First Ten Pages: Moonlight (2016)

By September 27, 2017March 11th, 2018Main, Screenwriting 101

Screenplay by: Barry Jenkins
Story by: Tarell Alvin McCraney 

Moonlight tells the heart-wrenching story of Chiron AKA Little, as he grows up in a drug-fuelled neighborhood located in South Miami’s Liberty City. Little experiences minimal guidance as struggling to understand his own identity – his Mother is more concerned about scoring cocaine rather than mothering him. Ironically enough, Little finds guidance through a drug dealer, as it’s witnessed how his childhood furthermore affects his path into adulthood.

Establishing tone and/or genre:

A character driven drama, whose tone is initially displayed via two primary things: the world’s set up and the Lead’s tattered soul. The story opens on the neighborhood’s local dealers, which fluently transitions into Little (the Lead) being chased by bullies. Through this chase, a glimpse of Little’s world – along with his essence – is exposed, helping define Moonlight’s tone.

INT. CONDEMNED BUILDING/CRACKHOUSE – DAY – CONTINUOUS

Quickly: Little closes the heavy door behind him, engages the

dead-bolt.

Beat.

A beat of listening, the SOUND of footsteps hurrying up the
steps, rushing to the door and…

POUNDING. Madness and pounding, the boys cackling like Hyenas
as they beat the living hell out of that door.

Little shrinking, backing away and covering his ears. The
SOUND of things cracking under his feet as he moves: the
ground is covered with glass and syringes, small plastic
vials rolling around all over.

The pounding stops. Little staring at the door as he HEARS
the boys descending the steps with that same juiced energy.
Little’s eyes never leaving that door — waiting,
anticipating, expe—

BANG! A window, the rear bedroom. Doesn’t shatter, just a
loud, percussive thump. Little creeps across the room — the
same CRUNCH of glass beneath his feet, creeps into…

THE REAR BEDROOM: more light in here than in the front, from
that window. Little edges up to it, leaned away to not be
seen. Slowly, stealthily, he raises his eyes above the
threshold, SEES the three little bad asses who chased him. On
cue –

THUMP! A ratty shoe clanging off the windowpane. Reflex —
Little startles, throws himself against the adjacent wall.
As he clinches his eyes closed, breath cloistered up in his
chest—

Introducing the main characters:

Chiron aka Little (at age 10): Depicted as delicately as a poem… A heavy heart is immediately felt through Little’s pure, recluse, and guarded nature, emulating that of a wounded animal. One can immediately sense how he longs for comfort, security, and guidance, hinting that something’s going on behind closed doors. This is seamlessly displayed in the example under “Establishing tone and/or genre.”

Juan: A dealer by trade, yet a good head on his shoulders (despite what one may think) and carries a warm heart. He’s drawn to Little, after finding him hiding in a crack house. Little doesn’t offer much when Juan asks, but Juan can promptly gauge that Little’s a good boy in need of something he’s not receiving. The perfect set up for the mentor figure Juan quickly becomes and as the story unfolds.

INT. CONDEMNED BUILDING/CRACKHOUSE – DAY – LATER

Little stands in the kitchen of this place, holding the
aforementioned glass pipe, staring at it closely.
He sets it down, starts opening cabinets and drawers, just a
kid exploring, when…

BAM BAM BAM! — thudding from the living room. Rather than
the door, a pounding on the front windows, on the boarded up
wood nailed shut where glass would be.

Little huddles in on himself, looks on terrified as…
…a light, a hand as the edge of the plywood gives, a fullsize
of it giving way to reveal a tall figure, calm.
Adjusting for the light, we see him fully: it’s Juan.
Juan reaching a leg over the threshold, stands just inside
without encroaching on Little’s space.
A beat as the two take each other in, then:

JUAN
What you doin’ in here, lil’ man?

Little says nothing, just watches him.

JUAN
You don’t talk to strangers, huh?

Juan takes a step forward… and Little takes a step back.

JUAN
(raising his hands)
Alright.
It’s cool.
We cool.

Juan runs a hand across his scalp, thinking — What the hell
does he do?

JUAN
Well listen: I’m’a go get something
to eat. You welcome to join me, I
mean….

Juan begins across this small space, gets a hand on the
deadbolt:

JUAN
Mind if I take the front door?

Juan opens the door, steps onto the porch, turns back. His
stance open, one hand on the door, the other open, extended
toward Little.

JUAN
Come on, now.
Can’t be much worse out here.

To note: Little has no idea that Juan is a drug dealer at first.

Teresa: Juan’s wife and soon to be “Mother” figure Little yearns for. Little gravitates to Teresa’s overall warmth – a void filled that he’s hardly experienced prior, playing a vital role in Little’s journey long beyond his childhood years.

INT/EXT. JUAN’S CAR – DAY – CONTINUOUS

Little still sitting in that passenger seat.

Looks out beyond that windshield, Teresa and Juan talking,
gesturing animatedly back at the car.

Little shrinking down in the seat a bit, suddenly bashful

as…

…Teresa begins towards us, towards him.

Little watching the whole way as she approaches, makes her
way down to the driver’s side of that Cadillac, a hand to the
door there and…

…takes a seat.

A meeting of eyes between Little and Teresa, looking right
into one another.

The longest beat, then…

INT. JUAN’S HOME – NIGHT

Juan, Teresa, Little gathered at a modest dining table, the
two grown-ups watching the child going to work on what
appears a delicious plate of home-cooking.

Something odd about this dining room: the walls are two
colors, in the midst of being painted. A few paint tins and
rollers line the floor, a work in progress.

JUAN
You don’t talk much but you damn
sure can eat.

Teresa smiling.

TERESA
That’s alright, baby. You talk when
you ready.

Little looking up from his plate at that, something about

Teresa’s voice, her presence, clicking with him.

Paula: Little’s Mother, who initially seems concerned and caring enough – comes across exactly as the script states it, “…just a hardworking single mother in over her head.”

Juan turning, sees a thin, exhausted (but attractive) woman
hurrying over.

This is PAULA (mid 20s, Little’s mother). From the looks of
her uniform and a badge that reads “Paula Harris,” a nurse,
just off the night shift. She goes right to Little, pulls him
into her arms, shields him from Juan:

PAULA
What happened Chiron? Why you
didn’t come home like you supposed
to?!

Nothing from Little, eyes cast down, afraid, ashamed. Paula
looking up to Juan, finally gets a good look at him:

PAULA
And who is you?

Juan considering this, is oddly unsure how to respond, so…

JUAN
Nobody.
(and)
Found him yesterday. Found him in
that hole over on 15th.

And at Paula’s face dropping with recognition:

JUAN
Yeah.
That one.
Paula lowering to her knees, eye-level with Little again,
inspecting him:

JUAN
Wouldn’t tell me where he stayed
until this morning. Some boys
chased him into the cut. Seemed
scared more than anything.

Little embraces Paula, buries his face in her chest. Paula
holding on but looking past him, she and Juan holding eyes.
Paula rises, Little slipping behind her.

PAULA
Thanks for seeing to him. He
usually can take care of hisself,
he good that way, but…

Paula looking past her son, past this man, thoughts drifting
off. From the looks of her, just a hardworking single mother
in over her head.

Juan’s gaze lingering over her, clearly seeing the same and
yet… just a bit more.

This may leave the audience wondering, “Why is Little running from home, then? Why does Jaun have a cautious demeanor when returning Little, after peering inside?” The characters are set up for these soon-to-discover reveals.

Crafting the world of the story: 

Set in a neglected, struggling, crime driven community, Little has to navigate his childhood years (and beyond) in a world incapable of supporting his emotional needs. In the example under “Establishing tone and/or genre”, Little willingly hides in an abandoned crack house, tainted by used needles and crack pipes.

With Moonlight’s immediate opening, one of the many enablers of this world (and the one Little hides out in) is presented:

EXT. 58TH TERRACE/13TH AVE – DAY

A bright Miami day. Or what we can see of it: our gaze fixed,
looking into the front windshield of a wide, vintage car
(think 60s, American).

At the wheel find JUAN (30’s, some sort of Afro-Latino thing
about him) pulling towards us and coming to a stop. Behind
him, a shady, rundown apartment building abuts the road,
three boys standing outside it.

Juan cuts his engine, exits the car and begins across the
street. The boys tense up as Juan approaches, make room as he
continues all the way over to the brick wall behind them.

JUAN
Business good?

This setting becomes more prevalent as the film carries, in reflection to Little’s toxic childhood and his emotional growth.

Establishing theme and/or the message:

Moonlight’s heaviest theme isn’t set up in an obvious way, but it’s there: identity.

Growing up in a household devastated by pain, addiction, abuse, and no Father figure, Little’s insecurity toward his identity is surely felt. Little appears far from confident – instead, wretchedly reserved. And, it’s implied that him running away from home is not the first time he’s done so:

INT. PAULA’S APT – DAY – LATER

Paula standing as Little sits on the couch — Paula standing
above Little, hands on hips.

Doesn’t speak, just looks at the boy, a bewildered look.
Still in that uniform, strain at the corner of her eyes.

PAULA
You a real damn prize, Chiron, you
know that?

Little just looking at his feet, staring at the floor.

PAULA
You got’sta come home when you
meant to come home, you hear?

Nothing from the boy. Paula gets down to a knee, takes both
his shoulders in her hands:

PAULA
You hear?

Is he solely running from a broken situation? Or, is there something else to be learned? There’s something else to be learned, as the theme of identity delicately evolves, along with Little’s development.

How heart breaking it is that such a sad reality exists: where individuals are unable to confidently unveil their personal self – this can apply to so much. For Little, it’s eventually discovered that the theme of identity greatly centers on him understanding his sexuality.

Setting up the dramatic situation:

The dramatic situations are set up via characters – how they all, ultimately, play a transformative role in Little’s life through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood: Paula, his drug absorbed Mother. Juan, his mentor-like figure who’s actually a drug dealer. Teresa, the loving “Mother” role Little longs for. And, of course, through Little himself, as his personality is evidently shown – how he molds through time, while still maintaining that same guarded gaze.

One dramatic situation that isn’t set up in the initial ten pages is Little’s unearthing of his sexuality. He recognizes that he identifies as gay, beautifully flourished through another character, Kevin. Kevin doesn’t only depict Little’s evolution with his sexuality, but also his continuous aching for non-broken relationships, making up for what he will never have with his own Mother – that feeling of closeness and safety. The impact Kevin instills in Little, as an adolescent, comes full circle in his adult years, contributing toward why Moonlight is one of the most moving stories there is. 


Danielle Karagannis is a writer/director. She currently has a feature script entitled INSOMNIA (ensemble comedy) that’s been accepted into filmmaker labs and is taking her to the 2018 Berlinale / EFM. You can watch Danielle‘s latest film, GIRL (short), here: http://www.daniellekaragannis.com/watch and can follow her on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/cansathefan/.


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