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Jenkins’ Local Feature Wows Festivals
by Doniphan Blair
Barry Jenkins’ first feature, "Medicine for Melancholy," exhibits a mature style in balance with some timely content. Set in San Francisco, shot mostly in black and white, it captures the travails of Black people in a rapidly whitening city while remaining quite colorful, flamboyantly artistic, and utterly personal. Even as it addresses local politics, the film is a love story about the complexity of connecting for two very different people.
Barry Jenkins, director/writer of the breakout 'Medicine for Melancholy,' which has been acclaimed in both his adopted home town of San Francisco and around the nation and soon abroad. photo: CineSource
Micah (writer/actor Wyatt Cenec, whose credits include King of the Hill) is a nerdy bike messenger living in the Tenderloin. While doing a delivery, Micah meets Jo’ (Tracey Heggins, in her lead-role debut), an upwardly-mobile Oakland beauty living in the Marina with her white boyfriend, who happens to be away on business.
As in all great narratives, the action of Medicine for Melancholy reveals its characters, elucidating the subtle archetypes addressing the questions that confront many of us today. After winning at Austin’s South by Southwest in March, Medicine sold out its San Francisco Film Festival show at the Pacific Film Archive.
At a San Francisco cafe, I met Barry, a dapperly-dressed and somewhat diminutive man, who bubbles with an enthusiasm twice his size.
Obviously, you’re somewhat low-tech; has that been a problem for you?
One reason people respond to the movie is tied to the means that we used to make it – a small camera and a five-man crew. The images on the screen have an immediacy that you don’t get with 80 people standing around.
We embrace the deficits of the tech. In certain places, we couldn’t put up lights, so we just let it go. At a Q&A in San Francisco, someone said, “It seems like the movie has this theme of isolation.” My response was, “Well, we couldn’t afford a whole crew of extras, so by necessity we had to have our two characters moving through these frames alone even though they were in this big city.” Our limitations fed into this theme of these two characters being the last two people on the face of the Earth, in this great, amazing, beautiful city.
You’re from Florida, right?
Miami, born and raised!
Was it intentional that you left the South and came to San Francisco to tell the story?
You know, I actually do want to tell stories in the South. I moved here in a weird set of circumstances. I was sick of LA and took trains around the country for seven months.
Kind of hoboed it?
Yeah, I gave away all my furniture, gave my car to charity, and just left LA. San Francisco was the first stop on the trip, and I met a girl, and later moved back here to be with her. And when she broke up, I decided that I needed to make a movie.
I haven’t abandoned the South; there are definitely films I want to make there. It’s tougher to make a movie in Miami or North Florida than it is in San Francisco. Here you can just point your camera, and there’s a story. It’s like the character says: “Every man with a street corner has himself a view.” It was just a very ready place to be filmed. And I was actually surprised that there weren’t more contemporary films about San Francisco, so we kind of inserted ourselves into that niche.
The theme would be more charged in a Southern setting. But your movie is tied into the narratives of San Francisco, and is Hitchcockian with the characters fitting into the environment, and then their psychology fits into their character.
Right. It is a bit pretentious to say, but I feel like the city of San Francisco is a character in this movie.
What is your strategy dealing with the festival circuit?
You know, that’s been tough, man. The film premiered at South by Southwest, and then IFC [Independent Film Channel] got involved. So there’s been this tension between where the audience for the film lies. It almost ties into the narrative of the film. Thus far, maybe 90% of the people who’ve seen this film have not been African-American. We had a few screenings in Philadelphia – a city with a large African-American population.
Same thing in LA. But there is this tension between the idea of myself and the film – you know it’s 'Medicine for Melancholy,' it’s not a ‘Black Film,’ I’m not a ‘Black filmmaker.’ Then I was looking at this list of films I want to make, and of course they’re all about Black characters. At the end of the day, no matter how much I hem and haw – yeah, I’m a Black filmmaker and Medicine for Melancholy is definitely a Black film.
But IFC markets FILMS. They don’t care if they’re Black films or Latino films or whatever; their whole mission is to get it into the best festivals to open up the movie. We went to South by Southwest and to San Francisco International. Now we’re going up to Toronto, London, and Vienna. Once we got into Toronto, that kind of obliterated all the summer festivals we could play. Toronto was like, “Well, you guys have played five festivals already, you can’t play anywhere else.”
There were quite a few Black film festivals that we would’ve loved to have played but a certain stature has hindered us reaching an African-American audience; I hope that audience will find the film once it’s in theaters. And I think this says more about the situation of a filmmaker like myself, a super-low independent African-American filmmaker. In order for us to make a living at this, our films do have to play to both segments of the population. I think the movie is universal, despite the fact that it’s very personal to me and my experience as an African-American in San Francisco.
Spike Lee’s a very Black filmmaker, but had most of his success in an art house crowd.
Which is amazing. I tried to really get into Spike, and I found that I kinda couldn’t. I tell stories a very different way – Spike has a point of view, and the film is kind of a presentation of that view. There’s an aggression, a propulsion to a Spike Lee movie – ah, joint – that isn’t really present in my work. When I made Medicine, I had a bunch of questions, and the film was kind of just a presentation of these questions.
Mateen Kemet [an Oakland-based filmmaker and mutual friend] said that he thought your film was more De Sica – neorealist – than Spike Lee.
REALLY!!! (Laughing) I love Mateen!
You didn’t temper the film to any of the generalized popular Black styles. You have very arty segues, like those mise-en-scÀnes. Were you trying to embrace all your values at once?
Yeah, that kind of ties into the way I was trained. I kind of stumbled onto filmmaking at Florida State University – I used to be a jock. I was walking across campus and I saw a sign that said ‘Film School.’ In the first semester, we all did work together, shot on Bolex 16mm daylight spools, cut on Steinbecks – it was a great experience. But my work just did not hold up next to everyone else’s. I didn’t know you needed light to expose film. I was completely raw. I don’t even know how they let me in the school. I went to the dean and told him, “Look, I’m not ready for this. I want to take a year off.”
So he let me, and I took a still photography class, I started reading screenplay books, I went to the library, and lived in the photography section just looking at Robert Frank and all these guys – Walker Evans, it was just a great experience. There was a film library, and the only movies that weren’t always checked out were these French New Wave and a lot of the New Asian cinema – you know, Kar-Wai Wong and a lot of Godard and Rohmer. That was literally my film education.
Micah (Wyatt Cenec) and Jo’ (Tracey Heggins) walk and talk (OK, argue, along a San Francisco street that, like their relationship, is under construction. photo: B. Jenkins
I went to that place to learn how to make movies. So when we made this film, it was like all those early influences came back. It wasn’t a conscious thing. I don’t even mention Godard as an influence. But when I watch 'Breathless,' the first film I saw in film school, I can just totally see how it’s come out in my work.
In Medicine for Melancholy were you drawing more on personal stuff?
It’s very personal. The more I watch the movie, the more stilted some of those conversations seem. It’s only because I’ve HAD those conversations – the really heavy conversations that we have – I just threw them in verbatim from memory. It was really important for me to investigate those themes with the two sides of my head, because those characters are both me. I want to see what it’s like when they mash up against one another.
Not all of it is tied directly to San Francisco, but quite a bit of it are things that I didn’t really think about as much until I came here. In some ways it’s very specific to San Francisco.
At the Pacific Film Archive, they asked political questions, then, “Now, wasn’t it really a romance?” It’s very well-balanced: the romance and the political.
Exactly. I think the real politics are left unstated. In the scene where they come out of the Museum of the African Diaspora, she says, “Have you been there before?” And he’s like, “Oh, I’ve been a few times,” and she’s like, “I didn’t even know it was there!”
To me that’s one of the most political statements in the whole film. MOAD is housed in the same building as the St Regis Hotel, where there’s $330/night rooms, and then you walk to Yerba Buena Gardens, with this beautiful MLK Memorial, but right behind it is the Moscone Center, where they have huge Oracle conventions – that whole tract of land was once these old tenement hotels, some of the most affordable housing in the city. I feel that’s the way San Francisco operates. I think they’re going to do the same thing with Yoshi’s in the Fillmore.
For me it’s a fine line. In the first draft, Micah and Jo have this quiet moment, and Micah’s like, “You know, all that stuff used to be affordable housing.” And my buddy in New York was like, “No, man, YOU know that, but this guy in the movie doesn’t know that.” So I pulled it. We were trying to balance the romance and the politics, and we only wanted the characters to be as aware of the politics as they realistically could be. The only time we get a real sense of San Francisco politics is when the characters look into this meeting about housing rights, and then I’m like – YES, I can let San Franciscans talk about these things.
Yeah, that worked very well. And you mentioned that that was extemporaneous.
Well, we’d planned for them to walk by. And then we found the place, and we just set up the camera and let them talk. The timing was perfect, because that referendum went on the ballot, and the movie played three weeks before the vote on rent control. There were like 800 people in the theater and the guys from the movie were in the audience, and they stood up and said a little. It was great.
Now, that ‘two sides of the track’ thing – is that a personal comment, or do you feel that’s an issue for the Black community?
No, that’s a personal comment, but it’s also a device: the two sides of me. I feel like the part of me that would make films primarily in the South would’ve been like Micah. And then the more cosmopolitan part of me, moving to San Francisco, would be more the Jo’ character.
At the same time, I have gotten some static on the festival circuit: the movie does push that agenda, it makes it so expressly stated that it makes people uncomfortable a bit. It’s like: who’s still on our side, and who’s sold out? I think the movie touches on that. Micah’s not the right character to push that agenda.
Shooting on location on a hill in San Francisco. photo: B. Jenkins
I think he is pretty balanced and well-rounded. Mateen thought Samuel L. Jackson hounding the interracial couple in Lakeview Terrace was disgusting. In direct contrast, he thought Micah is a so-called Angry Black Man character, but very sympathetic.
Yeah. A lot of that is owed to Wyatt; he did a great job. We ran a lot of guys, and some did not come off in the right way. He’s a comedian and not this Angry Black Man who’s swinging on emotions, where rationality is out the window. I hope that Micah becomes that kind of person after the movie ends; it’s totally within him. It’s all about balance, man. I think we’re all striving for balance. And I think Micah – this character that’s driving the movie – is definitely striving for balance.
The ending is kind of bittersweet, in that he’s learned so much and will grow from this brief encounter.
I totally agree. People in the Q&A aggressively taunt me to tell them what happens. I’m like, “I don’t know. The movie ends.” When I was reading Tracey for the character of Jo’, we didn’t have an actor, so I read with her. We improvised a scene: Two months later and Jo’ and Micah meet for a cup of coffee; and ugh, it was uncomfortable. We had no idea how to play it. Where do those two characters go? Are they lovers? With the actual ending of the film, you definitely get a sense of hope, if not completion.
It was really an adventure, and perhaps you hoped that it was going to resolve positively for Micah –
I’ve actually been thinking: Why COULDN’T they just be happy together? She seems like a good woman for him. Maybe it’s a reflection of my real life and I didn’t get the girl, so there’s no way in hell that Micah’s going to get the girl.
I think that the balance of ambiguity and definition is really cool. And also the artistry of cutting and the music...
I hear you say that and I love it. Because it’s just me and my friends from film school. I needed to make a movie, and so I called these guys, and they were like, “Yeah, we’ll do it.” And the guy who cut the movie, he makes a ton of money editing reality television but he hates it. So I was like, “I’m making this little movie with this tiny camera and two actors. Do you want to do it?” And he completely dropped his life and moved to San Francisco. Everybody but the sound guy went to Florida State Film School.
When I was taking these trains, people asked me, “What do you do?” “Oh, I’m a filmmaker.” “Oh, what have you made?” “Oh, I haven’t made anything since film school.” So it’s like: AM I a filmmaker? It’s tough to be a craftsperson without the chance to exercise your craft. We deal in one of the most expensive crafts on the planet – it’s not like you can just buy a canvas and go paint – but you do need to be creating things.
You just decided to make the film, so you wrote it, shot it, edited it, and then you went to SXSW.
That’s it, man. I wrote it in three weeks. And then we shot it in three weeks. We cut it in 40 days. It was all really fast, and it comes across in the movie too – a kind of nervous energy, you know: “I gotta do it, I gotta get the shot!”
And it also has a sort of freshness. The quirkiness of Micah reminds me of George Clinton, or Spike Lee. Is that something you set out to highlight, or is that something that came out because he’s the actor?
I set out to highlight it. A lot of those jokes were in the script. But for Wyatt, being goofy, being quirky, was his entry. He just ran with it. When he first read the script, he stopped to call me: “What’s this Mr Rogers thing?” I was like, “Yeah, he plays Mr Rogers for her because he wants to break the ice.” And he thought about it, and he was like, “All right, I can do that.” He couldn’t see why this guy would be so into this girl, when she’s so cold to him. For it to be plausible, he felt like he needed to really break down her shield. The guy’s not perfect, but he can make her laugh.
Anything to say about the indie scene here?
You know, I meet filmmakers from San Francisco at other festivals all the time, and it always shocks me that, I was like “Whoa, you’re in San Francisco?” and they’re like “Yeah, I’ve been there for years. I’ve done this film and this film and this film.” And I’m like, “How have I not heard of you?” I think the indie community is very loose. The crews all know each other, but I think the filmmakers just don’t connect.
Before we made this film, we couldn’t find help anywhere. Literally, it was just us – all these guys who have no connection to San Francisco, making this movie about the City. After we made the film, and it was being passed around town, people were like, “Who are these guys?” “Oh, they’re from Florida State.” And it’s just like, “What?”
Micah (Wyatt Cenec) and Jo’ (Tracey Heggins) dance and talk (OK, make faux love) in a San Francisco club. photo: B. Jenkins
It shouldn’t be that way. Between my film and last year there was 'Revolution Summer,' and a few docs, but not much else. Now maybe the indie film scene is starting to catch on.
In LA, it comes from the industry down, and in this town I think it comes from the filmgoers up. The filmgoers kind of dictate the film scene here. And I think the Film Society is taking an active approach to trying to get filmmakers organized, getting the resources together so that people can make films here, in and about the City.
So if someone said, “I have a story. I just really want to make this film.” You’d say “Go for it”?
I’d say, “Call your friends. Call your filmmaking friends – especially the ones that have talent.” Tell them that you want to make a film, and they’ll get behind you.
Did you pitch your friends or did they just join you?
I sent them a script, but they would’ve done it anyway. Just to get us all back together and hang out. That’s the thing, it was FUN making this movie. It was almost not work. And I feel like with any filmmaker at any budget level – there are these rings of connection, you know, and you always want to reach to the inner ring first, your friends. And then work your way out. Because the more people you have on set that trust you – the more you will be able to get across what you want to get across.
Posted on Sep 04, 2008 - 01:37 PM