BY MARGY ROCHLIN
REBOUNDING: Prince-Bythewood says it's important for her to put positive
images of black people on screen. (Photo Credit: Michael Kelley)
There wasn't much about writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood's 2000 feature debut Love & Basketball that she could gripe about. A UCLA film school graduate, who, with the help of an award-winning short film, Bill Cosby as her mentor, and a flourishing TV writing career from the time she got her diploma, Prince-Bythewood developed her sports-and-romance film at the Sundance directing and writing labs.
It was at Sundance where she found her producer, Spike Lee, who, like New Line, the studio that bankrolled the film for more money than she'd asked for, believed in giving filmmakers total autonomy. When it was released, Love & Basketball drew critical praise for both Prince-Bythewood's technical polish and her skill at drawing trenchant performances from her actors. Having grown up an adopted child in a white middle-class neighborhood, it was important to her that black audiences see truthful renderings of black characters in her work. "Instead of people seeing negative images," she says, "they can see positive images of themselves."
When awards season came around she became a familiar sight on the dais, winning both an Independent Spirit Award and a Humanitas Prize.
So by all rights, Prince-Bythewood's second effort three years later—a big-screen adaptation of Wally Lamb's sprawling I Know This Much Is True—seemed like a chance to repeat the positive experience. After all, Prince-Bythewood had won over the bestselling author with a personal letter detailing her experiences growing up with a bipolar brother. Then she figured out a way to condense the 900-page epic tale about an unhappy housepainter and his institutionalized identical twin brother, a paranoid schizophrenic, that so pleased the author he was moved to pick up the telephone and gush to her, "These two boys were like my children and thank you for protecting them." In fact, it wasn't until the casting stages that Prince-Bythewood was forced to swallow the most bitter of pills. When the brass at Fox 2000 demanded an A-list actor to play the dual role, the project fell apart because none of the movie stars approached would say yes to working with a relatively new director.
"That was painful, I have to say," says Prince-Bythewood. Knowing she was the right woman for the job only made the circumstances more frustrating. "Of course, there's comfort in a director who has done six or seven films, but that doesn't make them any more talented, just more experienced. [The actors] were walking away from what could be a great experience just because of the number of films I'd done. I mean, I lived that story."
As devastated as she was that she'd never set foot on an I Know This Much Is True set, Prince-Bythewood also felt she'd been delivered a challenge. "It pissed me off, I'll say that," she states. "For me, it was, 'Okay, let me prove these guys wrong for turning me down.'"
That success-is-the-best-revenge vehicle would turn out to be the upcoming The Secret Life of Bees, starring Dakota Fanning, Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and last year's Oscar winner, Jennifer Hudson.
What felt fated about the job was that back in 2001 producer Lauren Shuler Donner had sent Prince-Bythewood a copy of Sue Monk Kidd's heart-stirring page-turner while it was still in manuscript form. But having just put the finishing touches on Disappearing Acts, a small-screen adaptation of Terry McMillan's chick-lit novel that she wrote and directed for HBO, Prince-Bythewood was so weary she simply tossed it in a pile and forgot about it. Over the next five years, Prince-Bythewood's career was swallowed up by I Know This Much Is True and a pair of self-imposed leaves after her children were born. If she didn't feel an emotional connection to the films she was offered to write and direct, she simply returned to her television roots to direct episodes of popular sitcoms like Everybody Hates Chris and The Bernie Mac Show. In fact, it wasn't until 2005 when Prince-Bythewood was having lunch with Love & Basketball stars Sanaa Lathan and Alfre Woodard that the subject of Bees, which both actresses had auditioned for, came up.
Though David Gordon Green was then attached as director and Prince-Bythewood had still never so much as read a single sentence of Bees, she felt a surge of jealousy. "In my mind I was thinking, 'Wait, I should be doing that movie,'" says Prince-Bythewood, who went home that night, finished Bees in one sitting, then wallowed to herself, "God, I've blown it. I've lost my chance." Two months later, her agent called. Focus had put Bees in turnaround, Green was no longer on board and Fox Searchlight, who'd snapped it up, wondered if she'd be interested pitching her vision.
DAY JOB: Prince-Bythewood, working with Dakota Fanning and Queen
Latifah, had a meticulously prepared shot list for her 34-day shoot.
(Photo Credit: Sidney Baldwin/Paramount)
It's no surprise that she got the job. The story of Bees—a civil rights era drama about a lonely, motherless young girl named Lily (Fanning) who is taken in by a clan of three loving, supportive black sisters in South Carolina—resonated with her. Prince-Bythewood, now 39, lives in Southern California with her family. But she was born and raised by white parents in Pacific Grove, Calif., and had a lot of identity issues growing up. "Obviously, there's that whole, 'Why was I abandoned?'" says Prince-Bythewood. For her, the success of Bees would rise and fall on her ability to convey the roiling emotions that she knew so well: Lily's sense of feeling unlovable and her all-encompassing desire to belong.
It was Bees' prestige status and Prince-Bythewood's own solid reputation that helped her land her ensemble cast, all of whom agreed to significant pay cuts to be part of the project. But the $11 million budget ($3 million less than Love & Basketball) as well as a 13-year-old Fanning, who could only work nine-hour days, required Prince-Bythewood to wisely strategize every second of the 34-day shooting schedule. "I had to make sure that I was ultra-prepared in terms of working with the actors because there was no time to get stuck in a scene," says the director, who scheduled one-on-one meetings with her cast. Three of them were professional singers accustomed to the music world's more accommodating attitude toward excessive tardiness, so she stressed the importance of punctuality. Then she built on a bruising lesson she learned on Love & Basketball, when she showed up one day without a meticulously prepared shot list in hand. "It was a frickin' disaster," recalls Prince-Bythewood. "I'm not Spielberg in that he can come up with something like [snaps her fingers] that."
On her scant budget, Prince-Bythewood also had to transform wintertime rural North Carolina into a believably hot summertime location. Then there was the decision that aside for a brief scene in the beginning using CGI, they'd have to employ live bees in the scenes where characters collect honey for the family business. This, despite the fact that everyone—Prince-Bythewood included—was terrified of their striped co-stars. She also soon found out bees get cranky in cold weather. "Bees at 60 degrees or below will not come out of the hive and if they do, they're pissed off," says Prince-Bythewood, whose preproduction preparation included spending a day at a working apiary learning how to be comfortable handling bee-covered racks dripping with honeycomb. "I knew that if I could do it, then Dakota and Latifah could, too."
But solving production problems may prove easier than predicting box-office success. "You know, with black films, I swear, it's so hit and miss," says Prince-Bythewood. "You look at Tyler [Perry] and his consistent $20 million openings, and then Talk to Me which has Don Cheadle, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Taraji [P. Henson] and Kasi [Lemmons], who is a great writer and director—but it doesn't do well. Why is that? Was it marketing? What? That's what studios are looking at: Do they know what is absolutely going to make money?"
Movies starring black females are not guaranteed box-office hits, acknowledges Prince-Bythewood, who has a theory about why she hasn't made more features. "I don't think it's because I'm a black woman. It's that I want to make films that feature black females. Those are the stories I want to tell."