Interview: Barry Jenkins and Thuso Mbedu Talk ‘The Underground Railroad’, Lighting Techniques Learned From ‘Moonlight’, ‘The Lion King’ Prequel & More
Barry Jenkins is back with another incredible project. His new series, The Underground Railroad, is (an adaption of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book) is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. If you haven’t had a chance to watch it yet, please do! I had the chance to participate in a roundtable with the director himself as well as the lead star, Thuso Mbedu, who plays Cora in the series.
During the chat, Jenkins and Mbedu spoke about adapting the book and what changes they added. Jenkins also spoke about the cinematography of the series and the lighting techniques he learned from Moonlight. Jenkins also spoke about why he was interested in taking on the prequel for The Lion King.
Check out some of the highlights from the discussion with Barry Jenkins and Thuso Mbedu below:
Can you talk about what it was like adapting the book and bringing it to life? And for you Thuso what was it like for you adapting and bringing Cora to life?
Barry Jenkins: I’ll go first. For me, it was a really great process. You know, the book is already naturally episodic. And so right away, I think it would have been more difficult to develop if it was adopted as a feature film than it would have been as a television show. It kind of became this thing of addition, by subtraction, or curation of trying to figure this out, the book is so wonderful, you know, we could take everything, but I think it takes me everything, we wouldn’t be able to give everything the time it needed.
And so it was about excavating from the book, you know, getting those things in the script form, and then working with the actors really understanding and now this is the story that we’re telling. It was a long process, you know, we got the rights of the book, even before Moonlight finished. It’s a war season run. And so this has been in you know, four and a half, five years in the making. And over that time it kind of evolved, it became itself.
Thuso Mbedu: For me, I think, because I was getting the scripts like an episode at a time and I’d read the book at least five times in that space because I’d read it two or three times in preparation for the final audition and then coming to Savannah now starting to actually prepare for the role and the book. And the screenplay is different in a very, very beautiful way. Because every time I finished an episode I was I was so frustrated. I’m like, Where’s the next episode? I need to know what happens next.
But it was nice to be able to read the scripts and see okay, this might not be in the script and the screenplay, however, I can still go to the book, make some decisions, take that and bring that Cora into the space. It flowed really easily. And yeah, it helped with a lot of my preparation and building core psychology before I even started connecting with her emotionally.
Can you talk about working with James Laxton, your cinematographer? What were your visual inspirations in terms of other movies or other references?
Jenkins: There weren’t movies, we looked at the painting of Kerry James Marshall, and also the photography of an Australian photographer named Bill Henson. And really what it was was we were just trying to understand, you know, in the writers’ room, we decided amongst the writers that when Cora arrived at a new state, it would look and feel the way it did, because it was a manifestation of her.
So James and I were trying to figure out as she arrived in a new state, you know, how is Cora feeling? You know, and having that be the starting point of what the aesthetic would be. I think the other thing we decided pretty early on was, we wanted there to be as few edits as possible, we wanted to have a camera style whereas opposed to cutting to a new shot, we would create a new shot with the movement of the camera, oftentimes motivated by the movement of the characters, in this case, most often, too. So as Cora, just to once again, really route the audience’s experience in hers, to allow her as she gains possession of her person to also take possession of the show.
And once we sort of hit on those few things, it kind of fell into place. Because the shoot was so long, we only shot listed. We shot this in the water, we shot in South Carolina, Georgia and Mabel, we shot listed entirely. Everything else. Not that it’s freestyle. But it’s us at the beginning of the day, deciding this is how we see this. This is how we see that scene on the weekends. But it’s kind of cool because, in the middle of the show, it’s just kind of a free for all. And I think what happened was the aesthetic start to really respond to the performance of the characters. I’m very, very proud of the way we film the show.
Can you talk about the specific lighting choices and what you learned from Moonlight?
Jenkins: Part of it’s by necessity, I mean, this is a really big-budget show, but because it’s so long, it’s kind of like they got the same budget as moonlight, but you kind of end up working in the same modes. But I think also too, as they say, you have to want the audience to walk a mile and the character shoes. It also goes back to Oh, the images are so beautiful, but what’s happening as some episodes is so brutal, it’s like but it was beautiful while these things were happening, and so it would be almost irresponsible of me to try and remove beauty from these happenings and some attempt at verisimilitude.
I think, to be honest, it’s even more horrific that in the presence of such natural rampant beauty, folks still won’t allow themselves to see the humanity in their fellow man, and woman. And so for us, it’s about if this is what it looks like, for the characters, this is what it should look like, for the audience, I think a freedom comes from that because as opposed to spending all this time, trying to fight the elements or trying to fight Mother Nature, you kind of just like, it’s almost like, you know what Bruce Lee says, Be water, you got to just start working with the current and really beautiful things happen when you do that.
This is such an intense project, and you’re about to go into an extremely 180 degree turn into the Lion King prequel, was that something that you felt you needed to do after the intensity of this, and it was it also Chloe Zhao’s experience on her Marvel movie that inspired you to have a go in that arena?
Jenkins: It was a combination of all those things. I think that this show and If Beale Street Could Talk and Moonlight are a part of a cycle. You know, I was very clear that these three would be things that I felt like we’re all in communication with one another. And I don’t know, especially doing this we covered so much ground in 116 days, you can kind of fall into a habit. There’s only been five or six films made in the style of this Lion King film. And James and I talked about it, the script is great. It’s a completely new mode of filmmaking.
And I was at a point in my career where I felt like I wanted to stretch myself that’s allowed me to do that. But also, by the same token, you know, I didn’t want two years, three years, four years, five years from now when these films are more in vogue, and it’s like, oh, but you know, you’re just an indie director from the projects. You can’t possibly make one of these films. It’s like no, Barry Jenkins did it. And so now any damn body can do it. You can’t tell these cats no, I don’t think you’re ready to do this. So we’re going to do it. And we’re gonna put our heart into it and then we can put our hearts into everything else.