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May/June 2021

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DIRECTOR'S CHAIR 12 POST MAY/JUNE 2021 roducer/writer/director Barry Jenkins won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his second fea- ture, the Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning Best Picture Moonlight. He followed that success with another award-winning film, his adaptation of James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk, which received three Academy Award nominations and won Best Picture at the Independent Spirit Awards. His latest project is an adapta- tion of National Book Award winner Colson Whitehead's slavery epic The Underground Railroad for Amazon Prime Video. Jenkins, who served as showrun- ner, co-writer and EP, alongside Brad Pitt, directed all ten episodes of the limited series, which chronicles Cora Randall's (newcomer Thuso Mbedu) desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South. After escaping a Georgia plantation for the rumored Underground Railroad, Cora discovers no mere metaphor, but an actual railroad full of engineers and con- ductors, and a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Over the course of her journey, Cora is pursued by Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), a bounty hunter who is fixated on bringing her back to the plantation from which she escaped, especially since her mother Mabel is the only one he's never caught. As she travels from state to state, Cora contends with the legacy of the mother that left her behind and her own strug- gles to realize a life she never thought possible. Behind the camera, Jenkins reteamed with frequent collaborators cinematogra- pher James Laxton, production designer Mark Friedberg, editor Joi McMillion and composer Nick Britell. Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, Jenkins talks about making the show and his love of post. It's always a challenge to adapt an acclaimed novel for the screen. How tough was this one in terms of the scale and mythology? "It was tough, but not as tough as it would have been if I hadn't adapted the James Baldwin novel for my last film, Beale Street. I learned so much doing that, and how at every step of the way you're deciding where you have to be faithful to the material and then where it's OK to break away and make it your own. I'd always wanted to address the is- sue of slavery and this book gave me the perfect way in, especially as I fell in love with Cora. And it's dealing with the real history, but it also has these elements of fantasy and romance, along with all the harsh reality and brutality of slavery, and that really appealed to me and my aesthetic sense." This seems more timely than ever. What sort of show did you set out to make, and how much did the COVID crisis affect it? "It was a huge undertaking in every way — all the casting and prep, the scouting, the locations, the sheer length of the shoot and then a long post. The COVID crisis didn't affect us much, as we got through 112 days of the 116-day shoot before we shut down, and then we came back six months later to film those last four days — and those days were spread out over three different episodes, so we couldn't even finish the show without them. But during that shutdown, when we were editing remotely, there was so much civil unrest that I wished I could have rewritten a lot to make it even more timely in addressing all the current issues. But as the edit progressed, it became clear that the material already implicitly dealt with all the issues anyway." You've done some TV work before — directing an episode of Justin Simien's Dear White People, and a stint as a staff writer on Season 2 of The Leftovers — but showrunner is a huge job. What were the big challenges of showrunning, and do you like it? "I do and it was really kind of awesome, to be both the director and showrunner on such a huge project — almost like shooting several movies at once, and I felt this'd be a good way to get into the job, and I found that it gives you so much creative freedom. There's also a lot of nuts and bolts stuff, like scheduling and logistics you have to deal with, but the cast and crew got into a great rhythm, and there were all these 'lightning in a bottle' moments where the actors would do stuff that maybe didn't correspond to what was in the book, but that perfectly went with the location or light that day. And as showrunner, I could go home and rewrite stuff and adjust material to suit, and shoot it the next day." You shot on location, and it's a period piece. How hard was that? "It was pretty hard. We started in August 2019, and it was in the 100s, with 98 percent humidity. And three months later it was below freezing sometimes. And you have these heavy costumes. We had so many pages. We'd have to shoot an entire scene in one day — and the light is constantly changing, so even keeping the coverage consistent was a huge challenge. And we had a lot of sets. Production designer Mark Friedberg built the slave quarters from the ground up, and then he also built the 'underground' train tunnel on tracks we found in a Savannah museum, as I didn't want to blue-screen the train or tunnels." The film was shot by your go-to cinematographer James Laxton. Talk about all the different looks you wanted and how you got them. "That was a big challenge, as the story moves across five states, but we couldn't afford to move each time and film there, so we shot it all in Georgia, which had to stand in for places as different as Tennessee and Indiana. So there was a lot of scouting and a lot of trying to figure out tonally and emotionally how the main characters were feeling and THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD'S BARRY JENKINS BY IAIN BLAIR ADAPTING COLSON WHITEHEAD'S SLAVERY EPIC P Filmmaker Barry Jenkins

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