thank [director] Darnell Martin. Are you still in touch?

We’re still in touch, we’re still friends. Darnell is very proud of Medicine. She was super
supportive of me. Darnell gave me that job because she knew I didn’t have any footing in
LA, and she liked my short films. She’s always looking for filmmakers as her assistants.

That’s very cool.

It was really cool, and it was a really intense job, because Darnell was going through a transition in her personal life. She’s a single mother with a three-year-old child in New York. So, she does-
n’t drive and she’s trying to get her kid into school on the East Coast, and she’s at the helm of this huge movie and it had been awhile since her last feature, so it was really important for her.

My unusual connection with her is that I’ve seen Prison Song [with Q-Tip], but more people have probably seen I Like It Like That, her first feature, which I haven’t, although I’ve heard good things about it. I’ve also seen Cadillac Records, so I'm somewhat caught up.

I Like It Like That was great. She has a really interesting style, and she’s amazing with actors.

BeyoncĂ© was a better Etta James [in Cadillac Records] than I expected. I was thinking: you can’t take a tall thin woman and…but Darnell did a good job, I thought, with the whole cast.

Darnell is intense, and she will pull a performance out of you, and it was really cool to see that, because the one thing—the thing you learn the least about in film school is directing actors.

Click here for part two

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Endnote: Distributed by IFC, Medicine for Melancholy isn't yet a-
vailable on DVD. Image from my personal collection (Jenkins at the NWFF).

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