Interview: Reggie Rock Bythewood Talks 'Gun Hill,' 'Beyond the Lights,' Career, and Much More
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Interview: Reggie Rock Bythewood Talks 'Gun Hill,' 'Beyond the Lights,' Career, and Much More

Reggie Rock Bythewood

On July 2, Reggie Rock Bythewood's long-gestating crime

drama "Gun Hill" had its BET premiere, with plans of turning the

two-hour pilot into a television series.

Named for Bythewood's childhood neighborhood of Gun Hill in

the Bronx, NY, and inspired by his own estranged relationship with his father,

the film stars Larenz Tate as a pair of twin brothers on opposite sides of the

law. When one twin is killed, the other assumes his identity as a DEA agent in

order to escape his troubled life as an ex-convict. Emayatzy Corinealdi and

Aisha Hinds co-star in the film, which re-airs on Saturday, July 12 at 8pm

Eastern on BET.

In a candid and in-depth conversation with Shadow And Act, Bythewood

recently shared his experiences making "Gun Hill," the process to

bring it to air, and seeing the responses to the film on this site and

elsewhere, including our review. He also reflected on his decades-long TV and

film career, which began with acting and grew to writing and directing projects

like "A Different World," "New York Undercover," "Get

on the Bus," "Biker Boyz," and "Notorious," as well as

several collaborations with his wife and fellow filmmaker Gina

Prince-Bythewood.

JAI TIGGETT: You've

mentioned that "Gun Hill" is inspired by your relationship with your

father and seeing a different, more positive side of him once he passed away.

In telling this story, have you uncovered anything new about that relationship

through the characters?

REGGIE ROCK BYTHEWOOD:

It sounds pretty elementary, but I suppose one of the discoveries is that

nobody's all bad or all good. What's fun is to do it in a crime drama

narrative. We're in this world where even the good guys resolve most of their

conflicts with violence and not enough intellect. So I had to resist the

temptation of making the main character, Bird, too evolved in this first

offering of "Gun Hill." If we're so blessed, it will be something

that we continue to explore and see where the character goes and what

revelations I can make for myself, and for this world.

One of the other things I took note of is Elia Kazan's

"On The Waterfront." Marlon Brando's character resolves things with

violence and then as the story progresses, his humanity and his conscience

takes over. And so as we start to chip away at that, without being corny and on

the nose, we do want to open him up and raise his consciousness. It's something

that we really want to explore.

JT: The project has

been a long time coming, with production taking place back in 2011. Tell me

about your experience working on it over these past few years.

RRB: It kind of drives me crazy that it sat around for three

years. But the positive is that you wrote a review. The funny thing is, when

you have a review and there are some nice things said, you always focus on the

negative. But I had an opportunity to say, "Well, let me see how it feels

if I change some things."

I didn't want to take out all the voiceover because

initially I was just looking to find a way to keep his brother alive and keep

that connection. But to know that it felt like exposition, I thought, "Maybe

the sister's right."

And then with the initial scene in the bar, I added some

cinematic things to give it a little bit more punch. So hats off to you, I

appreciate the feedback. I don't think I've ever even considered doing that

before.

"Get your audience at the edge of their seats and while they're leaning forward, hit them with the truth."

JT: Thank you. That's

rare for a filmmaker to do, so I'm shocked that you considered making those changes.

Were those the only tweaks, or have you sort of been working on the film all

this time?

RRB: They didn't ask me to go in and make changes, but when

something's sitting around you look at it again and always see something that

you can improve. I really fell in love with Terence Blanchard's music, and I

found a new way to approach it. In most of the action scenes from the first cut,

the music started as soon as the action started. And then as I went back in, I

said, "Let me just play around and see what happens if we start with just

hearing the action and sound effects, and let the music sneak up on us."

That felt much better, because it compliments as opposed to

taking over the scene. So there were little elements like that, that I felt

good about.

JT: Tell me about

audience reaction – how you've responded to it in the past and how you respond

to it now. With "Gun Hill," you had a chance to see some of the audience's reaction to the project before it had a full release.

RRB: In the past, particularly in TV, you might get a couple

of fan letters here and there. My first produced episode of TV was on "A

Different World," and it was about this young woman who was being battered

in a relationship.

JT: Right, Gina. I

think we all remember that episode.

RRB: Yeah, exactly. The thing that blew me away was, I got

this letter from a 13-year-old girl living in Canada. She said after seeing the

episode she broke up with her boyfriend who was mistreating her. I was pretty

impacted by that and just really took note of the idea that what we do has

power, even if you're doing something like a sitcom.

There's something that a teacher taught me several years ago

that I used as a template for "A Different World," which is to get

your audience laughing and when their mouths are open, slip the truth in there.

I kind of borrowed that idea for "Gun Hill," which is to get your

audience at the edge of their seats and while they're leaning forward, hit them

with the truth. So when you approach it that way, and you don't just want to

put on a hot show but you really want to do something significant, you don't

know what kind of feedback you're going to get. So it was very encouraging and

humbling to get the feedback from folks online.

I'm not a huge social media guy or a party guy. I'm kind of

just about the work, and I've always been that way. But it was cool to receive

that response and I think it's actually motivated the entire "Gun

Hill" team to put the word out.

JT: What was behind

the delay with the release?

RRB: Crime drama is a different genre for BET. And I suppose

they were looking to see how it fit in terms of their schedule and when we

would have the best opportunity to have it become a series. A lot of that also has

to do with financing. So there are a lot of elements that are coming together

behind-the-scenes. But we're certainly glad to get it out there.

null

JT: Tell me about the

52 Blocks fighting style that's used in the action scenes.

RRB: When I was a kid, a lot of us would go out and play

fight, and I would see the style and we would all kind of copy it. But I never

knew it had a name until much later in life. There was an article by this guy

named Doug Century about 52 Blocks, which is also called Jailhouse Rock.

When we started working on "Gun Hill" I really

just felt like I wanted to have a fighting style that I hadn't seen in film

before. So I did some research and found a couple of guys that knew it and I

thought would be right to train Larenz. It wasn't just about the moves, but

really the mentality of going from a fighter to a warrior. We actually made a

documentary called "Ammo 52 Blocks" that really takes you behind the

grueling training that Larenz went through, and some of the history of 52.

Until we worked on the documentary, I had no idea how

intense his training was, because all I told them was, "Teach him 52, get

him ready, and don't hurt my guy."  

But they really put him through it, and Larenz wanted to go

through it. He even at times wanted to feel the pain because he thought it

would help his character.

JT: "Gun

Hill" is the first original scripted project that you've directed in a

while. I'm not sure the average person knows you've been around for years and

were behind some hit projects like "New York Undercover," work that

maybe should have led to higher profile projects and consistent work.

RRB: I just have an appetite for a lot of different things.

So if a documentary feels like something I want to do, then I'll do a "30

for 30." It's always been a challenge though, particularly in finding

projects that allow you to say what you need to say. And in many ways I feel

like my career has been an exploration because there are many projects that I

have passed on because I didn't really feel like they were relevant in terms of

what I wanted to address or explore.

JT: There was talk a while

back about "New York Undercover" being rebooted in some form. Was

there any truth to that rumor?

RRB: I know that Malik [Yoba] was spearheading the movement

to get it put back on, but I don't know if it ever gained much traction. It

could always still happen but as far as I know it's just a notion and not

really concrete.

JT: How many projects

are you typically working on at a time, and how much simpler is it for you to

get a project made at this point in your career?

RRB: I suppose what's different now is that I'm less

compelled to write other people's vision. I'm really more about what I want to

say and how I want to say it. So interestingly enough, there are three projects

that I've written that we're putting financing together for that all have a

shot at getting made, and it's exciting. I'm just one of those people that when

I write something and I fall in love with it, I feel compelled to not just walk

away from it. If it takes two, three or four years to get it made, I tend to

gut it out as opposed to bouncing around and trying to do something else.

JT: I've heard the

same thing from Gina Prince-Bythewood, that she's no longer interested in

writing a project that she wouldn't be directing, for the same reason. Will

you continue to write for other directors, in addition to your own directing

projects?

RRB: I'm open to it. I think that one of the major

influences on my career is this director named John Sayles from back in my

acting days.

JT: Right, from "Brother

From Another Planet."

RRB: You got me. What made that experience so significant

for me was not only the acting itself, but talking to John Sayles. He basically

told me about the blueprint of his career, which is that he would do writing

assignments in between the things that he was going to direct, and then he

would use the money from his writing assignments to go off and do an

independent film or other things. And so I kind of began my career with that as

a template. So I'll probably continue to write more than I direct.

But when I write something original, those have been hard to

let go because I feel like I own it in a different way than a project where

someone comes to me with an idea. I'm still passionate about it, but I think

when I generate my own material from my own ideas I feel like I own it in a

different way, and it would be a lot more challenging to hand off.

JT: When "Go For

Sisters" was released the film's stars, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Yolonda

Ross, spoke with us and were describing John Sayles' style as a filmmaker.

They said he's a writer first and very committed to what's on the page. Are you

the same? How do you think your writing affects your directing style, and vice

versa?

RRB: I think beginning as an actor was my writing training. And

as an actor what I learned is that it's ultimately about what you're doing, not

just what you're feeling. Even with Stanislavski and method acting, there's this

notion of every character has an objective and an obstacle. And that has really

been more of a direction in terms of my writing and directing, looking to

understand that the actors are really there to actively do something to achieve

their goal. So I'm really big on helping the actors discover what it is they're

doing. I start from that place.

And then I like to title each of my scenes in an active way.

So when Larenz switches identities with his brother, what he's doing is

escaping the life he has. Understanding that allows me to know how to talk to

the actor, it allows me to know how to set the camera, and it also allows me to

know whether or not the dialogue is working.

Bythewood family

JT: What about

producing? You and Gina have consistently worked together and produced each

other's projects. Have you developed a shorthand for interacting?

RRB: Well firstly, Gina and I met on "A Different World."

It was our first professional gig and we were friends at first. We would beat

up on each other's scripts before we would turn them in to the other producers,

and that was kind of the basis of our relationship and we never stopped doing

it. So there have been a lot of projects that I've helped Gina with and vice

versa, that we never get credited on because that's just part of our

relationship. What makes "Beyond The Lights" different is that I

decided, "Okay cool, I'll take a producer credit on this."

So we tell each other what works and what doesn't work. But because

we're so straight up honest with each other out of love, what we needed to learn

is, when 100 people are around I can't slam her about a script or a choice she

made. And so that's a whole other shorthand of, "How does she know that I

need to get her attention when she's got five minutes to get a shot before

lunch?" I think that part of the shorthand is one of the things that we had

to figure out.

And then other times, the most important thing that day is

that one of our kids has a test or a game. So the funny part of it is that when

we're on set whispering, I'm sure people think that we're whispering about some

strategic thing that needs to happen with the film, but sometimes it's just

like, "I don't know G, Cassius missed a game-winning shot and he's crushed

by it. What should we do about that?" That's the real of it.

JT: We saw the

trailer for "Beyond The Lights" recently. Can you share anything else

about the film?

RRB: How did the trailer look to you?

JT: Great. It was

emotional, I like the story that it told and I think it reminded us of who she

is as a filmmaker.

RRB: It does. What's so great about it is the story is told

in a way that only Gina could have told it. Whether you love it or not, it's

just so specific to her voice. "Love & Basketball" has a special

place in our hearts. It was her first film and she worked so hard on the

script, and it was kind of a revelation in that people were really responding

to her work. So it'll always have a special place. But I think this is her best

work. It's just such an emotional, honest film that has something to say. And I

just think it's really, really well done.

JT: We haven't heard

a lot about where the story came from. Was it inspired by anyone in particular?

RRB: Gina just did a lot of research. There were some

singers that she had an opportunity to sit down and dialogue with, and maybe thought

of some things in her own life as well, and she just threw it in a pot and stirred

it up. She spent a long time getting the script right.

JT: Given how long

you've both been in the business, is there any wisdom you want to share? Tips,

tricks, observations?

RRB: The hardest thing is just maintaining your level of

idealism and that feeling that you have something to say and it's worthwhile, to

not buy into the idea that if somebody else doesn't see it then it's not

worthwhile. That's the thing that you really want to nurture and protect.

JT: And how do you

maintain your idealism?

RRB: The deal is this. I feel like I have a cause bigger

than myself. And it doesn't mean that everything I'm going to put out there is

the most brilliant thing in the history of cinema. But what it does mean is

that I'm driven to continue to improve my craft and to impact lives when I can.

And I want to do it in a way that's entertaining. I'm not a preacher, but I do

have something to say.

So there are couple of things that help me maintain my

idealism. One is my family, having Gina and supportive people in my life helps.

But ultimately it comes from within, because I think if everybody hated it -- like

I remember getting trashed on "Get On The Bus." It pissed me off, but

I felt like I was coming back even stronger.

There was a great acting teacher named Uta Hagen, who wrote Respect for Acting. A lot of the things

that she teaches for acting I apply as a writer and director. She says artists

are supposed to be conscious of the world and hold a mirror up to nature. So

maybe our job, particularly as African-American artists, is to not just hold a

mirror up to nature but also to reflect what society could be.

And also, read. I've been in rooms with executives, black and

white, and I've referenced August Wilson or Manchild

in the Promised Land and people have no reference for that. And it's like,

those things feed you as an artist, to know those who have come before you and

to study them. When you really understand who these great ancestors are, it

fuels you and inspires you and then you can't even trip really. If you do

something that people are saying is brilliant, you can't even trip because they

were more brilliant. And then if you do something that falls short it's okay,

because I'm always going to fall short of Lorraine Hansberry. But I'm always

going to keep reaching.

***

Many thanks to Reggie Rock Bythewood for the interview.

"Gun Hill" re-airs on Saturday, July 12 at

8pm on BET.

The documentary "Ammo: 52 Blocks" airs on

Saturday, July 12 at 8am on BET.

Shadow and Act is a website dedicated to cinema, television and web content of Africa and its global Diaspora. With daily news, interviews, in-depth investigations into the audiovisual industry, and more, Shadow and Act promotes content created by and about people of African descent throughout the world.

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