The “Beyond the Lights” Interview
with Kam Williams
Born on June 10, 1969, Gina Maria Prince-Bythewood studied film at UCLA before beginning her career as a writer for the TV sitcom, “A Different World.” In 2000, she made a noteworthy directorial debut with the critically-acclaimed Love & Basketball, which netted a dozen accolades during awards season, including a couple of NAACP Image Awards, a BET Award and several Black Reel Awards.
Gina’s next feature was The Secret Life of Bees (2008), which also earned its share of trophies, including Image Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. Here, she talks about making her third movie, Beyond the Lights, a romance drama co-starring Gugu Mbata-Raw and Nate Parker.
Kam Williams: Hi Gina, thanks for the interview. I’m honored to have this opportunity.
Gina Prince-Bythewood: Absolutely! Thank you, Kam.
KW: I have to start by asking: Why so long between films?
GPB: Well, I didn’t expect it to take this long. This one took a very long time. I started writing it in 2007. But I stopped to make The Secret Life of Bees, which took up a couple years, before coming back to this. Then, it was another four-year journey between the writing and setting it up. The project was turned down by everybody a couple times. I was fighting, fighting and fighting for it until BET and Relativity finally stepped up.
KW: Beyond the Lights was obviously a labor of love. What was the source of your inspiration for the project?
GPB: A couple things. One, I knew I wanted to write a love story. And I’ve always wanted to write a music film. Some of my favorite films are musicals, like Walk the Line, The Rose and Lady Sings the Blues. I just love the way the music and the story fuel each other. I wanted to do that with Hip-Hop, since it had never been explored before. It was really marrying those two together. The next question was: What’s the story going to be? I was dealing with two things in my life at the time. Someone very close to me had tried to kill themself, changed their mind halfway through, and was able to get themself to the hospital, thankfully. Going through that with them, and researching suicide afterwards, I was amazed to learn that 60% of people who succeed at committing suicide try to change their mind. I thought that was a pretty important thing to explore. This character, Noni [played by Gugu Mbata-Raw], if she’d been successful on the balcony attempt, her life would’ve been over at that point. She could not see past all the pain she was feeling but, by having the second chance, she did get to change her life, find her voice and experience true love. I wanted to put out a movie that could let others in a similar position to take a chance know that there might be something positive past the pain. The other inspiration had to do with issues surrounding my finding my birth mother, who was white, and her not being the fantasy I expected, and my realizing what my life would’ve been if I’d grown up with her, in a home where I was loved and hated at the same time. Because I was black, her parents told her to abort me, and would not allow her to have me. I thought that was a fascinating thing to deal with, and served as the basis of Noni’s relationship with her mother [played by Minnie Driver].
KW: So, who were you raised by?
GPB: I was adopted by two amazing people, a Salvadoran mother, and a white father who were incredibly supportive of me and my work. I am eternally grateful for them.
KW: Gee, I didn’t know any of that about you. This question is from Thelonious Legend. He says: I recently interviewed your husband [actor/writer/producer/director Reggie Rock Bythewood] and was very impressed with his passion for bringing diversity to film and with his using his talents for a cause bigger than himself. Do you ever feel a pressure from women or minority communities to “do the right thing,” and how does that influence your creative process?
GPB: I don’t feel any pressure because these are the stories I want to tell. People often ask me if I feel discriminated against as a black female director. I don’t. I’m actually offered a ton of stuff. But I only want to direct what I write. And I prefer to focus on black female characters. What’s most important to me is to put characters up onscreen who are not perfect, but who are human and flawed.
KW: Sangeetha Subramanian says: I am a huge fan of Love & Basketball. I was just talking about the film the other day. The trailer for Beyond the Lights looks great, as well. She asks: Has your perspective of women’s struggle of career versus love changed over time?
GPB: [LOL] That’s a great question! Back then, as now, I want us to have it all, love and career. It’s a struggle sometime to achieve that, but I love the struggle.
KW: How did you come to cast Gugu in the lead? Did you feel like you were taking a big chance since she’s British and not a singer?
GPB: I found her in the auditions. My original plan was to go with a musical artist, but then I realized I needed an actress, given the depth of what her character goes through. She came in to audition two years ago, and she was phenomenal. I saw the movie when I watched her. She sang “Blackbird” as part of the audition, and she knocked that out of the park, too. After hearing her connection to the material, and her being raised by a single-mother, it became obvious that she was the one. It was a gut thing. I knew that she was a star. She just hadn’t been broken yet. That was exciting for me as a director, to be able to give her that opportunity. As far as Nate [co-star Nate Parker], I’d worked with him before on The Secret Life of Bees, and always felt like he was going to be the next Denzel. So, I’m really hoping that this is the breakout role for him, too. Once I put him and Gugu together, it was crystal clear that these two had amazing chemistry.
KW: I thought he also had great chemistry with Alicia Keys in The Secret Life of Bees. So, maybe you deserve a share of the credit for cultivating that between your leads.
GPB: Nate and I have a great trust with each other, and we had these live improvs on both pictures. I sent him and Alicia on a date in character that ended up lasting three hours and really connected them on such a deep level. With Beyond the Lights, we did a live improv early on in the process where I sent Nate and Gugu to a restaurant in character. I secretly told her not to take her sunglasses off. And I whispered to him to get her to take them off. They had no idea. I also hired about 30 paparazzi to show up and swarm all over her. They stayed in character and he protected her. The restaurant had no idea, either. They thought it was all real. That real-life experience bonded them throughout the shooting in a way that just rehearsing never would have.
KW: When I saw Love & Basketball, it was with an inner-city, all-black audience that yelled back at the screen. Did you get to see it that way?
GPB: Oh, my goodness! Yes, the very first time I played the film for an audience was at a mall in Crenshaw, so it was very scary. But once folks started talking to the screen, it was fun. It was great that the audience was that engaged.
KW: I included funny things people shouted out in my review. Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
GPB: [Chuckles] Not really.
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What music have you been listening to?
GPB: Beyonce’s “Drunken Love,” which came out right when I was in the middle of editing the film. I never thought I’d be able to afford it, so the fact that it ended up in the movie was such a shock to me.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
GPB: Gone Girl.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
GPB: Salmon with barbecue sauce.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
GPB: [LOL] Wow! I see a wife, a mom and a filmmaker.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
GPB: Honestly, happiness for my children.
KW: The Anthony Mackie question: Is there anything that you promised yourself you’d do if you became famous, that you still haven’t done yet?
GPB: I hate to fly. I’m deathly afraid of it. And I keep promising myself to take a fear of flying course because I have to fly around to promote each film, but I still haven’t done it.
KW: The Viola Davis question: What’s the biggest difference between who you are at home as opposed to the person we see on the red carpet?
GPB: I’m much more comfortable at home.
KW: If you could have a chance to speak with a deceased loved one for a minute who would it be?
GPB: Wow! I would say my Oma, my adoptive grandmother, who was Salvadoran but embraced me instantly despite my being black, and who encouraged my grandfather to follow suit.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
GPB: I remember standing up in a crib in an empty room. I think it was the first time my parents came to the orphanage to meet me.
KW: The Harriet Pakula-Teweles question: With so many classic films being redone, is there a remake you’d like to star in?
GPB: No, a classic is a classic for a reason. Let’s try to create new classics. The idea of repeating ourselves drives me a little crazy.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
GPB: Be passionate about your material, because you’re going to have to overcome a lot of “No’s,” and it’s that passion that fuels the fight. So, yeah, be passionate.
KW: Thanks again for the time, Gina. Best of luck with the film. Don’t take so long to make your next one. I look forward to speaking to you again in less than six years.
GPB: [LOL] Same here. Thank you very much, Kam. Take care.