As “Beyond the Lights” gears up for its nationwide release tomorrow, Heed caught up with the film’s director Gina Prince-Bythewood. “Beyond the Lights”, starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker, tells the story of Noni, the music world’s latest superstar. She’s young, beautiful and has everything but she’s succumbing to the pressures of her newfound fame, where she finds herself literally on the edge. That is until she meets Kaz Nicol, a young cop and aspiring politician who has been assigned to her detail. Drawn to each other, Noni and Kaz fall fast and hard, despite the protests of those around them who urge them to put their career ambitions ahead of their romance. But it is ultimately Kaz’s love that gives Noni the courage to find her own voice and break free to become the artist she was meant to be.

Sure to be very successful in its opening weekend, we were excited at the opportunity to chat with the films creator. With a catalog that includes the classic love story “Love & Basketball,” Gina knows a thing or two about highlighting Black love. This film, however, goes beyond the typical love story shedding light on the entertainment industry and the sometimes-adverse affects it has on young stars. The UCLA graduate, who also directed “The Secret Life of Bees” back in 2008, shared on everything the film being rejected several times to discovering Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She also gives her perspective on the current state of music and entertainment and why she thinks Queen Bey gets it right. Check out the interview and be sure to catch “Beyond the Lights” in theaters tomorrow!

Mike Sanford: How are you Gina?

Gina Prince-Bythewood: I’m real good! Real good!

MS: Good, it’s so good to hear from you and to finally get to talk to you about this new film! So, can you tell us about this dynamic movie? I’ve been seeing the previews and I’m really excited about it!

GPB: It’s great to hear that you’re excited about it! It’s been 4-years in the making! It’s a love story, set in the music world. It’s been 14-years since ‘Love and Basketball’, so I was really eager to do another love story and it was also a chance for me to do a music film which I also love as well. If you think of the great ones [like] “Lady Sings the Blues” and “The Rose”, so I really wanted to make a great music film that you see and you’re wrecked by it, but you come out inspired. There’s great music, great acting and I just have a phenomenal cast. The chemistry with Gugu and Nate? I just got lucky again! They’re phenomenal and great and I think we’ve got a new leading lady and a new leading man which I’m really excited about.


MS: I know this is a love story but, how important was it for you to highlight that aspect of the entertainment industry that can be dangerous emotionally?

GPB: It’s interesting because it started with a character who’s a singer. As I thought about what kind of story I wanted to tell with her, I was really inspired by what is going on in the music industry today and the way that it is been trickling down into every day life, which is this hypersexualization that’s becoming normal. There seems to be a blueprint that young artists need to follow to get noticed. For me, there’s nothing wrong with sexuality in music. I think with Beyonce it’s authentic to who she is, but my issue is with the younger ones who are trying to emulate that, pushing the envelope even further. The thing is, there seems to be a competition and there’s really no where else to go but over a cliff where the character is at the beginning of the film. So, I’d really like to change the conversation and just get it back to what Hip Hop and R&B has been. I love Hip Hop and R&B, but right now it’s tough sometimes to listen because it’s in a bit of an angry, ugly place in terms of the reflection of women and also men. The persona’s and fantasies that are being put on that the young people emulate and think is real. And for me, we really wanted to show the under belly of the music industry and the truth behind it. So, you basically have a perspective.


MS: Were Gugu and Nate your first choices for the lead roles?

GPB: When I first started writing the film, I thought I wanted a real musical artist for it, but as I went through the process I started looking at actors and realized that I needed an actor who could go to the depths that this character needed to go to. So, I started auditioning people two years ago and Gugu just came into an audition. This was prior to ‘Belle’, she was an unknown, and I saw her audition and it was one of those great moments as a director where I saw the movie as she was auditioning. The second half of the audition she had to sing Nina Simone’s ‘Blackbird’, and I remember praying that she could at least hold a note. She was really good and she has a background in musical theater, so I knew was the one. As a director, once you’ve found that you hold on it! Unfortunately, the studios all said, ‘she’s not a star, and we can’t put millions of dollars into a film with an unknown,’ but I knew that she was a star and is going to be a star, so I held on to her. It was really just knowing that I needed one yes and it took a very long time but everything happens for a reason and it brought me to BET who saw her, saw what I saw and put in a couple million. That allowed me to finally get a studio and cast it the way that I wanted to. I got Nate, he and I worked on the Secret Life of Bees together. I know his chops and his work ethic and I thought he’d be great for the part. I needed a real man to embody this role, someone who is not soft, but who is also a good dude. It’s a love story, and I needed them to go there in terms of chemistry and falling in love and making the audience believe it. I think it’s really beautiful to watch.


MS: What would you like the viewers to take away from the film?

GPB: First, I want people to be inspired by the film. I want you to leave the film and know that who you are authentically is good enough and worthy of love. I think that’s what’s missing today, when everyone is trying to emulate what we think people want. Just be authentic to yourself, love others  and others will love you for it.

MS: In light of this film, what advice do you have for any aspiring artists?

GPB: Be authentic to who you are! That has been the driving force for all of my work. I know when I first started, I tried to think about what I should come out with first and I started writing this romantic comedy that I thought was interesting and would sell quickly but it didn’t have my heart. But, what did have my heart was semi-autobiographical story about a little girl who wanted to be the first woman in the NBA and I finally said ‘let me write what’s in my heart and what’s authentic to me’ and it made all the difference. On paper, should it have been a movie that blew up? No, but I think it did because it was authentic and different and that’s what you need to be as an artist. Don’t try and do what you think people want to see, write what you want to see and people will come. And also be passionate, because you’re going to get a thousand no’s, but you have to be passionate because that fuels the fight to get overcome the  ‘no’.


MS: My final question for you is one that you probably here a lot, but I’m going to ask you because I would not be ‘authentic’ if I didn’t ask! [Laughs] Will we be getting a sequel to Love & Basketball?

GPB: I knew that was the question! [Laughs] I can say equivocally, no. It is ‘beyond the lights…’, I’m kidding! [Laughs] It is beyond flattering that people want a sequel! I mean trust me, after 14-years it’s amazing and as an artist you only hope that something that you do resonates the way that it has. I just feel that movie ended the way it was supposed to end and anything that an audience projects for those characters is much more interesting than anything I could come up with.

MS: And that’s fair! And you know what, now we’ll be setting our sights on ‘Beyond the Lights’! [Laughs]

GPB: [Laughs] Absolutely!

MS: Thank you so much for your time! It was great chatting with you and I can’t wait to see the film!

GPB: I appreciate that, thank you very much!



All Photos Copyright © 2013 Blackbird Productions, LLC, Photo Credit: Suzanne Tenner