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Interview: Reggie Rock Bythewood Talks ‘Gun Hill,’ ‘Beyond the Lights,’ Career, and Much More

Interview: Reggie Rock Bythewood Talks 'Gun Hill,' 'Beyond the Lights,' Career, and Much More

On July 2, Reggie Rock Bythewood’s long-gestating crime
drama “Gun Hill” had its BET premiere, with plans of turning the
two-hour pilot into a television series.

Named for Bythewood’s childhood neighborhood of Gun Hill in
the Bronx, NY, and inspired by his own estranged relationship with his father,
the film stars Larenz Tate as a pair of twin brothers on opposite sides of the
law. When one twin is killed, the other assumes his identity as a DEA agent in
order to escape his troubled life as an ex-convict. Emayatzy Corinealdi and
Aisha Hinds co-star in the film, which re-airs on Saturday, July 12 at 8pm
Eastern on BET.

In a candid and in-depth conversation with Shadow And Act, Bythewood
recently shared his experiences making “Gun Hill,” the process to
bring it to air, and seeing the responses to the film on this site and
elsewhere, including our review. He also reflected on his decades-long TV and
film career, which began with acting and grew to writing and directing projects
like “A Different World,” “New York Undercover,” “Get
on the Bus,” “Biker Boyz,” and “Notorious,” as well as
several collaborations with his wife and fellow filmmaker Gina

mentioned that “Gun Hill” is inspired by your relationship with your
father and seeing a different, more positive side of him once he passed away.
In telling this story, have you uncovered anything new about that relationship
through the characters?

It sounds pretty elementary, but I suppose one of the discoveries is that
nobody’s all bad or all good. What’s fun is to do it in a crime drama
narrative. We’re in this world where even the good guys resolve most of their
conflicts with violence and not enough intellect. So I had to resist the
temptation of making the main character, Bird, too evolved in this first
offering of “Gun Hill.” If we’re so blessed, it will be something
that we continue to explore and see where the character goes and what
revelations I can make for myself, and for this world.

One of the other things I took note of is Elia Kazan’s
“On The Waterfront.” Marlon Brando’s character resolves things with
violence and then as the story progresses, his humanity and his conscience
takes over. And so as we start to chip away at that, without being corny and on
the nose, we do want to open him up and raise his consciousness. It’s something
that we really want to explore.

JT: The project has
been a long time coming, with production taking place back in 2011. Tell me
about your experience working on it over these past few years.

RRB: It kind of drives me crazy that it sat around for three
years. But the positive is that you wrote a review. The funny thing is, when
you have a review and there are some nice things said, you always focus on the
negative. But I had an opportunity to say, “Well, let me see how it feels
if I change some things.”

I didn’t want to take out all the voiceover because
initially I was just looking to find a way to keep his brother alive and keep
that connection. But to know that it felt like exposition, I thought, “Maybe
the sister’s right.”

And then with the initial scene in the bar, I added some
cinematic things to give it a little bit more punch. So hats off to you, I
appreciate the feedback. I don’t think I’ve ever even considered doing that

JT: Thank you. That’s
rare for a filmmaker to do, so I’m shocked that you considered making those changes.
Were those the only tweaks, or have you sort of been working on the film all
this time?

RRB: They didn’t ask me to go in and make changes, but when
something’s sitting around you look at it again and always see something that
you can improve. I really fell in love with Terence Blanchard’s music, and I
found a new way to approach it. In most of the action scenes from the first cut,
the music started as soon as the action started. And then as I went back in, I
said, “Let me just play around and see what happens if we start with just
hearing the action and sound effects, and let the music sneak up on us.”

That felt much better, because it compliments as opposed to
taking over the scene. So there were little elements like that, that I felt
good about.

JT: Tell me about
audience reaction – how you’ve responded to it in the past and how you respond
to it now. With “Gun Hill,” you had a chance to see some of the audience’s reaction to the project before it had a full release.

RRB: In the past, particularly in TV, you might get a couple
of fan letters here and there. My first produced episode of TV was on “A
Different World,” and it was about this young woman who was being battered
in a relationship.

JT: Right, Gina. I
think we all remember that episode.

RRB: Yeah, exactly. The thing that blew me away was, I got
this letter from a 13-year-old girl living in Canada. She said after seeing the
episode she broke up with her boyfriend who was mistreating her. I was pretty
impacted by that and just really took note of the idea that what we do has
power, even if you’re doing something like a sitcom.

There’s something that a teacher taught me several years ago
that I used as a template for “A Different World,” which is to get
your audience laughing and when their mouths are open, slip the truth in there.
I kind of borrowed that idea for “Gun Hill,” which is to get your
audience at the edge of their seats and while they’re leaning forward, hit them
with the truth. So when you approach it that way, and you don’t just want to
put on a hot show but you really want to do something significant, you don’t
know what kind of feedback you’re going to get. So it was very encouraging and
humbling to get the feedback from folks online.

I’m not a huge social media guy or a party guy. I’m kind of
just about the work, and I’ve always been that way. But it was cool to receive
that response and I think it’s actually motivated the entire “Gun
Hill” team to put the word out.

JT: What was behind
the delay with the release?

RRB: Crime drama is a different genre for BET. And I suppose
they were looking to see how it fit in terms of their schedule and when we
would have the best opportunity to have it become a series. A lot of that also has
to do with financing. So there are a lot of elements that are coming together
behind-the-scenes. But we’re certainly glad to get it out there.

JT: Tell me about the
52 Blocks fighting style that’s used in the action scenes.

RRB: When I was a kid, a lot of us would go out and play
fight, and I would see the style and we would all kind of copy it. But I never
knew it had a name until much later in life. There was an article by this guy
named Doug Century about 52 Blocks, which is also called Jailhouse Rock.

When we started working on “Gun Hill” I really
just felt like I wanted to have a fighting style that I hadn’t seen in film
before. So I did some research and found a couple of guys that knew it and I
thought would be right to train Larenz. It wasn’t just about the moves, but
really the mentality of going from a fighter to a warrior. We actually made a
documentary called “Ammo 52 Blocks” that really takes you behind the
grueling training that Larenz went through, and some of the history of 52.

Until we worked on the documentary, I had no idea how
intense his training was, because all I told them was, “Teach him 52, get
him ready, and don’t hurt my guy.”  

But they really put him through it, and Larenz wanted to go
through it. He even at times wanted to feel the pain because he thought it
would help his character.

JT: “Gun
Hill” is the first original scripted project that you’ve directed in a
while. I’m not sure the average person knows you’ve been around for years and
were behind some hit projects like “New York Undercover,” work that
maybe should have led to higher profile projects and consistent work.

RRB: I just have an appetite for a lot of different things.
So if a documentary feels like something I want to do, then I’ll do a “30
for 30.” It’s always been a challenge though, particularly in finding
projects that allow you to say what you need to say. And in many ways I feel
like my career has been an exploration because there are many projects that I
have passed on because I didn’t really feel like they were relevant in terms of
what I wanted to address or explore.

JT: There was talk a while
back about “New York Undercover” being rebooted in some form. Was
there any truth to that rumor?

RRB: I know that Malik [Yoba] was spearheading the movement
to get it put back on, but I don’t know if it ever gained much traction. It
could always still happen but as far as I know it’s just a notion and not
really concrete.

JT: How many projects
are you typically working on at a time, and how much simpler is it for you to
get a project made at this point in your career?

RRB: I suppose what’s different now is that I’m less
compelled to write other people’s vision. I’m really more about what I want to
say and how I want to say it. So interestingly enough, there are three projects
that I’ve written that we’re putting financing together for that all have a
shot at getting made, and it’s exciting. I’m just one of those people that when
I write something and I fall in love with it, I feel compelled to not just walk
away from it. If it takes two, three or four years to get it made, I tend to
gut it out as opposed to bouncing around and trying to do something else.

JT: I’ve heard the
same thing from Gina Prince-Bythewood, that she’s no longer interested in
writing a project that she wouldn’t be directing, for the same reason. Will
you continue to write for other directors, in addition to your own directing

RRB: I’m open to it. I think that one of the major
influences on my career is this director named John Sayles from back in my
acting days.

JT: Right, from “Brother
From Another Planet.”

RRB: You got me. What made that experience so significant
for me was not only the acting itself, but talking to John Sayles. He basically
told me about the blueprint of his career, which is that he would do writing
assignments in between the things that he was going to direct, and then he
would use the money from his writing assignments to go off and do an
independent film or other things. And so I kind of began my career with that as
a template. So I’ll probably continue to write more than I direct.

But when I write something original, those have been hard to
let go because I feel like I own it in a different way than a project where
someone comes to me with an idea. I’m still passionate about it, but I think
when I generate my own material from my own ideas I feel like I own it in a
different way, and it would be a lot more challenging to hand off.

JT: When “Go For
Sisters” was released the film’s stars, Lisa Gay Hamilton and Yolonda
Ross, spoke with us and were describing John Sayles’ style as a filmmaker.
They said he’s a writer first and very committed to what’s on the page. Are you
the same? How do you think your writing affects your directing style, and vice

RRB: I think beginning as an actor was my writing training. And
as an actor what I learned is that it’s ultimately about what you’re doing, not
just what you’re feeling. Even with Stanislavski and method acting, there’s this
notion of every character has an objective and an obstacle. And that has really
been more of a direction in terms of my writing and directing, looking to
understand that the actors are really there to actively do something to achieve
their goal. So I’m really big on helping the actors discover what it is they’re
doing. I start from that place.

And then I like to title each of my scenes in an active way.
So when Larenz switches identities with his brother, what he’s doing is
escaping the life he has. Understanding that allows me to know how to talk to
the actor, it allows me to know how to set the camera, and it also allows me to
know whether or not the dialogue is working.

JT: What about
producing? You and Gina have consistently worked together and produced each
other’s projects. Have you developed a shorthand for interacting?

RRB: Well firstly, Gina and I met on “A Different World.”
It was our first professional gig and we were friends at first. We would beat
up on each other’s scripts before we would turn them in to the other producers,
and that was kind of the basis of our relationship and we never stopped doing
it. So there have been a lot of projects that I’ve helped Gina with and vice
versa, that we never get credited on because that’s just part of our
relationship. What makes “Beyond The Lights” different is that I
decided, “Okay cool, I’ll take a producer credit on this.”

So we tell each other what works and what doesn’t work. But because
we’re so straight up honest with each other out of love, what we needed to learn
is, when 100 people are around I can’t slam her about a script or a choice she
made. And so that’s a whole other shorthand of, “How does she know that I
need to get her attention when she’s got five minutes to get a shot before
lunch?” I think that part of the shorthand is one of the things that we had
to figure out.

And then other times, the most important thing that day is
that one of our kids has a test or a game. So the funny part of it is that when
we’re on set whispering, I’m sure people think that we’re whispering about some
strategic thing that needs to happen with the film, but sometimes it’s just
like, “I don’t know G, Cassius missed a game-winning shot and he’s crushed
by it. What should we do about that?” That’s the real of it.

JT: We saw the
trailer for “Beyond The Lights” recently. Can you share anything else
about the film?

RRB: How did the trailer look to you?

JT: Great. It was
emotional, I like the story that it told and I think it reminded us of who she
is as a filmmaker.

RRB: It does. What’s so great about it is the story is told
in a way that only Gina could have told it. Whether you love it or not, it’s
just so specific to her voice. “Love & Basketball” has a special
place in our hearts. It was her first film and she worked so hard on the
script, and it was kind of a revelation in that people were really responding
to her work. So it’ll always have a special place. But I think this is her best
work. It’s just such an emotional, honest film that has something to say. And I
just think it’s really, really well done.

JT: We haven’t heard
a lot about where the story came from. Was it inspired by anyone in particular?

RRB: Gina just did a lot of research. There were some
singers that she had an opportunity to sit down and dialogue with, and maybe thought
of some things in her own life as well, and she just threw it in a pot and stirred
it up. She spent a long time getting the script right.

JT: Given how long
you’ve both been in the business, is there any wisdom you want to share? Tips,
tricks, observations?

RRB: The hardest thing is just maintaining your level of
idealism and that feeling that you have something to say and it’s worthwhile, to
not buy into the idea that if somebody else doesn’t see it then it’s not
worthwhile. That’s the thing that you really want to nurture and protect.

JT: And how do you
maintain your idealism?

RRB: The deal is this. I feel like I have a cause bigger
than myself. And it doesn’t mean that everything I’m going to put out there is
the most brilliant thing in the history of cinema. But what it does mean is
that I’m driven to continue to improve my craft and to impact lives when I can.
And I want to do it in a way that’s entertaining. I’m not a preacher, but I do
have something to say.

So there are couple of things that help me maintain my
idealism. One is my family, having Gina and supportive people in my life helps.
But ultimately it comes from within, because I think if everybody hated it — like
I remember getting trashed on “Get On The Bus.” It pissed me off, but
I felt like I was coming back even stronger.

There was a great acting teacher named Uta Hagen, who wrote Respect for Acting. A lot of the things
that she teaches for acting I apply as a writer and director. She says artists
are supposed to be conscious of the world and hold a mirror up to nature. So
maybe our job, particularly as African-American artists, is to not just hold a
mirror up to nature but also to reflect what society could be.

And also, read. I’ve been in rooms with executives, black and
white, and I’ve referenced August Wilson or Manchild
in the Promised Land
and people have no reference for that. And it’s like,
those things feed you as an artist, to know those who have come before you and
to study them. When you really understand who these great ancestors are, it
fuels you and inspires you and then you can’t even trip really. If you do
something that people are saying is brilliant, you can’t even trip because they
were more brilliant. And then if you do something that falls short it’s okay,
because I’m always going to fall short of Lorraine Hansberry. But I’m always
going to keep reaching.


Many thanks to Reggie Rock Bythewood for the interview.

“Gun Hill” re-airs on Saturday, July 12 at
8pm on BET.

The documentary “Ammo: 52 Blocks” airs on
Saturday, July 12 at 8am on BET.

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