Barry Jenkins’ Lion King Prequel: Moonlight Director Reveals How He Landed Disney’s New Movie

The Lion King Mufasa roars

Director Barry Jenkins raised a lot of eyebrows a couple months ago when it was officially announced that he had signed on to direct a "follow-up" to Jon Favreau's The Lion King for Walt Disney Studios – a project that has since been confirmed to be a Mufasa-centric prequel. To date, the Oscar-winning filmmaker has exclusively made independent dramas, his resume including the awesome trio of features Medicine For Melancholy, Moonlight, and If Beale Street Could Talk, and many fans didn't know what to make of him moving to helm a big studio blockbuster.

The truth of the matter is, however, that a quality script can grasp the attention of any director, and it's because of what the filmmaker saw on the page that attracted him to the untitled Lion King prequel.

Variety recently organized a virtual conversation between Barry Jenkins and Chloe Zhao (another indie director leaping into the blockbuster world with Marvel Studios' Eternals), and the subject of the Mufasa project came up when the latter talked about the impact that The Lion King had on her growing up. Zhao asked him what happened that led him to take on the high profile project, and he explained that he just loved the screenplay that's been written:

My agents send me a lot of scripts. When this one came, super top secret, I was very skeptical. I read the script and about 40 pages in I turned to Lulu [Wang] and I said, 'Holy shit, this is good.' And as I kept reading, I got further away from the side of my brain that said, 'Oh, a filmmaker like you doesn’t make a film like this,' and allowed myself to get to the place where these characters, this story, is amazing.

Moving his mind past the commercial aspect of making a movie set in the universe of The Lion King, and the restrictions of working within the confines of the studio system, Barry Jenkins simply recognized that there was a real story to tell with the material being presented. And not only is he excited about what's in the narrative, but also the challenge of making a film in a whole new way.

It's expected that the upcoming Mufasa prequel will be utilizing the same style and technology that was used to bring Jon Favreau's vision to life last year, and Barry Jenkins only got more excited about the prospect of making the film when he talked about the production with cinematographer James Laxton. Said the director,

What really pushed me across the line was James, my DP, said, 'You know what? There’s something really interesting in this mode of filmmaking that we haven’t done and that not many people have done.' That was when I went back to the powers that be and said, 'I would love to do this, but I’ve got to be able to do what I do.'

With hundreds of millions of dollars being in play, filmmakers can often find themselves facing real challenges when it comes to making certain creative demands, but thus far that apparently hasn't been Barry Jenkins' experience. Evidently there wasn't much pushback when he explained his total vision for the Lion King-related project, saying,

And they said yes! I think part of that is because I knew at that point that you had already shot a very big movie of your own with some of these same folks. And knowing that Chloe Zhao had gone from one of the most beautiful films of the century with The Rider to making a Marvel movie, I was like, 'Oh, shit. If she can do it, I can do it.'

The Walt Disney Company confirmed the development of the Mufasa-centric prequel last week during the much-ballyhooed Investor's Day, though we don't know much about its production schedule just yet. That being said, it's obviously a project that is getting a lot of hype, and we're excited to continue following its development.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.