Sundance: Barry Jenkins Recalls Directing Intimate ‘Moonlight’ Scenes
Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins took the stage inside Park City’s Egyptian Theatre on Sunday afternoon to share the spotlight with author Lisa Taddeo, renowned intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien and Couples Therapy star Dr. Orna Guralnik to talk all things intimacy for an official Sundance Film Festival panel, Power of Story: On Intimacy. But before he could go deep on the subject, Jenkins had to clear his throat with a compliment.
His partner, award-winning filmmaker Lulu Wang, is a huge fan of Couples Therapy, and she’s seen all three seasons (more than once), and she’s “slowly” been getting him to watch the Showtime series. Once he arrived at Sunday’s panel, he realized the moderator was the same therapist from the series, so he immediately texted Wang. “You have to tell her how much I love the show,” Jenkins said of Wang’s response.
With that compliment in the air, Jenkins answered Guralnik’s first question of the day, a big one to tackle about what intimacy means to them on a personal level. When it came to Jenkins, he joked that “as the resident male on the panel, I feel like I should say intimacy is taking out the trash and doing the dishes,” to generous laughter from the crowd.
“To me, intimacy in my current relationship is, I know what I want to be saying, I know what I think I should be saying,” he said, adding, “but in here, I know what I’m feeling and the most direct way is to watching your damn show multiple times.”
Jenkins shared a story from the set of the best picture-winning Moonlight, where he was directing the first kiss between actors Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome. The pivotal scene on the beach marks the first exploration of Sanders’ character Chiron’s sexuality. “Neither one of these kids have been in a movie or kissed anyone in a movie,” said the director, who had to ask as the psuedo intimacy-coordinator. “They have to make out in front of all of these people and all of these gruff dudes in the grip department.”
Jenkins recalled Jerome having some difficulties understanding the scenes and talked him through it by explaining that it was Chiron’s first sexual experience, but it wasn’t for Jerome’s Kevin. “He trusts you, help him with that,” Jenkins recalls of what he told Jerome, and from there, the actor understood. “The frame was set and the scene directed itself from there.”
“The thing with making a film is that you can’t know what is in each individual actor’s head,” said Jenkins, who noted that he did not have an intimacy coordinator on Moonlight or If Beale Street Could Talk. “It can be dangerous when one actor’s presence is here and another actor’s presence is over here. It is really wonderful to have these guidelines.”
Speaking of an actor’s presence, it was announced at the top of the event that planned panelist Dakota Johnson had to drop out, citing a “family emergency,” per Sundance Institute’s Joana Vicente. The panel also had other issues, specifically a “technical issue” that delayed the start more than an hour.
Once it got going, the foursome contributed to an insightful conversation about changing protocols on set, their approach to intimacy, consent and the mechanics of how things work these days in the wake of major changes as a result of the #MeToo movement.
“It’s really important that the actors have the autonomy to stop the action,” said O’Brien, who has worked on such projects as Watchmen, Normal People, The Great, I May Destroy You, Industry, It’s a Sin, Sex Education, The Last Duel and the upcoming Magic Mike’s Last Dance. She shared an example of recent work with an unnamed actor who, after having conversations with his partner, said that he would not be touching anyone’s breasts or nipples and he didn’t want any other actors touching his chest or nipples. “Any inspiration you think you might go to is checked out, and so they don’t have to worry about that. There’s freedom [in that].”
Jenkins generated a lot of laughter when he brought up sex scenes from previous decades. Jenkins said that watching films of the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, “you watch these movies and the sex is bad. It’s so fucking bad. It’s like, really, brah? This is how you thought this needed to be filmed and framed?”