PARK CITY 2000 INTERVIEW: She Got Game, Leslie Harris and Gina Prince-Bythewood
Debate Indie Vs. Mainstream
by Leslie Harris
What does it mean to be an independent filmmaker today? It’s a question
that I often ask myself. Are we becoming too mainstream? What is
mainstream anyway? How do we preserve our vision and still make
exciting and creative films that shake things up?
‘Love and Basketball‘ writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood. The film is the Centerpiece Premiere at the Eccles Theater.
I love films. Being transformed by a fresh and exciting independent
film is something I cherish. Who can forget the first time they saw
John Cassavetes‘ “Faces,” Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” or just
recently Tom Tykwer’s “Run Lola Run.” These films force us to see the
world in a new way. That’s what independent films are suppose to do:
challenge the status quo. For me, they’re life altering experiences.
Perhaps I’m being over-dramatic, but drama is after all the essence of
I’ve been through enough drama myself these past few years after making
my first feature “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.,” a Special Jury Prize
Winner at the Sundance film festival ‘back in da day,’ an independent
film distributed by Miramax even, that didn’t gross “Blair Witch” mega
bucks but had mega attitude.
So ‘Why haven’t you made your second film?’ Unfortunately, it’s a
question the majority of successful first time independents hear too
often. A question that is not easily answered. Everyone has their own
stories. Being one of the first African American women directors
wasn’t as glamorous as it sounds. After the initial publicity, Miramax
as usual did a great job. The reality was much more complex than a
sound bite. There’s the abysmal statistics regarding African American
women directors making feature films over the past 7 years. The fact
that not one of us has had a second or third feature film theatrically
distributed by a mini or major. Why have so many Black female stories on
screen — “Waiting to Exhale,” “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” “Set It
Off,” “Soul Food” and “Beloved” — been directed by men? Hey, I love my
brothers but give one ‘sista ‘a break! There exist enormous challenges
women face — no matter what their ethnicity — to sustain a feature
film career and achieve a notable body of work. Why haven’t Lizzie
Borden, Julie Dash and Euzhan Palcy made more features?
We as independents are to blame too. We compromise when we shouldn’t and
doggedly refuse to listen to good ideas (yes, even execs have good
ideas!) when we should. We’re sometimes in a Catch 22 and too often our
dream of making that sophomore slam dunk fails to score. We want the
mega-Hollywood film deal, but at a price that compromises our vision.
The question still remains. What about the content? How do we continue
to create films that are ground breaking, fresh and challenging amid the
ever increasing pressures of the bottom line?
‘Love and Basketball‘ follows Monica’s (Sanaa Lathan) basketball career from the neighborhood court to the professional leagues.
What price Hollywood?
I am presently working on my next feature film “Royalties, Rhythm and
Blues” which is being produced through Martin Scorsese’s production
company. I’m committed to making a fresh and exciting film that will
shake things up. Even with a good script, a great production company
behind the project and talented actors waiting in the wings, we’re still
looking for financing.
So in the middle of all of this, I was asked to sit down and rap with
debuting talent Gina Prince-Bythewood, writer/director of “Love and
Basketball,” a New Line release which is the Centerpiece Premiere at
Sundance 2000 — just two ‘sistas’ talking about ‘our first time’ and
independent vision in a Hollywood state of mind.
Leslie Harris: Sundance is known as being a prestigious festival for
independents. How do you see yourself in the independent world?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: I don’t know how I feel about it, because this
isn’t an independent film. New Line financed it and so I don’t consider
it an independent film. I’m very proud it is going to be premiering at
Sundance, because the script was developed through the Sundance Writer’s
Lab and Director’s Lab. In terms of financing it myself or just doing
it for just a couple of million dollars, you know that didn’t happen. I
consider myself fortunate that I was able to get as much money as I did
and still have the autonomy to shoot the film I wanted without studio
Harris: The term “independent film” has become so ambiguous. My first
feature “Just Another Girl on the I.R.T.” was in competition at Sundance
in ’93. I raised the money myself, shot the whole film, then Miramax
came on board. But it seems that things have changed. There are more
independent films being made for millions and millions of dollars. More
and more, the traditional definition of independent films doesn’t seem
to apply to many films.
Prince-Bythewood: No, and you know it doesn’t apply to this film. New
Line gave me a very good budget, actually more than I’d asked for (under
$15 million). Just basically let me alone. In terms of just very minimal
notes. They didn’t come to the set. I didn’t get phone calls about
this or that. I wasn’t told editing wise I had to do this or that.
Harris: That’s really rare for a first time film financed by a studio.
You were extremely fortunate.
Prince-Bythewood: Very, very fortunate. I think I’ve been completely
spoiled to be honest.
Harris: How was the script developed?
Prince-Bythewood: I’ve been writing for television for 5 or 6 years.
But the whole time I wanted to direct. One, it’s very easy to get
complacent in TV, because the money is good. I finally quit TV to just
concentrate on a script that I could direct. It was developed as a
spec. I guess I was writing it for about a year and a half and finally
got it into the shape I wanted to take it out to the studios and
production companies. And we got really good response from production
companies, but when they tried to sell it to studios I kept being told
that the story was too soft and the script was too soft. I was told
you need scenes like the one in “Soul Food” where Vanessa Williams is
chasing her husband around with a knife. That kind of stuff. So I took
the script back and I was really kind of lost as to what to do next.
That’s when the Sundance Writer’s Lab called and said they heard about
the script and wanted to meet me. I went through the process and was
chosen. Going through the Writer’s Lab really gave the script a new
life and a new energy.
Harris: When I was approaching a few studios with just the script for
“Just Another Girl on the IRT” was told to tone down the main
character, Chantel, and tone down the other female characters too.
Funny, that never came up with the male characters. It was a strong
motivation for me to finance my first feature independently, to keep my
vision on point and create three dimensional female characters like the
young women I’d see everyday on the subway. Did you have any similar
Prince-Bythewood: Actually two things. There was one person in charge
who felt this was a feminist fairy tale because at the end Monica gets
everything she wants. Which didn’t make sense to me. And the other was
an argument with a producer about the love scene when Monica looses her
virginity. One of the producers asked if she could enjoy the sex more.
Show more eroticism. I was saying that it’s her ‘first time.’ And I’m
glad I’m the director here, because that’s a male fantasy that a women
is enjoying it so much the ‘first time’. So get over it. This is how
it really is.
Harris: Casting seems to be playing a more significant role in the
filmmaking process. Especially today, there’s so much pressure on the
box office. Did you have any pressure to get a ‘name’ in the lead?
Prince-Bythewood: I didn’t have any pressure in terms of Monica,
because I got Omar Epps. If I did not have a name in the lead it would
have effected the budget. Yeah, I was told that. Thankfully, I wanted
Omar. When negotiations weren’t working and I was thinking what if I
have to go somewhere else that did become an issue. I felt like if I had
a name in the lead, then I’d have a chance to use someone up and coming.
Harris: What was the process like working with Spike Lee?
Prince-Bythewood: Truthfully, I went in with a script that was done. So
it was really more his name with New Line. He came on the set once,
gave me a couple of suggestions for crew. Put in a few phone calls when
I needed to get something done. That was really the extent of it. He
was never overbearing. New Line really left me alone to do my movie.
Harris: Spike has a very “New York” sensibility about his work. Do you
find any differences between the East Coast/West Coast style of
filmmaking. I think sometimes some West Coast independents — I guess
I’m talking about first time filmmakers in Los Angles are a lot more
conscious of Hollywood and perhaps a bit more savvy on the business side
of filmmaking because they live in a city that is centered around the
business of making movies.
Prince-Bythewood: My husband just shot an independent film right after
I did mine. So it will be interesting to see. He raised the money
himself and had half the shooting schedule. He’s from New York and
started out doing plays. I wonder if that is a little more — I
wouldn’t say courageous — but the fact that he just went out and did
it, where I went the studio route. Would I have been able to do what he
did? I do think about that sometimes. I think that the New York
sensibility is just get out there and do it as oppose to me who went to
film school and started working in television and started to do it that
Harris: I bet you’re looking forward to Sundance. . .
Prince-Bythewood: I’m so freakin’ excited. It’s like two years ago I
was there for the Writer’s Lab. I decided to go up to see a couple of
films. I also had a short film at Slamdance.
Harris: How was Slamdance?
Prince-Bythewood: It was a lot of fun because you’re right by Sundance.
It’s right within the same block. You just got so caught up in
everything. It was cool to screen the short in front of an audience
that wasn’t just made up of friends. I just loved taking about the
script that I was working on “Love and Basketball.” Wishing I could be
like those other people who have films at Sundance. And now to have the
chance to do it. Obviously, the biggest fear is how am I going to fill
the theater. There’s always walk outs because people are rushing to
other screenings. Even if it is a legitimate reason, even going to the
bathroom kills me because you think my movie sucks.
Harris: When I was there it was such an exciting time, one of the
highlights of making my first feature. I’ll never forget it. We got so
much attention. It was wild. I just had to take deep breaths to stay
calm. I was happy that I made the film I wanted to make and that
Sundance rewarded that effort. In doing my first feature, I felt that
it was important that we as women start controlling our own images
more. After doing your first feature, what do you feel is your passion?
What do you see for the future?
Prince-Bythewood: I’d say two things. Positive portrayals of Black
folks on screen, to also bring strong Black women onto the screen.
Let’s see if I was offered a “Die Hard” type film — I love that type
of movie. That’s not what I’m looking to do right now. For right now
what I want to do is tell Black stories.
Harris: Thanks and congratulations. Much respect! Because I really
respect any filmmaker who can get a film done.