When Barry Jenkins returned to his hotel suite at the Four Seasons Monday at 3 a.m. after a surreal night at the Oscars, he slept for a couple of hours, then watched a clip of the show’s ending on his cell phone, finding something oddly enchanting about those final shocking moments that unfolded on live TV Sunday night.
“It’s messy, but it’s kind of gorgeous,” says the writer/director of “Moonlight,” describing the instant that he, the audience at the Dolby Theatre, and 33 million viewers were stunned to learn that his movie, not Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land,” had actually won the best picture prize. “You have these two groups of people who came together for a second. There’s a picture with me hugging Jordan [Horowitz, a producer of “La La Land”], and Adele [Romanski, producer of “Moonlight”] has her arm on his shoulder. That’s what the moment was.”
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In an odd way, the most embarrassing snafu in the history of the Academy Awards offered a rare glimpse into expressions of grace, humanity, and camaraderie among fierce rivals contending for Hollywood’s biggest movie prize in a high-stakes race to the finish.
“That’s something Barry and I have talked about,” Chazelle says. “It’s weird to be friendly with someone but to feel like there’s a mano-a-mano thing, which I guess is the nature of the Oscars. So it was nice to explode that myth a little bit on a big stage.”
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It’s nearly impossible to deny that what happened on that stage was a direct reflection of the times and a declaration of solidarity amid the mood of a divided nation. Last November’s election altered the climate and made themes of diversity, inclusion, and empathy more powerful than ever in entertainment offerings.
While “La La Land” — an old-fashioned musical starring two sexy young stars and set in Hollywood’s backyard — was indisputably the frontrunner going into the awards season, as the campaigning continued there was a palpable shift in sentiment toward “Moonlight” and the resonance of its themes of acceptance and tolerance in the sensitive story about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality.
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In a joint interview, exclusive to Variety the morning after the Oscar ceremony, Chazelle and Jenkins — both emotionally hungover from the stunning scenario that had unfolded hours earlier — were finally able to compare notes on their respective experiences when chaos broke out on the Dolby stage.
“Everything looked so energized, I at first thought there was some kind of prank going on,” Chazelle says.
Jenkins, meanwhile, was in his seat, poised to give an acceptance speech just in case his film won.
“I had something that I had prepared to say, and that thing went completely out the window,” he recalls. “I’ve been saying that [co-writer] Tarell [Alvin McCraney] and I are that kid in the film, and that kid does not grow up to make a piece of art that gets eight Academy Award nominations. It’s a dream I never allowed myself to have. When we were sitting there, and that dream of winning didn’t come true, I took it off the table. But then I had to very quickly get back into that place. And my first thought was to get to the stage to give Jordan a hug as quickly as possible.”
In terms of their respective talents, ages, and professional experience, Jenkins and Chazelle are at similar junctures. Jenkins, 37, has directed two movies, and “La La Land” is the third feature for 32-year-old Chazelle.
The separate awards paths for “La La Land” and “Moonlight” began nearly six months ago, when the two films world-premiered just two days apart. Chazelle’s movie opened the Venice Film Festival on Aug. 31, while Jenkins bowed his sophomore effort Sept. 2 in Telluride.
After Chazelle made the trip from Venice to Telluride to screen his film at the Colorado festival, the two directors met for the first time and saw each other’s movies. At a filmmakers’ event, Jenkins caught Chazelle by surprise by leading with a question about Chazelle’s film school debut, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench.”
“He immediately accessed my heart,” recalls Chazelle.
Jenkins saw “La La Land” at a screening later at Telluride and immediately felt a touch of homesickness when he saw his downtown Los Angeles apartment building featured in the film’s opening sequence.
“I hadn’t been to L.A. in, like, two months at that point. I had been traveling overseas,” he says. “It made me feel nostalgic for L.A., which I have never felt.”
Chazelle, meanwhile, was floored by “Moonlight,” just like the rest of the festival audience. “You could feel it,” says Chazelle. “It was so beautiful.”
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Chazelle was already a fan of Jenkins’ debut, “Medicine for Melancholy,” and he knew a bit of the “Moonlight” backstory, having talked with Jeremy Kleiner about the project just before the producer hopped on a plane to Miami ahead of production.
“I was like, ‘Good luck with that. Sounds awesome,’” Chazelle recalls.
Chazelle already had awards-season training, after his 2014 film “Whiplash” unspooled at the Sundance Film Festival and plowed all the way through to the Oscars more than a year later. But the experiences of his two films could not have been more different.
“‘Whiplash’ was so kind of rushed out, in a way that I liked,” he says. “The editing was done very quickly, and then, boom, we were at Sundance. So I didn’t have as much time to have panic attacks; I was too busy to be scared.”
|“La La Land” producer Fred Berger hands the best picture Oscar to “Moonlight” producer Adele Romanski.
With “La La Land,” on the other hand, “there was six years of trying to get it made. We edited it for about a year, which was much longer than I was used to. During that time you can second guess yourself a lot and try different iterations, and you become very obsessed with what’s not working and trying to solve it. That, coupled with opening night at Venice, it just felt like the spotlight was burning on us. It felt like higher stakes.”
With “Moonlight,” Jenkins was on home turf in Telluride, where he has served as a programmer for years. The film was, in fact, born there after a screening of “12 Years a Slave” in 2013, when Jenkins struck up talks about the project with Plan B producers Kleiner and Dede Gardner. They would go on to produce “Moonlight” at a micro-budget of $1.5 million — not something they’re accustomed to.
At one of the Telluride screenings of “Moonlight,” patrons in line for the next show outside burst into applause when Jenkins and his team exited the theater.
“I have to honestly say — and this is not just me trying to be modest — but I have never seen that happen at that festival, ever,” he says. “That was the moment when I realized, ‘Wow, something different is happening,’ by which I mean something different than my expectations. I thought the film would be relatively well-received there, but I’m inside the movie, and I had no context to what it would mean to people outside. So when we came out, yeah, it was amazing.”
|Oscar winners Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins embrace the morning after a historic and emotional Oscar night Gavin Bond for Variety|
While Chazelle and Jenkins together share in a piece of bizarre Oscar lore, they also separately made history on that fateful night at the 89th Academy Awards.
Chazelle became the youngest director winner ever, toppling “Skippy” helmer Norman Taurog’s 86-year reign. “Moonlight,” meanwhile, became the first LGBTQ film, as well as the first from a black writer/director, to win best picture.
“I will be glad when all these firsts and thirds and fifths are a thing of the past,” Jenkins says. “So it’s bittersweet. But it’s not something you set out to do. I don’t think Damien set out to be the youngest winning director. You kind of just create the work. These things just happen, until they don’t.”
Chazelle, on the other hand, has achieved so much success so early in his career that it’s hard for him not to feel added pressure going forward. He takes a moment to pose a question to Jenkins about such heady thoughts. “Do you ever think about stuff like that?” he asks.
“I’ve never been in this position, so I don’t,” Jenkins admits. “But, I mean, maybe now I’ll have to. I can’t deny that that’s something for both of us. You make a movie that grosses $300 million on a $30 million budget, that changes things. You make a $1.5 million film that wins best picture, that changes things. I hope it doesn’t change the way I approach the work.”
Chazelle pauses to take that in. “Well, that’s the thing,” he says. “We hope it changes things for the better, in the sense that it gives us more freedom. But there’s always that fear that it changes things for the worse — that pressures or second-guessing creep in. Any student of film history can look at various examples of ‘too much, too soon.’ We’re cognizant of that. But so many of the filmmakers that inspired both Barry and I have never won an Oscar, or were never nominated. So you have to keep that in mind. This only means so much.”
Watch a behind-the-scenes video of Variety’s cover shoot with Damien Chazelle and Barry Jenkins.