In her first feature film since 2008’s
“The Secret Life of Bees,” acclaimed writer-director Gina
Prince-Bythewood tells the story of troubled pop star Noni Jean (Gugu
Mbatha-Raw) and her relationship with Kaz (Nate Parker), the police officer who
saves her life.
In her recent press tour for the film, we
spoke about the movie and the long road to getting it made, as well as the
philosophy that’s driven her career.
JAI TIGGETT: The story for “Beyond The Lights” is
influenced by some of your own experiences with being an adopted child. Can you
tell me about sharing such a personal story, and what the writing process was
GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD: Everything
I’ve written has been personal and touched on things that I needed to deal with
in my personal life. So I just feel that writing is great therapy and the best
writing comes from truth, and so I mine my life constantly for that.
I think it gets hard when you haven’t figured
out what you want to say about it, and that’s really through the writing
process. The first draft didn’t have as much personal stuff as it does now. In the
first draft the mother was black and I didn’t go as in-depth as I started to as
I was rewriting. I just think it makes for better writing when you’re coming
from a real place.
What are some of the other films you might have referenced while
you were making the movie?
“The Rose” was a big one. I love
the depth of that film, the way it just wrecks you. “Walk The Line,” “Lady
Sings The Blues,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” I really looked at a
lot of music films prior to writing, not to rip off of course, but to inspire.
I also looked at some love stories, like the film “Love Story” is a
really good one. And just knowing what I wanted an audience to feel, and then it
was on me to create a fresh, new journey and a different kind of love story
that was contemporary.
It has a loose narrative structure. The movie doesn’t hinge on
event after event, but a lot of it is about the quiet moments that happen
between this couple.
For me this is a different type of structure
in that the suicide attempt happens right at the top. Normally, any event like
that you build to and it’s in the third act. But I really wanted to explore a
woman who was literally on the edge and how does she come back from that and
how can she create a life from that and find her self worth. So it really
started from that catalyst and then building her back up, both her and Kaz’s
story as well. Having two characters who both have arcs, I think is something
similar to “Love & Basketball,” that it’s not just a woman’s
story and the boyfriend is peripheral. I wanted both to have full arcs.
And the quiet moments are really important. Given
that it’s a love story I had a little more license to have those moments. I
think in today’s romantic comedies and things like that, everything has to go
quick and pop to the next joke and the next joke. Here, I really wanted to take
the time to develop this relationship and go as deep as possible and allow an
audience to feel and grow with them.
It’s a musical film, but even the ambient sounds of walking into a
room or putting on a set of headphones are handled very specifically. Tell me
about designing the sound.
Foremost, music is such a huge part of my
life and part of my creative process. There are a lot of aspects of filmmaking
that I love, but one of my favorites is in post, finding the right song for the
right moment. So creating the soundtrack was exciting for me and it was also
important to create the authenticity of this world.
I wanted the music that you hear early on in Noni’s
world to be the real stuff, and it’s just what she hears every day and she
doesn’t even react. The song that’s playing in the boardroom when she and her
mom are waiting for executives, it’s offensive, and they’re not even reacting
and it’s her boyfriend who’s singing those lyrics. And then as the film goes on
and she starts to find herself the music shifts and becomes more singer-songwriters,
and just a different vibe.
So you can tell a lot in terms of
storytelling with music, but also sound was really important. What I knew early
on is that I wanted it to be a cacophony of sound in her world, constant clicks
of the cameras, and paparazzi yelling, and music. There was never any quiet
until she was with Kaz. So that later in the film we can physically feel a
difference because we’ve been bombarded with sound from living in her world for
All of your keys [key crew members] on this film were women. Was
that an intentional choice, and what was the working environment like?
I do look for women, and I do like the
environment. Especially on this film, knowing what Gugu was going to need to go
through, I wanted a maternal and safe environment for her to give me everything
that she gave. [Editor] Teri Shropshire, this is our third film together so I
always go to her. [Cinematographer] Tami Reiker, this was our second film,
[Production Designer] Cecilia Montiel I’d worked with before. [Costume
Designer] Sandra Hernandez, this is our third film together. With every film
I’m doing, the crew that I like to work with is just getting more solidified
and yeah, as I look up I see there are more and more women in those roles. And
it’s a very cool thing.
I remember there was a moment on set where I
glanced over and Tami’s whole camera crew was female, but the grips and gaffers
were all male. I remember watching her telling them what to do and they were
running to follow her orders and I thought, “This is just really bad ass.”
It’s just a good feeling and it was a really good environment for this film,
and I think for future films that I do.
You spent years making this project and part of the struggle was convincing
studios that Gugu Mbatha-Raw should play the lead. What was it about her that
let you know she should play the role, and that she was a star?
Just when she was in that audition room, I
saw the movie. She had such an innate vulnerability, I wanted to watch her, she
had charisma, and she felt like Noni to me. The thing I didn’t know was could
she pull off the flipside of that, the fantasy girl and that uber sexual
persona. I didn’t know that for sure until we shot an eight-minute presentation,
which I needed to prove to studios that she was a star. I worked with her on
that presentation before there was even a studio, but she trusted me and
believed in the project and went for it. And to see her transform into Noni was
a beautiful thing.
It’s a very brave performance. What she and I
talk about a lot is that the less Noni wears, the less you see of her. Gugu
bought into that and knew that we had to go as far as what you would see on MTV
or BET or YouTube. If we had been soft with it, I think the movie falls apart.
I mean she’s on a balcony, so there’s got to be a reason for that. This is not
Gugu’s world at all. It’s 180 degrees from who she is, but once I cast her it
was two years of developing this character and there was a tremendous amount of
both physical and psychological work that we did. And it’s that work ethic that
excites me as a director, and I saw that in her as well.
In the time that you’ve been working on this, a lot has happened
in pop culture that relates to the film – Rihanna and Chris Brown, Miley Cyrus.
Were you influenced by any of those things, and what are some of the changes
you’ve made to the project over the years?
Sadly, the same issues that were going on
years ago when I started writing are still going on, just at a higher, faster
clip. I think what was added in the later drafts was more of the social media
aspect of that life, and also the cameos. It was funny with “The Tonight
Show,” when I first wrote it, it was Jay Leno. And then it became “The
Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien,” and then it went back to “The Tonight
Show with Jay Leno” and finally it was “The Tonight Show with Jimmy
Fallon.” That’s how many changes we went through in the writing process.
Ultimately it ended up being Don Lemon and a
new show. But it was really more of the cameos and pieces that we were putting in
the film to give it authenticity. Again, nothing has changed, sadly, in terms
of [society]. You look at Miley Cyrus and she came out of nowhere and went from
being a joke to being huge, bigger than she ever was. She followed the
blueprint and it worked.
There’s a wave of talk lately about how young women handle their sexuality
– what’s empowering, what’s feminism, and what’s exploitation. In light of all
that, how are young girls processing the messages of this film?
When I originally wrote this it was an
R-rated film, but it was important to me and the filmmakers ultimately to make
it PG-13 because we wanted young girls and young boys to see it. There is just
a normalization of hypersexuality that’s happening, and young girls and young
boys are imitating what they see in videos. It’s damaging and my hope is that
we can change the conversation.
We’ve had a couple advance screenings and the
reaction is a beautiful thing to see. The way that young girls are identifying
and attaching themselves to Noni, loving and being inspired by her
transformation as this woman who sheds a false persona and becomes real. I
think young girls are so impressionable that I would love for Noni to become a
role model as opposed to some others that are just pushing the hypersexuality.
When I think of your career I think a lot about fighting for the
projects that you want to make. With “Beyond The Lights,” you went
with a smaller studio and a smaller budget so that you could get the cast that
you wanted. Early on, you fought to get into UCLA’s film school. But as
filmmakers, especially women of color, we don’t always feel we have the
leverage to fight and get what we want. We’re just trying to get something
made. What’s your perspective on that?
I think one of the biggest influences on my
behavior is the fact that I’ve been an athlete since I was five years old, and
at a very high level. So my whole life has been, “Aggression is good, go
for what you want, dive for the ball, go all out and leave nothing to
chance.” That’s my mentality and I really brought that to my film career.
With UCLA, basketball was my whole life and I
got recruited to play at other colleges, but not UCLA where I wanted to go to
film school. So I gave up that dream of basketball for another, and it just
didn’t occur to me that I would not get in. It was a shock and I went to the
counselor and said, “I need to appeal this decision” and he said, “You’re
not allowed to do that.” So I went home and cried a little and then said, “You
know what, let me write a letter.” I wrote a very impassioned letter about
why they made a mistake and sent it. Two days later I got a call from the head
of the film school and she said, “You’re in.”
It was such an amazing moment in my life and
such a turning point. One, because film school was such a great gift to me and
I learned so much there. But it’s also that whole thing of overcoming “no,”
which has really been the mantra of the rest of my career. “Love & Basketball,”
every studio turned it down. “Beyond The Lights,” every studio turned
it down twice. So you just need that one yes. And not getting into film school,
fighting for it early on, like I said has really spoken to who I am now and the
fight that I’m willing to have, because it’s what I believe in.
“Beyond The Lights” comes to
theaters on November 14.