Interview: Gina Prince-Bythewood on Being a Fighter, Empowering Girls, and Women in Charge w/'Beyond The Lights'

April 20 2017

Gina Prince-BythewoodIn her first feature film since 2008's

"The Secret Life of Bees," acclaimed writer-director Gina

Prince-Bythewood tells the story of troubled pop star Noni Jean (Gugu

Mbatha-Raw) and her relationship with Kaz (Nate Parker), the police officer who

saves her life.

In her recent press tour for the film, we

spoke about the movie and the long road to getting it made, as well as the

philosophy that's driven her career.

JAI TIGGETT: The story for "Beyond The Lights" is

influenced by some of your own experiences with being an adopted child. Can you

tell me about sharing such a personal story, and what the writing process was

like?

GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Everything

I've written has been personal and touched on things that I needed to deal with

in my personal life. So I just feel that writing is great therapy and the best

writing comes from truth, and so I mine my life constantly for that.

I think it gets hard when you haven't figured

out what you want to say about it, and that's really through the writing

process. The first draft didn't have as much personal stuff as it does now. In the

first draft the mother was black and I didn't go as in-depth as I started to as

I was rewriting. I just think it makes for better writing when you're coming

from a real place.

What are some of the other films you might have referenced while

you were making the movie?

"The Rose" was a big one. I love

the depth of that film, the way it just wrecks you. "Walk The Line," "Lady

Sings The Blues," "Coal Miner's Daughter." I really looked at a

lot of music films prior to writing, not to rip off of course, but to inspire.

I also looked at some love stories, like the film "Love Story" is a

really good one. And just knowing what I wanted an audience to feel, and then it

was on me to create a fresh, new journey and a different kind of love story

that was contemporary.

It has a loose narrative structure. The movie doesn't hinge on

event after event, but a lot of it is about the quiet moments that happen

between this couple.

For me this is a different type of structure

in that the suicide attempt happens right at the top. Normally, any event like

that you build to and it's in the third act. But I really wanted to explore a

woman who was literally on the edge and how does she come back from that and

how can she create a life from that and find her self worth. So it really

started from that catalyst and then building her back up, both her and Kaz's

story as well. Having two characters who both have arcs, I think is something

similar to "Love & Basketball," that it's not just a woman's

story and the boyfriend is peripheral. I wanted both to have full arcs.

And the quiet moments are really important. Given

that it's a love story I had a little more license to have those moments. I

think in today's romantic comedies and things like that, everything has to go

quick and pop to the next joke and the next joke. Here, I really wanted to take

the time to develop this relationship and go as deep as possible and allow an

audience to feel and grow with them.

It's a musical film, but even the ambient sounds of walking into a

room or putting on a set of headphones are handled very specifically. Tell me

about designing the sound.

Foremost, music is such a huge part of my

life and part of my creative process. There are a lot of aspects of filmmaking

that I love, but one of my favorites is in post, finding the right song for the

right moment. So creating the soundtrack was exciting for me and it was also

important to create the authenticity of this world.

I wanted the music that you hear early on in Noni's

world to be the real stuff, and it's just what she hears every day and she

doesn't even react. The song that's playing in the boardroom when she and her

mom are waiting for executives, it's offensive, and they're not even reacting

and it's her boyfriend who's singing those lyrics. And then as the film goes on

and she starts to find herself the music shifts and becomes more singer-songwriters,

and just a different vibe.

So you can tell a lot in terms of

storytelling with music, but also sound was really important. What I knew early

on is that I wanted it to be a cacophony of sound in her world, constant clicks

of the cameras, and paparazzi yelling, and music. There was never any quiet

until she was with Kaz. So that later in the film we can physically feel a

difference because we've been bombarded with sound from living in her world for

so long.

All of your keys [key crew members] on this film were women. Was

that an intentional choice, and what was the working environment like?

I do look for women, and I do like the

environment. Especially on this film, knowing what Gugu was going to need to go

through, I wanted a maternal and safe environment for her to give me everything

that she gave. [Editor] Teri Shropshire, this is our third film together so I

always go to her. [Cinematographer] Tami Reiker, this was our second film,

[Production Designer] Cecilia Montiel I'd worked with before. [Costume

Designer] Sandra Hernandez, this is our third film together. With every film

I'm doing, the crew that I like to work with is just getting more solidified

and yeah, as I look up I see there are more and more women in those roles. And

it's a very cool thing.

I remember there was a moment on set where I

glanced over and Tami's whole camera crew was female, but the grips and gaffers

were all male. I remember watching her telling them what to do and they were

running to follow her orders and I thought, "This is just really bad ass."

It's just a good feeling and it was a really good environment for this film,

and I think for future films that I do.

Beyond The LightsYou spent years making this project and part of the struggle was convincing

studios that Gugu Mbatha-Raw should play the lead. What was it about her that

let you know she should play the role, and that she was a star?

Just when she was in that audition room, I

saw the movie. She had such an innate vulnerability, I wanted to watch her, she

had charisma, and she felt like Noni to me. The thing I didn't know was could

she pull off the flipside of that, the fantasy girl and that uber sexual

persona. I didn't know that for sure until we shot an eight-minute presentation,

which I needed to prove to studios that she was a star. I worked with her on

that presentation before there was even a studio, but she trusted me and

believed in the project and went for it. And to see her transform into Noni was

a beautiful thing.

It's a very brave performance. What she and I

talk about a lot is that the less Noni wears, the less you see of her. Gugu

bought into that and knew that we had to go as far as what you would see on MTV

or BET or YouTube. If we had been soft with it, I think the movie falls apart.

I mean she's on a balcony, so there's got to be a reason for that. This is not

Gugu's world at all. It's 180 degrees from who she is, but once I cast her it

was two years of developing this character and there was a tremendous amount of

both physical and psychological work that we did. And it's that work ethic that

excites me as a director, and I saw that in her as well.

In the time that you've been working on this, a lot has happened

in pop culture that relates to the film – Rihanna and Chris Brown, Miley Cyrus.

Were you influenced by any of those things, and what are some of the changes

you've made to the project over the years?

Sadly, the same issues that were going on

years ago when I started writing are still going on, just at a higher, faster

clip. I think what was added in the later drafts was more of the social media

aspect of that life, and also the cameos. It was funny with "The Tonight

Show," when I first wrote it, it was Jay Leno. And then it became "The

Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien," and then it went back to "The Tonight

Show with Jay Leno" and finally it was "The Tonight Show with Jimmy

Fallon." That's how many changes we went through in the writing process.

Ultimately it ended up being Don Lemon and a

new show. But it was really more of the cameos and pieces that we were putting in

the film to give it authenticity. Again, nothing has changed, sadly, in terms

of [society]. You look at Miley Cyrus and she came out of nowhere and went from

being a joke to being huge, bigger than she ever was. She followed the

blueprint and it worked.

There's a wave of talk lately about how young women handle their sexuality

- what's empowering, what's feminism, and what's exploitation. In light of all

that, how are young girls processing the messages of this film?

When I originally wrote this it was an

R-rated film, but it was important to me and the filmmakers ultimately to make

it PG-13 because we wanted young girls and young boys to see it. There is just

a normalization of hypersexuality that's happening, and young girls and young

boys are imitating what they see in videos. It's damaging and my hope is that

we can change the conversation.

We've had a couple advance screenings and the

reaction is a beautiful thing to see. The way that young girls are identifying

and attaching themselves to Noni, loving and being inspired by her

transformation as this woman who sheds a false persona and becomes real. I

think young girls are so impressionable that I would love for Noni to become a

role model as opposed to some others that are just pushing the hypersexuality.

When I think of your career I think a lot about fighting for the

projects that you want to make. With "Beyond The Lights," you went

with a smaller studio and a smaller budget so that you could get the cast that

you wanted. Early on, you fought to get into UCLA's film school. But as

filmmakers, especially women of color, we don't always feel we have the

leverage to fight and get what we want. We're just trying to get something

made. What's your perspective on that?

I think one of the biggest influences on my

behavior is the fact that I've been an athlete since I was five years old, and

at a very high level. So my whole life has been, "Aggression is good, go

for what you want, dive for the ball, go all out and leave nothing to

chance." That's my mentality and I really brought that to my film career.

With UCLA, basketball was my whole life and I

got recruited to play at other colleges, but not UCLA where I wanted to go to

film school. So I gave up that dream of basketball for another, and it just

didn't occur to me that I would not get in. It was a shock and I went to the

counselor and said, "I need to appeal this decision" and he said, "You're

not allowed to do that." So I went home and cried a little and then said, "You

know what, let me write a letter." I wrote a very impassioned letter about

why they made a mistake and sent it. Two days later I got a call from the head

of the film school and she said, "You're in."

It was such an amazing moment in my life and

such a turning point. One, because film school was such a great gift to me and

I learned so much there. But it's also that whole thing of overcoming "no,"

which has really been the mantra of the rest of my career. "Love & Basketball,"

every studio turned it down. "Beyond The Lights," every studio turned

it down twice. So you just need that one yes. And not getting into film school,

fighting for it early on, like I said has really spoken to who I am now and the

fight that I'm willing to have, because it's what I believe in.

**

"Beyond The Lights" comes to

theaters on November 14. 

by Shadow and Act on April 20 2017

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