By Christy Lemire
Published Jul 1, 2014 8:00 AM
From her award-winning 2000 debut Love & Basketball to the star-studded 2008 drama The Secret Life of Bees, director Gina Prince-Bythewood ’91 specializes in personal stories she’s passionate to share.
She’s currently in postproduction on Blackbird, about an R&B singer on the brink of stardom. Each day, she juggles work and family — her husband, writer-director Reggie Rock Bythewood, and their two sons, ages 13 and 10. But her path began at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, a connection that has deepened since graduation through her philanthropic support of the school.
Growing up in Pacific Grove, Calif., what kinds of movies did you love?
I have to give props to my parents. We used to go to the movies on the weekends — there was a children’s screening series and they used to take us all the time. The one that sticks out the most in my mind was Benji. But in high school, it was She’s Gotta Have It. Growing up the way I did, living in a place with six black folks and never really seeing anyone who looked like me, seeing myself reflected up on screen was a profound moment for me. I don’t remember ever feeling that before in a movie theater. That was a driving force for me. The other movie that struck me as a teenager was The Breakfast Club. It made me want to tell stories that made you feel and care and laugh and cry.
When did you realize you wanted to be a filmmaker?
I knew I wanted to write, and in high school my goal was to write soap operas, because I watched so many and I loved them so much. And then I read an article about how much soap-opera writers make, and I was like, “Wow, this is a great job.” So that was my goal when I went to UCLA. But I was working on a student film, and I remember carrying a bunch of equipment, and it came over me. Suddenly I knew with absolute certainty: I’m supposed to be a director.
How do you choose the stories you want to tell?
What I love best is directing something I’ve written. It’s so completely you. Love & Basketball and Blackbird were stories in my head that I had this driving need to get out. I remember when I decided to quit television and write a script, because I knew I wanted to direct, it was: What should I write? And I had three ideas. Two were much more commercial. But there was this story about this girl — a very personal story — who wanted to be the first girl in the NBA, and a love story with the boy next door. There are so many autobiographical elements. I felt like, as a story on paper it was never going to sell, but it was a story I needed to tell. When you’re telling something you’re passionate about — there are so many times you hear “no” — the passion sustains you and gets you past “no.”
How hands-on are you with your actors?
Oh, I’m so hands-on! I love actors, I think, because I do not understand how they do what they do. It is a fascinating thing to me, and I have so much respect for what they do. Actors who have true craft — that’s what turns me on. Sanaa Lathan went to Yale drama school, and Gugu [Mbatha-Raw], who’s in Blackbird, went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. And on the flip side you have someone like Dakota [Fanning, The Secret Life of Bees], who never went to school. I worked with her when she was 14 and it’s just otherworldly, her talent.
Between 12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station and so many other films, 2013 was a great year for black directors and black stars. Is it becoming any easier to get these stories told?
Not at all. My new film took four years. And this is a film that’s very commercial, but it has two black leads and it’s a love story set in the music world. I was shocked that it took this long to get made. We had a great year this year, not because of the volume of films, but there was such a diversity of genre. That’s what I feel we’re ultimately craving.
What about UCLA appealed to you?
Growing up I was a basketball player. [Hall of Famer] Cheryl Miller was my hero, and she went to USC, and I had wanted to go there, too. But USC was too expensive, and yet I knew I needed to go to a place that had a film school and made the choice to follow that dream. It was UCLA and it was Los Angeles and it was one of the top film schools. Once I was there, I just knew it was the right decision.
What did you learn about filmmaking at UCLA?
The greatest thing at UCLA is the freedom. Everybody makes a film. They give you the equipment and you go and you shoot a two-minute film, then a four-minute film, then a 20-minute film. It gives you the space to fail, because you learn from your failures as well as your successes. It was a supportive environment, and you learn every aspect of filmmaking.
Giving back to the university has been important to you. Why is that?
A: Because I know the impact that UCLA had on my life. It’s such a prestigious university, and my experience there was so great, I want others to have that experience. It was the catalyst for my career. Saying I went to UCLA’s film school opened a lot of doors for me. When I was there, I was broke. I had to work. I know how hard it is to make a movie— you need money. Even to do a student film, you need cash. I wanted to give students the opportunity to make their films, not worry about raising funds, just worry about making the movie.