On 'If Beale Street Could Talk' And The Power Of Lighting Dark Skin Properly

We talk with cinematographer James Laxton

There's been a conversation happening over the past couple of years surrounding the skill it takes to properly light black skin on film. It doesn't seem like something people should still be struggling with—it's not like black people were only put in front of cameras over the past five years or something—but, as The Guardian writes, "cinema has pandered to white skin for decades," and now, "a generation of film-makers are keen to ensure people of color look good on screens." One of those people is cinematographer James Laxton.

Laxton worked with Barry Jenkins on the 2016 film Moonlight and has teamed up with him again on the stellar If Beale Street Could Talk, but their friendship goes back to college, where the two met. Laxton, who's white, says that he's never consciously thought much about making sure black actors look, well, like themselves onscreen; it's just something he's always done. "It was sort of part and parcel to me learning to make films," he tells us. "It came in the same way other lessons about, you know, film stocks or lighting generally. It never felt as if I had to re-learn something or I had to re-apply a technique when I was lighting white people, for example." Maybe it's because he's worked with Jenkins for as long as he has or maybe it's because he grew up with a black brother and, like he says, "black skin has never felt unfamiliar to me," but, either way, he's made a lot of people feel seen—quite literally.

Like with Moonlight, Laxton plays beautifully with not just light but color and perspective on If Beale Street Could Talk. The shots, like the movie itself, are romantic and whimsical, warm and inviting. Laxton says he looked at still photography from Roy Decarava, a photographer from Harlem, for inspiration and, of course, James Baldwin's words. "His use of language and how he writes as a writer, the specificity, the strength… I think we wanted to sort of find ways to infuse that into our visual language as filmmakers as well."

Ahead, we talk to Laxton about inserting the audience into the film, using color to help root the story, and listening to the New York City light. For more on If Beale Street Could Talk, read our interview with star Kiki Layne and costume designer Caroline Eselin.

In the film, the characters break the fourth wall and look directly into the camera in varying scenes. Talk to me about playing with perspective throughout the film.

Something that Barry and I are constantly trying to find ways to do is put the audience inside a character's perspective. The way we talk about that is this sort of immersive quality that the camera can take on within films. I think, as in Moonlight as in If Beale Street Could Talk, we're looking to bring the audience into the story in a way that isn't just watching it, but, hopefully, engaging with it in a very deep, emotional way. So, when we do these things where we have the actors looking into the lens and performing off one another in ways, it's to do that. It's to try to really engage with our audience, ask them to open up, and to maybe empathize or try to at least understand a little bit more about what these characters are feeling in a way that hopefully is quite powerful.

It's not a very conventional way of filming for the actors. Does it take them time to warm up to those scenes?

We know in those moments we're asking quite a lot from the actors, and it's something that I think Barry wouldn't be asking for if he didn't think they could do it. And I think the results speak for themselves. While albeit technically a challenging thing for these actors to do at times, they do a great job and really step up to give us quite a lot in these moments. So, yeah, it is hard.

For this film, we did something a little bit different than we did in Moonlight, where we use what's called an Interrotron machine, which is sort of like a teleprompter device where, instead of placing words for an actor or for someone to read on the teleprompter, we actually took a feed from a second camera that we were using at the time, to present the other actor's face on the screen. And that was to help try to find ways to not have them just look into nothing, but—even in a technical way—to look at the other actor. And those were used in the prison scenes specifically, but we didn't do that in all the other ones, so we still had to find ways to ask some of these performers to take on the task of looking into the lens and still perform a great performance. Regina King in the Puerto Rico scene is definitely one of them. I think she did a great job.

For Moonlight, you used different film treatments for each period of Chiron's life. Beale Street is also broken up into different parts. Did you change how you approached filming scenes in a similar way?

I think, yes. There's a past tense and a present tense; in Beale Street, the past tense being the date that Fonny and Tish are on. For those scenes, there's quite a lot more sort of graceful, sensitive, slower-paced camera movements. And the present tense is a bit more rooted and structured in a different way. So, in some ways, we're moving the camera in a romantic fashion and then some ways we're being a bit more still. For example, the scene with Daniel and Fonny, when they're talking about Daniel being in prison, the camera moved in a much different way—even though we're panning back-and-forth between those characters. It's a much different movement and pace by which those moves happen than, for example, when we're with Fonny and Tish as you see the apartment for the first time and showing where the furniture might go. This is a bit more heightened in its pace.

This is the first time our colorist, Alex Bickel, was brought on before we started production. And one of the advantages of that was he was able to help us create these levels before we even started shooting. We actually found a lot of photography, still photography from Harlem from this particular era, and he reversed-engineered and found a way to emulate these particular film stocks that film photographers were using at the time. The look of the film, the tonalities, the way colors are represented, there's no other film that's ever sort of looked this way. In the specific-ness of it anyway, which is exciting for us and, hopefully, helps the story root itself in a period.

You became kind of known for the deep, cool blue palette from Moonlight, and I feel like Beale Street is very much the antithesis to that. The entire film feels very warm and inviting.

Yeah, the movie's about a lot of different things, as you know—the prison system, racism in America—but at the core of this is a love story between Tish and Fonny. And when we think of love, when I think of love anyway, I think of warmth and romance. That's kind of where these tones in the film come from—the strength of the romance and the strength of the love part of the story. For cinematography specifically, if we can find ways to present love in a strong way, I think we can find ways for people to understand the other parts of the film as well. If we can get that part to reach people that maybe aren't from Harlem or maybe aren't black, that there's a way to reach other audiences through that sort of avenue—through that tunnel of love.

I know that Miami inspired the lighting for Moonlight, did Harlem act as an inspiration in that same way?

New York definitely influenced us in how we made choices about lighting and color in a number of ways. For example, when we see the scene in Fonny's apartment, that's in this downstairs basement apartment, and we have that back alley behind the entrance way. We shot that whole thing on a stage. In the Daniel scene—so that time was changing as the conversation evolves and it becomes evening—I had to invent how many stories this building might be in Harlem, and at what time in the late afternoon the sun might only bounce off a certain part of that building. Cause that's what happens in New York, you have these little alleyway chasms between buildings where the sun only reaches things for a certain part of the day. And it was something that I tried very hard to make sure kept a place within some of the lighting choices. If you made this film in Los Angeles or in Texas, maybe you'd have sunlight pushing through in the evening because the sun doesn't have any buildings to block it, but that's not the case in New York. And it's a wonderful thing in New York—you get these blue bounces through windows because the adjacent building is concrete, and in the evening maybe things are just bouncing off that way.

Sometimes, we don't know exactly what things look like until we find our space and our location. And I think we try to make choices based upon that. For Moonlight, I remember going to Miami for the first time and not taking pictures for the first three or four weeks. Sometimes, a person arrives in a space, and the first thing they do is pick up a camera and start taking photos and try to capture the spaces. For me, I needed to live in it and let the space come over me a bit, and I think the same thing happened for us in Harlem. I would spend the day just walking around Harlem. Just trying to find a way to have Harlem let me know what it should look like in terms of palette and how light plays in buildings and things like that. So, it's important to me to spend time in a space before I start to dictate what I think it should look like.

One scene that stood out to me was the sex scene. There's a moment, after, where Tish is just laying there, and there's this yellow light that bathes her face and, now that you bring that up, it does remind me of the street lights of New York bouncing off of the alleyways.

Definitely. I mean, I'm not from New York, I'm from the West Coast, but when I visit New York what I love is, when I turn all the lights off in maybe a hotel room or the apartment I'm staying in, there's still quite a lot of things bleeding off the street into the space that I might be in. And a lot of that is very colorful, whether it be like from street lights or from neon from below from like bodegas, and things climb up into the apartments above. I love that, and I think those scenes were hugely influenced from living in New York for a time or visiting on previous trips and thinking about what happens when you turn the lights off in rooms. If you did that in Los Angeles, or if you did that in Oklahoma, it would be very different. I probably would've approached it in a very different way where it would be what happens when it's a pitch black scene. But in New York, you can allow and motivate light from the streets that's unique to city.

The birthing scene is so monumental for the film, and it seems like it would be fairly difficult to shoot. What kind of work went into that?

It was hard was for sure. Especially because we shot the film on a camera called the Alexa 65, which is a camera that's only been out for a couple of years. It's what we technically call large-format cinematography, and it has a larger chip size than most cameras generally. In which case, it also makes the camera larger. So, to try to find ways to fit this camera in the bathtub, and push it up underneath and have it floating up to the surface of the water and reach that surface and come up, and find Tish in the bathtub... It's such a powerful moment, and I remember thinking at times, This could be a lot simpler if we changed out shooting format to be something small just for this one shot. But, it felt really important to me because it's such an important moment in the story, and such a powerful moment to witness, that I felt like, What a shame it would be to lessen that impact by shooting on a smaller format. So, we ended up having to do a number of things technically to do that. The first half of that shot—technically it's two shots stitched together—is I believe in a pool, in I wanna say the Bronx somewhere, where we're having to use the underwater crane to get underneath a floating baby at the surface. As we boom up and crest the water, we bridge those digital effects to a hand-held shot where we had some struggles holding this large camera and following this child into Tish's arms. So technically it was quite elaborate in terms of its creation, but I think for good reason cause it held on to the integrity of the moment in a way that I think is very powerful, and, hopefully, audiences feel the same way.

Would you say that it's the scene that you're most proud of?

That was definitely one of them, but another one that I would mention is the scene where Fonny's family comes to Tish's family's home, and they have those two or three scenes where there's quite a lot of dialogue and quite a lot of people in the room. I know it's not such a spectacular, visual thing, but it's quite challenging, especially when you're trying to do what Barry and I always try and do, which is bring the camera inside of conversations and follow action in a way that there's some perspective and not just, for example, place the camera in a corner of the room and pan around the space and observe the moment, but to try to find ways to take the photography inside of conversations. We knew that that was gonna be a challenging scene for us because of how much dialogue and all the different eye lines and all the different moments we're trying to capture, but, at the same time, we really tried to ingrain the camera into the conversation in a way, too.

I think we did a good job to continue to use the same visual language that we used in the rest of the film in a scene that could've been shot in a much simpler way. But we chose to hold on to our visual integrity and our visual language.

If Beale Street Could Talk is out in theaters now.