A Conversation With Barry Jenkins (MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY)
In the years after graduating from Florida State University’s film school, writer/director Barry Jenkins realized that it was difficult to call himself a filmmaker when he hadn’t produced anything since his college days. And so, after writing a script, Jenkins gathered his best friends from his program, who joined him in San Francisco in order to take the feature film plunge. The resulting film, Medicine For Melancholy, made a memorable splash at its world premiere at the 2008 South by Southwest Film Festival, and went on to have a hearty run at festivals all over the world throughout the rest of the year. Eventually picked up for distribution by IFC Films, Medicine for Melancholy is finally unleashed on the general public today, January 29th, as it opens in New York City (it will be expanding in the weeks and months to come, in theaters and on television—go here for details). I sat down with Barry yesterday in a Fort Greene diner—where, fittingly enough, the 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks banner hung from a building directly across the street—to discuss his birth as a filmmaker, his frustration with gathering music rights, and his appreciation for editor Nat Sanders.
HTN: First of all, how do you feel? Reading the Times article was pretty awesome for an innocent bystander, I have to say.
BJ: It’s crazy, man. I think I’m getting surly. It’s almost like as time goes on, I like the movie less and less. It’s weird because when you think about it, the actual work we did on the movie was over a year ago. We shot it in November ’07. So it’s like I’m still going around, getting buzz or accolades or whatever you want to call it, off work I did over a year ago. So it makes me feel like I haven’t done much. The feeling of reading those reviews out of South By was way, way more awesome than reading that thing in the Times on Sunday.
HTN: I think that’s the hard part, to maintain that motivation. For me, it’s all about moving forward. Even if you did something three months ago, you have that initial world premiere and then you’re like, “Okay, what am I doing?” Am I still a filmmaker? Technically, have I shot anything in a year?
BJ: But on the other side of it, ultimately, we do want people to see the movie and so I think this time right now is very critical to having people see it. I mean, theoretically, over the next four weeks, more people will see this movie than have seen it over the last twelve months. Because we’ll have more screenings in front of more people and VOD and things like that.
HTN: And a different outlet compared to “festival world.”
BJ: Exactly. Completely different outlet. And you know, it’s cool, we get these Twitter alerts and we get Google alerts. It’s interesting to see people starting to pick up on our movie. Every day, it just grows more and more. People will be like, “Hey, have you heard about this movie Medicine for Melancholy?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve heard about it. I made it twelve months ago!” But for them it’s new. And so in that regard it’s important for me to keep a fresh outlook on what essentially is an old work. I mean, hell, Nat (Sanders, editor) already moved on!
HTN: Nat’s already exhausted his other new awesome movie (ed. note: Sanders edited Lynn Shelton’s Humpday). I think his work in Humpday is especially noteworthy. I need to watch it again to fully appreciate it.
BJ: Dude, that guy is amazing. Amazing. I mean, he’s the kind of guy, he likes to sleep in late, so he won’t come in until noon, but he will be there until like three in the morning. And he does nothing but sit over that computer. I sat next to him at Humpday at Sundance, and I could tell, he does this thing with his hand where he’ll mime where the cuts should be, so I think he’s still editing Humpday. I think he was the perfect person to edit a film like that, with that much improvisation.
HTN: I don’t know if we’ve ever talked about the awakening for you. Specifically, falling in love with movies versus wanting to make them.
BJ: I didn’t want to be a filmmaker growing up. I did love movies. I remember for the longest time I loved Die Hard. Die Hard was my favorite film until I was probably, like, twenty. My second favorite film was Toy Story. ‘Cause those were the movies I watched growing up. You know, all the Eddie Murphy movies—Coming to America, Trading Places.
It wasn’t until after I got into film school that I started watching what I thought were “real movies,” basically foreign or independent movies. I was just walking across campus and just happened to realize there was a film school at Florida State. I was like, “That sounds interesting, I should try that.” And it’s a really tough program to get into. They only take thirty kids a year. At that point I was a Creative Writing/Education major, and so I kinda talked my way in by going, “Hey, you guys need more writers.” ‘Cause at that time the school had a bad rap for producing quality made films, but films that didn’t really have any substance.
HTN: The calling card movie.
BJ: Exactly. It was a program built on creating calling card shorts. And I thought, I don’t know anything about filmmaking but I know about writing and all this other shit. So I got in and the first semester was awful because I didn’t know anything about actually making films. That school is purely making films. First day of class, you walk in, you get a Bolex camera, a daylight spool of 16mm film, and the professor says, “Go out and shoot something.” They print it on reversal stock, come back in the next week, and you watch it. Everybody, side by side. And right away, it was evident that I didn’t know a damn thing about what I was doing. So I took a year off and took a still photography class, started watching all these movies in the library that weren’t checked out, older New Wave films and more obscure independents.
HTN: And was that from a teacher influence or you started reading more? What sparked it? The library itself?
BJ: The library itself. One thing, I was noticing immediately that the overwhelming majority of the people in the class had the same influences. Everybody was raving about Pixar at that time, and Spielberg. Kids who had just grown up idolizing these same iconic American filmmakers. And so I was like, “I’ll make my shit different.” And I would try to get immersed in these other people. That was pretty much the foundation. I just grew up loving big, classic American, Hollywood films. I still love Die Hard. I think Die Hard’s still in my top ten.
The first time I realized what filmmaking was, was watching Die Hard. I watched it a bunch of times, and I remember when the end credits came up, then it dawned on me. I was like, “Holy shit, somebody had to write every single word that was in that movie.” And somebody had to move the camera. It blew my mind, man. And even still, I didn’t decide to be a filmmaker until years later when I was on this campus that happened to have a film school.
HTN: What kind of writing were you doing? Fiction? Essay? Poetry?
BJ: I was a Creative Writing major so it was mostly short stories. It was a good experience too, ‘cause I think the way I approached writing my screenplays was a bit different than the way I would have had I just begun as a screenwriter. I did the entire Creative Writing degree before I got to film school, so I have two Bachelor’s from the same university.
But it was good because in the Creative Writing program they basically took three years to beat purple prose out of you. It was all about saying as much as possible with few adjectives, in as short of sentences as possible. And that’s perfect for screenwriting. That’s exactly what you want to do when you write a screenplay. You want to try to visually communicate without referencing angles or perspectives. So it was a really good thing to do before film school. I feel like all these things were adding up to make it work.
HTN: And then, all the guys you met, the Medicine team was all FSU, right? And was that from the very beginning?
BJ: When I first got to school, Nat and I were in the same class. But after that first semester, I decided it was too much. I took a year off, and so Nat got to be a class ahead of me. And when I came back into the school, that’s when Justin (Barber, producer) and James (Laxton, cinematographer) were coming into the school, so I jumped into their class. So there was this thing where I had two different connections to two different classes. But it’s such a small building. There’s only like ninety kids in the undergraduate program at one time, so you tend to know everybody.
HTN: I went to UMBC in Baltimore, which was a Visual Arts program as opposed to a “film school.” It’s not like School of the Arts in North Carolina where you had to pick an emphasis. It was more of a well-rounded, top-to-bottom education. Was that how it was for you?
BJ: Yeah. The whole emphasis, we shot everything on film, you were guaranteed to make a certain amount of shorts. All you do is pay tuition, which, for me, as an in-state kid was I think a thousand bucks a semester. And you get all the equipment, all the stock, processing, crew. I’m talking like dollies and jibs and cranes. That school had everything, man. It was perfect.
HTN: And you guys went back to show the film not too long ago, right? How was it? Were you guys rock stars?
BJ: It was awesome! (both laugh) I’ll say, Nat got a little emotional. I did too, but he got a little more emotional. (more laughter)
No, it was cool to go back. I remember when I was in film school, I kinda took those connections, not for granted, but I didn’t realize how much my classmates’ experiences were aligned with mine. ‘Cause, when I wanted to make Medicine, I was asking around, you know? Asking people who were pretty well off and could’ve slid us a little bit of money here or there. But nothing.
And then I called these dudes from film school. You know, Nat fucking left his job in LA, making seriously good money, moved to San Francisco, paid his own rent. He paid for the office space where we edited the movie, out of his own pocket. I mean, this is the kind of thing. And so, when we were back at the school, we would just try to tell the kids, “Look, the people you’re in class with now, those are the people who are gonna be with you four years from now, five years from now when you decide you’re going to make a movie and you need some help.” We were trying to explain to them how important it is to maintain that bond. And man… we got a little choked up, a little choked up.
HTN: (laughs) Aww, that’s sweet.
BJ: It wasn’t until we were at the film school, when we were standing in the back of the auditorium, watching the credits roll, then you realize, for like the first third of the credits, it’s all FSU kids.
HTN: And did you guys talk before or after the screening?
BJ: We talked after, yeah.
HTN: Back to the film itself. How long did editing take? You said you were treating it as if you were shooting film, right?
BJ: Yeah, it was a very small ratio. We treated it like we were shooting film but we didn’t have much film. Nat was awesome. We finished shooting November 15th and he had his rough cut by December 1st. That guy’s an animal. In the version we eventually started sending out, he had that by New Year’s. That’s what we sent to (Matt) Dentler, to get into South By. I told you, that guy’s amazing.
HTN: And how much tweaking did you do? Did it change much through editing or was it just refining?
BJ: It was just refining. There were maybe two or three scenes that we had to do serious work on, but even then it wasn’t to alter the beats, it was really just to make the movie flow. Most of the editing we did was just making the movie flow. And then, I think a lot of the stuff that maybe would have caused problems, Nat just fixed on his own. I didn’t come in until the first of December. He was editing the first day as we were shooting the second day. He just worked really fast. It’s like the most polished rough cut I’ve ever seen. I mean, there were never any problems where I was watching the movie and thinking, “Oh yeah, that scene will work if the sound is better.” ‘Cause he was already doing the sound design in Final Cut. He did the sound design in Pro Tools also.
HTN: Nat Sanders.
BJ: Nat Sanders, man.
HTN: How about music? Was that something, for this film in particular, that you had already mapped out?
BJ: Most of the music, outside the club scene, I already had mapped out. I had given to Nat before he went into editing and had given to Greg O’Bryant, our Music Supervisor, to try and make legal before we even started shooting the film.
HTN: And how was that process?
BJ: Aww, man.
HTN: (laughs) That is the worst ever.
BJ: Literally, I had to fly to France to get one of the songs in the movie cleared. I didn’t pay for it. Thankfully, there was a festival we were screening at, and at that point I was burned out on traveling to the point where I was not gonna go to France. But then Justin was like, “Well, you could go to that office of the producer who has the rights to that song.” It’s the song that plays when they’re on the carousel. It was just irreplaceable, we couldn’t replace that song. And the guy had the contract and knew that we needed him to sign it, it was just, you know, out of sight out of mind. So I took a trip to France just to knock on this dude’s door.
HTN: And was that okay, was it just a matter of putting the face to the paper?
BJ: That’s all it was.
HTN: Lesson to filmmakers: fly to France to get your clearances!
BJ: Nah, man, the music was scary. There were quite a few times where we had to swap out songs at the last minute, because the band would be like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s totally cool,” and the lawyer would be like, “It’s totally cool,” and then some manager would appear out of nowhere and go, “No.” (HTN grunts in recognition) You know.
HTN: Yes I do.
BJ: But in the end, I think that any time that happened we ended up getting a better alternative.
HTN: The problem is when you have a situation like the carousel, when you become married to it.
BJ: If we had not gotten that… That would’ve been a problem.
HTN: I had to do that with Cocaine Angel. Man… having to reopen that time line in Final Cut? I am happier now, but just the thought of a year later having to open that time line, it was like, “Stay back in the past where you belong, movie.”
BJ: And then, all the media you finish becomes useless, ya know? You’ve gotta get new dubs, new masters. Although, it’s not a bad thing to say that the worst experience we had on Medicine was clearing music.
HTN: How about music in general? What are your favorite examples of music in movies?
BJ: I like just about all the scores for the Claire Denis films, all the Tindersticks scores. I think those guys are amazing. And I really love the way she uses music. In film, people often say that music is inherently manipulative. But people never say that about Claire Denis. She has music all through her movies. And so I think there is a way to use score in film without it being a leading, very manipulative act. I think the reason why there is score in films, even before we were taking photographs or staging plays we were listening to music. People were thinking about their lives as they were listening to these concertos. So I think it makes sense to have music support a film. There’s a very fine line between doing it with subtlety and tastefulness, and doing it in an overbearing manner. And it’s weird, because my other favorite filmmaker is Lynne Ramsay, and she hates music in film, unless it’s source music.
HTN: I haven’t seen Ratcatcher in forever, did that even have music?
BJ: It did. Very subtle.
HTN: I need to rewatch that, actually. So good. And obviously Morvern Callar, but that’s all in the character’s headphones.
HTN: Are there any composers you want to work with?
BJ: I like the guy who works with Aaron Katz (Dance Party USA, Quiet City). I love his scores. Keegan DeWitt.
HTN: He’s great because he seems to be able to give Aaron exactly what he wants. He’s like Jon Brion in that way.
BJ: Jon Brion. That guy is amazing. I was actually listening to the Synecdoche, New York score on the way over here. We used the Eternal Sunshine score as temp music in Medicine. And it was so good.
HTN: Oh, man, that’s dangerous.
BJ: I know. I came in one day and Nat was like, “You gotta watch this.” And he played it and I was like, “Aww, man, take that out!” (both laugh)
HTN: Do you think something like the Times article will help in the future? It’s obviously not going to hurt you.
BJ: I don’t think it’ll have too much of an impact. I think a lot less people… read… than we expect. (HTN laughs) No, I think it will be good for the film on Friday. I think for the immediate future it will be good.
HTN: Do you know who’s doing your Times review?
BJ: I heard it was gonna be A.O.
BJ: Because it’s Super Bowl weekend so there are no real big prestige pictures coming out. That’s what I heard. We’ll see. (ed. note: see this!)
I try my best not to read reviews. I stopped a while ago. Because even though the good ones make you feel good, it’s always those ones that tear you a new asshole that stick with you. I’m just like, “You know what? I don’t need to read that.”
HTN: I feel like you should read a good one, a bad one, a middle one, and then be done. To give you perspective. But, yeah, that can only lead to darkness if you’re obsessively pouring over every word that’s written about your film.
BJ: And it’s weird, I would go through phases where I would Google blog search the movie, and usually there’ll be at least one thing that I should not have read. Alex (Rivera), the guy who did Sleep Dealer? He’s the one who taught me how to Google blog search. I didn’t know before that. And he’s ruined me! (HTN laughs)
So, what about you, man? What are you working on? It’s so weird for me to know you over this year as a journalist, because to me you’re “Michael Tully, Filmmaker.”
HTN: I think more than anything with regards to that dilemma, I need to make something now. It is true. If Silver Jew was the last movie I made, it’s been two years…
BJ: But you know, I’m at that place now, I guess on the DIY track I should be making something this year. Like a guy like Joe (Swanberg), who has a movie coming out every single damn year. But on the other side, there’s nothing I’m really strongly ready to make right now. I probably shouldn’t make something unless I’m really strongly ready to make something.
HTN: To do it just to be doing it, I also don’t think is the answer. I mean, I’m directing a web series for a friend—he got some money from Fox and asked me to direct it. And that’ll definitely keep my chops up. But I’m about to resuscitate an old idea by writing a whole new draft and thinking about shooting in Maryland this summer. But I want to shoot on film, or to raise the stakes somehow.
BJ: You want like a formal film.
HTN: I want to try that, a real production, before that era has totally passed. I really feel like your film is one of the few digital films made with all those limitations…
BJ: It was my first digital film, so…
HTN: But you transcended that limitation. For me, I want to have the baggage and pressure of feeling like, “Okay, this camera, when the camera rolls, it really matters.” And when I’m shooting with a DVX it’s just like, “Roll away!”
BJ: It’s funny. When I was here and it was warmer I was in the park one day and there were these kids from the New York Film Academy, I think? You know that thing where you pay a certain amount of money and you shoot on a Bolex for a summer. And they were just making a little short in the park, and I felt like they were kids who had grown up shooting on video who were now taking this film course, because they would set up a shot, they would roll the camera, and then they would go, “Alright, everybody ready? Action.”
HTN: On a Bolex?!
BJ: Yeah. And I would be like, “Oh my God, you just lost like six feet of film! What are you doing? What are you doing? What are you doing?” But I think you’re right. It’s sort of the same thing but it’s two different skill sets you have to employ when working with digital versus working with film.
I do miss working in film sometimes. There’s something cool about not being able to go and look and be like, “This is exactly what I have.” You have to take that leap instinctively, figure out or project what it is you’re doing. And get really specific about what’s gonna be in the shot or not be in the shot or how long is the shot gonna be, where is it gonna begin, when is it gonna end? If you do shoot something, let me know. I’d like to be on that set!
HTN: You’re doing writing now, right?
BJ: Yeah. I’m working on an original screenplay and, oh God, you just reminded me, I gotta call somebody back! (HTN laughs) And there’s a book I want to adapt that I’m working with a producer on. And then, as a director, because I have agents now, I’m also being prodded to direct other people’s writing. Which I don’t have a problem with if it’s the right material. More than anything, it’s like I’m writing, but I’m reading a ton. A ton of shit. There is a lot of shit out there. Emphasis on the word shit. (both laugh) But there’s some good stuff too. It’s just harder to come by.
HTN: So, how is the agent thing? Are you glad for that widening of your world?
BJ: I am. I think I am glad because I lived in LA for two years and I kinda know what that means. And so, at the very least, what it does mean is that, let’s say I write something. I know, and I love Aaron (Katz), I love his movies, and he had that film he wanted to do. And he felt like Mos Def was perfect for his movie. And he had the script and got a lot of buzz off the Spirit Awards, but I don’t think he could get the script to Mos Def, you know, because he didn’t have powerful enough agents. So, at the very least, let’s say I write something that’s bigger in scope. I’ll have someone who can take that and put it in the right hands.
And then, the other side of that is, if someone wants to see my film, you know, because you’re right, it was in the New York Times on Sunday, to go back to the topic of conversation. There have been some very good reviews this week from Salon, and Time Out New York. People see those things and so maybe somebody will eventually see this film and go, “Hey, I’d like to talk to that guy and maybe work with him.” And because I have an agent, that kind of legitimizes that person’s desire to want to talk to me. So, I mean, it is what it is, but, on the other hand, making this movie with five friends, nobody can take that from me. At the end of the day, I’ll always be like, “Well, shit, alright, this isn’t working. Let me go make another movie with my five friends.” And it was fucking fun, man. I think of all the movies I’ve made, I’ve never had as much fun as I did making Medicine.
— Michael Tully