Ever since its production was announced, director Barry Jenkins’ latest film, a cinematic adaptation of James Baldwin’s much-loved novel If Beale Street Could Talk, has been generating a lot of buzz. For the aesthetic-minded, the promise of another visually lush film like Jenkins’ Moonlight was especially exciting.
The look of his films is very important to the director and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer James Laxton, and it’s something they invest a lot in at the beginning of a project. We caught up with Laxton to learn about their approach and what influenced the look of their latest film.
Inspiration from Still Photography and Fuji Stock
Because Beale Streetis set in 1970s Harlem, there was a natural starting point to determine the movie’s look. Jenkins and Laxton often use still photography for inspiration on their projects, and for Beale Street they turned to the work of photographers Jack Garofalo and Roy DeCarava, which captures that time and place.
Laxton and Jenkins also took their desire to evoke the era visually a little further, thanks to pre-production from colorist Alex Bickel (Moonlight, Lady Bird). “I asked Alex to create a way to mimic this specific film stock that these photographers of the era were using,” Laxton says. “It was this specific Fuji stock from the ’70s.”
The Beale Street team shot some test footage with Bickel’s result, hoping it would work for the film’s look. Then they held a screening for themselves. “That moment of looking at that footage on the big screen, with the characters and costumes in one of our locations — everybody realized what we were making,” says Laxton. “The filmmaking process is ripe with challenges and when things click into place, it just feels like a miracle has happened.”
KiKi Layne as Tish and Colman Domingo as Joseph in If Beale Street Could Talk
Choosing a Prism of Love
Even though the director and cinematographer drew on photos of a real place and time, verisimilitude wasn’t their ambition. “I don’t think Barry and I make films that are based in realism all the time,” says Laxton. Instead, their projects aspire to something else: “They’re based in truth and they’re based in the power of imagination and experience, using color to make choices, to enhance scenes, and to provide emotional context to a scene.”
They chose to present Beale Street through what Laxton calls “a prism of love,” which involved warm, rich colors. “If we found a way to use a visual language that presented this romantic love, this family love, that’s the context by which we wanted audiences to see the story,” he explains. “When I think of love, I think of colors popping, bright and saturated.” That evokes what he calls the “emotional volume” that he likes, as opposed to realism. “Color is powerful,” Laxton says. “It speaks to this idea of genuineness and truthfulness, but not realism.”
Stephan James as Fonny and Brian Tyree Henry as Daniel
Adapting Prose to Camera
Beale Street wouldn’t exist without writer James Baldwin, who wrote the novel the movie is based on. While books usually only influence the words on a script page, Baldwin’s writing also impacted how the movie would look and feel. “His voice helped me make certain choices in developing the visual language for Beale Street — the shooting format, the lenses, even the way the camera moves,” explains Laxton.
It influenced the choice to use the ARRI ALEXA 65 camera because of its larger chip capacity, which “had an impact with regard to resolution and scope and depth in a way that created this powerful imagery,” says Laxton.
As for how Baldwin impacted camera movement, Laxton points to a scene where Fonny (Stephen James) is talking to Daniel (Bryan Tyree Henry) about prison. “The camera pans back and forth in this slow, deliberate way that has very much to do with the rhythm and the cadence of the dialog,” says Laxton. “That choice, mixed with how we moved the camera in this very deliberate, specific fashion, had to do with thinking about that cadence, and the style and voice of Mr. Baldwin.”
Teyonah Parris as Ernestine, KiKi Layne as Tish, and Regina King as Sharon
Getting Close and Immersive
Some of the most visually powerful moments in Moonlight were shots where characters looked directly into the camera. The filmmakers decided to use the technique again for Beale Street because it captures one of Laxton’s core filmmaking philosophies. “It’s all about immersiveness and trying to bring audiences into the experience of a character,” the DOP explains. “The way we move the camera is one way we do that, and the way we place the camera is another way we do that.”
To Laxton, those closeups function like a literary device in a novel. “I often talk about it in terms of how we talk about the English language: there are omniscient perspectives and there are first-person perspectives. Barry and I like to work in the first person, intending to bring audiences into the conversation,” he says.
They chose the technique for Beale Street to ensure that even if the circumstances of the characters are unfamiliar to audiences, they would still resonate. “To try to bring the viewers into those emotions and have them feel the feelings those characters are feeling, to us, that’s what’s important about cinema,” says Laxton. If a closeup of a character looking into camera can do that, that’s an easy creative choice for them to make.
L to R: Producer Sara Murphy, Cinematographer James Laxton, and Producer Adele Romanskiat the TIFF Beale Street premiere. Photo: Arthur Mola
The Fruits of Collaboration
The look of If Beale Street Could Talk couldn’t exist without something else essential: the shared history between Jenkins and Laxton. “Because we went to film school together, we actually learned the craft at the same time, with the same influences, the same teachings, and the same ideas,” says Laxton. The result is a seamless in-sync creative partnership. “There is a great deal of trust between the two of us and a great deal of common language visually that allows us to create and collaborate in ways that otherwise would be very difficult.”
Creative decisions about the look of film, including all the choices above, become easier and more intuitive. “We get to have this shorthand and this gut-level decision-making process, because we have such a history to pull from,” says Laxton. “Choices about a lot of things came from just the two of us understanding each other, as well. How we moved the camera and how we lit the scenes stemmed from just the two of us, intuitively knowing that this would be the pace, this would be the tone.”
All images from If Beale Street Could Talk courtesy of Annapurna Pictures