When filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood imagined a love story set within the world of hip hop and R&B for her new film, Beyond the Lights, she found musical inspiration in Alicia Keys’ epic love song Diary and her favorite films — Purple Rain, Lady Sings the Blues, and The Rose. Her romantic drama chronicles a young artist’s (Noni/Gugu Mbatha-Raw) struggle with sudden stardom and the man (Kaz/Nate Parker) who comes into her life at her worst moment and still sees the good in her. Through his love, she finds the courage to shed the persona that’s been shaped for her and discover her own voice. The movie also stars Minnie Driver and Danny Glover.
At the film’s recent press day, we sat down with actors Mbatha-Raw, Driver and Parker, writer-director Prince-Bythewood, and producers Stephanie Allain and Reggie Rock-Bythewood who talked about creating the music that is such a powerful thread throughout the film, Allain and Rock-Bythewood’s roles as producing partners, what appealed to the actors about their characters, the unusual date Prince-Bythewood set up between Mbatha-Raw and Parker to help develop their chemistry, her strong vision and directing style, the film’s most powerful scenes, and why the movie was fertile ground to explore what’s happening in the industry today. Check out our interview after the jump.
Can you talk about the emotional resonance of the music that was written for this and designing it to mirror Noni’s character and the storyline?
GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It really started with Noni’s original music and knowing what we needed for that. Early on, the only target I had was The Dream. I knew that he could do the raunch at the beginning of the movie, but also write beautiful love songs like he does for Beyonce, and I wanted somebody at that level. We had to believe her songs would be playing with the radio. This being a music film, music was everything to this, so it started there with his original music and the work that both Debra Byrd and The Dream did with Gugu in the studio. And then, just as a whole, with the soundtrack, it was very important that the music mirrors her trajectory. I wanted to have a balance between established artists like Beyonce, but also some newcomers like Cynthia Erivo, who has such a beautiful track, and Yuna. I wanted to focus on songwriters as well. India (Jean-Jacques) and Rita (Ora) are in there. I’m not even counting obviously Nina Simone who was a huge influence on this. As the story progresses, we had more of that singer-songwriter vibe to it, which is where Noni was hoping to go. That was coupled with the real artists that we had in the film that are playing early on in the film. It was important to have the ignorance that would be part of Noni’s existence, and that’s really what was playing on the radio and at the Billboard Awards and in the conference room. Just again, the fact that in that scene you’re hearing Kid Culprit’s music play and what he sang, and both Macy (Minnie Driver’s character) and Noni are sitting there not even paying attention to what is coming out of his mouth. It was just setting that scene and that tone early on, so that then as it progressed, we could get to more of the true artist that Noni wanted to be.
How beneficial was it having Stephanie and Reggie as your producing partners in bringing this to life with the music and the licensing and rights of some of the existing tunes, especially with Machine Gun Kelly?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Well, with Machine Gun, what was great is that I knew I wanted a real hip hop artist, and that’s something that Stephanie, Reg and I talked about a lot, about bringing that authenticity, and that was tantamount for this film. In pushing for him, it was a bit of a fight and the fact is they had my back in terms of wanting to go that way. We worked a lot also with the music supervisor, Julia Michels, with the music as well, and it was just targeting the songs we wanted, putting them in, and hoping. We had a very small budget. So it was having the foresight to put what we wanted in there and believing that it would resonate with audiences, and the studio would step up and give us a little extra for the music, and that’s exactly what happened. We were very, very fortunate.
Minnie, I loved your character. What made you just go for it? It was so believable and it was wonderful to see your performance in that kind of role.
MINNIE DRIVER: Oh thank you. I’m not really for the whole kids in show business thing. It’s really difficult, and even when you meet lovely parents of children who are in show business, there is still the fact that they are not having a childhood. They are out of their element and in the element of an adult world, which is not always appropriate. It seems to me there is always a certain level of desperation that makes a person put a child in that position, and that’s an interesting place to start for a character, someone who is desperate and who’s conflicted. If that’s overshadowing everything else, it doesn’t matter how nice or kind or empathetic they might be elsewhere, this overriding thing is quite fierce. Plus, when it’s your own kid, you’ve got such interesting seesaws going on. You love them. Of course, you love them, but you want this other thing. For me, it was quite existential as well because it’s like there’s no, “there, there.” Macy thinks there’s a “there, there,” that there’s a point of arrival that we’ll get to this place when it will all be fine, but it will never be fine. It will always be just that. It’s the realm of the hungry ghost. That’s really interesting for an actor, a part playing around in that. And also, it’s because Gugu is English. (Laughter) I promise you I had such a huge amount to do there, if there was a girl who was constantly trying to be like, [using a very proper English accent] “Alright Mary Poppins!,” it would have been really hard for me to love her. I love her so much because she’s English, and also, she is completely and utterly brilliantly.
For Minnie and Gina, the defining moment for me in your role is when you’re explaining to your daughter how it’s just you and her against the world. Can you explain what you had going on inside you when you said that?
DRIVER: (to Prince-Bythewood) Well, what did you have when you wrote it before I say what I had when I said it?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I had the whole turning point of the movie. It was we’ve only seen one side of Macy at that point, that relentless drive, and this was an opportunity for Macy to explain where it came from and what she had gone through to raise Noni on her own and to be abandoned by her own parents because of Noni. It is honestly one of my favorite scenes because it does give the character and the audience a catharsis because you understand what is behind her behavior.
DRIVER: You can’t be a villain. Villains aren’t interesting unless there’s the unvillainous part of them. You really understand why she does what she does in that moment. You really get it. It’s not from a malicious point of view. She’s not a sociopath. She’s not evil. She just desperately did not want to go back to that poverty and she wanted something better for her kid. When you make it sound like that, it sounds good. It’s just all of the contextual stuff, which is the story that the movie tells, that makes it hard, but that’s just like life. That’s why it’s such a good film. It’s the messy business of being alive.
You said it with such conviction. You really feel it.
DRIVER: Good! I’m an actress! That’s what I get paid for. (Laughter)
Nate and Gugu, you have such great chemistry in this movie. How long did it take to develop that chemistry and did you guys do anything special to get on the same page?
GUGU MBATHA-RAW: Well, you know, it really was down to Gina’s script – this relationship which had been written in such a nuanced way and the two characters that you understand where they’re coming from, both from single parent families and ambitious parents. To me, it very much had a kind of Romeo and Juliet vibe to it. They’re from different worlds and then they have this star-crossed moment where they really shouldn’t connect but it happens. In terms of working together, Gina and Nate have worked together before, so they already have very much a shorthand. We did some rehearsals, but we also did an improvised acting exercise where we went in character. Gina set us up. We went on a date dressed in character for lunch, and then we were hijacked by a team of paparazzi, and we were just improvising our way through that scenario in public. That was so informative, because it was not only having to think on your feet and make choices that your character would make, but for us it was also spending time together off script as the characters and getting to know our characters and getting to know each other. We also went to Disneyland on a little extracurricular trip just to hang out and get to know each other a little bit.
NATE PARKER: I think that performance often times is a reflection of leadership. So, all that we’re speaking about is a testament to Gina’s directing. She is a leader. She’s an activist. She’s a feminist. She’s so aware of what’s happening. She has such a grasp on her vision that it becomes a lot easier to express her vision when she articulates it because she knows what she wants. She sent us on a date, which was one of the toughest things I’ve ever had to do, because here I am as a cop and the character, but also as a man in real life having to protect this woman from these aggressive, borderline violent paparazzi. Like she said, it was in public, so we’re dealing with a restaurant owner who doesn’t understand that we’re acting, and so he’s calling the real police. We were hiding in the kitchen and looking at each other and going, “Is this what it is?” It’s so much work. It’s so exhausting. And it made me really think, “Could I have a relationship with someone that had this level of stardom?” I was really doubtful, because where are the intimate moments when the paparazzi have a long lens shooting through your hotel room? How do you have children? I felt a certain way about the artist that would cover their kids with blankets, and I always thought, “Who could do that to their kid? Their kids are under there. What the hell’s going on? I hear something happening.” But then, you experience a film like this and you see just how intrusive that entire process can be, and you understand it, and then you can empathize. I felt like so many things happened that set us up to step onto set and have a real relationship. Because what is chemistry? I think it’s an intimacy. It’s a vulnerability. I felt like they were milestones achieved before we ever walked onto the set that allowed us to really perform in a way that was uninhibited. But like I said, I direct all of that praise to my director because she had it in her mind. I didn’t call and say, “Can we do an exercise where we get nearly run over by the paparazzi?” That didn’t happen. She saw these things before. My mantra is always, “Fix it in prep.” The chemistry was a direct result of her preparation.
All three of your performances are stunning on screen. What did Gina do for your performances in terms of bringing them onto the screen? What was that set like?
DRIVER: I’ve really never heard it put so [eloquently]. You really are a wonderful public speaker, Nate. I love that whole “performance comes from leadership.” I think if you’ve worked for as many hundreds of years as I’ve been working, often times you have to do things in spite of the director. You have to fight your way through because there is no leadership sometimes. But Gina really just had such a strong idea. And I’m a very, very strong person as well. As an actor, you have to be able to make strong choices and make these big, bold characters. Gina is so brilliant at holding her ground and then co-opting what’s best about what it is that you’re offering up. It really does become a collaboration that she’ll empower the really good bits and gently tell you what’s crap, without being a dick about it, but being very, very clear and very strong. It’s interesting. It’s like kids. You do need quite a solid framework to push up against. It helps.
PARKER: The devil is in the details as they say. I remember when we were in Kaz’s house. We were prepping for that scene, and she said, “What kind of books would Kaz have in his room and in his house?” I thought to myself, “She has really thought this out.” And if you look closely, you’ll see Game Changers. You’ll see a Malcolm Gladwell book. You see she literally was concerned, “What kind of quotes would Kaz have on his wall?” I’m looking at her and I’m like, “Wow, that’s my job.” But she’s thought it out. She gave me a framework to work within. And like Minnie said, you don’t always get an infrastructure, not someone that is going to build the house and furnish it, but someone who gives you a framework to just exist in. It becomes a support system, something to lean on, because as actors we don’t always know. Sometimes our ideas suck really badly. Sometimes a director that may not be as strong or may not be as prepared may allow that bad choice to make it into a film, and then you’re stuck with something that you wish you would’ve had some time to think about. You feel supported when you have a director that is putting in time. For me, it was just the attention to detail and that she covered things that I hadn’t thought about in the same way or had not made it around to think about. She just illuminated whatever idea it was in the moment at that time and it made me feel further supported.
Reggie and Stephanie, can you talk about your reactions the first time you read Gina’s script and then your job as producers and taking her vision from the screenplay and assembling the cast and putting it on film?
REGGIE ROCK-BYTHEWOOD: My process with Gina was very interesting, because I had the benefit of hearing it the first time she came up with the idea. I think that the script started to be developed without us really realizing that we were developing it. We would talk about various things in the music industry just in terms of relationship. It’s also very interesting your question about music because – not to contradict you, Gina – but I don’t think the music process really started once we started on set and we started shooting. It actually started in the script process because Gina had the beats all in her head and was just writing some music. Part of the process was that I read the script and we kind of beat each other up, and the mantra there is that it has to be flawless as much as possible when it gets past me. So, we engaged in a lot of debate and arguing in a very positive way. Then we started reaching out to some other filmmaker friends who support us. Malcolm Lee took a read and Kasi Lemmons took a read, and we also reached out to our friend Stephanie Allain, and Steph took a read. It allowed us to hear from a lot of people we trusted, a lot of people that Gina trusts, to hone our vision and see if she was in the right direction. Steph, you read it. What did you think of it?
STEPHANIE ALLAIN: I read it, yeah. The three of us have been together for a decade because we produced Reggie’s Biker Boyz. This was just another incarnation. I’ve been a huge fan of Gina and Reggie’s for a long time. When I read the script, I loved it. I loved what she was trying to say and how she said it, and I loved the love story of it. I absolutely called her two hours later and said, “I’d love to be a part of it.” And I will echo what Nate says about Gina. I’ve produced a lot of writer-directors, and Gina has such a firm grasp of what she wants, but it’s more than that. When she’s actually directing, it’s a beautiful thing. I mean, you really feel her joy. She’s so in her zone when she’s directing. She doesn’t get distracted by any kind of minutiae outside. She really keeps a bubble for the whole set. It’s just a joy to be able to help someone who has that clear of a vision that you admire and that you want to help make happen. It was a pleasure.
For Minnie and Gugu, there’s a powerful, pivotal scene in the kitchen between your two characters and it’s wonderfully acted and directed. I know it’s on the page, but how did you bring that scene to life?
MBATHA-RAW: It really was on the page genuinely. That scene was my favorite scene when I first read the script in 2011, and it was my favorite scene to shoot. And it’s my favorite scene in the movie. It’s one of those scenes that we’ve just been waiting to happen through the whole movie, because it’s the turning point when Noni finally literally finds her voice and not just on a singing level, but has the confidence and courage to confront her mother and to express some home truths and all of the things that she’s been suppressing over the years. For me, it was explosive and I felt it was such a gift to work with Minnie. As much as Minnie is hilarious and funny and brilliant to work with, in that scene we really had to lock horns. Minnie brought such intensity to that. As I say, it was all that bottled up emotion that the characters have. It just needed to erupt.
DRIVER: It’s good when you have to do a scene that starts in a place. It’s like the scene in Alien when they’re all sitting around having dinner. They’re all just having dinner, and then he coughs, and the whole thing kicks open to a different place. But it has to begin in a really familiar place that is honest and truthful, and you can’t be sending messages about what’s coming if you can’t be revving up, particularly as an actor. You’re either going to get there or you’re not going to get there. There’s no, “Well, we’ll cut and we’ll come back in and pick it up. They’ll blow tear sticks in your eyes and you can get all…” It’s like, “No, you’ve got to get there. If you don’t get there, then we’ll do it again until you do.” But that’s the best kind of scene if you’re interested in acting, because they’re the hardest ones to do where you really have to start 180 degrees away from where you end up. You have to find that journey and that’s playing. That’s doing. For me, that’s what I get paid for. That’s the piece that I love the most. It’s that. And you have to do it with somebody really good and have a really good director that will let you do that.
ALLAIN: And being on set that day was very, very powerful. We were all literally crying. It was just a really impactful scene.
DRIVER: (to Mbatha-Raw) That was a proper day’s work, Gina. (Laughter)
I just want to know how hard you hit her? That was the slap heard around the world.
DRIVER: That was actually the only frustrating bit because it was a stunt. I just couldn’t quite get the angle. That was difficult for me to do.
Because you wanted to really hit her?
DRIVER: I really did want to smack her. (Laughter) (to Mbatha-Raw) I’m sure you’ve done something in your life that’s worth a smack.
This film is in the romantic genre. Was it intended as a critique on the music industry or on pop stars, and if so, why?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: A critique is probably a strong word. It was influenced by what is going on in the industry today. What’s important is that we didn’t want this film to be this finger wagging at the industry. It’s this character, and what she’s forced to do is inauthentic to her. Sexuality is authentic to some artists out there. My issue, and what I’ve seen happen lately in the last couple years, is this blueprint that young artists coming up seem to have to follow with this hyper-sexuality to get noticed. I really wanted to try and change the conversation and go back to the first time we heard Alicia Keys come out with Fallin’, and it was just about her voice, and she was her own person and her own vibe and how exciting that was. Whereas now, everyone seems to be the same and coming out the same. I love R&B and hip hop but it’s gone into not a great place right now. I just want to get back to where it is about the voice. Again, I think critique is too strong a word, but I thought it was fertile ground for a character who is forced into a persona that is not her and is inauthentic to her and finding so much love coming at her because of that inauthenticity and what that can do to you. Suddenly, you’re fearful of ever shedding that, because are you then worthy of love without it? I thought that was interesting as a character, and Gugu personified that so brilliantly.
PARKER: I wish he were here. That relationship is one that I will always cherish, from rehearsal until the first time we did a scene, until the last time we had an opportunity to do a scene, until the last time we actually had the opportunity to see each other. He still calls me “son” and I still call him “pop.” My father passed away when I was very young. Being someone who comes from a single parent household, you have ideas of what your life would have been like if you had a father in your life, the effect he would have had, the kind of wisdom he would have imparted on you, and what you would have wanted to do to make him proud. So, this relationship was very special to me. I’ve been asked, “How does it feel to have saved her?” I said, “I feel like we saved each other because we were both living a lie. We were both living projections of someone else.” The relationship between Kaz and his father, Danny’s character, could be more dangerous because the debt doesn’t have negative connotation attached.
Here’s a man who’s stood in the gap in a time and in an environment where in this community there are not many father-son relationships that you see that are happening in a healthy way. So, to see this man want nothing more for his son than for him to go to law school and educate himself, get an education around creating change and policy, and then go into politics and eventually try to follow in the footsteps of President Barack Obama, they’re all positive and good things. However, nonetheless, it was a projection of what he wanted for my character’s life. And it was weird because it was silent. There was no opinion about it until he looked into her eyes and he saw her experience. He saw from this macro level of what was happening in her life that there was a congruence, that what was happening to her was happening to him. Then you saw this relationship with his father start to turn, and it didn’t turn in a way that was obvious like, “Dad, you’re trying to destroy me and smother me.” It was more like, “What if I did something that I loved? What if I pursued something that meant something to me? What would that look like?” I think that the more important thing is the reaction from the father. Even though this happened, and his son in a sense turned against his father, his father received him with love and supported his decision, because ultimately the movie doesn’t happen if Danny Glover’s character doesn’t say, “Okay.” I feel like because of the integrity and because of the debt, Kaz would have said, “Okay, Dad. If you really don’t want me to do this, I won’t.” And then, that’s a totally different ending. It was kudos to Gina again for creating this healthy place because Kaz could have had a mother. She could have written him having a mother, and then it’s a mother and father trying to find out what this space is. But I think it was very intentional, because I know Gina, to have a mother and a child in a single parent household, and a father and a child in a single parent household, and for both of them to be living this kind of projection, whether healthy or not, for what they wanted their lives to be. It was complex and I enjoyed playing it.
Gina really stirred the fire when Danny’s character says, “You know she’s not First Lady material.” In other words, I don’t care what you do, but she’s not the one. Can you talk about the inspiration behind that line of dialogue?
PARKER: That’s a thing, too. I think even that statement is misogynistic. Who’s to know? There’s such apathy around the way women are treated, whether it be in media or in real life. It’s so accepted. It’s like that thing where you get hit on the head, but you ignore that it happened. You ignore the swelling and you walk around like everything is okay. This is our everyday. We hear the chanting of music. You don’t have to love women. If you love them, you’re going to lose. Just get as many as you can and exploit them because that’s the way it’s supposed to be. And you hear that from people you love. My experience growing up, having my uncles raise me, they thought they were doing the right thing by telling me, “Okay, well first things first. This is how you get girls.” And so, those women that we say aren’t First Lady material, a lot of their experiences have been shaped by men that had that kind of ideology around women. I think that it was intentional because Gina is the director. But that’s also a conversation, him saying as an elder because of what he sees on television, this woman, this image of what she is, that she’s not worthy of your love. She’s not worthy of you putting her in a place where you would be with her or give her a sincere appreciation for who she is. And as my director wrote, he rejected that, and he followed his own heart, and he found his voice in that relationship. It’s great that you bring that up, because people in spite of their good intentions can really lead us in directions that aren’t healthy.
ROCK-BYTHEWOOD: By the way, that line that you’re talking about really came out of the research that Gina and I did with some real life people in the political world. That’s really what inspired that line. One of the other great things that we appreciated about Nate’s performance is that he showed us that you can be a gentleman without being soft, and a man doesn’t look to control his woman, a man looks to support his woman.
How liberating was it to do that scene when you remove your weave and reveal your natural hair, and your character comes to grips with who she really is?
MBATHA-RAW: I think it was another turning point for Noni. For me, as the actress, it was liberating just in terms of not having to spend an hour and a half in the hair and make-up chair the next day when we were doing the natural hair scenes with no nail extensions and all that stuff. It’s really symbolic of some of the themes of the film in terms of embracing who you are and challenging society’s beauty expectations. A lot of people have mentioned it to me, but I think it impacts deeply on a lot of women that moment of taking control of your identity. For Noni, as I’ve said, she’s had this image and this persona shaped for her, and so it was a very liberating moment in the film and hopefully an inspiring one to watch.