Director Gina Prince-Bythewood on Beyond the Lights, Creating Great Chemistry, and Shooting Love Scenes

Photo: Jim Spellman/WireImage

The romantic drama Beyond the Lights represents the overdue return of director Gina Prince-Bythewood to our movie screens, six years after her last film, The Secret Life of Bees, and 14 years since her feature debut, the seminal Love & Basketball. What’s taken her so long? In part, it was the dream-project nature of her new film. As Bythewood herself notes, she felt she had to make this movie no matter what, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer — despite getting lots of nos along the way.

Part of it might also be that, despite her films’ initial success, sometimes it takes time for the culture at large to realize how unique they are: Love & Basketball is the rare romantic drama that doesn’t try to sensationalize its story, methodically detailing the lives over the years of two upper-middle-class African-American characters (played as adults by Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps) who share a passion for basketball and are clearly meant for each other; Disappearing Acts, a 2000 HBO film, features a Brooklyn romance between an aspiring musician (Lathan again) and a down-on-his-luck contractor (Wesley Snipes) and derives its tension from their differences in attitude and class rather than on cheap plot twists; The Secret Life of Bees, based on Sue Monk Kidd’s novel, is a 1960s-set coming-of-age story in which a young, poor white girl (Dakota Fanning) learns about life lessons and poise from a trio of well-to-do black sisters. Over the years, Bythewood has slowly, deliberately built a filmography that gives us the unexpected while remaining grounded in the real. The same could also be said for Beyond the Lights, which, despite being a colorful hip-hop romance, also delves into the work lives of its characters, bringing up issues of moral compromise, political ambition, hypersexualization in music, and a celebrity culture run amok. Bythewood spoke to us recently at length about her new film, criticizing the music industry, creating great chemistry between actors, and the secrets to shooting a good love scene.

So, is it true that you’ve been working on this film since 2007?
It hurts every time I hear that. [Laughs.] The first draft was written in 2007, and then I took a break and did The Secret Life of Bees, which took two years. And then I came back to it in 2009, and wrote it for two years before going out and trying to sell it. I was excited about it. I’d written this love story that was also speaking to what’s happening in music today, and it was contemporary. And I went out with it … and got crickets! Which was shocking. Only one studio stepped up to option it. They didn’t even say, “We’re going to make it.” They just said, “We’ll option the script for a year.”

Then I thought I wanted a musical artist for the lead. But the one that I wanted ended up not working out, and the ones that the studio wanted I didn’t think were right for the piece. Once that fell through, I started thinking about my favorite music films like Walk the Line and Coal Miner’s Daughter. They had actors at the center, so I started thinking that that was probably the better way to go. The Rose was also a huge influence on this film as well; Bette Midler was a singer, but she also developed into a really good actress.

Is that how you found Gugu Mbatha-Raw?
I started auditioning, and Gugu came in through the door and changed everything. This was before Belle. She was an unknown. As she started auditioning, I saw the film while she was talking. It’s just a great moment as a director when you know this is the one. Then, the second half of the audition, she had to sing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird.” It was very scary for me, because I was like, “Could she just hold a note? Something I could build on?” She was great! She has a background in musical theater, and she could sing. I was very excited to find her, and excited to tell the studio … and they said, “She’s not a star.” And they weren’t going to put millions of dollars into this film and bank on somebody who’s not a star. So they let the option go, and the film was dead for a moment, which was scary.

Then we created an eight-minute presentation to showcase Gugu and give the vibe of the film, and we hooked up with another producer, Stephanie Allain. We got it to BET, and they saw the presentation and were blown away by it and said, “We’ll put in a couple million if you find a studio.” So, now I have this presentation that showcases Gugu, I’ve got a couple million, and [I] thought, Okay, now it’s going to be easy. Went back to every studio, and … same thing! It got closer, though. Everyone loved the script, loved me, loved Gugu, but she’s not a star. So we thought it was dead again. But then we decided to shoot this independently. I thought, What am I whining about? Stop asking for permission. This is a story I’ve got to tell, it’s stuck in my head. It’s driving me crazy, so let me just shoot it. And that’s when Relatively Media stepped up. They had seen the presentation. They said, “We get it, she is a star. Go for it. And for the male lead, cast whoever you want.” And suddenly I had a movie.

Your films — particularly your romances — are all marked by incredible chemistry between the actors. Not just Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan in Love and Basketball, but also Wesley Snipes and Sanaa in Disappearing Acts. I want to know how you achieve that. I know it’s not just casting great actors because I’ve seen lots of great actors who have no chemistry with each other. So, what’s the secret?
I can’t give it away! No, I’ve been very fortunate, obviously, with actors like Omar and Sanaa having incredible chemistry. With this film, I cast Gugu first, but I had Nate in mind. I remember when I first saw him in Great Debaters; he was this new face, and I thought to myself, I think he’s our next. But he hasn’t had that film that’s blown him up, so he’s kind of been percolating under the surface. But I had the two do an audition together, and I could see the chemistry between them. It was crackling there. My process is that I really tell them, “This is a love story, and I need you, first of all, to tell me you guys are going to go there. And when I say go, I mean, give yourself fully into these characters, into their world, so that we believe you.” Because not all actors are willing to do that. I mean, I love love stories. As an audience member, if I go to a film, and I am watching two actors, and they’re kissing, and it looks like they don’t even want to be kissing, it just takes me out of the film. So, for me, it’s a conversation that I do have. Then it was just really building their chemistry during rehearsal.

Do you like to improvise with the actors?
I’m very big on improv, and I usually do one big thing with each movie. With this film, I wanted to put them in the world of Noni and Kaz. Very early on in the rehearsal process, I told them to both get dressed in character and sent them on a date. And I brought them to a restaurant and had them sit outside. Noni/Gugu had sunglasses on, and the only note I gave to Gugu was, “Don’t take your sunglasses off.” And I told Nate, “Get those sunglasses off of her.” They thought that was the exercise. So they’re going through lunch, and then suddenly, someone walks up and asks for Noni’s autograph. And they were a little surprised but signed it, and then a couple people showed up and started just taking pictures and standing there. And they kind of looked at them, and then the crowd grew, and then it was ten paparazzi.

So, finally, they decided, ‘We should probably go inside.” And then, suddenly, 30 more people showed up. So I had this huge crowd of paparazzi, yelling, being disrespectful. They weren’t expecting any of this, and now Nate is trying to get Gugu out of this. Hides her in the kitchen, trying to figure out how to leave the restaurant. Real police are actually showing up! The people in the restaurant are starting to take pictures, like, “Who is this person?” Nate trying to circumvent the paparazzi — just tricking and pretending that she was in the truck when she’s not. They actually didn’t want to talk about it afterwards, because they said the experience was so intense; it brought them so close because he had to protect her. She realized what it was like to be under that kind of microscope, and they really used that to fuel their relationship throughout the filming of the movie.

That’s fascinating. Have you done that on all your films?
Yeah, on Secret Life of Bees, I did it with Jennifer Hudson and Dakota Fanning. Jennifer, she was coming off of all the Oscar hype and what the world was, and now, suddenly, she’s coming back and playing a character in the 1960s who has no rights and can’t vote. She’s a young actress, and she wasn’t quite sure what that would feel like. So I gave Dakota a list of items that they needed to buy at the grocery store — actually, a small drugstore. We were shooting in North Carolina. What they didn’t know was I had hired actors to behave as if it was the 1960s. People started following Jennifer’s character around the drugstore. Then when she sat down on the counter, they moved away from her. They started telling her she had to get up and move, and then they started calling her the N-word. At that point, Jennifer had no idea. She was just reacting. And at the point where she was about to hit somebody, I’m like, “Okay, time to stop!” But it’s just that way of putting actors into the world and making it real for them — giving them something to draw on during the actual filming.

With Beyond the Lights and Love & Basketball, I'm curious about your approach to visual style. Because in Love & Basketball, there’s the world of basketball, and Beyond the Lights, you have the pop-music-video world, both of which are very distinctive visual environments we’re all very familiar with. How do you reconcile the media-heavy imagery that you’re appropriating from these worlds with your own style, which is itself very distinctive and deliberate?
With Love & Basketball, I played ball my whole life and did track at UCLA. So, I’m an athlete. And it was very important for me to get it right. I started with casting: As an athlete, there’s nothing worse for me than watching a sports movie and the woman that they hire can’t run or can’t shoot. It sets women’s sports back years. It’s very important to get it right.

With Beyond the Lights, I’m showing a world that we all see and think we know. We see it every day. My thought was that I really wanted to show the underbelly of what we see, and really get the human side of the floss and gloss. So the authenticity was extremely important, and that came through a ton of research. But hip-hop and R&B is my world. I mean, I live in it. I love it. Researching the culture, I was able to talk to some really good singers that were very honest with me about what they go through. Some who have succumbed to the hypersexuality, and others who fought back against it.

It really comes down to that. You’ve got to be detailed because, again, everybody feels like they know this world. That also came down to the cameos we had, as well. Getting the Billboard Awards was huge. That was such an incredible fight, but you have to start out the movie with authenticity. If we had made up an awards show, I think it would take the audience out. Just like in Love & Basketball, it was important for me to get real colleges as opposed to the University of Some Made-Up Thing.

To that point: Your film is a very honest depiction of the music world, and it’s also often a very critical depiction of that world. I’ll be honest with you: I think the day after I saw Beyond the Lights, I finally saw that J.Lo “Booty” video and thought, Oh my God, I’ve stepped into the movie. Did you meet any kind of resistance at all?
I love hip-hop and R&B, and I also have a love/hate relationship with it, because I actually was going into an ugly, angry place. And, you know, both with male and female singers, it seems like everyone’s trying to push the envelope so far and competing with each other that there’s nowhere else to go but off the cliff – which is really where our character is at the beginning of the film. And to be fair, this is something that flows through pop and through rock, not just hip-hop and R&B. My intention is not to shake a finger at the industry, but really [to] call attention to this blueprint young artists seem to follow relentlessly — coming out hypersexualized to get noticed. The problem is that you’re trapped in that persona, and an audience is falling in love with that persona. So then you’re afraid to break free from that, even if it’s not authentic, because you’re afraid you’re going to lose that love. And that love from crowds is intoxicating. It’s a drug. It’s hard to let go of, especially when you’re young and you don’t know yourself yet and you’re putting out an image that’s not you. It’s so damaging and so exhausting.

When we were showing this film to labels to get a soundtrack deal, those were the scariest screenings because they are this world, and I was really curious about what they were going to say. I remember after the first screening, two male execs came up and they said, “This was painfully authentic.” They said they have been in those rooms and said those very things, but were complimenting me for it. That was pretty amazing. My hope, ultimately, is that while people are entertained by this film, it also changes the conversation.

Your film also addresses the notion that some people feel this sort of hypersexuality is empowering. Even that aspect of that experience, you capture. It would probably be easy to do a simplistic blanket condemnation, but you actually get into the nuances of it.
It’s very interesting. For someone like Beyoncé, I actually think her sexuality is authentic to her. I think my issue is more with the younger ones trying to compete with that. And for this character, it’s not authentic to her. The character Kid Culprit, played by MGK [Machine Gun Kelly], I always knew I wanted a real hip-hop artist for that role. So I saw a ton of rappers for it, and I didn’t go in knowing this, but male artists are dealing with the same thing of creating these personas that are not authentic to who they really are. So a guy will come into the room, and in the lobby, he’s with all his boys and is one way; and then that door closes, and it’s just me and him alone — and it’s a totally different person. Respectful and cool and eager. That really helped me in terms of talking to MGK about his character. He’s an artist putting on a front as well.

In all your films, you’re not afraid to show characters just talking or sitting around, sometimes even at length. In Disappearing Acts, the characters keep bonding over Scrabble. That’s not the kind of thing that one would normally think of as cinematic.
It boils down to whether you’ve created characters that you want to watch. There are so many romantic comedies made, but very few dramas or love stories. And with a love story, you have to take time to develop three-dimensional characters. And so, even if it’s a scene of them playing Scrabble, it’s still pushing the story forward. In Beyond the Lights, whenever she’s with Kaz, it’s quiet. She actually gets to show who she is. So I think that it’s interesting both for Kaz, but also for the audience, to let them in in quiet moments. I think that what are often missing are quiet moments, because everyone wants, “What happens next? What happens next?” But a quiet moment can push the story forward as well.

Your films are romantic dramas, and that’s rare because they’re not romantic melodramas, which can be more popular. They don’t feature the kind of ante-upping that we often get with melodramas — like, say, a Nicholas Sparks story — where people are dying left and right and the situations are often getting more and more ridiculous. I watch a film like Love and Basketball or Beyond the Lights — which has some fairy tale-like qualities, of course — and I feel like this is something that could actually happen to real people. Is there ever a temptation to feed the melodrama? How do you manage to pull back?
I write what I wanna see, and for me, when you’re writing a love story, nine times out of ten, you kind of know where’s it’s going to end. They’re either going to end up together or they’re not. And most of the time, they end up together. So, what’s important as a writer is to make the journey there interesting and create the twists and turns of the relationship and make it different and unexpected. You never want to go to the obvious place.

[Spoiler alert for Beyond the Lights.]

Maybe the obvious place in this would have been if he really got shot and died. And if that had happened, I would have gotten that immediate great reaction and tears, but then it’s like, “What am I leaving an audience with? Well, he’s dead and she’s alone.” I don’t want that. I want audiences to leave my films feeling inspired.

Love & Basketball is a very honest depiction of the support and playful rivalry of people who are in the same business. You and your husband Reggie Rock Bythewood are both filmmakers; you’ve worked together, but you’ve also worked separately. Did your own experiences feed the situations in the film as well?
To have two writers and two directors in the same family, the best part about it is that we’re not competitive with each other, and the worst part about it is, if you know writers, we’re moody people. But we’re supportive of each other and want each other to do well. That means being bluntly honest with each other in terms of our work. The first person that reads my script is Reg, and that’s the scariest read because I’m going to know immediately: Have I written a movie, or have I just spent a year yakking off on pages? And it’s the same thing for him.

So we have to get it past each other, and that really is a brutal process, but it starts with the words, it starts with the script. Love & Basketball, that was a year and a half of writing and getting it down. This script was 55 drafts. So our relationship and the support that we have definitely feeds into my male characters, and for me, because we have such a balanced relationship, I like to make films where both the female and male characters have their own arcs. I don’t think it’s as interesting if it’s a love story about a woman and the guy is coming into it, or it’s a guy with a woman coming into it. I think it’s more interesting that two people have two parallel lives and they’re intersecting, and how the two of them affect their lives and help them change.

What is the worst thing that Reggie has said about your pages?
It’s the worst thing, but it’s the best thing. If I write something that’s on the nose, you know, he will write in giant letters, “O.T.N.” No one wants to hear that. But again, those early drafts, you’re not censoring yourself and you’re just writing. And writing for both of us is shedding all the excess fat and repetition. It’s just so much more interesting to show rather than tell.

I remember in Beyond the Lights, in the editing process, which is just as grueling, there’s a sequence in Mexico, the moment they’re on the beach, all the way through her shedding her persona — in the middle of that, there was a whole scene on the bed where they sat and talked about their childhoods and connecting. I always loved the scene and the dialogue, and you could hear more about Kaz losing his mom. But we were arguing back and forth, and ultimately, we did realize that it’s interesting without dialogue — that whole sequence without dialogue where you can show two characters falling in love without yapping about it. That was a big moment.

I remember with Love & Basketball, it was the same thing: the scene where his parents are fighting and he climbs through his window and goes to her house and climbs through her window. That scene, once he laid on the floor, there used to be dialogue. And in the editing process, we realized, “Wow, doesn’t it say much more about the relationship that he just comes through, she opens the window, tosses him a blanket, and he lays down?” We get everything we need to know in that moment.

Your sex scenes also feel very real. In most movies, it feels like two beautiful people monolithically having sex. But you show little details. In Love & Basketball, we even get that it actually hurts her a little bit; we sense that there’s a character actually going through real emotions.
There are two things that are important for me in shooting a love scene. First: No nudity. Because nudity, I think, immediately takes an audience out of it; now you’re wondering, “Oh, the actress, oh, she’s showing her chest.” Two: Just focus on faces, because love scenes are about the emotion that’s going on. When you’re focusing on their faces, you’re focusing on the emotions of it. And there’s a story to every scene. A love scene shouldn’t just be a sex scene. There should be a story to it. For Beyond the Lights, the airplane scene — I mean, that’s a sex scene that turns into a love scene. It’s really about her giving him the fantasy to get him over his fear. And really giving back what he’s been giving her. The scene in Mexico is her letting go and for once not having to be that fantasy and be a woman, and allowing him to be a man.

One of my favorite love scenes is The Big Easy with Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin. That scene is so badass. Really, you’re on their faces, but you know exactly what’s going on. That was really a great learning experience for me as a director, seeing that scene and how they shot it and why they shot it. It’s really kind of influenced the way that I approach sex scenes.

What are some other films that have inspired you?
Out of Sight is one of my favorite films ever. Love Steven Soderbergh. Goodfellas was a huge influence on me in terms of the use of camera. Black Orpheus, a beautiful love story that very few people actually have seen, and that was an influence on Beyond the Lights, too, in terms of the look of the film. Broadcast News, one of my absolute favorite films ever. And The Graduate. That was a big one as well for me.

If you had made Beyond the Lights in 2007, how would it have been different?
Well, I wouldn’t have had Gugu. She affected the trajectory of the film. Not only her performance, which is so dope, but the fact that I wrote it originally as an American artist. When Gugu came in, she auditioned in an American accent. But when she and I started talking about the script and the character and her connection to it, she was talking to me in her native tongue, and it just felt so much more interesting to me. And that opened me up to casting Minnie Driver, who was phenomenal as well. It dictated interesting changes. The fact that Kaz needs to — I don’t want to ruin the film — what he does at the end of the movie would not have happened if it had stayed American. Plus, I just think I'm a better director. You grow with every film, and I think I have more confidence. And this was 29 days, it was $7 million. How can we make a big film for little money? And being able to do that and pull together a crew that can do that as well comes with experience. So, I don’t know if I was ready to do this and be as personal within the film in terms of dealing with the suicide and the mother-daughter dynamic, which were personal things in my life.

At Vulture, we recently published a piece called, “Why Aren’t More Movies Like Love & Basketball?” I don’t know if you saw it. Well, I hope you saw it.
I did! It was pretty amazing.

So, let me ask you: Why aren’t there more movies like Love & Basketball?
Well, I can give you the numbers of all the studios’ heads, and you can ask them that question. [Laughs.] You know, I think the simple answer is that people who run studios, they’re green-lighting what appeals to them and who they can identify with, and that’s not films like Love & Basketball. So, those films are rare. But I tell people that you have to be so passionate about an idea or a story that you don’t let it go. That’s how you overcome “No.” And not everyone who may have a story like that is able to keep fighting. It’s not easy. For people in power, it’s very easy to say no. It’s much harder to say yes.