'Love & Basketball' at 20: Gina Prince-Bythewood on Wanting to Make a Black 'When Harry Met Sally'
Filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood knows a thing or two about persistence after every studio and production company said no to 2000's Love & Basketball, her now-classic love story that’s set in the world of varsity, collegiate and professional basketball. Celebrating the film’s 20th anniversary, Prince-Bythewood reflects on how her persistence paid off as Sundance Institute and Spike Lee’s production company ultimately took a flier on the romantic drama when no one else would. Prince-Bythewood’s trademark steadfastness is why she continues to fight for stories she believes in despite six- to eight-year gaps between feature films.
Even though she grew up as a basketball player, Prince-Bythewood’s priority was to fill a considerable void by making an all-too-rare love story with black characters.
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“The kernel of the idea was that I wanted to make a black When Harry Met Sally. I love that film, and there was a dearth or nonexistence of love stories made with black characters,” Prince-Bythewood tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It was something that I wanted to see reflected; I wanted to see myself reflected. I also wanted to tell a story that put into the world that women could have both — love and career.”
Despite strong reviews, Love & Basketball didn’t overwhelm at the box office, grossing $27 million on a reported $15 million budget. A year later, Prince-Bythewood heard through the grapevine that the film was gaining steam during its post-theatrical life as VHS sales were well above expectations. However, the impact of Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy’s (Omar Epps) friendship-turned-romance wouldn’t truly resonate with Prince-Bythewood until she heard the powerful anecdote of a woman during a Q&A at a filmmaker panel.
“She was supposed to ask a question, but she just wanted to give a comment,” Prince-Bythewood recalls. “She said that she was about to have an operation, and there was a chance that she was going to lose her sight. So, the last thing she did before her operation was watch Love & Basketball. I’ll never get over that — it blew me away.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Prince-Bythewood reflects on the impossible task of casting the Monica character and the process of getting USC and ESPN on board, as well as the latest with her Charlize Theron actioner, The Old Guard, and Sony’s Silver & Black.
First and foremost, how are things with you and yours right now?
As everyone says, it’s a surreal time, but so far, all of us are safe and healthy. So, I’m hoping that continues.
In 2000-2001, I loved your movie Love & Basketball so much that my high school girlfriend had a ‘22’ chain necklace made for me a la Quincy’s; that was my basketball number as well. Have you heard hundreds of stories just like this one over the years?
(Laughs.) First of all, that’s amazing, and '22' was my number all throughout high school and college. That’s just amazing. Yeah, the tattoos, the jerseys, the necklaces — it always blows me away, it absolutely does.
I don’t believe it’s explained, but in your mind, did Monica and Quincy give each other their respective number necklaces?
Actually, no. That was a thing in high school to get a chain with your number. So, it really just came from personal experience. That gift idea probably would’ve been better if I had done it that way, but it was their own thing.
So, what was the first kernel of the idea for this movie?
Ironically, it had nothing to do with basketball. The kernel of the idea was that I wanted to make a black When Harry Met Sally. I love that film, and there was a dearth or nonexistence of love stories made with black characters. It was something that I wanted to see reflected; I wanted to see myself reflected. So, the first thing I asked was, “Is being friends the best way to start a healthy relationship?” From that kernel, I started to think about what story I wanted to tell, and I’d been taught in film school that your first film should be personal — a story only you could tell. So, I thought about my life and the things I loved. I also wanted to tell a story that put into the world that women could have both — love and career. So, all those things together were the spark.
Once you finished the script and started shopping it around town, what happened next for the uninitiated?
(Laughs.) I got crickets. Every single studio and production company that we sent it to turned it down. I had a list on my fridge, and each time I got a 'no,' I would cross it off. I remember the very last one we crossed off was Egg Pictures, which was Jodie Foster’s company; I don’t even know if she still has a company anymore. [Writer’s note: Foster shut Egg Pictures down in 2001.] I don’t know why that stuck in my mind, but I remember that being our last hope and shot. It was devastating because I had just spent a year and a half on the script and believed in it so much. To be told that your story is not worthy of being told is tough. That’s certainly the life of a writer in Hollywood, as every time you write a spec, it’s a leap of faith that anyone is going to care. What was also bothersome to me were the notes I was getting back. The majority were the film was “too soft.” I remember one specific studio suggested that I put in a scene like in Soul Food where the wife is chasing her husband with a knife. I said, “That’s not this story.” But it was tough, because how do you combat that? It’s not like I was suddenly going to change the setting and tone of this film. But it was dead. By miracle, two people on two consecutive days had spoken to Michelle Satter at Sundance about the script, and they read it. Then, they called me in and invited me to the program. That changed everything, not only getting really great thoughts on the script, but they also put on a reading of the script and helped me cast it. Then they invited producers, and Spike Lee’s company came and heard it. From there, they said they wanted to be a part of it.
Actors who can play basketball are few and far between. On top of that, you had to cast actors who could believably play Monica and Quincy across a decade. Just how difficult was casting this movie?
They say casting is 70 percent of your film. So, it was everything. I certainly cast by gut — and you kinda know it when you see it — but this was going to be a difficult one. I knew I wanted an unknown for Monica; I knew I needed a basketball player. Michael De Luca, who was head of New Line at the time, told me, “You can have an unknown as long as you can get Omar Epps and Alfre Woodard.” Thankfully, those were my first two choices for Quincy and Monica’s mother, and again, thankfully, both of them came on board very quickly. That was very exciting for me. But then, trying to find Monica was really, really hard. Sanaa Lathan did the reading for Sundance, and I was fine with that because obviously you’re sitting down and you don’t have to play ball. She was so brilliant in the reading that I could not get her performance out of my head, but she had never picked up a basketball in her life. It wasn’t just that she didn’t play; she had never picked up a ball. So, I knew that I could never cast her. It was a struggle to find an actor who could play ball, and we also looked at ballplayers to see if they could act. We saw up to 700 people for the role and just couldn’t find the person. Finally, I decided to put Sanaa with a basketball coach to see how far she could get after two months. At the same time, the only other woman who came close was Niesha Butler, who was the top ballplayer in New York and also a model. She did a pretty good audition, so I put her with an acting coach. So, those two were on this parallel track for a couple months with no guarantee for the part. That’s the stunning thing, and what Sanaa did has set the bar for any actor I’ve worked with. She’s someone who wanted something so badly that she put herself out there like that. I really went back and forth on the two of them with Spike absolutely pushing, “You have to go with a ballplayer.” I believed in that, except for how great Sanaa’s performance was. Finally, I had to make a decision, and it was my husband who said, “What is your movie? Is it a love story or is it a basketball story?” In thinking about it, I realized that it was a love story set in the world of basketball. You can ultimately fake a jump shot, but you can’t fake a close-up. So, I went with the actor. Even casting Sanaa, I was still scared to death of whether she could step up and do the basketball. So, I did get a basketball double for her, but in the entire movie, I used the double in only two shots; it’s still stunning to me. Sanaa just continued to train, and she did an amazing job.
What was the process of getting USC, ESPN, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Sparks, as well as other notable basketball personalities, on board?
Authenticity was so important to me. It had to start with the colleges. I did not want to make up a college because that takes you out of it immediately. So, I started with my college, UCLA, where I ran track and where I wanted it to be set. Unfortunately, they said no because they don’t allow anyone to use the name. Stanford was the second college I reached out to, and I got a letter back that said, “Your characters don’t reflect the Stanford student,” which really pissed me off. I didn’t know what that was supposed to mean. And then, I reached out to USC. It’s so childish, I absolutely know, but when you’re an athlete at UCLA, it’s just indoctrinated in you to hate USC. Those are our rivals, but USC gave us access to the name and everything on the campus — it was a dream. For them to give us all of that, it was a no-brainer. Of course, I’m gonna go there, and it gave it such authenticity. The one thing that bothers me is how many women have told me that they went to USC to play ball — because of the movie — and not UCLA. (Laughs.) For ESPN, I reached out to the individual announcers, Robin Roberts and Dick Vitale, and because they were into it, they went to ESPN and said, “Hey, we want to do this,” which was great. As soon as one person is in, then more people come aboard, and USC really started that off.
Did Epps and Lathan film their NBA and WNBA footage at actual Lakers and Sparks games, be it during halftime or postgame?
Yeah, we went to a Sparks game, and we had one shot at it. It was super scary because that was the real introduction. So, they allowed us to put Monica in there, and thankfully, we got it. With Omar, we got to shoot at The Forum, but that was all extras and pulling in some players that were on the team at the time — Trevor Wilson being one of them.
In the film, the USC women’s basketball team played in gymnasiums, while the men’s basketball team played at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. Was that a deliberate choice to show the disparity between men and women’s athletic programs nationwide?
Absolutely. That was a big thing for me in the writing and also in shooting. I did want to show the disparity. I just remember when I played ball in high school, the girls and boys of varsity would play on the same night. The girls would play first and then the boys. I always remembered that our gym was empty; the stands were empty except for my dad and three other parents. By the fourth quarter, it would be packed because people were waiting for the boys’ game. That used to drive me crazy. And then, in college, that was the real gym, that smaller gym, that the women played in, whereas the men, as you said, played at the Sports Arena. Those disparities were so stark to me back then, but even today, we’re dealing with the same disparity. The women’s soccer team, the U.S. team, which has won so many World Cups, are fighting for equality and equal pay, which is such an obvious thing, but it’s something that’s still happening. I wish my film had a bigger impact on that, but it’s something that was happening then and is still happening now.
Every time Woodard backs out of the garage, I tense up because she nearly hits the garage door with her Volvo. Is there a story behind that?
(Laughs.) You know what, I don’t remember. I’m gonna have to look at that. That’s so funny.
“Double or nothin’” is one of the greatest final lines that I can remember. Was that scripted from day one?
Absolutely. In any sport, that’s a thing, “double or nothing.” My biggest concern was, would people who were not athletes understand that? I remember being so nervous in the first preview audience about whether people would get it or not. Thankfully, they did.
Was there a turning point where you first started to notice that the film was evolving into a beloved classic following its theatrical release?
There was, and I’ll never get over it. So, it was a year after its release, and it was still the VHS era. New Line told me how well it was doing; it almost had a full second life on VHS. Then, I went to a panel discussion with three filmmakers up north. I don’t remember what the panel was about, but this woman stood up to ask a question. She was supposed to ask a question, but she just wanted to give a comment. She said that she was about to have an operation, and there was a chance that she was going to lose her sight. So, the last thing she did before her operation was watch Love & Basketball. I’ll never get over that — it blew me away. To this day, the fact that I’m talking to you 20 years later… As an artist, you only hope that your work resonates, has longevity and touches somebody. I will never get over the fact that it’s still being talked about today.
You even did a post-credit scene before they became all the rage.
(Laughs.) It’s so funny how so many people didn’t realize that was there; it just played on Netflix in December. But, yeah, that was fun to do. It was just that last little coda, and it was little Gina, basically. It was my homage to me and how I grew up.
There’s documentary footage of Michael Jordan walking around the streets of Barcelona when he was there with the Dream Team for the 1992 Summer Olympics. Did this footage inspire Monica’s own stroll through the streets of Barcelona?
No, but I know exactly what you’re talking about because I’ve watched every single Jordan documentary. It really came from talking with all these women who were heroes of mine like Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley and Sheryl Swoopes. It really came from their conversations about their time overseas and what it was like. The funny thing is they wanted us to shoot Barcelona on the backlot at Universal, and I couldn’t figure out how we were going to do that. The only reason we were able to afford to shoot in Barcelona for real was that Tyra Banks agreed to wear a Virgin flight attendant uniform. So, they gave us all the tickets to be able to fly out there, and that was the determining factor. So, we can all thank Tyra for that.
So, your first feature film debuts to strong reviews from critics and a modest $8 million opening weekend. What happened next?
It’s very interesting because right after Love & Basketball, I did Disappearing Acts, which was an HBO film. I again cast Sanaa because we clicked so well and wanted to keep working there. From there, the next film was The Secret Life of Bees in 2008.
What a travesty.
Yeah, this industry is a trip. There was a good seven-year gap there, but part of it was developing two projects that didn’t go. But, I certainly wasn’t getting a ton of stuff thrown at me, and the stuff that I was being offered was not exciting to me. I’m very picky because I want to be passionate about what I’m doing, but the interesting thing is I’m now at a point in my career where I am getting a lot of stuff given to me. I would say, to a T, that every producer and studio, in offering something to me, has referenced Love & Basketball as one of the reasons. So, that’s pretty amazing to me.
Can you share the latest on your upcoming Netflix film, The Old Guard, with "newcomer" Charlize Theron?
(Laughs.) I cannot tell you how excited I am about The Old Guard. Foremost, it’s based on the graphic novel by Greg Rucka that is so special and so different. I’m so enamored with his brain, and his female characters are just so dope and so different. I’m so grateful that I got to bring these characters to life. The cast was insane with two female leads, Charlize and Kiki Layne. I can’t believe the fact that I get to put these two female heroes in the world, especially when one of them is a young black woman. You can count black female heroes on one hand, and most of them were in Black Panther. (Laughs.) So, the fact that I get to do that is really special. It’s a really special story. It’s a big, beautiful action drama that I hope hits differently.
Lastly, is there any hope for you and Silver Sable/Black Cat still?
(Laughs.) That’s a book! Things are the status quo on my side. I really love that project, and I do hope it can still happen in some way. It keeps going through different thoughts. First, it was going to be the two of them, and then the decision was made to separate the two. Now, there’s a thought of “Hey, maybe we put it on Disney+ as a limited series,” but I loved it more as a film with the two of them. So, my hope is that one day it can still happen.
Love & Basketball is now available on Blu-ray and digital HD.
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