If Beale Street Could Talk
Director Barry Jenkins’ third feature film, If Beale Street Could Talk, tells the poignant story of Tish (KiKi Layne) a 19-year-old woman fighting to free her falsely accused fiancee Fonny (Stephan James) from prison before the birth of their child.
Based on a novel by James Baldwin, the film was lensed by cinematographer James Laxton, who poetically captured the texture of New York in the 1970s. Laxton also shot Jenkins’ first feature, Medicine for Melancholy (2008), and was nominated for an Oscar® for his work on Moonlight.
Jenkins met Laxton along with producer Adele Romanski and editors Nat Sanders, ACE, and Joi McMillon, ACE, while studying at Florida State University Film School and the team has collaborated ever since. The editors were nominated for a film-editing Oscar in 2017 for their work on Moonlight, which went on to win three Oscars, including best motion picture of the year, best performance by an actor in a supporting role and best adapted screenplay. Moonlight also earned the editors an Eddie Award nomination for best edited feature film, among other accolades.
Sanders explained that even while they were making Moonlight, Jenkins was already laying the groundwork for If Beale Street Could Talk. The crew started shooting in New York in October 2017 with Arri Alexa 65 cameras and wrapped up editing in August, after almost 10 months. McMillon was on set in New York, but most of the cutting was done back in L.A., where they were able to collaborate in person with the director, working in Avid.
“We were assembling during the shoot and so as soon as production was done, we were pretty much ready to show it to Barry and start working,” says Sanders.
The editors stressed that Jenkins is a great collaborator and having worked with him for so long, they intuitively understood what he was looking for. McMillon reports that “he would be in the edit suite every day working with both of us, just trying to find the rhythm and the pace of the film. Then, he would take the film home with him every night, so he could make sure the changes and the cuts that we were making to our different sections were actually working as a whole.” “He gets really excited when you really nail a scene, so you’re always trying to knock it out of the park and get that reaction out of Barry because it’s so gratifying,” Sanders adds.
4th Qtr, 2018
Structurally, the film is divided into four equal parts, so the editors decided to divvy up the work by sections, with Sanders taking the lead on the first and third sections, while McMillon spearheaded the second and fourth sections. “I think working in sections helped us to find the flow and rhythm of the film because you’re doing one theme and someone else is doing another,” says McMillon. “A lot of times the scenes are interconnected and doing it this way allowed the film to develop in neat sections and then, when it came together, it was a natural pairing.”
“The footage always tells you how you should cut it and I think it just kind of worked out that Joi ended up with the more unhurried, longer sequences, and it worked out that I had slightly more fastpaced sections,” explains Sanders.
He adds that the film owes its unique structure to the book, tracking Fonny and Tish’s love story as it jumps backward and forward in time. “But it really was a little bit of a ‘choose-your own-adventure’ in the middle of the movie. Our post PA created a continuity board for us, where you had a screen grab from every scene and Joi, Barry and I spent a lot of time sitting in front of that board moving things around, talking about the repercussions if we move these things here or there. We tried a lot of things structurally and we landed on something fairly different from the original script, at least in the middle of the film.”
He elaborates, “We pushed back the confrontation with Officer Bell a good bit. We were feeling like it was taking the air out of things if it came a little earlier, where it was originally in the script. And then that had a lot of ripple effects when we moved it.” One of the key challenges was navigating the last 15 minutes of the film. The book itself ends somewhat abruptly without wrapping everything up. Sanders explains, “We knew very early on that the book ending just wasn’t going to work as a film, so we had to make some moves.” “Finding the right way to end this film was one of the things that we did a lot of troubleshooting for,” McMillon continues.
“The film immerses you in these characters and you’re so invested in their stories that you don’t want to shortchange the audience. So, we were walking a fine line between finding an ending that’s both satisfying, but also feels authentic to the story.” McMillon credits assistant editor Daniel Morfesis with keeping them on schedule. “There are a lot of elements that went into creating the film, and he was always on top of it, keeping it all organized and keeping us basically on track for our deliverables and our visual effects,” she explains. “It’s hard when you only get one assistant, but he took it all in his stride.
This is definitely a movie that would have benefited from having two assistants, but he was more than willing and able to get the job done.” One of the key challenges was that Jenkins and Laxton shot in such a beautiful and poetic way that it was difficult to cut. “You always want to maintain the integrity of the way they’ve shot it and to maintain that pacing and sense of poetry, but at the same time, you don’t want the movie to be two-and-a-half hours long. It’s about trying keep the movie moving while still maintaining the integrity of how they filmed it and the style that Barry wants,” says Sanders.
According to McMillon, the entire editorial process was “kind of a learning curve in finding the sound for the film’s actual score.” She explained that she prefers to edit ‘dry,’ without a temp track, and then, when the sequence works without a score, let the composer do their thing. “So, when a composer sees the scene, and sees the emotion in the scene without music, I think they tend to not try to make it a dominating sound, but something that’s kind of laid in and is actually supporting the scene instead of detracting from it,” she elaborates.
The process involved a lot of back-and-forth with composer Nick Britell, who would fine tune the score as the editors interwove different cuts with different versions of the music. She adds that Jenkins was just as hands-on with the score as he was with the edit. “If the composer made a new version, and there’s one tiny element that didn’t carry over from the previous version that Barry loved, he’ll notice it. We put a lot of effort into crafting the sound in a very artful way.”
The editors also credit sound mixers Onnalee Blank and Matt Waters for their contributions to the film. “I feel like Matt is one of the best Foley mixers that I’ve the pleasure of working with,” says Sanders. “I always gravitate toward Foley and I always feel like it’s too loud, but he always gets it right.”
Overall, McMillon feels that the film is very timely, even though it was written in 1974. “I think one of the things that I appreciate about the film is how much it highlights, not only love, but community and family and coming together in spite of the different circumstances that you’ve been dealt in life,” concludes McMillon. “I know some people feel it’s a really heavy movie, but I think within the darkness, there is hope and I think that’s one of the elements that Barry likes to convey in all his films. Even though people may find the circumstances devastating, love shines through.”