'Beyond the Lights' Director on the "Maddening" Challenges of Getting the Movie Made

Suzanne Tenner
'Beyond the Lights'

"What’s discriminated against is what I focus on, which is people of color and specifically women," says Gina Prince-Bythewood

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Gina Prince-Bythewood hasn’t made a film since 2008’s The Secret Life of Bees. That’s because the Love and Basketball helmer has been focused on getting a passion project made, a film she was working on before Secret Life came along. It hasn’t been an easy journey, but Beyond the Lights, a drama following a famous young singer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who is rescued from a suicide attempt by a cop (Nate Parker), will hit the big screen on Nov. 14.

Prince-Bythewood spent two years working on the script, researching the story by meeting with real-life musicians like Alicia Keys (who was at one point attached to star) to hear their own stories about, and struggles with, fame.

Ahead of the film’s release, Prince-Bythewood spoke with THR about why it took so long to make the film, what she learned about the music business and her views on diversity in film.

You had been working on this before Secret Life of Bees. What took so long to get this made?

I was in the very early stages of the script when Secret Life of Bees came along. Everything happens for a reason. It was great that I got to work so closely with Alicia Keys and she was such a big influence. As I told her when I first met her, the initial idea of this script came when I went to her concert at the Hollywood Bowl, and she was singing the song “Diary,” which is this epic love song. I was just sitting there with my eyes closed, and seeing this movie.

How does the writing process work for you?

Writing is very hard for me. I write to direct. Directing is what I actually love — writing is something that I have to do. This took a while — it was 55 drafts before it got to the screen. The artists I met through the process would influence some things. Honestly, my struggle to get this made was me having something to say and not being able to say it. It took two years to finish the script.

How much was it your intention to send a message to young women?

I don’t want to ever just make a movie; I have this platform, and I have something to say. I’ve been seeing this constant pattern of this normalization of hypersexuality in music, and seeing it trickle down to everyday life with younger girls and boys. And the sexting and the nude photos and the stuff that’s happening on reality shows — it’s just a nonstop thing. When I originally wrote this it was [rated] R in my mind, but as it became clear what I wanted to say, I realized it needed to be PG-13.

What kind of research did you do to create Gugu’s singer-starlet character?

I was very fortunate to meet with a number of singers. The only one I talk about is Alicia since she was attached early on to the project. I don’t name the other ones, since many are the ones who push the sexuality. But it was very fascinating to see both sides: someone who fought against it like Alicia, and other singers who are trapped in this [sexual] persona. One young singer, whom Gugu and I met together, she’s blowing up right now. This is a young woman whose mother was her manager. We literally left [the meeting] saying, “She is going to end up on a balcony.” There was so much pain. At one point, she was crying at the table. She’s 23 and she hadn’t told her mother yet that she had lost her virginity because being a virgin was part of her brand. She was afraid to tell her mom because she knew her mom would react about how that affected [her career]. It was fascinating and sad.

How hard was it to get this movie financed?

It was maddening, it really was. I felt like I had a good story, and I thought it was commercial. I had just come off the success of Secret Life of Bees, so I thought it would be a quick sell. The thing is, I can get in any room, but it’s now getting people wanting to do it. They wanted me to lose the suicide attempt, because they didn’t think an audience could [connect to] that. And then the fact that it was two people of color in the lead — it was unfortunate to hear “We don’t know how to market this, we don’t know how to sell this.” Being a black woman, you hear this all the time, and you never get used to it. One studio stepped up to option it for a year, and it was during that time that I found Gugu. I knew she was the one, but the studio said, “She’s not a star.”

Do you feel like you still face obstacles as a black female director in Hollywood?

I don’t feel discriminated against because I get offered stuff all the time. I could work all the time if I wanted, but I want to do my own stuff. So what’s discriminated against is what I focus on, which is people of color — and specifically women. People aren’t trying to make those films. That’s what gets discriminated against and [that is] frustrating.

How do you overcome those obstacles?

I think my biggest asset is overcoming "No" and never giving up. Writing it for two years and then trying to get it set up for two years, there are days when you just want to curl up in a ball. But you get up off the floor and you keep fighting.

Have any of the musicians seen the film yet?

Not yet. One is going to see it next week. Some of the artist who sang in the film, I think two of them have seen it. They love it. We worked so hard on the authenticity, so for them to say “You got it” is amazing. I’m excited for Beyonce to see it. It was the first time she ever licensed ["Drunk in Love"]. I dig Beyonce, I own every album, and for me I think the way she puts herself out there is authentic to her. I’m not wagging my finger and saying all sexuality is bad. It’s when it’s not authentic to who you are.

Email: Rebecca.Ford@THR.com
Twitter: @Beccamford