For a filmmaker whose every script has its own playlist, it comes as no surprise that writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood’s new romantic drama, Beyond the Lights, is fueled by music and unfolds within the complicated world of hip hop and R&B. Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an award-winning young artist, struggles with the pressures of newfound stardom and her tough-as-nails momager (Minnie Driver) until she meets Kaz (Nate Parker), a promising young cop and aspiring politician who encourages her to find her own voice. Opening November 14th, the film also stars Danny Glover.
In an exclusive interview, Prince-Bythewood revealed how an Alicia Keys’ concert at the Hollywood Bowl and pivotal moments in her personal life moved her to write about this character and this world, her fight to cast Mbatha-Raw, how industry reaction to the finished script was positive but getting a commitment to underwrite production with a relatively unknown cast was difficult until BET and Relativity recognized the film’s potential and stepped in, what the actors brought to their roles, how well-chosen cameos lent authenticity, the film’s important theme of choosing life, her UCLA experience, and her upcoming projects: I Know This Much Is True, Before I Fall, and an untitled original comedy. Hit the jump for the interview.
GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: It’s been 14 years since Love & Basketball. I wanted to do another love story and I also wanted to do a music film. It’s one of my favorite genres. The Rose was one of my favorite movies. So, it felt like let me come up with something that can marry those two together, but I didn’t have a story yet. And then, I went to Alicia Key’s concert at the Hollywood Bowl. The thing is I write to music, so every script I have has its own playlist. Music just opens me up to the emotions that I’m writing. It’s just a pretty cool thing. So, I was at the concert and she started singing this song Diary, which is this beautiful, epic love song. It was just a great moment as a writer where I literally closed my eyes and saw this movie playing in my head and her voice was scoring it. It was this character and this world. It was really from there and going home and honing the story and being influenced by two really personal things that happened at that time.
What were the personal experiences that influenced your approach to this?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Someone very close to me tried to kill themselves and changed their mind halfway through. They took pills and were able to call and get the hospital to come. But in trying to help them, and for me to even process it, I just did a lot of research. I was fascinated to learn that at least half the people who commit suicide, there’s evidence that they changed their mind. I thought that was really something I wanted to deal with, the fact that the person who was close to me could not see any world or life or anything past that moment and that their life is so much better now. They never would have had this life if they were successful in their attempt. That’s really what I put into Noni, because I wanted the message of this film ultimately to be to choose life. It’s the fact that this character just wants it quiet, can’t take it anymore, and cannot see anything past this persona that she’s locked into. If Kaz wasn’t there and she did it, she would not have found herself. She wouldn’t have found true love. I’m hoping that what people take away is that theme of choose life.
That was a huge influence on the script, as well as me dealing with some things in terms of my personal life, with being adopted and finding my birth mother who was white and learning the circumstances of my birth, which were pretty tough to hear, and knowing that her parents said, “You can’t have this baby because it’s black,” and being able to put that into this mother and daughter. If this woman had ended up raising me, I would have grown up in a home that didn’t have unconditional love and how damaging that could be because it should be the right of every child. I wanted to deal with that, and that was really the catalyst for the Macy-Noni relationship of a girl who’s growing up and a woman who’s trying to find her own self-worth in her daughter and how damaging that can be, but also using her love as a carrot at times as well to push her daughter into the direction that she wants. That was a fascinating theme, just on a writing level, but also it was great for me. Writing is great therapy to be able deal with those things.
Can you talk about shaping the story arc that begins with Noni as this troubled young artist and ends with her finding the courage to stand up for herself?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I knew the beginning and the end of this film pretty clearly and the journey in it that it took. I mean, there are 55 drafts up there on the screen. It was a lot of writing and rewriting and just trying to hone that story. Honestly, what’s interesting is in the early drafts I was trying to say too much and putting so much of my personal life in it. I was then thinking, “What is really the crux of the story and the essence of the story?” And then, that allowed me to shave away the other stuff and hone in on the essence of what the story was. That’s where the rewriting comes from. I think everybody overwrites at the beginning. Once you know what the characters want, and ultimately what Noni wanted was to find her own voice, it really helped shape the story.
How difficult was it getting the cast you wanted? All three actors really own their roles and buy into your vision. Minnie Driver is a veteran, but the other two were not well-known, and this was before Gugu had done Belle.
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Gugu hadn’t even shot it yet. She was a complete unknown. It was very, very difficult. Once I found Gugu, I knew she was the one. But studios kept saying, “She’s not a star.” So, it was, “Love the script, love your work, but can you think about casting it a different way?” I didn’t want to go a different way. I knew she was the one. Everybody turned it down. It wasn’t until BET saw a presentation that I shot of Gugu. That’s what I ended up having to do, was spend my money and shoot an 8-minute presentation that showcased her in this role so that people could see how good she is and that she is a star. Because of that presentation, it got very close to three different studios, but they didn’t pull that final trigger. It was still, “How can we market this? How can we sell this?” It wasn’t until Relativity finally did. They saw the presentation and saw what I saw, which was that this girl is a star.
In terms of Nate, they said, “It’s whoever you want to cast for the male lead.” Whereas, some of the other studios were saying, “Can you make him white, because there’s not really anybody in this age range that’s a star? Can you go with a hip hop artist that has a name?” I just wanted to make a movie with actors. So it was tough, but it was worth the fight. Everything happens for a reason, and it was that it brought me to those two, and then to Minnie Driver, who is so incredible and pushed me in a good way as a director and made me step up my game.
Minnie is a fascinating woman and she brought such complexity to the role. The rehearsals were just so exciting between her and Gugu, and in some of the improvs that we did, they connected in such a deep complex level. It was just exciting to then see it up on screen. We don’t get to see Minnie enough. Minnie is a brilliant actress. It was exciting to put her in this role that was something different. There were many other actors who wouldn’t even consider the role – female actresses who said they didn’t want to pay Gugu’s mother because that would affect Hollywood’s perception of them. Minnie didn’t care about that. She just thought it was a great role. Props to her and thank God, because I can’t imagine or envision anybody else but her.
And then, with Danny Glover, it was the chance to work with him and the warmth and eagerness he brought. You never know with an actor of that caliber if they’re going to phone it in or not. I knew I wanted him early on. He was the only person actually that I knew from the outset I wanted. But is he going to come in and be lazy with it? I had no idea. But that first rehearsal with Nate was immediate. I saw the light in Nate’s eyes, because Danny came in so specific about what that father-son relationship was and what it meant to Danny to put that on screen.
They all connected on a personal level. We had no money to make this movie. So, when everybody is coming in knowing that this is not going to be a huge pay date, well why are you doing it? They were doing it because they bought into the script and the vision.
How did you get the amazing cameos that really bring authenticity to that world?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: That was the biggest thing, recreating a world that people see every single day. So, it was all about that authenticity. We targeted certain people early on, but ultimately we were so fortunate that they came. Like Gayle King gets nothing out of being in it. She loved what we were trying to say. She was very into what’s happening with girls. So it was really our approach to each person. Don Lemon was the same thing. Obviously, he came out on CNN. He loved the fact that this character was speaking the truth to what her life was really like and he wanted to be a part of it for that. The musical artist, MGK, who played Kid Culprit, I knew I wanted a real hip hop artist early on. Big Sean was somebody that auditioned, and he didn’t get the role, but he still wanted to be a part of it. Each person came in a different way. Chaka Khan was a great one. Our pitch to her was, “Noni aspires to be you. If she could switch places with you, even though she’s the one getting the Billboard Award and you’re just presenting, she would give anything to have your career.” Chaka loved that.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of making this film?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I definitely gained confidence as a director. This was a very tough shoot. It was 29 days. We had $7.2 million to make it. How am I going to make this world which is so big and flossy on a $7 million budget? It was just being so meticulous with it. I worked very closely with my D.P. Tami Reiker who’s awesome and talked about the look of the film and what we really wanted. When Noni’s on stage, it’s that bright, colorful false feeling. And when she steps off, it’s the underbelly. It’s the rawness and the realness and going handheld and just the immediacy. So, it was in terms of the look of it, and then just working with the actors and being more confident.
Improv is a very big thing for me. The thing with actors is I do not understand at all how they do what they do. I’m fascinated by it and I have such a respect for it. It scares me a little to have a talent to be in a scene like the kitchen scene (with Minnie Drive and Gugu Mbatha-Raw). They were so in it. So, it was to have the confidence to start playing more games, because acting is playing, and so really engaging them in improv. Early on in my career, I’d be afraid that an actor might say, “That sounds stupid.” And now, I have the confidence to say, “This is what we’re going to do.”
With actors, if they buy into the vision, they’re going to buy into you. So it was just having a little more confidence. I mean, you see Minnie. She is a true force of nature. She’s amazing and just working with somebody like her and working with somebody like Danny forces you to up your game and come prepared every day. And then, working with younger actors like Gugu and Nate is exciting because they’re so eager and open, and it’s just fun. It was just two different sides — the veterans and the youngsters — but it all ended up meshing really well together.
How does the final film compare to what you originally envisioned?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: That’s the very cool thing. It’s the movie that was in my head. It was a lot of fight to get there, but it really is. There’s only one thing that I would do differently and it’s just because I didn’t have time. When Noni’s taking off her nails, I did not have time to get a close-up of that and it drives me crazy every time I see it, because I feel it’s a simple moment, but it’s a big moment for her. So, it drives me crazy I don’t have that close-up. But other than that, all the fight to get to that point, all the ‘no’s’ brought me to the right cast and me in the right place to be able to get the movie that I wanted.
What are you working on next that you’re excited about?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: I Know This Much Is True is a Wally Lamb book. It’s a brilliant book. I loved that movie so much. It deals with mental illness, which is something that is very close to me in terms of my family and something again that’s writing for therapy. It’s something I still need to continue to work with. It’s just a difficult movie because one actor plays a schizophrenic. They’re identical twins and one is schizophrenic and the other isn’t. We haven’t found the right actor for that yet. There’s also another one that I’m excited about writing as well. It’s an original screenplay. It’s the next one I want to write and it’s another personal story, but it’s more comedic in tone. I remember sitting in the theater watching Bridesmaids, and I’m doubled over laughing, and then I’m crying in the same movie. It’s the overwhelming feeling as I’m looking up and seeing these women and I’m realizing how rare it is to see that. The way it made me feel was I wanted to bring that to the story that I have in my head. It’s just that kind of feeling and women up on screen, so it’s about female friendship. It doesn’t have a title yet. And then, Before I Fall is based on a book and I actually really like that, too. It’s very hard because I have an original story in my head that I really want to get out, but I also love those projects as well. I wish I had more time, but I have two boys and a husband who’s also a director, and we like to switch as much as we can so that we can each have our turn.
Can you talk a little about your UCLA experience and how that shaped you as a person and as a filmmaker?
PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Oh my God, I love UCLA so much. Their film school is great because it’s unstructured, so there’s a freedom to fail in there and just tell your story and everybody makes a film. It’s so important to have that freedom in film school because that’s what you’re there for, to learn and make a film. Whereas at other film schools, they may have more money, but not everybody gets to make a film. You have to pitch it. It’s more like a studio. But deal with that once you’re in the real world, and in film school, just make a film. I also ran track there. Athletics is such a huge part of who I am. Really one of the best times of my life was at UCLA.