Beyond The Lights is something rare and unusual in today’s cinematic landscape: A romance that isn’t a comedy, and that has both real-world relevance and authentic sensuality. In other words, it’s sexy but grounded in a way the Nicholas Sparks films of the world aren’t, and it engages in a type of romantic fantasy that doesn’t entirely let go of the real world. Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, who broke out with 2000’s Love & Basketball and more recently directed a sweet, stately adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s bestseller The Secret Life Of Bees, Beyond The Lights follows Noni, a successful pop diva who’s become self-destructive and miserable under the controlling thumb of her mother Macy Jean (Minnie Driver). When Noni attempts suicide, a police officer named Kaz (Nate Parker) moonlighting as her security detail saves her, and the two begin a tentative relationship, hampered by his self-effacing honesty and political aspirations, as well as her schedule, entourage, fame, and personal issues.
Noni is played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, a British star who spent a decade in U.K. and American TV (Doctor Who, MI-5, Undercovers, Touch) before breaking out in American film as the star of the historical romantic drama Belle in early 2014. Mbatha-Raw and Prince-Bythewood have been workshopping the film for two years, in an environment that isn’t always friendly to non-comedy stories about black characters, to women directors or women-led movies, or to small-budget non-blockbusters of any kind. The Dissolve recently sat down with both women to talk about the obstacles to making the film, how they got it made, and what it’s like to play a character so sexually exploited that her embarrassment becomes an integral part of the story.
The Dissolve: Gina, you’ve said you made this film because you wanted to do romance again after being away since Love & Basketball. What’s interesting for you in romance?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: Well, I love to go to the movies, and it’s very rare to see a really good love story that just wrecks you—one that makes you laugh and cry. I just don’t think those movies are made very often anymore. They’re few and far between. I just wanted to see that and feel that, and honestly write a movie that I wanted to see. Most movies now, if they do have any love in them, are really more romantic comedies. I wanted to just get back to an old-fashioned romance and love story, and put that in the world.
The Dissolve: I’ve read that you went through 55 drafts for the screenplay. How did it evolve during that process?
Prince-Bythewood: In the early stages, I was putting a lot of personal stuff in it, and trying to tell too much story. As you rewrite, it’s really just about getting down to the heart of the story. It was fleshing out the character, the more I worked with Gugu. We were developing this for about two years. When I cast her, I turned the character from American to British, and that opened me up to a couple things as well. And just as a writer, I never want to stop trying to improve the script. Until they tell me to stop, I will keep trying to improve it.
The Dissolve: Gugu, I’ve read that you got this role off an audition, because the planning started before Belle came out. What did you bring into that audition? What was your take on the character at that point?
Gugu Mbatha-Raw: I can’t really remember my take on the character, but I know I did a couple of scenes. There was one particular scene, which is still my favorite scene, the one with Minnie Driver’s character that I like to call the break-up scene. That to me was such a powerful scene. It’s the transitionary moment for Noni evolving into her true self, and learning to stand up for herself. I really responded to that scene. I thought it was powerful, especially being the only daughter of a single mom myself. I mean, my mom is totally different from Minnie Driver’s character. [Laughs.] I have a very healthy relationship with her, but I do relate to the intensity of that bond. I loved that scene. I also got a chance to do a Kaz scene, and read with Nate Parker at the time. And I got to sing the Nina Simone song, “Blackbird,” for Gina the first time we met. [The song is a key motif in the film. —ed.] When I first read the script and Nina Simone was mentioned on the second page or something, I was just like, “I’m in!” I’ve been a fan of Nina Simone since before I even knew who she was. I used to dance around the kitchen to “My Baby Just Cares For Me” with my mom when I was 6. She’s been present in my whole life, so it almost felt spookily resonant with me—the idea of Macy Jean playing Nina Simone for Noni.
The Dissolve: You’ve talked about taking the film to the studios and either getting no interest, or being told, “Can you make Channing Tatum the love interest?” What did it ultimately take to get this film made?
Prince-Bythewood: The key was that we shot an eight-minute presentation of the film once somebody let it go and the project was dead. My thought was, “How can I showcase Gugu?” I knew at the time that Gugu was a star, and that she was the right person for this role. The question was, how could I showcase that and show studios what was in my head, as well as what the vibe of the film was, and what we were trying to say? My husband, who’s a producer on the film, asked me, if money was no object, what I would do to sell the film. I said, “I would shoot something for it,” and he said, “Go for it.” Thankfully, Gugu agreed to do it, and we put together a great crew and shot it for no real money. Gugu is so badass in it, and it told the story of the film. Once we showed that to BET, they immediately got it, and they said, “We’ll give you a couple million dollars, just go find a studio.” Relativity saw it, and it was no question. They said, “We love Gugu, we think she’s a star. We want to do it.” It was really that presentation that did it.
The Dissolve: There’s so much questioning in the film about pop-star sexuality. You have to put it up on the screen both to make Noni’s stardom convincing, and to set up her rebellion against being exploited. How do you navigate making it sexy, but also exploitative, and then deconstructing it as exploitation without being hypocritical?
Prince-Bythewood: You have to lead the audience into the room in order to lead them out, and we had to compete with what’s out there at this time. There’s a point to the sexuality. I can say with confidence that there’s not one exploitative moment in the film in terms of me as a director and Gugu as an actress. It was just important to show what this character’s world was like, what she has to go through, and what she has to put out. She’s on the balcony [considering suicide] within the first 10 minutes of the film. You have to ask, “What drove her to that balcony?” If we’re soft and not authentic with it, the rest of the film won’t work. We are really dealing with what women in the industry have to go through. We had to go there. Nothing was gratuitous, and everything was for a point. You have to go there to get to the end of the film.
The Dissolve: How comfortable were you with doing the things that make your character so uncomfortable, and force her to redefine herself?
“We are really dealing with what women in the industry have to go through. We had to go there. ”
Mbatha-Raw: It was a process for me. I was definitely out of my comfort zone working with the choreographer, Laurieann Gibson, who has worked with Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, and also working with our amazing costume designer, Sandra Hernandez, and evolving Noni’s style. As much as it was a challenge for me, I always kept in mind those points that Gina was making—the idea of potentially changing the conversation of how women are portrayed in the music industry and the idea that if we’re going to do that, we have to be authentic in exploring it. We had so much help from wonderful artists in the industry, like The-Dream and Machine Gun Kelly, MGK, who’s a real rapper, and really in the music industry, to give that authentic edge. The thing that got me through those moments was thinking about the psychological impact, the cost for the character. For Noni, putting herself through that glossy sexualization of her persona, it really does come at a cost to her sense of self-worth, her soul, her ownership of her identity. I had to put vanity aside and try my best to be fearless about approaching it in order to illustrate that point, and show her evolution throughout the movie, and give her somewhere to go.
The Dissolve: It felt like there was a really careful balancing act in the story between making Kaz a strong man, but keeping Noni in charge. She’s the rich one, she’s the famous one, and she’s also driving the fantasy of the film’s romance. But if you made him too passive or intimidated, he wouldn’t seem masculine. Was that something you had to consider while writing the story?
Prince-Bythewood: Oh, absolutely. In the script stage, but also in working with Nate, he and I talked a lot about that balance between a man in his position who’s thrust into her world, and how much of a whirlwind that would be, and how much he gets caught up in that. Like you said, Noni is in control in the beginning and giving that fantasy, and what I love so much about [the characters’ trip to] Mexico is it’s really Noni letting go, and Kaz being able to take over. It’s where they really fall in love, because there’s no longer a dynamic of one person in control over the other. It’s just the two of them on equal ground. You don’t want Kaz to come across as soft, but there is a reality to a cop getting thrown into her world, so it was definitely something we were conscious of, to find that balance. I think they did a really great job with that.
The Dissolve: I’ve read a lot about that studio pushback against the idea of telling the story with black actors, especially black actors who aren’t Channing Tatum famous. Was there a similar pushback over telling a female-empowerment story?
Prince-Bythewood: I think it was more pushback against telling a love story with people of color. Again, what is important to me for all my work, is that I want to put people of color on screen and be visible, but I want the stories to feel universal. Everyone can go and watch a love story and feel those characters, regardless of their color. Honestly, as a filmmaker, one of the biggest goals of my life is to be able to make films where everybody can enjoy them, and stop seeing color, even though there are some racial issues in it, with the mother/daughter dynamic. Again, I just want people to be able to see a universal story, no matter who’s cast.
The Dissolve: So much of this film is about identity, about Noni trying to figure out who she is as a person, and contending with the conflict between her public and private sides. How have you both dealt with the same issues, as public figures and artists vs. private people?
“ I want to put people of color on screen and be visible, but I want the stories to feel universal.”
Mbatha-Raw: I think I’ve been really fortunate in the last couple of years to be able to explore identity through my work, and not just Beyond The Lights, but in Belle. Even though it was a very different context, in 18th-century England, it was still a young woman trying to find her place in the world, and battling social conventions. It’s the battle between people trying to put you in a box, and actually being your authentic self. That’s something I aspire to do as an artist. I listen to my instincts, and I try to do projects that are inspiring and uplifting. I’m also interested in the idea of justice. They’re all things I seem to be exploring through my projects, which is exciting for me.
Prince-Bythewood: I think as a writer-director, it’s important. I actually enjoy talking about the film, and people responding to the film. The red carpets and all of that is not something I enjoy. It’s a necessary part of it, but I think as a writer, the anonymity is a good thing. The writer is an observer, and I think the second you start getting caught up in any sort of hype is when you start killing yourself. It’s just about staying underneath the surface, and as Gugu said, staying authentic to who I am.
The Dissolve: Beyoncé and Rihanna are visible in Noni. Maybe Pink. You’ve mentioned Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj. Some people are saying Whitney Houston. Was there any particular artist you primarily looked to for inspiration in how she sings, or gets styled?
Prince-Bythewood: In the writing stage, it started with Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland. I read those biographies and pulled some really great stuff from that, and then shared that with Gugu, who pulled some things as well. Then there were artists like everyone you mentioned, along with some of the younger artists who came out in this hyper-sexualized way, and that just fueled the story. It was sad to me, because you see this blueprint every time an artist comes out, and it could be anyone from Miley Cyrus to Rihanna to Keri Hilson, who started out one way, then became hyper-sexualized to try and get more notice. I was just seeing this blueprint that women seem to follow—and not just in music. If you look at reality stars, and even some actors, they’ll go that way to be noticed, as opposed to being noticed for their talent. It’s something we see every day. It’s something our young girls are now watching and trying to emulate, and that scares me more than anything. As Gugu said, we’re really hoping to change the conversation and show a different way, that it’s more freeing to be your authentic self, and to have the courage to do that.
Mbatha-Raw: It’s been so much more liberating that Noni is a fictionalized character, because I can draw inspiration from whoever I want and from artists as diverse as Judy Garland to Nina Simone to Prince to Katy Perry, but there’s no particular responsibility to do an imitation of anyone. We’ve cherry-picked from the favorite parts of artists out there, but are also able to create something unique.
The Dissolve: What was your studio process like with The-Dream?
Mbatha-Raw: He is a very gifted guy. He’s really in the industry, and he really works with these artists. I think he brought such a sense of authenticity. For me, it was definitely a learning curve, because I’d never worked in a music studio. He’s very much a night owl, so a lot of the studio sessions would go late into the night. The-Dream himself would sing the demos, and I’d get to hear his voice and his phrasing in some of the songs, and that was really inspiring for me. I was also in the studio, lying on the studio floor at about 3 in the morning, when he first wrote some of the verses to his song “Blackbird,” and that was fascinating, watching his process, because he already had the hook. He was creating one of the verses, just scatting and making sounds, and then a word would come out. I remember the word “phoenix” came out. And then he went back and he said “Phoenix” a few times, and he kept replaying it, and then another few lines came out. When you think about writing a song—I don’t know, everybody’s process is different—you sit down and write something. It was almost as if the song was escaping from him. He was releasing the song, and it already existed. It’s very hard to put into words without sounding pretentious, but it was one of those moments where you’re like, “That’s actually creativity happening right there.”
The Dissolve: We’ve heard a little about Gugu’s relationship with Nina Simone. Gina, what’s your relationship with her?
Prince-Bythewood: I came to Simone later. My husband introduced me to her, and now in the last couple films, I’ve milked her music—not just in the writing stage, but with putting it in films. There’s so much truth and pain and authenticity and depth in her music and lyrics. Her music just moves me, and she is so special. I love that this film is shining a spotlight on her, and hopefully the same way I came to her—she’s an influence in my life—that that will happen to someone else. She’s so gifted, and that song, “Blackbird”—I was in the middle of writing when it came to me, and it fueled the rest of the film, because it seemed like a song that had been written for the film.