“Beyond The Lights” is the story of Noni, the music world’s latest superstar. But not all is what it seems, and the pressures of fame have Noni on the edge – until she meets Kaz Nicol, a young cop and aspiring politician who’s 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.
Congratulations on the film. You said the idea for the film came to you when you went to an Alicia Keys concert and she was singing “Diary,” which is actually one of my favorite Alicia Keys songs. Can you take me back to that night?
Gina: It was interesting because I was already in the space of “I’m ready to write my next one, I know I want to write a love story and a music film,” but I did not know what it was going to be yet. And it was one of those amazing moments as a writer and it does not happen that often. I write to music first of all, so being at that concert, it was at the Hollywood Bowl, which is an amazing venue and she started singing “Diary” and it was like it was filling me. And suddenly I just saw this character and this story in my head, and it was like I was watching this movie while she was singing. And it was just a phenomenal moment. And I just could not wait to get home and put it down. And again, I just remember being there and just feeling so filled up by that song and the emotion of the song. And it really fueled the story.
And Alicia gave you some insight for your film. Can you speak a little more about that?
Gina: I was so fortunate to be able to talk to a couple of really good artists, who were very open with me about what they went through. And Alicia was one of them, and she’s really somebody who did it right. She was known for for her voice, as she should, and her songwriting. But she had to go through a lot of things that Noni did too … and it was great that she was open with me. I mean, the key to this film was always going to be it’s authenticity so I had to really delve deep and go to the source.
So from there, you worked on the script. Tell us about the process. You wrote 55 drafts.
Gina: I write and direct. Like, I love directing, writing is a chore. It’s very hard for me. But, it all starts with the script. And you have to work it and work it. Writing is really rewriting. Did I want to do 55 drafts? No, but when I went back and counted I was like “Oh my gosh, I have 55 drafts here.” And you know, the evolution of the script was pretty interesting because before there was so much personal stuff in it, and that was the thing, I was writing it for personal reasons, but then as it went on, I was trying to say too much.
And it was about simplifying the story and pulling back on some of the personal stuff and it was just really honing the story. And knowing it was a love story first set in the music world as opposed to being a music film. You know, things like that and just really … working on their relationship and the ebbs and flows of a love story and building. Because most people know that in a love story they’re going to end up together in the end so how do you make journey interesting enough and it was really working on that as well … and my process is I write to music and every script has its own soundtrack and this one has like 25 songs in it. But there are some great songs that just opened me up and allowed me to write. And Coldplay was big, Alicia Keys was big, Mariah Carey’s song “Let’s Be Together,” that was a big one. The Pussycat Dolls “Stickwitu,” Sia, a couple of her songs … when you can find a song that really opens you up emotionally it really helps you write.
Gugu was incredible. And you also spoke about how you stood by her as your lead. Can share what you saw in her, what made her special, and talk about working with her?
Gina: Yeah. I found Gugu in an audition, and I saw the movie when she was auditioning. And knew she was the one. There’s such an innate vulnerability about her and you just want to watch her. And the other part of the audition was singing, and she had to sang “Blackbird” and she knocked that out. ‘Cause I knew ultimately, if I had to I could fake some things, but you know you have to at least have a base and be able sing and thank God … she grew up in musical theater so her voice is just … we had to turn it into an R&B voice and that was the biggest thing.
But also in the audition one of the scenes was the first kiss scene in the film, and I had hired an actor to work opposite her so she wasn’t reading with a casting director, and I remember she just went for it. Like, she didn’t know this dude but she did the scene, went in for the kiss, and I said this woman is bold. And that’s what I needed from this actress, somebody who would take chances and risks, and when we sat down and talked after, just the connection she had to the material and the character, and she was raised by a single mom as well, and could really identify and I just knew that she was the one. And when I gave her the part I said you gotta know how hard I’m going to work you and this is going to be incredibly tough … and she said I want it. You know, I want all of that. Nobody, I certainly, didn’t know it was going to take two years, but she and I worked on it for two years as we tried to get it set up.
The work of it was so much fun because we really started with the base of it, which was Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland and their stories. And I gave her those two books, those biographies and she read them immediately, so again, we were building a trust. The dancing was a big thing. So I knew early on I wanted Laurieann Gibson, who worked with Gaga and Nicki Minaj, and I used to watch “Making the Band,” and I saw the way she worked. I wanted that energy around Gugu. This is not her world, at all. I had to bring her into the world of R&B and hip-hop and we got Laurieann, and that was amazing, and she worked her for months. It was three to four days a week, three hours a day in the studio. First, it was just learning … I remember some of the early routines were “Beez in the Trap” by Nicki Minaj and “Naughty Girl” by Beyonce. So just getting her body used to that … and then once we started getting the music from The-Dream, choreographing to that. So that process was really fun, and then her working with The-Dream, that was also somebody we had identified early on, didn’t think we could afford him. And the fact that he came aboard was great, but as I said last night, music and film are totally different. Film is beyond time, you set the time, you go, and they’re a whole different thing. It’s very frustrating trying to marry to the two worlds because he works on his own time, but it was actually great for Gugu to use that frustration when you’re called into the studio at 11 pm and then he doesn’t come until 1 am, but you have no control. And when you’re sitting there, Dream does his own demos, so you have to sing to that inflection, like everything, and that’s again that lack of control. That’s what Noni would have gone through, so Gugu was able to use all of that.
She literally went through “How to be a Popstar” camp with this film.
Gina: We went to Greystone, that was one of our field trips, Greystone Manor on Sunday night, insane. We were sitting in VIP and the entire Clipper team showed up and was right next to us. And I ended up putting them in the movie because of what happened on the real night. So fun stuff like that and we went to a Rihanna concert and Beyonce concert, the Grammys, and then videos. I inundated her with the raunchiest sh*t because that’s what Noni would be doing, and then the music as well for Laurieann … I put together a playlist for Laurieann to teach her to dance to, and I wanted it to be the most ignorant stuff because I wanted the n-word and the b-word to become normal. Because you’re dancing to that stuff, hearing it, because that’s what she’d be hearing all day every day. Again this is not Gugu’s world at all. And what sucks is, Gugu will tell you, she doesn’t listening to R&B and hip-hop now, and it sucks because I gave her the worst of us, you know? Just like Sanaa won’t play basketball.
This is MGK’s debut.
Gina: So the character is written as black. I just assumed, you know, that’s who he’s gonna be. And then I was just going through videos one day and I came across “Wildboy.” The character’s name used to be Hellboy, but I couldn’t get the rights to that name, but I was like, that’s him! That crazy-ass persona and that crazy energy. So I said let’s call him in and have him audition. And he and I joke about this now, but his first words to me were “I’m so drunk from last night.” I was like okay, this is never gonna work. But then we closed the door and sat down, and we started talking, and that wild persona was just gone and it was a real dude and that’s what I wanted. I mean, he’s putting on a mask, the character, just like Noni is, and he wanted to be a part of this so bad. He loved “Love & Basketball” so that was dope, and he flew himself three times to audition. He auditioned for me first, then I had him audition with Gugu to see what their chemistry was like, and then he had to come in a third time with Gugu, but each time he came in because he wanted to do it so bad. And the day I called him to tell him he got it, it was just a great moment because he was so blown away. He worked really really hard. I told him, that life you had, and that persona can’t show up on set. You’re playing a character, but you have to be respectful, you gotta be on time, and he was absolutely professional and so respectful. I mean that scene at the BET Awards when he’s disrespecting her and holding her head down, I mean in the director’s cut it’s longer, I had to cut it for PG-13, but I kept having to tell him you’ve got to go further. And he said please tell Gugu that you’re telling me to do this! But he loved the whole process, loved the rehearsals, loved working with Gugu. He just brought a great authenticity and loved the music. Dream wrote these songs and he had to put raps to it, and he just loved the whole process. He was a lot of fun. And all his boys are in it, all those guys around him, that’s his crew.
Nate was great in the film as well. Tell me about collaborating with him.
Gina: Yeah, I worked with Nate on “The Secret Life of Bees,” and we had a great working relationship. He’s a very giving actor and if he trusts you he’ll give you everything. I remember when I saw “The Great Debaters” I was like who is that guy? Is this our next? But he hasn’t had the opportunity to break big yet, and I think that’s just the nature of the film, like you normally need a love story or an action film, but I thought he would be really good in this and when I had the audition, I had to audition Gugu for Sony when we were there. And I called up Nate and I said hey I just need a favor. Can you come and help me out with an audition. And my ulterior motive was I wanted to see them together. And also I wanted Sony to see him as well. And they did the audition, they never met before, but oh my god, you could see the chemistry. Immediate. It was so great. And as we know, Sony ended up passing and letting go of the script, but I hung on to Nate and he came aboard, and the rehearsals with those two … as a director, I love doing love stories but working with actors like this … the rehearsals were so fun. They were so invested in their characters that it shows up on screen. And the things we got to work out that they brought to the table, it was fun.
Can you speak about developing that mother-daughter relationship with Gugu and Minnie. It was so great to see that relationship on screen.
Gina: I was so fortunate to get Minnie. I needed a younger actress because she had her at 17, and it was interesting how many actresses said I don’t want to play Gugu’s mom because they’re afraid of what that is. But with Minnie that wasn’t an issue at all. And Minnie came to us a week before shooting. It was getting scary, I had not found the mother yet. One, Minnie’s chops are insane. But she came in and we met, and first of all, Minnie grew up her first eleven years in Barbados. So she has such a natural connection to us. And then just the day before it was VMA’s, where Miley did her whole thing with “Blurred Lines,” and then Minnie had tweeted something out. It was calling Miley out, but in a very respectful interesting way, and I realized she has a connection with to pop culture. And she’s also a singer, a great singer, and so when I put her and Gugu together, just to see their chemistry, it was same thing as Nate and Gugu. They just fed off each other. Minnie brought such complexity and humanity to the character. It could have been a one-note villain, and that’s just not interesting, and they really played it like two women growing up that close in age … there was that female manipulation kind of thing that can go on, that can go on in female friendships. And that was what they built together, and it was very cool to see, and I was very lucky to get her.
Gugu is nominated for a Gotham Independent Film Award, can you tell us your reflections on that?
Oh my goodness, when that came through, I was so excited because it was well documented. Every studio turned this movie down when I attached her to it and I know that she is a star and I knew that she was a star and I am so excited now that the world is seeing that she is a star. And the fact that she put so much work into this character and developing it for two years and that work is reflected in that nomination. I hope it is only the first of many.
Can you speak a little bit about what your tour has been like? You have been everywhere.
The toughest thing is that I have two boys and being away from them. But they understand as I do that it is so important to get this film out not only for success but to get the message out in the world. So it is worth it to travel and bring it to places and bring the actors to places that they wouldn’t normally get to experience like Tallahassee or Nashville, so it’s been fun.
Tell us about working as a producer on the film.
Well, one of the first things I did was being in the room for Gina. I beat her up on the script a little bit. We had battles about it, just to kind of help her sharpen her own vision. My job is really just to help her protect her vision. We got a lot of no’s along the way in trying to make this film. One of the things that I was able to do was help her finance it. I had a project that I was doing with BET and I brought it to them and they were the first yes we got. And once they said yes, then we were able to shop it around town. We had a financial commitment from BET and brought it to Relativity and it was really a game changer. But ultimately, my job is to just help protect Gina’s vision and that’s pretty much it.
And Gugu gives such a wonderful performance. Tell me about watching her transform.
I have to tell you. Gina saw it first. There was nothing on the nose visibly that let you know that Gugu could do this work. There was no reference point from it. But she saw something and to Gugu’s credit, before we had the movie set up, Gina committed to Gugu. Gugu committed to the project. And they started working on the character. They started working on the choreography and shaping it before there was even a deal in place. And that just really says a lot about who she is as an actress. The transformation was really quite startling. I remember the first time I saw her in purple hair, I didn’t even know who it was.
Basketball superstar and “Beyond The Lights” producer Amar’e Stoudemire also walked the red carpet. When asked about his experience producing this film he told us that it was a great experience especially working with such an amazing cast and to work with Gina Prince-Bythewood. He said it was very rewarding. Amar’e is a big fan of Gina, who wrote and directed “Love and Basketball.”
What are some of your favorite movies?
I have a lot of favorites. Definitely the Batman series. The Underworld series is great.
Thanksgiving is coming up so what are you most thankful for?
For health. Being able to play basketball at a high level once again. Being involved in this film. A lot of things to be thankful for and I am counting my blessings.
And the NBA season started recently, so what are you most excited for about that?
Well, the quest for trying to pursue greatness. That gives you the will of wanting to work and play harder. So having that type of will is great to have that ability to try and pursue that.
What’s next for you?
Well, right now I have a game today, so that’s the immediate next. So more film and more work within the film world.
Debre Lee spoke about BET’s involvement in the film.
Tell us about why BET came on board.
Well we saw the story early on and we loved the story so we partnered with Relativity. So we invested in the movie, we are one of the producers and helped bring the movie to life. I am very proud of that, it is a great movie, a great love story. Gina, the writer and director, she is so talented and what she did with this movie is incredible. And Gugu and Nate are amazing and we are proud to be a part of this.
What do you think of Gugu.
Oh my god, she is such a star between this movie and “Belle,” which came out last year. I mean, this is going to catapult her. I’ve seen her everywhere recently in the press and she deserves it. She is very talented. The two roles are very different but she comes across as a strong, beautiful woman and she has a great future ahead of her.
And we saw this great scene at the BET awards, tell me about that. And you even made a cameo too.
It’s a movie about the music industry, how can you not be at the BET awards? So when Gina asked me to do a cameo, I was like, ‘Yeah it fits.’ It was so realistic, but I love that part of the movie and I did that laugh.
India.Arie’s song “I Am Light” is featured in the film. She is so thrilled.
What is it like for you to be here tonight?
I have a song in this movie (“I Am Light”) and I haven’t seen it yet and it is a song that I never thought anyone would ever pay attention to because in the music industry they put people in boxes. If you are black, this box. Black woman, different box. Black man, different box. They put you in boxes. So a lot of the music I make is not in a black box, a black female box. It is in a singer/songwriter box and so the fact that this song is in this movie is poetic because from what I understand this movie is also about her learning to get outside of her box. So I love the idea that my music is inside of a movie where it belongs. I have been fighting for that for a long, long time. So I’m happy on a lot of levels.
Can you talk a little bit more about how you felt when you heard that your song was going to be in this film?
I probably screamed really loudly. My manager saw the pre-screening before it was edited, before the final edit, and she said it is at the perfect place. Like she gets to a place where she realizes what life is about and then the song plays. It is hard to explain. I have been in the music industry for 15 years and I have been fighting all these years to be seen as a musician and not as a black female musician. And also because this song is about a very simple but also a very true, spiritual ideals. And to be able to sing about that and have somebody listen and not be like, ‘ugh she is preachy,’ and to just listen, is just such a beautiful thing. I wish I had better words.
Out of a scale of 1-10, how excited are you to hear your song in this?
Oh, 10. 10+. And I keep saying this because it is this particular song.
What other projects are you coming up with next?
I put an album out last summer called “Songversation” and I did a tour of “Songerversations.” I’m on tour with Stevie Wonder right now.
How’s that like working with him?
It is the most amazing thing ever. Nothing has made me happier in my whole career ever. We just did Boston last night and I’m here now. It’s just been an exciting week. I have an acoustic album coming out in 2015.
And how has the whole trip been?
I don’t have words. It’s like an actual dream come true but better. Things are happening that I could have never ever asked God for. It’s been crazy.
We also spoke with Nate Parker on the red carpet.
What was it like filming this movie?
It was great. I was working with Gina Prince-Bythewood and she is like a visionary and I love her work. I worked with her in the “Secret Life of Bees,” and for me it was a shoe that fit very well and was very comfortable.
And you are directing your own film. Is Gina a mentor to you?
She is. I ask her questions all the time. It’s funny because the producer, Stephanie Allain, gave me the production designer. Gina is recommending a couple of people, so it’s like they really want to see it work and they are helping me out a lot.
I know Armie Hammer just joined your cast list.
I love Armie Hammer. I think he is a tremendous actor, a tremendous asset to the project so I can’t wait to work with him.
We also spoke with Colson MGK Baker at the premiere.
What was it like touring to promote this movie?
This is my first stop, except for Cleveland. You know what’s crazy? We got them to bring a premiere to my hometown which meant everything to me.
How was the reception there?
The loudest, the most obnoxiously awesome crowd I have ever had in a theater ever. It was the coolest thing ever. Anytime we popped on screen, or a song with my voice was on it, people were losing their minds. It was awesome.
What was your favorite part of the film?
I can’t lie, my friends played my friends in the movie. Seeing my friends in the movie just bugs me out. I can’t believe that in my first movie ever that I got to take my friends with me. That currently is still f— insane in my mind.
And how have they thanked you for that?
My friends, they don’t have to. Just being my friends is enough. That’s a rare quality to find in people so we are going to ride or die together.
What were some of the challenges you faced while filming?
Probably the on and off switch of being an actor and then being someone from Cleveland who had no idea that he would be on a set. So I was kind of like googley eyed half the time. I just felt like, ‘Oh my god, I’m in a movie.’ So turning that off and just getting into character and realizing that you have to bring it or you’re playing with everybody else’s time.
So Amar’e is the producer and he is a basketball star, are you a sports fan at all?
I am. I was at the game courtside last night watching them go.
What’s your favorite sport then?
I like football because it’s violent. It takes cojones.
What’s your favorite team?
Oh the Browns. Anything Cleveland.
Thanksgiving is coming up so what are you most thankful for?
I am thankful that my daughter has all five fingers and toes on each side.
“Beyond The Lights” is now playing.
With reporting by Vinesh Vora.