Love & Gina Prince-Bythewood
by Kerensa Cadenas
Last month, I sat in a darkened Los Angeles theater filled with the anticipation of seeing a new film. Jill Soloway’s Wifey.tv has begun hosting Girl on Girl, a series of screenings at Cinefamily in Los Angeles, in which a cultural icon interviews a female filmmaker. The series kicked off with one of my favorite writers, Roxane Gay, hosting a screening of Love & Basketball, with the writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood.
Prince-Bythewood is the almost universally beloved writer and director of Love & Basketball. She followed that up with directing the HBO movie Disappearing Acts, then writing and directing the adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s critically acclaimed novel The Secret Lives of Bees. She’s also written and directed for TV shows like Felicity, Girlfriends and A Different World.
Let’s preface this with my seemingly genetic disposition for a love story — -my first name comes from a romance novel. I’ve long been swept away by fairy tales and rom-coms. Years of awful dating and age have helpfully neutralized my romantic dispositions, but when I see a film like Love & Basketball that tells a love story almost effortlessly, it’s hard to not feel a zing straight into my heart. Did love exist before Love & Basketball? I’m not quite sure.
I felt that same zing while watching Prince-Bythewood’s latest film, Beyond the Lights, which she also wrote and directed. It tells the story of Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a Rihanna-esque pop star who is on the brink of fame, pushed hard by her mother/manager Macy (Minnie Driver). When Noni is on the edge of falling apart, she meets a young cop, Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker) and the two, despite their differences and ambitions, fall hard for one another.
While Prince-Bythewood has the swoony aspects of romance down pat, perhaps it’s her ability to keep her romances firmly cemented in realism — making all her characters fully realized as opposed to merely serving as a romantic foil to another — — that make her love stories more effective.
I talked to Prince-Bythewood about the path to making Beyond the Lights, creating effective love stories, working within a male-dominated industry, and the importance of music.
What was your Inspiration for Beyond the Lights?
It’s been 14 years since Love & Basketball and I wanted to do another love story. But I also wanted to do a music film — -it’s one of my favorite kind of films. I don’t really start with a genre, I just knew what I wanted to write — -I just didn’t know the story or the characters. I went to an Alicia Keys concert at the Hollywood Bowl and she started singing “Diary,” which is one of my favorite songs. It’s an epic love song. And it was just a great moment as a writer that rarely ever happens — the story and character just came into my head. I just closed my eyes and it was like I was watching a movie with Alicia Keys on the soundtrack. I was just so eager to get home and start fleshing it out. Every script I have has its own playlist, so it just made sense.
I started thinking about what’s going on in the music world and how it’d be interesting to put this character into that, knowing what’s been going on with women in hip-hop, R&B;, and even pop. I mean, obviously we see what’s going on with Miley. It was being able to touch on what I thought was fertile ground; I don’t think that hip-hop and R&B; are really dealt with. It’s such a complicated world and I have a complicated relationship with it as well. I love it, but I hate what’s going on with it right now.
Also being able to be able to put some personal stuff that I’ve been dealing with. I’m adopted, and I found my birth mother and she was white. Finding out the circumstances of my birth was not great. The fact that her parents said, “You’ve got to abort this child because it is black.” If this woman hadn’t given me up and raised me, I would have lived in a home without unconditional love. I thought that was an interesting thing to deal with, and that was the catalyst for the Macy/Noni relationship.
Were you trying to critique the music industry with Beyond the Lights? The film shows that Noni is pretty manufactured and really pushed into it by her mom.
I wasn’t trying to shake a finger at the industry, because there are some women who are sexual, like Beyoncé, but it feels authentic to her. My issue is [with] the artists who try to mimic that and come out hypersexualized, and it’s not authentic. So many of our girls are now growing up and you see it trickling down into behavior.
It was very important for me that this was a PG-13 film, even though when I first wrote it, it was R. I could have gone harder, but I wanted girls to see it and just to know: who you are, who you were born as is good enough.
There’s one character, Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly), a romantic interest of Noni’s and a collaborator, that I felt was an embodiment of the possible critique of hip-hop and the music industry. Can you speak about that?
I knew that I wanted a real hip-hop artist. He was actually, originally, not written as a white character. MGK came in because I had seen a video he had done called “Wild Boy.” I was like, “Oh my God, this is him.” He came in to audition, and it was funny, because when you are auditioning hip-hop artists, I cannot tell you how many came in and the smell of weed was overwhelming, like, guys, you are coming in to audition, and you are such a cliché right now. MGK’s first words to me were “I’m still drunk from last night. “ So I was like, “This is never going to happen,” but he sat down, closed the door, and he was a different person. He dropped that persona, that swagger, and talked about how much he loved Love & Basketball. He just loved what this script was saying and wanted to be a part of it.
When I decided to give it to him, it was funny because I had the talk with him: no weed, no drinking, you have to be respectful to Gugu at all times, given the nature of what she’s got to do for this film. He was great. It was interesting to see how many hip-hop artists I saw that you see their persona in videos, and then meet them, and it’s a totally different person. I realized: the same way that Noni, as a female artist, has to put on this thing, the male artists have to do it as well — -uber masculinity and swagger that is not always authentic to who they are, but they feel like that’s what they have to put out. That was fascinating to me.
You write such great female characters in your films. Noni discovers herself through this love story but it’s never defined by her beau. I’m still in a post Love & Basketball mindset; I think that your films are super feminist and give women interesting roles. Would you consider your work within that context?
I would consider myself a feminist. I wouldn’t say I make feminist movies, but my mindset influences what I write and what I direct. It’s interesting that there are so many different definitions of feminism, but for me, being in this male-dominated career, it’s bizarre to me there aren’t more females. Talent has no gender. It makes no sense. And I don’t get it and I am asked all the time why it is and I couldn’t tell you. But I know when I walk on set that’s my set and I don’t care that there may be a ton of male gaffers and grips. Respect me as the boss.
I think part of my whole thing comes from sports as well — -I grew up an athlete, it’s such a part of who I am. Being in sports, I just grew up knowing that aggression is good. The way I walk on set or into a meeting is like I’m walking out on the court. All of that just influences me and the stories I want to tell.
It’s interesting that people ask me a lot if I’m discriminated against as a black female director and I don’t think I am, because I’m offered a ton of stuff. I just don’t take it. What’s discriminated against are my choices: to focus on women. Those films are not greenlit as often as a film that focuses on a guy. Those films are not being made. It’s up to us, as women, to make those films and fight a little harder because it is a harder fight.
I have a personal theory that one of my favorite films, Clueless, wouldn’t get made today. The time frame between that and Love & Basketball seemed like a time where there was more women making films and film itself seemed more diverse. A piece I read recently said that Hitch was the last studio rom com to have two non-white leads. As a black woman and director can you speak to the importance of diversity: the lack of it and especially, it seems, the lack of it in romantic films?
I think it boils down to studios being run by white men. They’re greenlighting movies they can identify with and characters they can identify with. A love story should appeal to everybody, but the second there are people of color in the lead, to them, it becomes a “black film.” I hate that term. I want to abolish that term. It’s not a genre. If it was, that would mean that Think Like a Man and 12 Years a Slave are the same movie, but it’s not the same movie at all: one’s a period and the other a comedy. I want people to start looking at film that way. The same way I can go to The Notebook — -I love that movie — -or The 40 Year Old Virgin. I’m not looking at the race, I’m looking at the characters and identifying. That’s what I hoped to do with Love & Basketball and hope to do with Beyond the Lights, to see it as a love story. I was very particular in broadening the cast. I felt it gave it a more global feel, and that push of trying to open up people’s minds to not see it as a “black film” just because there’s two people of color in the lead.
I think that you write a love story so expertly. Beyond the Lights felt so realistic but the setting of the music industry in someone else’s hands could have really tipped over in melodrama. What draws you to love stories and creating them?
I personally love movies and love stories that wreck me, build me up, and then me leave inspired. When writing love stories it can end two ways — -either they are together or they’re not — -so the audience the knowledge of how it’s going to end. As a writer, what you’re trying to do is make the journey different. For me, it’s been setting it in worlds that haven’t been explored — basketball in terms of talking about that as a female athlete. With Beyond the Lights — hip-hop and R&B; is such a complicated world and hasn’t really been dealt with. It’s just about putting interesting characters into unfamiliar environments.
You mentioned that you had wanted to write another love story — -do you feel like Love & Basketball influenced Beyond the Lights in anyway?
Definitely in the construction of the film, the fact that just as many guys love that movie. I love that, because usually guys are like, “That’s a chick flick! I’m not going to see it.” But I put enough where a guy could go see it and not be embarrassed. I wanted to do the same with Beyond the Lights that the male character had a story and an arc. But I also think that makes a love story more interesting, as opposed to one main character and the others just reacting. These are two people with full arcs. So I think that influenced in terms of the structure of Beyond the Lights.
And going with the actor — -with Love & Basketball I was going back and forth for three months. I had Sanaa, who had never touched a basketball before and was taking lessons, and I had an athlete in acting lessons. And I could not decide between the two. I had to finally make a decision and think, “What is this movie going to be?” And I said it’s going to be a love story set in the basketball world; you can fake a jump shot but you can’t fake a close up. That really influenced this as well. I thought I really wanted a real singer for Beyond the Lights but then in realizing the depths that this character goes — -you need an actor. Thankfully, Gugu was able to sing.
I read that you’ve been working on getting this developed since 2007. And you fought for having Gugu in the film. What has that process been like?
I started writing this in 2007, and then I got The Secret Life of Bees and put it down. Once I finished with that it was a solid two years of writing and getting the script right, going out with it and getting turned down by everybody. Except for one studio and they optioned it — -it wasn’t even like they were going to make it. At the time was just about casting, so at first we looked at real musical artists, but who they wanted, I did not want, and the other didn’t want to play a singer. And thank god, it would have been so wrong for the film.
Once those singers fell through, I started looking at actors and starting thinking about Walk the Line and Coal Miner’s Daughter — -they had actors at the center of them — -so I started auditioning actors. Gugu came in, this was two years ago, she hadn’t done Belle yet. She was a complete unknown. I saw the movie during her audition, it was so exciting. She was so interesting, magnetic and had an innate vulnerability. I just wanted to keep watching her. It was originally written as an American singer so she had the American accent and then she had to sing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” as part of the audition. She knocked it out and I didn’t know that before she has a whole history of musical theater.
Then once she finished the audition and I’m trying to not spaz out, I sat and just started talking to her. And she had such a connection to the character and the material and she was talking about being raised by a single mother. During this, she’s talking in her normal voice, her British accent, and it just felt more interesting. It made the character more interesting and more global.
I was so excited to show Sony that I had found her. And they were like, “She’s not a star,” and they let the option lapse, so I decided to shoot a presentation to showcase Gugu and prove that this woman is a star. It turned out great. We went back to all the studios armed with that and we got closer and three studios were very close but ultimately they said no, that they can’t put in millions of dollars because she’s not a star. It’s so hard when you know and that people aren’t willing to take that chance. But I knew from Love & Basketball — -everyone turned that down — -and I knew that I just needed one yes. That kept me going. We finally got to Relativity Studios and it was the first studio who saw the presentation and said: She’s a star. Go for it. You can cast whoever you want as the male lead, who ended up being Nate Parker.
Everything happens for a reason. Even though it felt dead, it brought me to Relativity, who gave me complete creative control. Which is rare, honestly, in this town. But to be able to cast the way I wanted it and the crew the way I wanted it and not get notes that were trying to change my vision — -it was great.
Are you working on anything after this?
I know the next one I’m going to write. I have all the characters, I have the story, but part of my process is just literally just sitting in my office and letting scenes come. And I haven’t had the time because I’m doing this. I just really want to get the word out and the response so far has been really pretty great. So I’m just trying to get the word out and then hopefully the two leads will blow up. After that, I’ll have the time to sit down.
Kerensa Cadenas is a writer based in Los Angeles. She always wants to talk about weird snacks, Drake and, if she’s being honest with herself, the emotional truth telling of Taylor Swift.