Barry Jenkins would like to introduce the new Barry Jenkins.

The filmmaker burst onto the scene with 2017's Best Picture winner, Moonlight. (Jenkins himself took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.) Eight years later, he is putting the finishing touches on his latest movie, Mufasa, a follow-up to Disney's 2019 remake of The Lion King. Mufasa is Jenkins' fourth feature to date — in addition to Moonlight, he helmed 2008's Medicine for Melancholy and 2018's Oscar-winning If Beale Street Could Talk — and marks a new and perhaps unexpected direction for him: It's his first foray into the world of blockbuster filmmaking.

"I wish I was more strategic or playful," Jenkins says of the arc his career has taken since Moonlight's historic Oscar wins. "The choice to do Mufasa is the first truly playful choice I've made in my career. There is, of course, a real legacy attached to the material, but purely in a vacuum, it's a playful choice."

It is a decision he likens it to what might have happened if Martin Scorsese had actually directed Joker or, as this interviewer noted, when Greta Gerwig chose to do Barbie. "I'm not Martin Scorsese! I'm not saying that at all," Jenkins is quick to note, "but when we talk about taking a very distinct voice and pairing it with an unexpected project, that's the kind of thing I think of."

When we speak, Jenkins is on the precipice of two major releases: There's Mufasa, which debuts later this year, and a new Criterion edition of his 2021 limited series The Underground Railroad. The series, a 10-part adaptation of Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, premiered amidst uncertain times, when pandemic restrictions made promoting the series a challenge for Jenkins; Mufasa arrives in theaters during altogether different but likewise uncertain times, as the future of the cinematic experience continues to evolve.

"The form itself is so expansive right now. There are just so many different ways to make a movie," Jenkins says, "and you'd hope that because of that, there would be so many different kinds of movies being made and being seen all the time."

In conversation with A.frame, Jenkins opens up about his filmmaking journey, the importance of physical media, and his hopes for the future of Hollywood.


A.frame: When Criterion first reached out to you about doing this physical media release of The Underground Railroad, was there anything specific you wanted to achieve with it?

Barry Jenkins: The biggest one was that my history with the Criterion Collection begins with my time as a film student, when I would go into the film library and check out the Criterion DVDs and LaserDiscs. The special features, and especially the commentary tracks on those releases, were really instrumental in my film learning. So, what I said to Curtis Tsui, who ran the operation on this release, was that actually making the show was logistically very tricky. A few things came up that were quite intense and almost kept The Underground Railroad from being made, and I told Curtis that I wanted to tell the story of how we made it.

I wanted to do that because, whenever I'm recording the commentary track for a physical media version of something we've made, I always imagine that I'm speaking to someone young, who's coming up and looking for information — and not even necessarily information about how we do things from a physical and logistical standpoint, but how we do things emotionally and intellectually. I want to tell them what it's like to make a film, or in this case, a limited series. I wanted to tell the story of making The Underground Railroad, so one of the things we came up with was recording the commentary tracks in the actual order that we filmed the show, rather than going from episode one to 10. I got to really talk about what making each episode was like and how each scene felt as we made it. It was great doing it that way because, as we were doing it, I was literally reliving the experience of making the show.

There has been a lot of talk of late about the importance of physical media, especially for streaming series like The Underground Railroad. As a creator, how does it feel to know that this piece of work you poured so much into can't just be erased or removed from a streamer one day?

It feels amazing, and we are living in a time where there are things that get erased. We just have to be honest about that. We went down this rabbit hole at home recently, when me and my partner Lulu [Wang] wanted to watch Cocoon, but we learned that you can't pull it up and stream it anywhere! So, we went to eBay and found some old DVD and bought it, because we thought, "We want to watch Cocoon, dammit!" [Laughs] Things can become impossible to find nowadays. It really does happen, and when Criterion first approached me about Underground Railroad, I told them, "But this was made at Amazon. I don't think we can do a Criterion Blu-ray or box set." They said, "Yes, you can," and they showed me the physical copy they were releasing of Steve McQueen's Small Axe.

Amazon caught a lot of flack for the release of The Underground Railroad. In hindsight, we probably did release the show the wrong way. At the same time, Amazon didn't balk — not even a single bit — at this idea. Maybe, in a similar way to how films going to theaters can drive up streaming views, Amazon thought, "You know what? This being on physical media may be a good thing for it being on our platform, too." All I know is that the company was very, very supportive of the whole endeavor, so shout out to Amazon for that.

The Criterion release includes The Gaze, the companion film you made with close-up shots of the cast looking directing into the camera. It seems like a distillation of your eye as a director, which tends to spotlight the human faces at the center of whatever you're making.

Usually, the reason why I'm doing something is that there's an aspect of the thing we're creating that speaks to some very potent facet of the human condition. That thing typically is very micro, because it's really down to the one character at the center of the story. It's not a universal approach to storytelling, where everyone knows how this thing I'm exploring always feels. It's just that this one character is feeling this very specific thing, and some of you watching it have probably felt it as well. That's where everything starts. If I'm being brutally honest, that's always the thing that motivates me to do a project: What is it allowing me to say or opine about the human condition?

Barry Jenkins with Mahershala Ali on the set of 'Moonlight.'

You've worked in multiple different formats now, on projects of very different sizes. Has your perspective or approach to filmmaking changed at all over the past few years?

It hasn't. I think that's one thing that continues to serve me very well — understanding that, just because the means of making a thing may change, the approach to making it or the reason for making it doesn't need to change. I haven't made a lot. Moonlight, Beale Street, The Underground Railroad, and Mufasa — those are just four projects. So, maybe as I get deeper and deeper into my career, I'll look back and have a different answer to that question, but my approach hasn't changed yet.

Even across those four projects, you've really flexed yourself as a filmmaker. Since Moonlight won Best Picture, it's been so interesting to see where each project takes you, especially now jumping from The Underground Railroad to Mufasa. What has been your approach to deciding what you'll do next?

There's nothing strategic about it! [Laughs] Usually, I'll read something and I'll start to see it in my head, and when I do, an emotion comes across. What happens isn't quite synesthesia, but when I read a script or a book or a play and I start visualizing what a film version of it might look like, an emotion becomes attached to it. When that happens — and it doesn't happen often — I chase after it. Sometimes that leads me toward disaster, which is partly what happened in the making of Underground Railroad. Early on, it was a massive catastrophe, but that original passion I had for it was still there, still pushing it forward. So, I decided in that period, "We're going to run through this fire and, on the other side, that feeling I'm seeking is going to still be attainable." That's the mindset I'm always working from.

The thrill of that approach is that Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk, and The Underground Railroad are very different works. They're similar in certain ways — maybe aesthetically — but Moonlight and The Underground Railroad are also nothing alike. Mufasa, additionally, is so radically different in form that it's clearly nothing like the other things I've made. But the same thing happened each time. I'll read a script or a book or a story and a very potent image becomes attached to it in my mind. That's the moment and the feeling I'm pursuing whenever I set out to make something. I wish I was more strategic, honestly. I really, really do. [Laughs] It would probably save me a lot of stress. But in the end, working this way has worked for me so far.

You're a filmmaker who is very intentional about every shot you compose. When you're making a 10-hour series and you only have so many days to shoot, or you are making a VFX-driven film like Mufasa, how do you maintain that level of visual thoughtfulness?

With The Underground Railroad, we had no choice but to be that thoughtful, because we had to move so fast the whole time. So many things were logistically uncertain for so long. Oftentimes, we wouldn't know where we were going to be filming an episode until maybe three or four weeks before we were going to shoot it, which is not a lot of time. We had to be very fluid and nimble. The crew that we made The Underground Railroad with — and I'm talking about the PAs and the members of the art departments, all the way to the Teamsters and the people who parked the trucks — were so open to allowing us to be intuitive about where we wanted to be and what we wanted to be doing at any given moment. In a way, despite the scale of the show and the sheer volume of material we had to cover, making it actually felt like the most fluid and dynamic physical experience I've had crafting any piece of work in my career.


There has been a lot of conversation lately about the state of the industry. As someone who has made a name for himself and gotten the chance to grow and experiment during this very interesting period in time, how do you feel about the current state of Hollywood and film as a medium?

It's interesting. The form is so malleable right now. There have never been as many ways to make a film, or as many ways to watch a film. The canvas is so massive right now and yet, at the same time, it does feel like the industry — and I'm just talking about Hollywood — is shrinking. The kinds of films that we are choosing to make or that the industry is choosing to support are shrinking. Now, there are always going to be folks who are doing dope s--t

Sean Baker just won the Palme d'Or, and he's a filmmaker who I came up with. We had our little, low budget independent films playing at the same festivals years ago, and now, he's won one of the most prestigious prizes in the world. He's making films that absolutely do not care about the constriction of the industry that's happening around them. How robust a part of the filmgoing experience movies like Anora will be is the question, and it's wild to say that, because the form itself is so expansive right now. There are just so many different ways to make a movie, and you'd hope that because of that, there would be so many different kinds of movies being made and being seen all the time. I think the fact that that's not necessarily happening is what has so many people feeling very dour right now.

At this point in your career, where do you look for inspiration or creative motivation?

I read a lot of interviews, and usually with people who don't work in film. I find the way we, in the film industry, are interviewed is different from the way artists of other mediums are interviewed about their work or about their lives. I listen to a lot of podcasts. I read a lot of interviews — primarily with fine artists, architects, and even fashion designers, oddly enough. The way they talk about their work and the way they approach their work, I find it to be very inspiring. I find it very moving and invigorating anytime I can find someone, whether in person or in print, who really is creating out of this need to either express themselves or express something. That makes me feel like, as long as that's happening somewhere for someone, maybe it can also continue to happen for me. Maybe that's a very simple way to think about art and creativity, but it's how I feel and how I keep going.

By Alex Welch


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