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Dave Heller

Oscar nominees: FSU film school is nation’s ‘hidden secret’

Oscar nominees and Florida State University graduates Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders find themselves in unfamiliar territory lately, launched there by the exhilarating ride of their Oscar-nominated film “Moonlight.”

For years, McMillon and Sanders — nominated for an Academy Award in film editing — have comfortably worked behind the scenes often in tight editing rooms, where their faces are illuminated by the flickering light of video passing back and forth on computer screens. Now, they are smack dab in the middle of pre-Oscar buzz, where they are illuminated by the bright spotlight shining from the year’s breakout film.

“It all happened so quickly,” said McMillon, who’s made history as the first African-American woman nominated for an Oscar in film editing. “I’m still trying to take it all in.”

Finding themselves as stars in this real-life show is admittedly surreal for two artists who have spent their careers outside the limelight. “Moonlight” has rocketed to commercial and critical success with eight Oscar nominations, a Golden Globe for Best Picture and many other awards.

“It’s so amazing,” McMillon said.

Earlier this month, they attended the Oscar Nominees Luncheon at the Beverly Hills Hilton, where more than 160 Hollywood stars dined and got to know one other in the hotel’s famous International Ballroom.

“I saw Joi there talking with Denzel Washington,” Sanders said. “That’s when it really started to sink in for me.”

While McMillon shared a cheerful chat with Denzel Washington in the luxury hotel built by billionaire Conrad Hilton in the 1950s, she saw her old FSU friend Barry Jenkins — also an Oscar nominee for writing and directing “Moonlight” — talking to legendary film director Steven Spielberg.

Elsewhere, she spotted another old FSU friend. “Moonlight” cinematographer James Laxton was getting to know gifted actor Jeff Bridges, who was there because of his seventh Oscar nomination since 1972.

Then, McMillon saw Sanders sitting at a table with famed film editor Carol Littleton, whose many honors include an Oscar nomination for editing the movie “E.T.” in 1982.

“It was just so cool to sit back and see Barry next to Steven Spielberg, and James was seated next to Jeff Bridges,” McMillon said. “It was so crazy!”

It has been life-changing, too, both professionally and personally.

McMillon is proud to be the first African-American woman nominated for an Academy Award in film editing, and that fact is also a little hard for her to believe.

“It’s such an honor,” McMillon said. “I hope this will shine a light on, hopefully, creating more diversity behind the camera. But for me, I went from not being able to land a feature film to not only landing a feature, but being nominated for an Oscar. So, my career has done a ‘180’ in a matter of months. I’m still processing that but definitely enjoying it at the same time.”

For Sanders, the impact on his life has been just as dramatic, and he is thankful beyond words for his old Florida State friend and former roommate.

“Barry has changed my life twice now,” Sanders said.

The first time was on Jenkins’ film, “Medicine for Melancholy,” which put Jenkins on the radar of movie industry insiders in 2008. Sanders believes that project saved his career and changed the trajectory of his life.

“I personally had been stuck in reality television. I was editing, but it didn’t feel fulfilling,” Sanders said. “I was losing my passion for filmmaking and editing because the things I was working on felt a little soulless. But doing that project with Barry made me realize what I wanted to do the rest of my life.”

So years later, when Jenkins came calling again with a project called “Moonlight,” Sanders jumped at the opportunity to work with him and old college friends. Members of the Florida State film school squad have stayed close since they graduated from the College of Motion Picture Arts some 15 years ago, even sharing Thanksgivings with each other in Los Angeles.

Their Hollywood careers have seen peaks and valleys, but through it all their friendship has been a constant in their lives. That bond sets them apart from other film school grads living in L.A., based on what Sanders has seen.

“Florida State people have all stayed close together since school and that’s really unique compared to people from other film schools, who seem more mercenary, looking out for their own interests,” Sanders said. “The FSU people are a little more like family.”

“We definitely made lifelong friends that feel like family,” McMillon said. “It’s so cool to be part of something where creatively, you’re surrounded by people who are trying to achieve the same thing and you get to do it together.”

McMillon describes Florida State’s film school as a “hidden secret.”

“It’s a truly amazing film school because it challenges you to do every aspect of filmmaking,” McMillon said. “That makes you a better filmmaker by knowing what’s involved in other areas: what a writer has to do, a director and a cinematographer. Creatively, it makes you a more in-touch filmmaker. I think Florida State is one of the best film schools around and definitely one that will help you come into this industry more prepared than some other film schools will allow.”

“They put a camera in our hands the first weekend we were on campus,” Sanders remembered. “It was a great experience. Every weekend we would shoot 100 feet of film.

“We didn’t pay for equipment, film processing or anything. It was just the tuition and then you got to make all these films and get so much hands-on experience. The people I know who went to (other film schools) were paying $60,000 a year and then still had to pay tens of thousands of dollars to make their short films on top of it. They’re jealous of the experience we had at Florida State.”

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Lens of time magnifies FSU experience for Oscar-nominated cinematographer

Oscar nominee and Florida State University alumnus James Laxton is coming off the best professional experience of his life on the film “Moonlight,” which is nominated for eight Academy Awards — including Best Picture.

Laxton earned an Oscar nomination for cinematography on the film and now, days before the 89th Academy Awards on Feb. 26, he’s still trying to process that news.

“I don’t know if it’s sunk in yet. It definitely feels surreal but in a good way,” said Laxton from his California home. “It feels amazing.”

Laxton teamed up with six other Florida State film school alumni on “Moonlight,” including his good friend Barry Jenkins, who wrote and directed the film and earned Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Laxton knew something special was happening during the filming of “Moonlight” in the fall of 2015. The crew set up in Miami’s tough Liberty City neighborhood where Jenkins and playwright Tarell McCraney grew up just blocks away from each other. Laxton said he could feel a heightened intensity unfolding during filming.

“You do feel a certain sense when you’re on set with the energy and the spirit that seems to be palpable among the collaborators around you that something special is happening,” Laxton said. “But that’s a very personal thing and not necessarily something that you feel confident would connect with as many people as ‘Moonlight’ has.”

Laxton and Jenkins met at Florida State about 15 years ago, when they shared classes in the College of Motion Picture Arts, as well as a four-bedroom house near campus. The roommates came from very different backgrounds: Laxton was from San Francisco and had grown up visiting film sets with his mother, who was a costume designer. Jenkins channeled the difficulties of his Liberty City childhood into academics and sports, and he excelled in the classroom, track and football.

But at Florida State, the two students discovered they had more similarities than differences.

“We just connected on a number of levels,” said Laxton, who graduated with Jenkins in 2003. “At the very beginning, we watched films together, talked about films together and learned what inspired and connected us. It became very clear, very quickly that we had a lot of common instinctual connections in a visual sense.

“What attracted him to filmmaking visually, attracted me to filmmaking as well. The conversations just started. When we started making short films in school, what we wanted those to look like became almost effortless conversations because we had this background of knowing what inspired each other on a personal level.”

The Jenkins-Laxton cinematic partnership grew at Florida State and continued after graduation. Laxton has become Jenkins’ go-to guy for cinematography because of their history, mindset, friendship and chemistry — all elements that together become invaluable on a film set.

“The majority of the work I’ve done has been with James,” Jenkins said. “There are things I want to set up that are very spontaneous and James is great with that. If I come up with something on the fly, I don’t have to explain every detail of why or how because James and I have the same shorthand. When you’re making a film, you want to operate with as much trust as possible.”

Laxton believes that kind of trust shared among the FSU alumni on “Moonlight” is a key reason the film has succeeded with crowds and critics.

“It allows us not to second-guess one another and to trust that someone is onto something,” Laxton said. “Let’s support them, let’s keep moving in that direction, let’s keep creating without hesitation. We all felt very at ease and trusting. That supports the creative spirit the film wanted and needed from us.”

Laxton looks back on his FSU experience as a very special time in his life in a unique location. As a native of San Francisco, he’d never experienced a place with the distinctive southern beauty of Tallahassee — the landscape of northern Florida made the learning process even more memorable. And, he discovered the school’s nurturing environment set it apart from other strong film schools around the country.

“I think not being in a major industry hub like L.A. or New York allowed me to learn the craft in a way that felt very personal, safe and comfortable,” Laxton said. “There was never the added pressure of feeling like I needed to get an internship at a studio or find commercial work as a production assistant.”

So what’s next for Laxton? The immediate future includes a new HBO project, and he’s reading lots of scripts. But he understands it will be tough to re-create his extraordinary experience working with his FSU family on “Moonlight.” It gave him a rare chance to contribute a personal perspective, or what he calls his “voice,” to a film that created such an intimate bond with so many people.

Those are the thoughts he’s been turning over in his mind since the release of “Moonlight” last October and becoming part of the film’s wild ride. Laxton is thinking about the concept of voice in filmmaking — something he thinks would be a valuable exercise for today’s film students — and he’s examining how the truths of his voice influence his work.

“The advice I would give is, just think about who you are and where you come from,” Laxton said. “What your perspectives are in the world. Be conscious of those ideas and allow them to come through how you approach a project visually.”

As for getting the FSU film school family back together on a future film project, Laxton said he’d jump at the chance to work again with his old friends and college roommate.

“I definitely would love to work with Barry again,” Laxton said. “We definitely intend to collaborate as long as we’re standing on two feet.”

Via the Florida State University News.

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FSU alumni make history with 8 Oscar nominations for ‘Moonlight’

The acclaimed film, “Moonlight,” from Florida State University graduate Barry Jenkins and his crew of FSU Film School alumni, has been nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Nominations for the 89th Annual Academy Awards were announced Tuesday morning. Jenkins, who wrote the screenplay and directed “Moonlight,” was nominated in the Directing category. He shares a nomination for Adapted Screenplay with Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” which was the basis for the film.

“Moonlight” earned nominations for:

Directing — Jenkins (FSU ‘03)

Best Picture — Adele Romanski (FSU ‘04), Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner

Supporting Actress — Naomie Harris

Supporting Actor — Mahershala Ali

Cinematography — James Laxton (FSU ‘03)

Film Editing — Nat Sanders (FSU ’02) and Joi McMillon (FSU ‘03)

Adapted Screenplay — Jenkins and McCraney

Original Score — Nicholas Britell

Jenkins worked with a half dozen Florida State graduates on “Moonlight” — Adele Romanski, producer; Andrew Hevia, co-producer; James Laxton, cinematographer; Nat Sanders, editor; Joi McMillion, co-editor; and actor André Holland.

Reb Braddock, interim dean of the College of Motion Picture Arts, praised them.

“We could not be more proud of Barry Jenkins and his wonderful team of film school alums for their success,” Braddock said. “’Moonlight’ is a shining example of what we do here at the college. We combine talented groups of individuals and hone them into filmmaking teams who forge bonds as friends and collaborators for years to come.”

Valliere Richard Auzenne, an associate professor who taught each one of the “Moonlight” crew members when they attended FSU, also cheered their recognition.

“I’m so proud of all of them, but I’m not surprised,” said Auzenne, who teaches documentary filmmaking, film history and screenwriting. “Barry has always told interesting stories. He’s made difficult films. They aren’t films that make you feel good. They make you think and have complicated characters.”

“Moonlight” is a coming-of-age story that follows an African-American boy through his difficult childhood in a drug-plagued Miami neighborhood and into his early adult life.

Jenkins has said the film and its characters are similar to what he experienced growing up in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood.

Two other Florida State graduates were honored Tuesday with Oscar nominations for projects they helped lead.

Jonathan King, who graduated from FSU in 1992, was executive producer of the film “Deepwater Horizon.” It received nominations for Sound Editing and Visual Effects.

Also, Stephen Broussard — a 2003 graduate — was executive producer for “Doctor Strange,” which received a nomination for Visual Effects.

Oscars are awarded in 24 categories. A total of 336 feature films from 2016 were eligible for nominations.

The 89th Academy Awards are scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 26, 2017, in Hollywood. The ceremony will be televised in the United States on ABC at 7 p.m. EST and also appear in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.

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FSU film school alums earn awards, acclaim with ‘Moonlight’

UPDATE: Florida State graduates Barry Jenkins, Adele Romanski, James Laxton, Andrew Hevia, Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon won the Golden Globe Award for best motion picture (drama) with their film “Moonlight” on Sunday night, Jan 8. Congratulations!

Barry Jenkins was a junior at Florida State University in 2000 when he walked by Doak Campbell Stadium one day and discovered the College of Motion Picture Arts.

It piqued his interest. Jenkins, a talented English major, applied to the program even though he knew little about filmmaking. He was accepted and joined a select group of 30 students welcomed into the school each year.

Valliere Richard Auzenne — associate professor of documentary filmmaking, film history and screenwriting — remembers Jenkins as a “dream student.”

Professor Valliere Richard Auzenne

“He was a very diligent and dedicated student,” said Auzenne, who remains in contact with Jenkins today. “They weren’t assignments to him. They were opportunities to write his story. He was an extremely good writer. He writes his stories from the heart, stories he knows and has experienced.”

Now, Jenkins is one of Hollywood’s hottest directors. His internationally praised film “Moonlight” won the Golden Globe for best motion picture, drama, on Sunday, Jan. 8. It was nominated in six categories. Next up: the Academy Awards on Feb. 26. Oscar nominations will be announced Jan. 24. “Moonlight” has already collected more than a dozen other industry awards since its release in October.

Jenkins reunited a team of six Florida State film school graduates to help produce “Moonlight.” He wrote the screenplay based on a play called, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” and he’s admitted the coming-of-age story reminds him of his own upbringing in a drug-plagued Miami neighborhood. His father was not around, his absent mother struggled with crack addiction, and another woman helped raise him — all of those personal realities are elements in the film.

Jenkins returned to his childhood neighborhood in Miami’s Liberty City to record the film with his crew of Florida State alums starting in October 2015. The movie chronicles three stages of life — childhood, teenager and adulthood — for the main character Chiron as he grapples with his identity.

“Chiron, who is you?” asks his friend and romantic interest Kevin, played in adulthood by actor André Holland. The story leads viewers on Chiron’s personal journey of feeling different than other kids, getting bullied and searching for someone who cares about him.

Jenkins’ plaintive screenplay delivers complicated characters who don’t reflect simple stereotypes. Juan — a drug dealer played to rave reviews by actor Mahershala Ali — becomes a caring, father figure who protects Chiron and guides the boy with love and pride.

“At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be,” Juan affectionately instructs Chiron. “Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”

The depiction of Juan is not what you might expect of a neighborhood drug dealer, and Auzenne is not surprised by Jenkins’ nuanced character development because he demonstrated that skill as a film student.

“His stories were always heartfelt,” Auzenne recalled. “From the beginning, he had a gift of creating very special, real characters, which is an art. Even in his early years, his characters were always his strength, always very interesting and complicated characters. Barry wrote three-dimensional characters. They were not cardboard figures.”

Auzenne said that talent was clearly evident in Jenkins’ first production as a student — an 8-minute film short produced in 2003 titled “My Josephine.” Jenkins said the film was partly inspired after the 9/11 attacks by a sign on a Tallahassee laundromat that read, “American Flags Cleaned Free.” The story follows the lives of an Arab man and woman who work at the dry cleaning business. It was based on a real-life shopkeeper from Jenkins’ childhood in Liberty City and offered the first example, Auzenne said, where he wrote a compelling narrative about something he knew.

“My Josephine” set Jenkins apart at Florida State. Students and faculty took notice of his talent for crafting an unconventional story and respected his ability to present it with indelible style. The style of “My Josephine” was conceived with his good friend and cinematographer James Laxton, who has continued to work with Jenkins since they graduated from FSU in 2003.

Most notably, the pair teamed up on another critically acclaimed film in 2008: “Medicine for Melancholy,” filmed in San Francisco for less than $15,000. They reunited for “Moonlight” and created a deliberately vivid look for the film using Miami’s luminous colors and light — cranking up the images’ mid-tones and highlights, boosting contrast, adding tinges of blue — to evoke an intense, dreamy feel. Jenkins has described the style as a “beautiful nightmare” that juxtaposes gorgeous images against painfully dark things happening to characters.

“Moonlight” director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins gives a shout-out to A24 and Plan B Entertainment, which teamed up to finance and produce the movie.

Jenkins and Laxton pored over tiny details like the color saturation and tint in images to maximize emotional impact. Auzenne said that kind of intuitive connection between Jenkins and Laxton first took shape when they collaborated at Florida State.

“That’s from working together consistently,” Auzenne said. “It’s also an extension of how they’re trained at the FSU film school. Those relationships are often established here.”

Auzenne has taught every undergraduate film student since the school was created in 1989, including the six alums who worked on “Moonlight”:

— Barry Jenkins, director (‘03)

— Adele Romanski, producer (‘04)

— James Laxton, cinematographer (‘03)

— Andrew Hevia, co-producer (‘06)

— Nat Sanders, editor (‘02)

— Joi McMillon, co-editor (‘03)

Auzenne described Jenkins as a thoughtful, contemplative student with a gift for storytelling. That has not changed. With “Moonlight,” Jenkins has demonstrated he knows who he’s become as a filmmaker.

“I hope for all of us he keeps making films and telling the stories that he wants to tell,” Auzenne said. “What we as an audience are privileged to see are the stories that he shares with us. I hope he wins an Oscar. I’m so very proud of him, Adele, James, Joi, Nat, Andrew, all of them.  It’s an excellent example of how our students, even when they graduate, still work with one another.”

Via news.fsu.edu.

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