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Barry Jenkins and Raven Jackson on the Visual Poetry of ‘All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt’

It was 2019 and Oscar-winning writer, director and producer Barry Jenkins had been contacted by a friend to help with a new artists residency in Tennessee.

It would come complete with room and board and workshops, Miriam Bale, who runs the program at the Indie Memphis Film Festival, would tell him, and would give participants space to generate a script. Among the applications was Raven Jackson. It was there that Jenkins would first be introduced to her script for All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt. But it wouldn’t be until a year later, while he was working on his Emmy-nominated series The Underground Railroad, that it would come to his full attention.

“Mark Ceryak, another producer here at my company Pastel, said, ‘Hey, I just read the script. It’s really beautiful, and apparently, you know the filmmaker from this program in Memphis,” Jenkins tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that does sound familiar.’ I read it and just thought right away, that we were — myself, Adele [Romanski] and Mark, were just a good place — a good home — for Raven to go out into the world and realize the vision of the script.”

The story follows Mack, a Black woman in Mississippi, as she winds through life at various ages, growing, fearing, loving, grieving and more. It’s a striking portrait of how a lifetime of experiences and the power of a place can ultimately shape a person. The vision for it was first presented back at the residency in Memphis in what the filmmaker describes as a different take on the pitch deck — a “collage of images she had shot herself” featuring her family and the community she had grown up in.

“That was accompanied by the screenplay. Just the way it’s written — Raven is very clear that she is a filmmaker, but she’s a poet first. There was just something about the visuals driving the storytelling and the visuals carrying the voice that was a part of Raven’s approach to making this piece from the very beginning,” he says. “It was very anti-conventional in the structure on the page. And Raven is a very non-conventional thinker.”

Anyone familiar with Jenkins’ work will see why he, Ceryak and Romanski — his Pastel production company partners — were attracted to the piece. It’s above all a deeply expressive and experimental artistic journey that shines new light on the connective tissue of the Black experience.

“Sitting in the room at Sundance, before Raven introduced the film, she had all the cast and crew, she acknowledged them from the front of the stage. And it was just Black folk after Black folk after Black folk,” Jenkins recalls of its Monday premiere. “It was very clear that this was a piece of Black art through and through. Part of that’s because it’s indicative of the community that Raven grew up in and that being the point of the film.”

While it made its debut at Sundance, and will likely run the traditional festival circuit this year, Jenkins says that the roots of community that drive Jackson’s story will not be forgotten.

“Raven’s goal with this film is to screen in as many Black communities as you possibly can. If Raven could have premiered this film in Jackson, Mississippi, or Memphis, Tennessee, she absolutely would have. The calendar with those festivals and those cities, I’m not sure they line up right now because the film is ready. But she very much made this movie for the folks in those communities,” he says. “I believe this film could play in any festival on any city on the planet and be very much at home.”

After speaking to Jenkins following All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt’s Sundance premiere, THR spoke to Jackson about what inspired her spellbinding debut feature and how she captured the voices of her Black characters and setting beyond dialogue.

Throughout the process of pitching and making this, do you feel like people conceptually understood what you were trying to do? Or were they having “huh” moments?

There was a lot of the “Huh?” for sure. But there were some people who were excited by it as well. Maria Altamirano, the producer on it from day one — both of us were very intentional about being clear from the beginning stages. We had to build the language about what this project is so that whoever we do partner with is clear about that. But for sure, there was a lot of not understanding it and not necessarily knowing if it could work, curious if it should be more straightforward, all of that.

You mentioned creating a language. How did you do that, on something that’s so visually visceral, with your cast and crew while filming?

I think it starts with the trust and the foundation of trust, which I had with Maria and then Jomo Fray [the] cinematographer. We did [short] Nettles together, which was a project I did prior to Dirt Roads. Then that trust continued to be built as we expanded the team with Pastel who incredibly sheltered the vision with Barry Jenkins, Adele Romanski and Mark Ceryak. Of course, Barry had selected the project early on for the Indie Memphis Black Filmmaker residency. In the process of making this film, I trusted what moved me and I was very intentional with my collaborators, whether it was actors or the cinematographer. I love to provide space for folks. I like to, on the first take, tell the actors, “I want you to follow your instincts,” and then I’ll adjust it if needed and we’ll go from there.

For some of the longer takes, there were moments where I tell Jomo, “Follow what moves you, what inspires you, and I’ll tell you if I want you to move somewhere else.” It was about providing a space where not only was I trusting my instincts, but I wanted to allow my collaborators to trust theirs, too. I think I’m a very fluid creator. I am big on listening, and, in tandem with following instincts, I believe, at every stage listening to what the film is asking for. Just because I wrote it on the script doesn’t mean when I’m on set with the actor that it actually wants that. So listening to what’s in front of you at every stage, including the edit. We shot more than is in the film. I wrote more than ended up in the final script.

There’s not a lot of dialogue in this film, which is clearly an intentional choice. Can you talk about how you thought about the use of dialogue and when or when not to use it?

It goes back to listening. Sometimes I’d write more than what landed in the final script, but also what feels natural. Are they communicating with the dialogue here or are they actually communicating with how they’re moving between each other; how they’re touching each other; how they’re moving? Is it asking for dialogue or is it asking for another mode of communication? That was the question I always asked myself. And if it was asking for dialogue, that’s when I would make sure it was there, but I also wasn’t interested in being expositional. It was that balance.

Your actors are playing the same characters, just at different points in time. Through the physicality of their performances, they all really connect the story together. But when you were casting and filming, did you care about ensuring visual continuity in their performances or no?

We have the birthmark on Josie. She has a birthmark on her eye, so that’s a visual thing that we continue as you see an older version of Josie that Moses Ingram plays. But I wasn’t concerned with the physicality as much as I did want folks who had a resonance with each other. It’s interesting. After I was decided on the two young Macks and Josies — the young and then late teens to early 30s — I put their photos in a little document. I could see the resonance across their faces. For Mack, I was looking for someone whose face could hold a lot of years. We’re with her from late teens to her early 30s. So someone who could believably play 17, but put her — depending on how we style her — in her early 30s.

We were thinking about how to be strategic and intentional with the casting to make sure those age ranges will be covered authentically, and believably. That was a big question when it came to Mack, but also someone who, because there isn’t a lot of dialogue in the film, someone who you could sit with their face and they wouldn’t need to say anything because you know exactly what they’re feeling. I was looking for someone with that quality. I found it in Charleen McClure, who is actually someone I know, a friend in my life.

A lot of the sound design fills in where those expositional moments would be, and says a lot in terms of your characters and the place this story is set. The fire, that thunderstorm — they all really elicit emotional response the way a performance would. How did you capture those sounds?

I would send recordings of Mississippi to my sound designer, his name is Miguel “Maiki” Calvo. When we were shooting or location scouting, I would be sitting recording things from locations, so he could get a sense of what the environment sounds like. It was a mix of production sound, as well as created sound in post that’s used in the film. But yes, I wanted to be very intentional with the transitions in the film as much as possible. So that thunderstorm you mentioned is one of my favorite sound cuts in the film. I wanted it to be a jolt, like this moment in Mack’s life is for her. It’s always trying to write another layer of the story with sound. I wanted to be very intentional with that.

Was there a sound specific to Mississippi that you really wanted to have to lend your story authenticity, that people from there might recognize? Or that could give a sense of place to those not from that region?

I don’t know if this speaks exactly to that, but the sound of the dirt was very important to me. It feels very important to the film — as well as nights in Mississippi, I remember hearing such loud frogs. Just a beautifully rich sound of frogs. So I wanted to make sure that they existed throughout the film as well. I would have notes for myself on sounds I’m hearing that I would share with a sound designer to incorporate those details. So it wasn’t one specific sound per se, but I for sure would do the scripts and also as I was in the space during shooting and during prep, taking notes for myself of what sounds are important to me.

You have such a rich color palette here and your coloring choices are really noticeable from scene-to-scene. How did you think about color in terms of connecting your story, your characters, or even time periods?

Myself, costume designer Pamela Shepard and production designer Juliana Barreto Barreto were intentional with color design. Specifically the color red, for me, in the film, represents both birth and death. I wanted to utilize it as we are jumping across time, as you mentioned. So Mack, when you see her in her younger years, you see she has red bows in her hair. Then we jump forward and you still see that she has red in her hair that’s tying her braids together. Then she’s wearing red and was wearing red. Then at the grocery store scene, they’re both wearing red. Then what’s the deepness of that red? These are things that I would talk to my collaborators about to tell that story. With certain colors, specifically red being the dominant one, we’re telling the story. But we were intentional with the palette, I would say, of the whole film.

This film is not told linearly, but it does connect experiences and themes, place and time, in visually obvious and narratively clear ways. It feels really organic to how identity exists in connective layers, straddling the past, present and future. But what did you want that approach to say?

The film is a fiction film, but there are a lot of details that speak to my life and my family’s life. I feel like making this film was having a conversation with family in a real way. I use, for instance, some photographs from my grandma’s photo albums on the walls of some of the scenes. The title of the film comes from a poem that I wrote after having a conversation with my grandma over the practice of eating clay dirt. From subsequent conversations I had with her, a lot of the link to that is in a scene in the film. Also, Rose Hill Church, which I want to shout out. That is the church that the wedding scene takes place in as well as you see the outside of it in the funeral scene. There’s so much rich history in that church and I discovered Bill Ferris’ photographs in Vicksburg, Mississippi, randomly in the Strand Bookstore when I still lived in New York.

These photographs are, I believe, from the late ’60s, early ’70s. I was like, “It’s perfect, but there’s no way this church is still standing.” At the time, I didn’t even realize who Bill was. He’s a very revered folklorist from the South. I reached out to him in a cold email and the church is standing, we shot it and the song you hear in the wedding scene is a song from Marian Amanda Borden, who — when the Church was still in operation — were pillars of the church. It’s like, how different generations are living on through this film in different ways. Members of my family are living on — you can see my grandma on a fridge in the background and on the walls. So that’s what I’m thinking about a lot. But also, I used to think we would shoot this film in Tennessee, but as the process unfolded and I found Rose Hill Church, we decided to shoot in Mississippi, which was a blessing. My mom was from Mississippi. So it speaks to that feeling of history and conversation with family. It’s been that for me — learning more about where I come from in a big way.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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