Theresa & Juan’s house… The only sanctuary for Chiron was ironically at his mother’s drug dealer’s girlfriend’s home... “Theresa was very comfortable in her skin, the embodiment of family and loyalty. This reflected heavily in her space, as did her culture, which she also had a sense of pride in, being unapologetically who she was...” --PD Hannah Beachler
A timeless story of human connection and self-discovery, MOONLIGHT chronicles the life of a young black man, from childhood to adulthood, as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami. At once a vital portrait of contemporary African American life and an intensely personal and poetic meditation on identity, family, friendship and love, MOONLIGHT reverberates with deep compassion and universal truths. --A24
“This is an immersive, experiential film in which characters over time negotiate what they will allow themselves to feel,” describes Writer/Director Barry Jenkins. “What they project back to the world with those feelings becomes the universal process of claiming one’s identity. It’s amazing to watch someone yearn for something internally but not have the courage to express it.”
MOONLIGHT is an expression of that yearning.
SET DECOR explores the details behind and in the making of a film, and reveals them to you and the world. And, indeed, we talked to Production Designer Hannah Beachler and Set Decorator Regina Crowley SDSA, who gave us absorbing specifics and fascinating insights about MOONLIGHT...
“From the first conversation we had, Hannah and I knew we were on the same page,” Crowley recalls. “Both of us are very seasoned and were the voices of reality to the unbridled passion of newer filmmakers, and yet Hannah was a passionate, driving force, with a vision for this film that shows in the final product,”
Beachler smiles, “Before I became a production designer, I was a set decorator for about four years. Being a set decorator, you become thrifty and resourceful. When you’re working on a film with a very limited budget, you have to know where you can influence and control the look throughout all of the sets. One major way is through the color story.”
“We had very detailed conversations about the color story, backstories, the mood and nuance of the film,” adds Crowley, “hours discussing character and palette, developing and fleshing out the characters’ likes and possessions. Since we had a very limited budget, we had no room for error or second choices. Everything that was purchased was used. There was nothing extra or ‘in case’. To do that we had to work like one person. It was intriguing and fun to collaborate with her and get behind her eyes! We worked in concert and lived the process for the duration of the project.”
“We definitely got as much as possible out of what we had!” Beachler agrees. “It was also due to an amazing team...and working with Director/Writer Barry Jenkins was great. He is the most gracious and kind person, very easy going and collaborative. He had a real vision for this film, along with his Director of Photography James Laxton. We all committed to tell the story in a way that was organic to the locations, but also be stylized in the way we used color.”
The story reveals three stages of a boy’s difficult journey into adulthood and himself. It begins with the sensitive 10-year-old Chiron, nicknamed “Little”, being bullied by the other boys but hiding that from his hardworking mother, Paula. The local drug-lord, Juan, rescues him. Eventually Chiron’s mother slips into drug use and then the throes of addiction, and his difficult life becomes even more so as a teen. They now live in a deteriorating apartment in the projects. His mother continuously throws him out while she turns tricks to enable her crack habit. Ironically, the only respite is the home of the drug dealer, the very one who rescued him and now supplies to his mother. Later, we see the grown Chiron, now known as “Black” emulating Juan, but still with the profound loneliness he has always carried.
Beachler describes. “Their first apartment, their home, is a small one-bedroom that has the sense of a woman who was just making ends meet and trying to do it all...raise a son, work, pay the bills, all of it...on the verge of overwhelming...but there’s a sense of comfort, safety and possibilities. And then, slowly we start taking that away.”
Crowley details, “After Paula’s descent, the TV is missing, along with other items she sold for drugs. The clothes, towels, dishes are strewn around or piled dirty in the sink.”
She adds, “The second apartment, during Chiron’s teen years, was in the heart of the Liberty City projects of Miami, a.k.a. ‘Pork n’ Beans’, known for housing welfare-dependent single mothers from the 1960s through the ‘80s.”
“When I started thinking about the Liberty City apartment and talking to Barry about it,” Beachler recalls, “we wanted it to feel like there is some semblance of what a house should be—kitchen, living room, bathroom and bedroom. But, there is the duplicity in these spaces, a bit of a lie, if you will. For example, Chiron slept on the couch in the first apartment. In this one, he has a bed for the first time, but it’s on the floor with a pile of sheets and clothes in a neglected place. We followed suit in the other spaces. The living room had a sense of having been decorated at one point, but at the same time, now it didn’t have much in it, another neglected room in a neglected ‘home’.”
The set came with interesting parameters, since the filmmakers often used the actual locations.
“These projects were built in 1937, during the New Deal, and were THE FIRST public housing projects for African Americans in the Southern United States,” Crowley informs. “We originally had a different sofa for that set but literally could not get it through the door. The doorways are not standard-sized. So, the apartment has a single straight back chair, a small loveseat piled with random sheets, clothes, blanket, an air conditioner on the floor, a standing lamp and a dingy, dirty kitchen complete with dead roaches in the lighting fixture. There’s a picture of Jesus leaning against the wall, a specific request from Barry. The outside has sparse clothing on the rows of clotheslines.”
“Paula’s outlook on life is bleak and her descent continues in a downward spiral where the only thing that matters is her next fix, as their living environment attests.”
“As we progressed into the chapters of Chiron’s life, the colors went from light and hopeful to dark and dreary,” Crowley notes.
The film was based on a work by MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Tarell McCraney, IN MOONLIGHT BLACK BOYS LOOK BLUE. Crowley talks about the influence, “The imagery of the moonlight gave us a sense of melancholy which we played off of in the use of the color blue. That was Little/Chiron/Black’s world. Cool, aloof, disconnected. The brighter colors were in the ‘real’ world—the world our character has no control over and feels misunderstood and apart from. The crossover spaces have a combination of both.”
“All of the exteriors—Paula’s apartments as well as Black’s [adult Chiron], the streets, school, playground, abandoned buildings and barren open spaces—are the tough, unyielding world where our character is vulnerable,” says Crowley. “The only safe place is Juan & Teresa’s house. And the beach in the moonlight.
Editor’s note: Both writers grew up in the Liberty City projects, however never met until this production.
Come back at awards time to learn more details about the making of this extraordinary film...