Wednesday, July 15, 2009

He’s Gotta Have It: Part Five

A Chat with Barry Jenkins (click here for part four)

I have a connection to San Francisco, but it’s mostly based in the 1980s and the early-‘90s, and I don’t know the city now the way you do, but I’m always interest-
ed in its representation on screen, so in terms of recent, bigger-budget films, I’m wondering what you thought about the city in Zodiac, which I understand is mostly blue screen. That amazed me, and I didn’t find out until afterwards. And Milk, where Gus Van Sant filmed in some of the actual locations. As someone making films in San Francisco—and these movies are so different from yours—were you at all affected by how they represented the city or what they were trying to do?

You know, it’s weird, but I wrote Medicine before I saw Zodiac—definitely before.
We had finished the film before I saw Milk. Those two, along with The Pursuit of Happyness, are three San Francisco movies that portray the city well. And of course they’re all period pieces. Zodiac is such a good movie, and it’s a great representation of the city. As for Milk, they completely re-did the Castro, like the main strip. I re-
member one day coming out of the BART station, and waiting to catch the bus, the 48, 22, or 28—I think; I’ve traveled so much this year—but the bus stop was not there. There’s a stop right in front of Diesel, in front of the little pizza joint, and I was like, “Where the hell’s the bus stop?” This went on for about a week, and I couldn’t figure out where the stop was, and I looked up at the Castro Theater, and
I realized. I was like, “Man, that sign looks different,” and then I realized the stop was gone because they were physically transforming the entire block, and that’s where a lot of Harvey’s life, in the film, took place. I don’t know what the budget was—it couldn’t have been very much—but they made that block authentic.

Above: Sean Penn speechifying his way to a second Oscar in Milk.

It was impressive, and I’ve seen many movies filmed in or about San Fran-
cisco in the ‘70s, and it was true to them, too, like That Man: Peter Berlin.

I’ve not seen that.

It’s about this gay porn star, whose main claim to fame was just walking around the Castro. He was this good looking German guy who came to America and reinvented himself—like everybody else in the ‘70s—got involved with the Warhol community, and had an affair with Robert Mapplethorpe. I mean, it all probably sounds very familiar, but he invented himself as this beautiful blond god who would just walk
up and down the street, and everyone would go, “Wow.” He eventually directed some porno films. I think he only made two. He’s a legend for those films, but people mostly just remember him for walking up and down the street, and he still lives there. I was reminded of those scenes, and thought: that’s the Castro that features in Milk, except Berlin isn’t representative of the kind of person Harvey
Milk or his friends were—they weren’t glamour guys…but that’s another story.

Is it a documentary?

Yes, it’s a documentary. It’s really good. A friend of my Dad’s used to coordinate the Castro Street Fair every year; he’s now deceased. I have weird connections to San Francisco, and that’s one of them. You answered the new film question, but what about older films? Did you grow up on things like What’s Up, Doc? or Bullit?

No, no, not at all. I wasn’t a film person. I was just literally walking across campus one day and saw a sign that said “film school.” That was how this all started. I was into football. There were three running backs on my high school team. One of them is [indistinguishable], the other two made it to the NFL; so it was a really big pro-
gram, and I wasn’t into film at all. My interests were very, very different. At Florida State, I was an English education major, and I was walking across campus when I saw this sign, so I applied, because I wasn’t satisfied with the education [program], and so I got into film school, didn’t have any experience, didn’t know you needed light to expose film, so the first semester was rough. You walk in and immediately there’s a Bolex camera and a 100-foot spool of film. The first day of class the pro-
fessor says, “This is how you load it. Go out and shoot something.” He doesn’t give you a light meter, doesn’t tell you anything; he just wants to see what we can do.

And most of the students had more experience than you?

My first attempt was terrible. It was embarrassing—I was embarrassed.
It was very clear I wasn’t prepared for this, so I went to the dean after
the first semester, and I was like, “Dean, I really want to be here, and
I really want to do this, but I’m not ready,” so he gave me a year off.

That’s a nice guy.

It was actually convenient, because at that point, the film school was going through
a transition period; you could come back as a transfer, do the program in two years, or as a freshman, and do it in three years, but you’re all together the first semester. There was a freshman who thought he was ready, so he accelerated to my place, and I dropped back to his. I took a still photography class and took black and white 35mm prints and made the prints myself and lived at the art library. I checked out photography books and read Masters of Light and all these things on painting and cinematography, and I started watching movies, and I read Sight & Sound.

I love Sight & Sound. That’s all I subscribe to. I read as much on-line as I can, but
as far as magazines are concerned, you only have so much time, so that’s the one. It was Satyajit Ray’s favorite—that’s what he was reading 30-40 years ago—whe-
ther you write about films or make them, you’re part of this awesome tradition.

I don’t know why I gravitated towards Sight & Sound. I just wanted—like, what’s the film criticism magazine, and that was it, so I just blindly picked it up, and there was
a film library on campus and the only things that weren’t always checked out were these bad VHS copies of new wave films, these really obscure foreign or independent movies, so I was literally just immersing myself in these really esoteric, odd movies, and that was the baseline for me as a filmmaker. I didn’t have any background, any film studies projects that year, and so in that year off, I gorged myself on those types of things, and then when I came back to the department, I’d developed an aesthetic that wasn’t rooted in this love of American cinema or mainstream cinema in general, whether American or foreign. It was weird. I think it gave me an interesting perspective as a filmmaker, and things just took off from there. My first short film was in Arabic. It was about this couple washing American flags on the night shift.

In Arabic? That was a bold move.

Oddly enough, it’s the only film I traveled with before Medicine. It screened at quite
a few festivals, and the only one I visited was the Arab Film Festival here in Seattle.

Was that My Josephine?

My Josephine, yeah. That was a really cool experience.

Click here for part six and here to watch his short films.

Endnote: Images from Phoenix, New York Magazine, and Strike Anywhere Films.

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