The 10th edition of the Borscht Film Festival winds down this Sunday with great anticipation (read a report I wrote on Animal Collective’s appearance at the fest here). Two of the festival’s co-founders happen to be directly tied to the creation of the multi-Oscar nominee Moonlight. With the main event of awards season tonight, Borscht, along with the film’s distributor, A24, and the Oscars, have teamed up to officially present a watch party in the neighborhood where the film was shot, Liberty City. Although it has been mentioned in many interviews and stories about Moonlight, the connection between the film and Borscht is a bit complicated and had been gestating years before the film was even shot. We spoke to Borscht co-founders Lucas Leyva and Andrew Hevia, Moonlight‘s director Barry Jenkins and the author behind the story that inspired the film, Tarell Alvin McCraney to shed light on how the dots were connected to make this movie.
Leyva says the wheels started moving when Jenkins shot a short film for Borscht in Miami, back in 2011. He credits Hevia, who happens to be a co-producer on Moonlight, for enticing Jenkins to leave San Francisco to make a short film for Borscht’s 2011 festival, Borscht 7. It was entitled “Chlorophyl.” Hevia admits that short, which you can watch here, was all part of a long gestating plan to have Jenkins shoot his second feature film in Miami. Hevia bonded with Jenkins in San Francisco over the fact that both of them graduated from Florida State University’s film school. Hevia says, “I met Barry when I was living in San Francisco in 2007, although I had known him by reputation for several years before that. He was shooting Medicine for Melancholy at the time and since the entire crew were FSU Film School alums, I hung around as much as possible.”
Although he too played a key role in the birth of Moonlight, Leyva emphasizes that Hevia deserves the credit for planting its seed in Jenkins’ mind. “I want to make sure to give a lot of credit to Andrew Hevia,” says Leyva, “who was really the one who saw the potential for Barry to make a regional film in this city. He worked his ass off for 10 years to make this movie happen, from haranguing Barry to make a short down here, getting him excited about the artistic growth of the community, and connecting all the dots to make it a reality.”
Hevia affirms this, saying, “While Barry was shooting Medicine for Melancholy, I decided that I would find a way to get him back to Miami to make a film. It was a slow, organic process marked by relentless persistence, and it unfolded over many years.”
Jenkins, who we spoke to in October (Moonlight filmmakers talk shooting beauty of Miami and connecting with material on human level), admits he knew what Hevia was up to, though he wasn’t convinced about returning to the city where he grew up to shoot a movie. Remember, his experience with filmmaking was studying it in FSU and then plying his trade in California. “Their whole plan was to, at some point, get me here to make a film about Miami cause Hevia actually happened to be in San Francisco when Medicine for Melancholy premiered, and he was working at McSweeney’s with Dave Eggers, and so he was very adamant: ‘You gotta make Medicine in Miami,’ and I was like, ehhhhhh not really.”
Jenkins said he did cave to the request to shoot the short film, however. Leyva has vivid memories of working with Jenkins on the shoot for “Chlorophyl.” He says, “Barry was a huge influence in the early days of Borscht … The way Barry depicted San Francisco as a breathing character in Medicine for Melancholy made us wonder what sort of magic he would make in his hometown … We were all really young — in our earlier 20s — and few, if any, of us had gone to film school, and watching Barry work, even being around his process, really informed the rest of the films that would later come from Borscht. Not just that — his overwhelming generosity and belief in us, trusting in an upstart organization with no track record, just an idea about being able to make movies in Miami, really gave us the confidence to keep going.”
Leyva says having Jenkins shoot his short film with Borscht was key to the festival’s continued growth. “Without Barry’s involvement in the formative years of Borscht I don’t think we would be where we are today,” says Leyva. “Whether he knows it or not, he’s a big reason for our success. Even though Borscht wasn’t formally involved in Moonlight, the mere fact of its existence validates our organization. Finally! A movie that depicts Miami and its neighborhoods and people in it with authenticity and nuance and poetry and grace. More than that, it’s speaking to the world at large. I still can’t believe the film is real.”
As Jenkins inspired the Borscht filmmakers, the energy flowed the other way. Leyva adds that because of Hevia convincing Jenkins to come down and shoot in Miami, the director found the inspiration to return and shoot Moonlight. “In a lot of ways, Moonlight is Andrew’s baby,” notes Leyva. “All I did was introduce Barry to my mentor from my previous life as a playwright, Tarell Alvin McCraney.”
McCraney, of course is also a key part of Moonlight. It was his treatment for a potential play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” which Jenkins adapted to a film script, that became Moonlight. “Tarell was my mentor when I was a young playwright coming out of New World School of the Arts,” Leyva says. “While I was in college at Fordham and he was at Yale, he would give me feedback and encouragement.”
McCraney, who we also spoke to in October, said his story had been sitting around since 2003. He says of the early script, “Most of the creation of it was about trying to get the images right.” But then he remembered that a teacher at New World School of the Arts told him: “If the play comes to you in visuals, it’s not a play. That’s just not how plays work. It’s a film, it’s a TV show, but it’s not a play.”
He said he shelved it, without even deciding on an ending. “So it sort of sat someplace and kind of hung out for a while,” McCraney says, “until I came to Miami one summer, as I often did between school, and ran into Andrew Hevia and Lucas Leyva, who run the Borscht Film Festival, and they wanted me to give them something. I gave them ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.’ They read it and said, ‘We can’t film this because we mostly film shorts, and you’re trying to break our budget. We don’t know this many black people,’” McCraney says with a coy laugh before admitting, “They didn’t actually say that last part. But they did say, ‘We’re working with this director on this other thing,’ and so I left, and they were working with Barry [Jenkins] on ‘Chlorophyl,’ and they handed him the script.”
“I think the wheels for those guys were always turning,” says Jenkins, “and I think they thought, ‘Well, Tarell’s famous, if Tarell has something that’s Miami, maybe Barry will be into that,’ and I imagine when they read it, it was just lightning in a bottle because there’s specific elements from both our lives that we can’t make up,” says Jenkins, referencing the neighborhood where both he and McCraney grew up, Liberty City.
Both Hevia and Leyva share great pride in the resulting film, which truly deserves to win in all the categories it’s nominated for (check out this survey this writer participated in for IndieWire: 2017 Oscar Academy Awards: Who Will Win and Should Win — Critics Survey). “I’m delighted Barry has finally made another film and that I got to be a part of it,” says Hevia. “I’m overjoyed that Moonlight has been so well received and grateful for every review that uses the phrase ‘set in Miami like we’ve never seen it’ because that was kind of the point.”
“It’s unreal,” says Lucas of Moonlight. “It validates our entire existence, all the years of work. From the start we would tell anyone that would listen that Miami’s stories would resonate with the world, and that one day this city would be known as a center for regional filmmaking. In 2006, we sounded flat-out insane. When we started getting shorts into Sundance in 2010 we were laughed at. By 2013 every other local film organization that had sprouted up was echoing some version of our rhetoric. Now with Moonlight, the entire world has seen the potential and power of Miami’s filmmaking community.”
This piece was written from outtakes of interviews conducted for the following piece for the Knight Foundation, a sponsor of IndieEthos.com:
Tonight, the ONLY official Moonlight Oscar Party will take place at the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center, 6161 NW 22nd Ave., Miami, Florida 33142, which will be presented by the film’s distributor, A24. Tickets are free or pay what you want with RSVP (must have ticket for entry, go here to claim yours).
UPDATE: Read my report for the “Miami New Times: from the party by jumping through the headline below: