San Francisco is a lot of things to writer/director Barry Jenkins. Perhaps its most important role in his life is one of complicated muse. Without San Francisco and its contradictions—the beauty, the way the light shines, the revolutionary history, the creeping gentrification, the whiteness and newfound homogeneity—Jenkins' debut film, the splendid Medicine For Melancholy, would have less of a kick.
Melancholy is about two arty black twenty-somethings, Micah (The Daily Show's Wyatt Cenac) and Jo (Tracey Heggins), who tentatively connect, walking and talking around the city the day after a one-night stand that they can't remember. Its setup echoes Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise and Claire Denis' Friday Night, but there's more on this film's mind—issues of cities, class, and race—than just sexual tension, as the coupling has already occurred. What Jenkins and his tiny crew do on no budget is something quite extraordinary; the resulting film is a generous and never condescending portrait of two complicated characters in a tumultuous city, trying to define themselves over the course of one fleeting day.
Tribeca sat down with the gregarious Jenkins to talk Melancholy (opening at the IFC Center this week, just in time for Valentine's Day) and inspiration.
Tribeca: What was the initial spark for this project?
Barry Jenkins: [After film school at Florida State,] it had been a long time since I had made a movie. People would ask me, "What do you do?" and I'd reply, "I'm a filmmaker," and they'd say, "What have you done?" and I'd be like, "Well, I made these short films when I was in film school four years ago," which was a long time ago, which doesn't fly. When I kind of got around to realizing that I was going to make a movie, I'd been in L.A. for two years [assisting director Darnelle Martin (Cadillac Records) and working at Harpo Productions], and it wore me down.
I wasn't writing for myself, I wasn't creating anything, and I wasn't involved with work I was very passionate about. I gave my car to charity, gave all my furniture away, and I packed a suitcase and took trains around the country for about eight months. I moved to San Francisco when the trip was done since I met a woman who lived there. The relationship was great, and then the relationship was not great, of course. When that was done I decided I wanted to make a movie that sort of addressed some of these issues that were swirling around my head, because it was an interracial relationship. I also wanted to address the city of San Francisco, which I felt played a role in my dementia.
Tribeca: How did you cast the film?
BJ: We found Tracey [Heggins] on this website called NowCasting.com. It's like a Facebook for actors, like, "Hi, my name's Tracey, I play the guitar, I'm an equestrian," and things like that. Finding Wyatt, [after looking in San Francisco] we ended up down in L.A., and we tried to find an actor through the same means that we found Tracey, and nobody was working. We saw Wyatt on that YouTube clip (a fake reality show called "My Best Black Friend") and we literally sent him a message on MySpace. And he replied. It was way before anything on The Daily Show was happening. He came out and read and he was great. We cast him on the spot.
Tribeca: How scripted is the film? It feels less improvisational than other films in this genre, which I really liked.
BJ: We scripted the film. Wyatt was very very into deviating from the written word, whereas Tracey was very very much about the method of perfecting the lines, so there's actually a nice tension between the two. It kind of worked out. especially since [Micah's] such a loose and kind of carefree guy, unless he's talking about race, whereas [Jo], she's very almost sort of tight-buttoned, it's almost like she's wearing a corset the whole film, you know?
Tribeca: Can you talk a little bit about the visuals? The look of the film is quite striking.
BJ: We wanted to communicate visually our take on the emotion that we get from the city of San Francisco. We decided to de-saturate the image. We were kind of playing around [in a camera test], and realized that drawing out the color was going to be the ticket. We went selectively, shot by shot, and pulled out the majority of the color. There are certain scenes in the film that have more color than others, to reflect when the characters aren't thinking about race or housing issues.
Tribeca: Even beyond the de-saturation, the camerawork is particularly striking. How did you do it with no money?
BJ: Our cinematographer, James Laxton, he's just really good. We figured out what our limitations were, and we tried to maximize what we could do with those limitations. We used a lot of natural light, we had this Panasonic HVX, but we had a lens adapter that allowed us to take these really old Nikon Still SLR lenses and put them on the front of the camera. I think that softens the image. It doesn't make it look like film, but it doesn't make it look like HD. It gives it a very unique, specific look.
Tribeca: One thing I noticed was the detail in the sound design. Can you tell me about that?
BJ: We had no money at all. We didn't raise funds [for the film]. (My buddy Justin Barber paid for it all with the money he made doing visual effects for the Ocean's 13 DVD.) We had to have a professional mix, so we found this guy who's kind of like a Hollywood ex-pat, living up in Marin County. He had been living in San Francisco with his family, but when his neighborhood became gentrified he couldn't afford to raise two children. He was pushed out, he was displaced, so he was like, "You're damn right I'm going to help you guys make this film."
He told us that we need to hear this world. Anytime we're in Micah's apartment, we need to hear that aquarium—little things like that—all the chatter on the street outside because he lives in a very urban neighborhood downtown in the Tenderloin. Jo's place is very quiet, [so] we maybe hear birds chirping in the background because she's in the Marina.
Tribeca: It's refreshing to hear a film that talks frankly about race and, in this case, the complicated relationship between race and indie rock. What were you exploring in the film?
BJ: Most of the conversations in the film are conversations that I've had myself, especially the stuff that Micah says. Micah's this guy who's always building barriers. Not only is Micah a minority because he's black, then he's a minority because he's indie, and then he takes it a step further and he's going not only "I'm a minority because I'm black and I'm indie," but "I'm a minority within the indie scene because I'm black indie." Whereas Jo probably wouldn't even ascribe to the term indie. She's just a girl who likes to screenprint t-shirts.
The characters in the film are sort of playing out this debate back and forth about identity politics. For me, making the film was also about where I would fall between those two ideologies. I'm striving to become more in line with the character Jo to think that race and any divisions are limiters, but there are some very valid points that Micah is making. I kind of want to journey towards where Jo is—but without forgetting the place where Micah is coming from.
Tribeca: So what are your feelings on San Francisco?
BJ: You know, I love it. I hate it, but I love it. [Jenkins is quoting the film.] I think San Francisco is a very beautiful city. The essence of San Francisco has always been summed up as the energy of these very different people who are sharing the same sort of physical beauty. Now, as the city is getting more homogeneous, we're losing it. The energy's becoming much more flat. That makes me sad.
We don't talk about cities, and that was another reason I wanted to make this movie, and I wanted it to be not just about two people who have a one night stand, but about the place where they live and how that affects them.
Tribeca: Why are you choosing to stay in San Francisco?
BJ: I was in L.A. for two years, and I didn't write a single screenplay. I lived in San Francisco for twelve months, and I wrote five feature screenplays. There's literally something about that physical piece of rock. San Francisco, I can work there. Especially after spending so much time in L.A. and not being productive, it's something that I don't take for granted.
Medicine for Melancholy opens at the IFC Center on Friday. Click here to buy tickets.
Enter to win a pair of tickets for the IFC Center run.
Jenkins and Cenac are slated to appear at opening screenings.
Root for Medicine for Melancholy at the Independent Spirit Awards (February 21), where it is up for Best First Feature, Best Cinematography, and the Someone to Watch Award (Jenkins).