Interview: Gina Prince-Bythewood

At first glance, Beyond The Lights looks like a standard story about the trappings of fame, the pressures of celebrity, and the part where two star crossed people fall in love. But it’s so much more in the hands of a filmmaker like Gina Prince-Bythewood.  It’s a story about the necessity of being true to yourself in a world that is consistently putting pressure on you to be something or someone else and do things the way that they have been done before. It also gives audiences what they want and need on an emotional level without calling attention to the usual clichés romantic dramas usually suffer from.

Kaz (Nate Parker) is an LA cop on the brink of a burgeoning political career who is resisting going down the political path that his father (Danny Glover) has set out for him. Nomi (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is an up and coming starlet in the world of hip hop and R&B who is being over sexualized into more of a product or a commoditythen an actual artist. They meet under tense circumstances after Kaz saves her life. It’s a well realized look at personal and professional standards, and how to craft a healthy balance between the two.

During its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival, I had the pleasure to sit down Bythewood (who also made the underrated Love and Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees) about what prompted her to tell a story like this, her thoughts on the state of women in the music industry, the chemistry between her two co-stars, and how much effort it takes to get a conventional romance with an unconventional subject made.

Dork Shelf: The movie not only brings up the issue of how so many female artists get hyper-sexualized in the world of hip-hop and R&B, but also the lack of artistry in general. Was your frustration with that what inspired you to tell this kind of story?

Gina Prince-Bythewood: Well, to be honest, these days I truly have a kind of love/hate relationship with hip-hop and R&B, which has really taken this strange turn in the last few years.  In the past R&B always used to be a safe place for women, and songs were talking about how much men loved their women and exalting them, but now it has turned to a place of hate.  There is this obvious pattern when you get hyper-sexualized and you make a name for yourself and you get famous that way.  What happened to the artistry and being known for your voice, you know?  For this film, what I found interesting was when we see Nomi as a little girl she has this purity about her, and even her mother, played by Minnie Driver, has this real purity about her, She just wants to showcase this beautiful voice of Nomi’s.  However, when she learns that it just isn’t enough, then the focus changes to about getting to the top no matter the cost, which ends up being her soul.

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DS: Especially in the world of hip hop, where there are social conscious artists putting out great music like Talib Kweli or a Common, but on the flip side of that we rarely see a female equivalent of that kind of artists who exists in R&B. There are people like Jill Scott, Alicia Keys or Erykah Badu, but not in hip-hop.  Is this just something that you are trying to comment on, if only to wonder where they are?

GPB: I am really hoping that this movie helps in changing the conversation because there really does seem to be a battle going on right now between who can push things the furthest, and the envelope has just got so far that you have to wonder how much farther we can go. That really is Nomi’s mindset out on that balcony at the beginning of the movie.

DS: And that really comes through in the dynamic of the relationship with Nomi and her mother ,and the concept of the “Stage Mom,” which can be very supportive in a way but also has some pretty darker elements that people can be blind to until it is too late.

GPB: Yeah, I did a lot of research on this film, and the great thing was not just talking to the artists, but also to their mothers, as well. It was really a big deal and you could tell the difference.  There was one woman who managed her daughter up until she was 17, and then she realized that it had reached a point where it had really begun to hinder their relationship; moments like when she would come off stage and begin to untie her daughter’s shoes, and she just had to stop and say to herself “What am I doing? I’m your mother”.  Me bowing down to you like this, and you telling me what to do just isn’t healthy for either of us.  It’s just very interesting for these women where their daughters are ultimately responsible for their own self worth, along with financial well being and security. It’s no surprise that judgements can get clouded as easily as they do.

DS: As much as there are important and poignant statements that come across in the film, it’s also a love story.  Gugu and Nate just work so well together.  How long of a process of was it for you to be able to get the right people together for this film?

GPB: It was a long process. When I had first written the script, I hactually had someone else in mind, a musical artist, but she ultimately dropped out, and then I thought it was the death of the project .But you know that everything happens for a reason, so I started auditioning actors, and when Gugu came in I just said that this is it. I could visualize the entire film with her.  Then when I sat down to talk with her and I could see how passionate she was about the character, the script and the entire message in this story it was just obvious. I mean, even more so because when we would talk it out and she would be in her British accent it was obvious she had done an American accent for her audition. I know that it made this story that much more interesting to let her keep her accent.

Then the problem was, how could I get a guy to match that?  I initially had asked Nate for a favor because I had auditioned Gugu for the studio, and said, “Could you help me out?”I didn’t want to tip him off, as I had a little ulterior motive. They were just so damn cute together.  They truly fed off of each other, and they didn’t even know each other, but the willingness was there so I had put them together one more time and I just watched.

You could see that they genuinely liked one another, which is something you want in a love story, and it continued to grow throughout the preproduction process with all the rehearsal time, which is a pretty big thing that I like to do when putting a movie together. Even on their own they arranged to go down to Disney World together  just to build and bond along with all these interesting live improv exercises that I had given them, and to see it build was so exciting. We got to shoot it mostly in order, and by the time we made it to Mexico we knew we had something really special that we were seeing unfold on the screen.

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DS: How important is it for your actors to a point where they aren’t just romantic movie charactures or story tropes but genuine characters and people in this love story?

GPB: Oh, I think it is a very important. I think what people are being drawn to with those two is that they are real and authentic people who each have their own separate lives that are fully realized and they need to get past the conflict in order to find each other.  Like you said, if you are just creating these kinds of archetypes it feels really false.

DS: And that goes back to the artistry of it all as well, because Gugu does all her own vocals in the movie.  Was that something that she was trained to do or did it take a little coaxing to get that out of her?

GPB: Gugu was trained in musical theatre, which as we all know is NOT R&B (laughs).  It really was about retraining her voice, and we had a guy like The-Dream, who was working with her for hours and hours in the studio. We had some great vocal coaches straight from American Idol,  who I never thought we could get because we never had an money, but I called them and they loved the idea.  The one thing they kept saying to Gugu over and over was to lose the vibrato, which is just what you do in musical theatre and R&B is always all about the tone.

DS: It’s a movie that really doesn’t fit into any one kind of mold as it really brings many different ideas to the table that you can’t necessarily put into one box.  How much of an effort was it for you to be able to get this off the ground?

GPB: It took so long, and I won’t lie because I had just come off of The Secret Life of Bees which was a success, and I had written this thing that I felt had some commercial appeal to it, and then I would get my foot in the door for meeting on it, and everyone would always say, “We love the script and we love you…but we just don’t see it”.  Every studio initially turned it down, but then when I found Gugu and shot a presentation to showcase her and show them that I had a star, I got back into the studios and we got closer but to them she wasn’t enough of a star.

DS: But aren’t they supposed to make stars?

GPB: (Smiles and laughs) Can you say that into the mic a little louder please? (laughs)  My ultimate thing was something that I learned on Love & Basketball, which everyone initially turned down, too. You only ever need one place to say yes.  That was the fight; just not to give up. I was so fortunate to have my husband as a producer on this, as well ,and he just wouldn’t let me quit or get discouraged until we got that one yes and then we were ready to go.

DS: Do you ultimately think that we will hit that breaking point where we see the hyper sexualization of artists and we’ll collectively just say “enough is enough” at least slowly start to turn the tide?

GPB: I feel like we’re there now. There’s a video that just came out, Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” where we you just look at it and go, “Where can we go from this?”  I really love her as an artist, but I just don’t love that, and she really doesn’t need to do that because she’s just so supremely talented and has so much  going on. I was literally in shock with my mouth wide open watching that video.  I just don’t know where you can go after that, and it’s so interesting because there is a young group of female R&B artists who are rebelling against that, trying to get it back to the artistry of it all. The question now is if they can be successful and break through, and we hope this film can change the conversation as well.

DS: And to do it in such a refreshing way that doesn’t fall into a mold with a leading lady performance from someone who is bound to be a big star.

GPB: I am so excited for Gugu, I mean especially when you see something like Belle and the range that she shows in that. She just has big things ahead for her.

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