54th New York Film Festival Spotlight - Production Designer Hannah Beachler Reflects on “Moonlight”
By: Laura Blum
Moonlight, the new film by Barry Jenkins, follows a gay African-American’s quest for identity in a disadvantaged section of Miami. Just as the moon projects no light of its own, but bounces reflected sunlight off its surface, so too the cypher at the core of Jenkins’ drama derives his earliest sense of self from what others make of him. Yet Moonlight is richly illuminating.
The production designer Hannah Beachler was tapped to visualize its three distinct phases. Drawn from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film pauses the life of Chiron in the early 1980s, 1992 and 2002. When we first meet him, during the height of Reagan’s War on Drugs, he’s the class runt (Alex Hibbert) whom his peers taunt as “soft” and nickname “Little.” He flees their bullying into a crack den, where empathic drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) coaxes him home for a nourishing meal with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monaé) and becomes a father figure. Chapter two catches up with the protagonist in high school as he’s discovering forbidden romance and negotiating his sexuality. Ashton Sanders plays this 16 year old, under the name his crack addict mother (Naomie Harris) christened him: Chiron. For the final chapter, Trevante Rhodes does the honors, as a 26-year-old drug dealer who answers to Black. That was the name his onetime lover Kevin gave him in his teens.
Fueled by Jenkins’ and McCraney’s respective boyhood memories, the production plumbs their hometown milieu for layers of subtext. What dialogue is spoken in Moonlight is lyrical and affecting, yet beginning with Little’s refusal to speak, it’s often in short supply. That’s where the visual language works it magic. Beachler came to the project with credits ranging from Fruitvale Station and Miles Ahead to Creed and the TV special Beyoncé: Lemonade. With Moonlight slated at the 54th New York Film Festival, the in-demand designer spoke with thalo from Atlanta after a 14-hour day on the set of Ryan Coogler’s current production Black Panther.
thalo: Moonlight is a study in blue. Were you riffing off of the title In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue?
HB: When I first talked to Barry, I started researching the play. We got into what we were trying to accomplish with the three different stories. Blue fell across the film, but it began with “Little,” especially the scene on the beach with the African-American actor who played the 9-year-old character. Blue is one of the tones that’s often used to highlight dark skin. We talked about how we wanted to incorporate moonlight, and we decided to go with this moonlight blue.
th: Most of the film is set in Miami. How did that influence your palette?
HB: For me it’s about having as many references as possible: water references, building references, car references. We started with water tones and other references in nature. Cuba is a huge part of the culture of Miami. When I was putting pictures on the wall and standing back, blue was the predominant color. We talked about different shades of blue you find around Miami, from aquamarine to a Caribbean blue. You also have these intermittent colors of blue-green. That’s where we started with “Little.” You also see a lot of pastels: pale blues, pale pinks, pale yellows.
th: What were some of the buildings that caught your eye?
HB: I concentrated on a housing project called Pork ‘n Beans. That’s where Barry grew up. I spent weeks there watching the people who lived there. I watched all the videos and news clips I could find from different time periods. I looked into why it was where it was and why the city built it in the first place. Who were the people who were trying to get out of this life? What were their struggles?
th: How did you come by this socio-political awareness in your production design?
HB: I’d learned a lot of that from Ryan Coogler while researching Fruitvale Station. My father was an architect and my mother was an interior designer, so ideas about architecture and color were always in my life. When I was researching the Liberty Square project, known as Pork ‘n Beans, I remembered that Frank Lloyd Wright had said something like, When you build public housing, you don’t stack people on top of people. Walking around Pork ‘n Beans, I felt an agitation and a hopelessness. There’s also joy, but it’s a juxtaposition of emotions, and that’s a lot of what we wanted to pick up. It’s about how this child gets through that.
th: Given that the film opens with driving, what can you tell us about the car references you mentioned?
HB: For me it’s always about coming up with organic ways to find color. I go through a script and ask things like, Is Miami a car culture? Because that’s going to inform how the characters get around — and who they are. Then it’s about working in the time period. What were people driving in 1992? There were a lot of Chevys and Impalas, and they often had a metal tint that made them blue.
th: Driving gets at mobility, which contrasts with some of the constrained spaces in the film. How does the use of space illustrate the theme of getting through challenges?
HB: A big thing for me was to make sure that the spaces were speaking as loudly as any dialogue would. Some of the spaces are very small compared to wide open ones such as the beach or where Kevin teaches Little how to fight. Early on Little has to make it past the chain-link fence of the school. It’s that push and pull, retraction, expansion of life and how we get through it. He’s locked in his air-closed crack house and then he gets out. There’s this idea of, You’re going in and you’re coming out.
th: From the moment that Little runs into that crack den, there’s a sense of being imprisoned, and Chiron’s high school is smacks of a prison. Was this intentional?
HB: Yes. When I was looking at the high school design that’s in Miami, I realized that the layout was same layout as a lot of prisons. Barry and I had a long conversation about this school-to-prison pipeline that’s happening in this country, specifically for the African-American community. So we stringed this idea through the film as a way to show how you’re automatically put in a box by being a black man. You’re not ever a child. You’re instantly an adult. When you hear people refer to black children, they call them “young men.”
th: How does this suggestion of being shut in also pertain to his gay identity?
HB: That restrictiveness is another type of prison that young black men are put in — in their own community. Homosexuality is so not accepted in the black community. The idea of masculinity affects all men. You’re put in this mental prison that virtually becomes a physical prison. The film tries to understand who the protagonist is as a human being. Little, Chiron and Black live in three different types of prison. You have Little not understanding it yet, because he’s still a child. Chiron is the result of that and Black is the result of Chiron. You get someone who’s fighting against the grain of who he actually is, and then being able to come to terms with escaping that prison — leaving that life — and being able to accept himself.
th: How does the set reflect this odyssey of grappling with identity?
HB: A big focus was this idea of routine. When Little is in his mother’s house, he’s sleeping on the couch, getting up, folding the blanket, coming home, heating up a pot of water, filling a bathtub. That was his life. We played with this idea of rehearsal of character: going out, dealing with his corner boys, handling this every single day. That one moment when his routine gets broken is where life happens. When Little is running away from the boys — which was his routine — there’s that one moment where rehearsal of character catches him.
th: Talk about how you showed routine with Chiron.
HB: Chiron is getting up, taking care of his mother; she’s taking money from him. Then there’s this little break from the routine and he beats up the kid at school. The way we showed routine was to dress these homes with every day things. It’s the pot that’s next to the stove. It’s the dishwashing soap that’s not for the dishwasher but for for bathing. It’s the pillows that are stacked on the side of the couch at all times, the clothes that are on the line that Chiron has to walk through. The living room is close to bare, but the kitchen sink is full of everything. There’s this idea that the woman who birthed him is trying to be a mother, but can’t really be one. It’s where the density comes in.
th: Tell us about Black’s space, which has none of this density.
HB: By the time you get to Black, you see that the most important things in his house are his stereo and workout equipment and his bed, because these are things that he never had. It is completely blank except for that. We painted his bedroom this steely blue-gray, but we left the rest of the apartment stark white. So we have that call-back to Little. He’s living in Atlanta now, be he’s still that kid. He has completely isolated himself because he’s afraid of who he is.
th: Is Black’s environment another suggestion of imprisonment?
HB: Yes. His car and his grill also show that he’s getting into another kind of prison with this charade of the masculine drug dealer. The moment that he breaks is when he walks away from his mother. That’s when we see him go back to Miami and reclaim who he is.
th: How did Miami’s palm trees and beaches give you a visual vocabulary to explore sensuality — the opposite of being closed off?
HB: The big thing for me was the sensuality of the city, which spoke to this idea of touch. Although things were gritty and down in it, at the end of the day the film is about touch — and about how unacceptable it is for men to touch each other in a way that might be sensual. When we see Little or Chiron at the beach, it’s not a sexual thing. It’s a sensual thing. The sensuality comes with the palms, the colors dripping over people and touching them. There’s also something very sensual about the way water glistens on skin. When Juan is holding Little up in the water and teaching him how to swim, that’s where the sensuality comes in. It’s different from the desperate, unloving way Little’s mother touches him or how the kids tackle each other in the yard, though these are all about getting tactile.
th: Juan and Teresa’s tasteful home is one interior space that beckons the protagonist. What were you going for with this inviting, aspirational space?
HB: We were trying to separate out how the world thinks of a drug dealer as a really bad guy, yet he’s the one who takes this kid and perfects him and keeps him safe. His home isn’t what you’d think a drug dealer would live in. It’s not the stereotype. We wanted to make it welcoming for Little. It has beautiful lamps and incandescent lighting. This is not Little’s house, where there are two lamps and they’re mismatched.
th: But even Little’s house doesn’t feel like Little’s house.
HB: He never has his own space until he’s Black. He was either with Juan and Teresa, or if he was with his mother, she would kick him out. There was always an uncertainty about his wellbeing. He was always on the move.
th: So was the swirling camera. How did you create the space to suit the needs of DP James Laxton? Let’s take the example of the science classroom.
HB: I knew we needed to see a 360 wherever we went, especially in the science classroom where Chiron gets physical. We also wanted to bring in this idea of biology and body, so we put a skeleton in the front of the classroom. The way he was touching at that point was breaking a chair over another kid’s head because he was at his boiling point. We wanted to force this issue of what happens to someone internally, by showing the heart and kidneys that you pull out of a half-body. After so long, these things in your body become extracted from you and you lose something of yourself. Chiron is a shell of a human being at that point, like a skeleton. The institutions that were supposed to help him were not helping him — not the education system, not the public housing system.
th: Despite the tough context, there’s often a dreamlike quality to the cinematography. How did you and Laxton work together on this sensibility?
HB: James and I would talk constantly about color and texture. The richness of the camera movement really played up the art direction and production design. At times the camera moves played against what we were doing. You see very dreamy camera moves against gritty canvas. It brought out the richness in how he lit it. It brought out the tactile, tangible color.
th: Did you watch any movies for inspiration?
HB: I looked at some Wan Kar-Wai films, which are tonally rich. Fallen Angels has a lot of blue in it. And the pattern mixing is interesting — how you can take different patterns and textures.
th: How did you collaborate with costume designer Caroline Eselin? Were you riffing on the plaid shirt motif with the wallpaper by the juke box in the Miami diner?
HB: Caroline was doing a lot of plaid because that’s what was popular in Miami during the time periods we were featuring. For the juke box, I wanted to continue that, but I wanted to drab it down along with the brown-red seats. By the time Black gets to Miami, he is starting his new life. He’s come back and said, This is who I am. We didn’t want to put a color on it like we did for Little and Chiron. It’s a blank slate. He’s starting afresh.
1) Alex Hibbert as Little in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.” Photo courtesy of A24.
2) Metallic blue car reference. Photo courtesy of “Moonlight” production designer Hannah Beachler.
3) Trevante Rhodes as Black during the shoot of Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.” Photo courtesy of production designer Hannah Beachler.
4) Trevante Rhodes as Black in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.” Photo courtesy of A24.
5) Juan and Teresa’s home in Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight.” Photo courtesy of production designer Hannah Beachler
6) Production designer Hannah Beachler. Photo courtesy of Hannah Beachler.