Barry Jenkins Finds His Through Line, From ‘Moonlight’ to ‘The Underground Railroad’

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The following interview for our Spring 2021 BackstageFest, a virtual celebration of the year's best and buzziest TV, was compiled in part by Backstage readers just like you! Follow us on Twitter (@Backstage) and Instagram (@backstagecast) to stay in the loop on upcoming interviews and to submit your questions.

Ever since his historic best picture win at the 2017 Oscars, there’s been no denying that “Moonlight” filmmaker Barry Jenkins is a genius storyteller and a cinematic force to be reckoned with. He followed up that effort with the Oscar-winning “If Beale Street Could Talk” and, now, a stunning limited series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning “The Underground Railroad” for Amazon Prime Video. Sitting with Backstage as part of our inaugural BackstageFest, Jenkins discussed his work on the series, what fuels his vision, and how his creative process manifests on set.

As a slave narrative, Jenkins wants you to see what “the show really is” rather than “what it represents.” 
“Before the show came out, there were all these conversations about the content of the show—slave narratives and things like that. That was before anyone had seen the show. I was curious to see how that conversation would evolve, because my point of view was always that it is about the intent of the creator. I think that dictates how the subject matter is presented, and hopefully how it’s received.”

Much like a coach, Jenkins aims to foster an open, collaborative space.
“When you do something of this scale, it’s very clear that the director isn’t in control of everything. This idea of an auteur, when it comes to something this big—this many pages and this many days—there is no way one person can control or dictate what is happening. So what I tried to do instead was empower people to be very giving and to be very open about what it was their instinct was telling them. It’s almost like not having a playbook and starting off the game with people just running around, and then you see this person runs best this way, this person runs best that way, and allowing yourself to find whatever the throughline is between the thing that you want, the thing that you see, and the thing that everyone is capable of. In that way, it was really great to see the actors make choices that weren’t defined by the book or by the script, but by the character and the space. This idea of the freedom or the elasticity of the process really began on set.”

He gave actors the space needed to create, breathe, and be supported emotionally.
“I just didn’t want anyone to be destroyed by creating these images. The people we cast, I knew they would be very committed.... You do [a lot of takes] because you’re trying to reduce the line between the actor and the character. I felt like, especially on this film with this process, especially because we were in the spaces where many of these things happened, I knew there would be moments for me where you look to the left and you forget that you’re standing on a set. You forget that you’re creating a work of art. I thought it was important that the actors always be reminded that I understood that what they were doing was incredibly difficult, that what we were doing was incredibly seductive. It’s very easy to slip past that line.”

Jenkins says the process behind “Moonlight” and “The Underground Railroad” resembled one another.
“ ‘Moonlight’ was madness, man. There was no time and no money. Everything had to be instinct; everything had to be gut-based. I think this process and ‘Moonlight’ are most similar of any of the things that I’ve done, which is crazy because budget-wise, they’re on completely opposite ends. Yet, the limitations on ‘Moonlight’ created this really beautiful creative silo that we were able to work in. As we got into the process of making [‘The Underground Railroad’], that kind of presented itself.”

His advice to up-and-coming filmmakers is to stay curious and stay in touch with the world outside of film.
“I just try to stay curious. I still program short films…. Watching some of these shorts every year is always some of the most interesting work I do because it is work being made by kids who have gone from skateboarding at the park to now going to film school, and now they wanna make these short films. Aesthetically, [the films] aren’t driven by the commerciality of this or the formative norms of that. And then, I’m also just trying to keep tabs on what’s happening in the world beyond film. ‘The Underground Railroad’ looks the way it does because of the last four years, I’ve just sorta been trying to re-immerse myself in Black fine art.”

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