Naomie Harris had to shoot her entire role in three days, in between her promotional tour of Spectre (2015), due to a visa problem (Harris is British). The scenes spanned 15 years in the character's life and were filmed out of sequence.
According to cinematographer James Laxton Moonlight only had a small budget of $1.5 million (Variety). Director Barry Jenkins confirmed at a Q&A at the BFI in London, that this was indeed the budget. This is a lower budget than any other 'Best Picture' winner since Rocky (1976) had, which cost a reported $1.1 million in its day. But if the budgets are adjusted for inflation, then "Moonlight" has to be regarded as the 'Best Picture' winner with the lowest budget ever.
Both director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney's vision was pretty clear and singular in that both men grew up in the same Liberty City neighborhood of Miami with mothers who had both struggled with drug addiction. Roughly 80% of the film was shot on location here, one of the most poverty-stricken areas in the United States. Initially the production was apprehensive about safety issues until the word got out that Jenkins was from the neighborhood - then everything changed for the better. The locals couldn't have been more welcoming and cooperative. Naomie Harris has said that she'd never felt so appreciated and at ease on a film set during the shoot.
In an interview, Barry Jenkins said that the three actors who play Chiron never met during production. He wanted each of them to build their own persona of Chiron during their respective segments, with no influence from the other portrayals. The same technique was used with the actors who play Kevin.
The second song that plays in the Diner is "Hello Stranger" by Barbara Lewis. Director Barry Jenkins made the decision to actually play the song on the jukebox in the background while they were filming.
Director Barry Jenkins was inspired by his own childhood in Miami, where he was "always surrounded by this very lush green grass and these beautiful golden sunsets." He grew up in "an awesome neighborhood where some very dark things happened." He feels as though his childhood was "a beautiful struggle."
The light flashes in the transitions between chapters is actually an out of focus digital time-code from a camera slate. During filming the actors were sprayed with oil so their skin would shine on camera and the crew would hold the running slate against the lens to protect it from the sprays. Barry Jenkins saw the out of focus time-code on his view monitor and decided to add it to the film as the light flashes are literally showing time moving forward.
When first approached, Naomie Harris was very reluctant to play a crack addict since it was so alien to her teetotaling persona. Harris had been insistent from the start on a career plan to only portray women in a positive light. However, when Barry Jenkins confided to her that she'd be portraying a character based on his own crack-addicted mother, she agreed to take on the role. In preparation for the part she spent a month researching the lives of drug addicts by watching several videos of crack addicts on YouTube.
Director Barry Jenkins' favorite scene in his film was an impromptu sequence of Paula staring straight into the camera over-cranked at 48fps. This was a last-minute decision by Jenkins specifically intended to fully engage the audience with Paula's character.
Moonlight has a very diverse score with music ranging from orchestra to "chopped and screwed." As the film goes on, composer Nicholas Britell decided to "chop and screw" the orchestra to create a unique sound.
Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, the accounting firm responsible for tabulating the results, preparing awards envelopes and handing them to presenters apologized unreservedly to the makers of La La Land (2016) and Moonlight, as well as everyone involved, after an envelope mix-up caused the former to be incorrectly announced as Best Picture: "We sincerely apologize to Moonlight, La La Land, Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, and Oscar viewers for the error that was made during the award announcement for Best Picture. The presenters had mistakenly been given the wrong category envelope and when discovered, was immediately corrected. [sic] We are currently investigating how this could have happened, and deeply regret that this occurred. We appreciate the grace with which the nominees, the Academy, ABC, and Jimmy Kimmel handled the situation."
During a Q&A at the International Film Festival Rotterdam director Barry Jenkins jokingly answered the question to what the budget was by saying: "Somewhere below 500 million dollars!" In fact, at a later Q&A at the BFI in London, he confirmed the budget was only $1.5 million.
During an interview, director Barry Jenkins mentioned that the idea of using the song Every N----r Is A Star by Boris Gardiner came from a sample from Kendrick Lamar's album To Pimp A Butterfly which starts with a sample of the original song.
The song "One Step Ahead" by Aretha Franklin plays twice in the film. In the first act, it is playing in the living room after Chiron comes home from the swimming lesson. You can also hear it playing in the Diner on the jukebox in the third act.
Second film to be officially screened at the "National Museum of African American History and Culture" that opened to the public in Washington D.C. on September 24, 2016 (the 19th and newest museum of the Smithsonian Institution).
In order to persuade Naomie Harris to join the project, producer Jeremy Kleiner lied and told her that Barry Jenkins had written the role of Paula with her in mind. She didn't find out the truth until after filming, and in actuality Kleiner had to convince Jenkins that Harris was the right actress for the role.
Films by Wong Kar-Wai were a big influence on Barry Jenkins and the production of the film, particularly the film Happy Together (1997) which also features a gay couple as the main characters, just like this film.