Beyond the Lights Director Gina Prince-Bythewood on Maternal Vibes, Nude Scenes, and ‘Love & Basketball’

Gina Prince-Bythewood, whose 2000 debut feature Love & Basketball is an essential coming-of age movie for Millennials, does not make romances. Nor does she make chick flicks. The writer-director makes dramas about what happens when worlds collide, whether it’s love and sex, parents and children, or personal life and career. Love & Basketball was unusual because it presented the relationship between two aspiring hoops stars from both the male and the female perspective, and because it waded into the murky waters of whether it was possible to have both a high-performance career and a relationship.

Her new film, Beyond the Lights, stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Noni, a hip-hop centerfold, and Nate Parker as Kaz, a policeman with political ambitions. Noni’s stage mother (Minnie Driver) pushes her daughter to sing music that feels inauthentic to Noni; Kaz’s father (Danny Glover), pushes him to run for office before he’s ready. The two first connect when Kaz saves Noni from a suicide attempt, and they connect on a deeper level when they realize they want to live their own lives rather than the ones their parents planned for them. Like the pair in Love & Basketball, neither Noni nor Kaz are sure whether their feelings for each are love or sexual attraction; and neither are sure they can follow their professional dreams and stay together.

On the phone from Miami, where Prince-Bythewood is promoting the movie that opens Nov. 14, she talks about her approach to writing and directing, the inspiration behind Lights,and some things you never knew about Love & Basketball.

The painter Edgar Degas observed that “There is love, and there is work, but there is but one heart.” You stress that your characters’ hearts are big enough to embrace both love andwork. What does it take to sit down and spin this idea into an original script?
It starts from writing what I want to see. I want to see movies that wreck me emotionally and build me back up. Anyone can write reality; I write what I want reality to be. Writing is rewriting. In the editing room I’m still rewriting. Beyond the Lights took 55 drafts. From conception to execution, it took two years to write. And then I fine-tuned it.

When you shopped it to the studios, what happened?
But they all said no, except for one person who optioned it. The studios didn’t like that there was a suicide attempt. They didn’t like that there were two people of color in the lead. I don’t make black films; I make films of every genre, with people of color in them. I said that Lights was a love story that’s universal.

You have a history of not letting “no” stop you. How do you get to yes?
Overcoming ‘no’ started in film school. I had been recruited to play basketball at various colleges, but not UCLA — and I wanted to go to UCLA film school. I bided my time until I could apply to the film school in my junior year. I applied and got rejected. I spoke to a counselor about appealing the decision, and he said decisions were final. Then I wrote an impassioned letter to the head of the film school, and she told me I was in. You fight until they say yes. My first job in Hollywood was as a writer on A Different World. I applied and got rejected, but stayed in contact. They gave me a job because I was in touch. What I learned from sports is that you fall down seven times and get up eight.

The mother-daughter dynamic in Love & Basketball is fraught and the one in Beyond the Lights even more so. The mother inBasketball (Alfre Woodard) wishes her daughter were more girly; The mother in Beyond the Lights wants her daughter to become famous. Are these elements at all inspired by personal experience?
The dynamic in Love & Basketball was stuff I was going through as the jock daughter of unathletic parents. I was adopted, but my parents were always supportive. Beyond the Lights was inspired by my having made contact with my birth mother. It wasn’t a great experience. I thought, ‘What if I hadn’t been given up and was raised by a woman who resented me and didn’t give me unconditional love?’ Putting this experience into the character of Noni helped me validate my self-worth.

The credits on Beyond the Lights show that not only did you write and direct and that Stephanie Allain is one of the producers, but also that the cinematographer, editor, production designers and costumer are all women. How important was it to surround the production with women on this particular project?
It’s twofold. The more films you make, the more familiar faces you put around you, because you want people who share your love and sense of craft. I also wanted a maternal vibe on this one: Gugu bares herself physically and emotionally, and I wanted women around to support her. The less she wears, the less we know her — and the less her character knows herself.

Beyond the Lights is critical of the sexualization of women in music — and by extension, onscreen. What happens when the culture reduces people to their bodies and their body parts?
It absolutely dehumanizes them. Women are also hyper-sexualized on TV and reality shows. There is a race to push the envelope, and there is no way to go but over the cliff, which is where Noni is at the beginning.

During a particularly tender scene been Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker in Lights, my 18-year-old daughter whispered, ‘Why are men so much sexier in movies by women?’ How would you answer her question?
My key to a great love scene is no nudity. I learned that from The Big Easy. It’s so much sexier to see people thinking than taking off their clothes.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Hard to believe she can play the 19th-century aristocrat in Belle, and a 21st-century Rihanna provocateur inBeyond the Lights. She seems to possess eight octaves of emotional range. Talk about her gifts.
Oh, my goodness. I could talk for hours. The moment she walked in the audition and started reading — the softness, magnetism, sexuality and vulnerability — it was such a beautiful thing to watch. Then she sang Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” and I knew she was Noni.

What are some things no one knows about Love & Basketball?
When I cast Omar Epps and Sanaa Lathan I didn’t know they were dating. Had I known, I wouldn’t have cast them. What if they broke up during production? Their intimacy worked for the film.

In the screenplay Alfre Woodard, the mother of basketball star Lathan, did not slap her during a heated argument. The scene wasn’t working. Imagining what a homemaker mother would do in a situation where her professional daughter took aim at her lack of ambition, Woodard smacked Lathan. It was a case where the actor did what was right for the scene to work.

I got notes from the studio heads — all male — that they didn’t think the sex scene between Lathan and Epps was working, Sanaa wasn’t enjoying it enough. I explained that first time a woman has sex it’s very painful and that’s what Sanaa was playing in the scene.

And while I was writing the screenplay, there was no WNBA. When the league was founded, suddenly I had an ending where both characters could pursue their professional lives and be together.

Published November 14, 2014.

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