Behind 'Beyond The Lights': 5 Questions With Director Gina Prince-Bythewood

What better occasion than Black History Month to celebrate black excellence?! Last night, I had the opportunity to speak with director/screenwriter Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love & Basketball and Secret Life Of Bees) about her most recent film, Beyond The Lights. During the conversation, Gina was gracious enough to give us more insight on what went into making the film and what it means for her, personally, as she preps for the release of the director’s cut of Beyond The Lights, available for purchase later this month. Here are 5 questions I had to ask…

JWilliams: What led you to write Noni as drawing so much inspiration from Nina Simone and, specifically, what is the connection of the movie to the song “Blackbird”?

Gina Prince-Bythewood: Well, I didn’t get keyed in to Nina Simone until after college. I was adopted by white parents and I grew up on Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and the Beatles, but once I discovered Nina Simone, that was it. Once you discover her, you want to know everything about her. So, I just had all her albums. When I was writing the script, I knew the character of Noni would sing a Nina Simone song. Nina’s work is so truthful and raw and real, but I didn’t know what song. So, I was just listening through my stack of CDs and I came across “Blackbird” and it felt like that was written for the film. The lyrics spoke so perfectly to the character of Noni as a little girl and as a young woman. Honestly, it changed the trajectory of the script. Originally, Noni sang her own song in the karaoke scene but, once I started writing and hearing the lyrics, it just made more sense that she wanted to go back to that moment when she could be what she wanted to be, as a little girl. I love when things like that can elevate the material.

JW: About the karaoke scene…it’s one of my favorites in the movie. Kaz comes to Noni’s defense several times during the film, while holding her hand as she grows more confident in her ability to make her own decisions. During the karaoke scene, Noni saves Kaz from his embarrassment and in turn helps her help herself by going viral after performing the music she loves. Was this the intent of that scene?

GPB: Um…well, actually, it’s two-folded. It doesn’t go as far as you said, though that is pretty dope.  Maybe I will say I did that. laughs But, the thing I loved about that moment is that he goes up there and starts to get booed and she goes up and dances and is supportive in that. Then, yes, she wants to shut it down and save him from humiliation but, when  writing it, it was about him getting her up on stage now that she’d shed everything and see if she had the courage to sing what she wants to sing and not sing what she was told to sing. It was really a combination of both, but she had to have courage to go up there and bare her soul.

JW: There are many amazingly done scenes in the movie, which help bring a certain authenticity to each of the characters. Which scene of the movie impressed you the most once it was translated from script to film and for what reasons?

GPB: Wow! I would say the kitchen scene [between Minnie Driver and Gugu Mbatha-Raw] because, as a writer, you’re playing with things in your head and you’re acting your ass off as you’re writing. So, to have actors come in and take it to a whole ‘nother level is pretty exciting to see. I would say that and the BET Awards scene. Honestly, I wrote it and it was very clear in my head but, in hiring Gugu, I did not know what I was going to get in that scene but, after rehearsing–I mean, we rehearsed that for 6 months. That’s what it took with choreographer Laurieann Gibson because Gugu does not come from Hip-Hop/R&B at all. She comes from ballet. This is not her world. She had to learn to dance that way. She had to learn to tap into that hypersexuality and to be able to look into a camera and throw that energy out. It’s also one thing to rehearse in a closed studio, but we had real extras there. There were hundreds of people there. Was Gugu going to freeze? Could the choreography hold up? Also, it’s a real crowd. Are they going to dig the song? I dug the song, but I needed a real reaction. So, I did not know what was going to happen and the amazing thing about Gugu is she’s so shy and reserved. To see her turn it on and turn on Noni is a pretty fascinating thing to witness and why she’s so dope. It’s also pretty funny because we shot that thing probably 50 times and, by the end of it,  Gugu–shy and reserved–she did not care. After every take, that trench cat was off. She was sitting in her…nothing…backstage. Did not care who was walking around. She was that tapped in! That was another thing that went to another level.

JW: Your films consistently carry a coming-of-age theme of female empowerment and self-identity. Most notable would be the role of Monica in Love & Basketball, who dealt with expectations being forced on her by her mother, much like Noni. While we all need the time to find ourselves as we grow, do you feel like african-american or mixed race women have a harder time identifying with who they are because of the implications by society?

GPB: I definitely feel that black women are invisible in feature films, especially in fully realized characters. We’ve been the best friend a lot. Sometimes, even the exotic girlfriend. However, in terms of a fully realized character, it’s very rare and I think Beyond The Lights made me reflect on the overriding theme of my work and it is women finding their self-worth. That was something I struggled with in high school and I know the feeling I got when, at 17, I went to the movies and the trailer for She’s Gotta Have It came up and it was the first time I’d seen myself reflected up on-screen. That overwhelming feeling is what I want to give others, as well, but it’s not just putting us up on-screen for us to see. Its putting us up there for the world to see and really show our humanity and change the perception. There is a perception, unfortunately, that black folks don’t love each other. That we don’t fight for each other and there is a lack of humanity, which we’ve seen in terms of what went on with Eric Garner. It’s important for the world to see us as fully realized human beings.

JW: When it comes to releasing a movie, a director’s cut is usually released because the movie was truncated to accommodate budget limitations. Being that you wore the cap of both writer and director of Beyond The Lights, did you find yourself censoring yourself as a writer to fit a more realistic budget as director?

GPB: I do not censor myself at all, as a director, when I’m writing. The script of Beyond The Lights had 55 drafts before it was finalized because every word, every line, every moment counts. I think that part of the director in me knows that, once I get to set, the script has got to be done. You don’t have time to try to figure it out on set. So, I had to make sure it was right in the writing process but, again, I don’t want to think about budget. I don’t want to think about any of that. Once the script is finalized and I’m happy with it and excited about it, then I put on the director’s hat. When it was at Sony, at first, it was a $20 million film. Then, it got dropped there and it almost went to Searchlight and it was a $12 million dollar film there. Then, finally, when we got to Relativity, it was a $7 million film. So, it’s still the same film that was in my head. We just had to make different compromises. The key was, for $7 million, what are the key set pieces and the directors that could give us the floss and the bigness of the world. So, it just takes being creative with directors to do that. Also, I can’t be too precious with my work. It’s what is best for the film. So, I’ve learned to separate the two and not fall too in love with anything as a writer or a director.

Get the director’s cut, deleted scenes and more extras from Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Beyond The Lights, when it hits Blu-Ray and DVD on February 24th!