"Moonlight" editors discuss Oscar night's wild end during Atlanta visit

Remember how crazy the end of this year’s Academy Awards broadcast was? Imagine being right there in the middle of it.

Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders, editors of the Oscar-winning film “Moonlight,” were sitting near their counterparts from “La La Land,” and initially felt a little let down when it seemed like their neighbors had triumphed in the final category of the evening.

“When we thought they won I looked at Joi and it was like, ‘yeah,’” Sanders recalled. “We had no expectations. Then we saw all this commotion going on in the wings.”

As we know now an envelope mix-up resulted in the wrong film being named best picture. In fact “Moonlight” had won.

“Have you ever had a dream and something clues you into that you’re in a dream?” McMillon said, trying to find the words to describe how surreal the moment felt. “I remember going to the stage and hugging Janelle (Monae) and hugging Barry (Jenkins). I needed to keep hugging people. Because I could feel them, it made it real.”

“It was a little like floating,” Sanders said. You can see their emotional countenances at the end of this video, when the "Moonlight" team is up on stage after the most dramatic ending:

McMillon and Sanders were in town recently for an event during the Atlanta Film Festival hosted by Florida State University’s College of Motion Picture Arts. Accompanying them was college dean Reb Braddock; his predecessor Frank Patterson is now president of Pinewood Atlanta Studios.

It was during their time at Florida State that McMillon and Sanders met Jenkins, “Moonlight’s” director. Other Seminoles working on on the movie included cinematographer James Laxton, producer Adele Romanski and actor André Holland. We joked that FSU should stand for “Film School University.”

“One of the things I really loved about Florida State is it’s so small, you’re forced to work with every individual in your class,” McMillon said. “There’s an accountability you have. We’d be working nights and one of my roommates asked me, ‘Are you getting paid to do this?’ I said, ‘No I’m paying them!’”

The experience, of course, was priceless.

“I’ve known Nat and Barry for 15, 16 years, since we all went to film school together. I knew whatever Barry did next I wanted to work on it,” McMillon said. “I knew the next thing Barry was going to do was going to be something special.”

Was it ever. With a budget of $1.5 million, “Moonlight” has the lowest price tag of any best picture-winning movie in Academy Awards history - and cost less than a 30-second commercial airing during the Oscars, IndieWire.com drolly observed.

Yet it earned not only the top trophy on Oscars night, but Mahershala Ali won for best supporting actor and Jenkins won for best adapted screenplay.

“Moonlight” follows central character Chiron from childhood to manhood, and the powerful film consists of three discrete segment focusing on different points in Chiron’s life. Jenkins deliberately did not have Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, the the three actors playing the character, work together, to discourage one performance from influencing another. Yet stitching it all together seamlessly was less of a challenge than it would seem, thanks to strong talent at every stage.

“The performances we got from the actors were so genuine and so authentic,” McMillon said. “It enabled us to create a film that was consistent. Everyone that was involved in ‘Moonlight,’ I feel like they are very special, extraordinary individuals.”

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About the Author

Jennifer Brett
Jennifer Brett
Jennifer Brett is a multiplatform journalist and digital coach. She writes The Buzz blog for accessAtlanta.com.