REEL Lady: Gina Prince Bythewood

GINA PRINCE-BYTHEWOOD (Writer/Producer/Director) wrote and directed the widely acclaimed feature film “Love & Basketball,” which premiered at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. Prince-Bythewood won an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature and a Humanitas Prize for her work on the film. Her other feature directing credits include the HBO film “Disappearing Acts.”

Currently, Prince-Bythewood is directing her adaptation of the best-selling novel, “The Secret Life of Bees” with Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah for Fox Searchlight. It will be released this fall.

Gina Prince Bythewood

Gina Prince Bythewood

Prince-Bythewood obtained her first feature film producer credit in 2003 on “Biker Boyz,” a Dreamworks film which was co-written and directed by her husband, Reggie Rock Bythewood.

Prince-Bythewood studied at UCLA Film School, where she received the Gene Reynolds Scholarship for Directing and the Ray Stark Memorial Scholarship for Outstanding Undergraduate. Upon her graduation in 1991, she was immediately hired as a writer on the television series “A Different World.” She continued to write and produce for network television on series such as “Felicity,” “South Central,” “Courthouse” and “Sweet Justice” before making the transition to directing.

Her television directorial debut was the CBS Schoolbreak Special “What About Your Friends,” which won Prince-Bythewood an NACCP Image Award for Best Children’s Special and two Emmy nominations for writing and directing. She has also directed episodes of the hit television comedies “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Girlfriends.”

Prince-Bythewood currently resides in Southern California with her husband Reggie and their sons Cassius and Toussaint.

READ BELOW her interview with REEL Ladies!

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RL: HOW OLD WERE YOU WHEN YOU DECIDED TO PURSUE FILM?

GPB: When I was in high school, my career goal was to write for a soap opera. I watched four a day and was convinced that was what I wanted to do. Despite wanting to play college basketball, I went to UCLA (where I was not offered a scholarship) because of their film program. I started hanging out at the film school and agreed to help out on a student film. That first day on set was one of those light bulb moments. I remember the intense feeling that came over me as I realized suddenly what I wanted to do was direct.

RL: YOU LANDED A JOB STRAIGHT FROM COLLEGE ON THE POPULAR SITCOM “A DIFFERENT WORLD”. HOW DID THAT COME ABOUT? WHAT STEPS DID YOU HAVE TO TAKE?

GPB: First let me say, I was extremely lucky to start my career at “A Different World”. It was my favorite show and it was run by black women. It was an incredibly nurturing environment.
I met Bill Cosby at a track meet (I ran track my sophomore year) and I told him about my ambitions. He introduced me to Yvette Lee Bowser, who was a producer on the show, and she got me a meeting for the open writer’s apprentice position. It was the worst interview of my life. I was completely ill prepared and shy and gave monosyllabic answers to their questions. I was 22, and in the room with my heroes who were TV veterans and I choked. It was heartbreaking. But miraculously the they hired did not take the job seriously and they called me up a couple months later and asked me to come aboard.

RL: YOUR FIRST DAY, WERE YOU NERVOUS?

GPB: Petrified. I don’t think I pitched a joke for the first two weeks. The room was tough and they would cut you down in a second if the joke you pitched sucked. But after getting a couple laughs, my confidence grew.

RL: WERE YOU CONFIDENT IN YOUR SKILLS YET AS A WRITER? OR WERE YOU DOUBTFUL?

GPB: I knew I had a lot to bring to the table given the show was about college and I had just graduated. The great thing about the job was that they had the apprentices write select scenes from the episodes they were working on and then they would critique us. After a while, my stuff was being put into the actual episodes and that helped my confidence tremendously.

RL: HOW DID YOU LAND THE CBS SCHOOLBREAK SPECIAL AS A DIRECTOR?

GPB: Because I had written it, I pitched myself as the one person who knew the story of these girls better than anybody. They took a big chance on me and I am grateful for that.

RL: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR DIRECTING STYLE THEN?
WHAT HAS CHANGED IN YOUR STYLE FROM THEN TO NOW?

GPB: I cannot define my visual style because I change it up with each new film. But I am much better at working with actors. My goal is to make them as comfortable as possible so they can give me all of themselves. It is all about building a trust and that is what I work on from the moment I meet them.

RL: HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU TO WRITE THE SCRIPT FOR LOVE & BASKETBALL?

GPB: A year and a half.

RL: WHAT WAS THE EXPERIENCE LIKE FOR YOU TO SHOP IT AROUND?

GPB: Soul-crushing. Every single studio passed, from major to minor. I thought I was dead in the water, that I had just wasted a year and a half of my life. Then miraculously, the Sundance Program called me. They had heard about my script, and wanted to meet. From that meeting I was invited to attend their writer’s workshop. It was an amazing experience.

RL:HOW DID YOU TEAM UP WITH SPIKE?

GPB: Sundance put on a staged reading of my script and invited industry folks. Sam Kitt from Spike’s company came and loved it.

RL: THIS WAS YOUR FEATURE FILM DIRECTORIAL DEBUT, AND YOU HAD SOME GREAT NAMES ATTACHED! THIS FILM PUT SANAA LATHAN ON THE MAP. HOW WAS IT WORKING WITH HER?

GPB: Sanaa is great, and we click as director/actor. She sold me during the audition process. She worked with a basketball coach for three months with no guarantee of a part to prove she could play ball. A director dreams of having an actor with that kind of work ethic. We laugh about it now, but we didn’t become friends until after the film. She says I was really hard on her. But I was just incredibly focused. This was my first film and I had to make sure everything was right. And that meant pushing her hard so that her performance was always believable. Her chemistry with Omar was off the chain. I was blessed with that.

RL: BEING THE WRITER AND DIRECTOR, HOW FREQUENTLY DO YOU LET THE ACTORS IMPROV?

GPB: Improv happens in rehearsal, and sometimes I will incorporate things that come out of that. But by the time we get to set the script is pretty locked.

RL: YOUR NEXT FILM DISAPPEARING ACTS, STARRED SANAA LATHAN AS WELL. WAS THAT YOUR DOING?

GPB: Yes. Sanaa is a great actress and we worked well together so I wanted to work with her again. But I made her audition because the part was so different from Monica. She was pissed about that. But she ripped the audition and earned the part. And she was great in the film.

RL: WAS THAT THE FIRST TIME YOU WERE DIRECTING SOMEONE ELSE’S SCRIPT OTHER THAN YOUR OWN? IS EASIER OR HARDER FOR YOU?

GPB: Yes, it was the first time and it was a little more difficult. When I direct what I have written it is 100% my vision, but here I was trying to marry my vision with another writer’s. But I loved the book so much that it ended up working out.

RL: YOU WERE DOING PROJECTS BACK TO BACK IT SEEMS LIKE. WORKING WITH SOME GREAT ACTORS, WRITERS, AND PRODUCERS. BUT I KNOW IT WASN’T ALL JUST A PIECE OF CAKE. WERE THERE ANY OBSTACLES THAT YOU WERE FACING AT THE TIME? OR ANY PROJECT THAT WAS DIFFICULT FOR YOU?

GPB: I did “Disappearing Acts” right after “Love and Basketball” and I will never do that again. Making a film is emotionally and physically draining, even when it goes well, and I was just burnt out. You need time to refuel in between projects to give your best because it is all consuming.
The toughest obstacle I ever faced was working with an actor who was an incredible jerk. He showed up to set late every day, sometimes hung over. He was rude to the cast and the crew….Just unprofessional and mean. But I still had to get a performance out of him. It was emotionally draining and really discouraging.

RL: HOW DID YOU GET PAST THAT?

GPB: I had to put my ego aside because at the end of the day folks coming to see the movie have no idea what happened on set. They just care if the performances are good. It was tough. But it made me very choosey about who I work with now. You understand why some directors work with the same people over and over. There is a comfort in working with people you like, and where there is a mutual respect.

RL: YOU, LIKE MANY OF US, PUT ON YOUR PRODUCER HAT AS WELL FOR “BIKER BOYZ.” WHICH DO YOU PREFER; WRITING, DIRECTING, OR PRODUCING?

GPB: Directing by far. Writing is tough and lonely. Directing is giving life to the words. It’s exciting. Producing is just not my forte. I don’t like not having the final say.

RL: HOW DO YOU JUGGLE YOUR FILM CAREER AND YOUR FAMILY?

GPB: Honestly I am still trying to figure it out. Directing is all consuming and I miss my family terribly. And it takes a toll on everybody. The positive thing is that most of the time I am home writing. It is just when I am making a film that everything is crazy.

RL: WHAT PROJECTS ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?

GPB: I just directed my adaptation of the best-selling novel “The Secret Life of Bees.” It comes out Oct. 17th. I am very excited about it. It stars Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia keys and Paul Bettany. They are all phenomenal.

RL: WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO WOMEN IN FILM OUT THERE?

GPB: Always remember that talent has no gender. There is zero reason for this fallacy that men are inherently better suited to direct than women. You will be tested and challenged on set but if you show them what you got that first day, that b.s. will go away real quick. And write. The best way to direct is to attach yourself to your own good material. That will always be your ace.

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About REEL Ladies

A Networking Community & Organization for Women in Film & Entertainment! View all posts by REEL Ladies

4 responses to “REEL Lady: Gina Prince Bythewood

  • RLBH-1225

    I think this article was extraordinary as well as the Artist herself. She’s a great writer, director, producer, mother and wife. Certainly a woman to model as a “Modern Woman”

  • lilkunta

    Great interview & great advice from Gina.
    She def was lucky 2 get a job on ADW right outta colllege. Lucky 2 be in the right place @ the right time ( running so she mett Bill Cosby on the field).

    Congrats 2 her.

  • SolShine7

    Great interview! You asked some good questions. Bythewood is such an amazing director and I hope she has a long successful career in Hollywood.

  • nneka

    Just want to say a big KUDO to Gina. I have been her great fan down here in Nigeria. Hope to meet her one day cos am a young writer.

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