Spring 2017

Art Imitates Life

Torn from the headlines, the new series from Gina Prince-Bythewood and Reggie Rock Bythewood strives for authenticity


Gina Prince-Bythewood directs a scene from Shots Fired. (Photo: Fox)

In directing her first pilot, Gina Prince-Bythewood was faced with challenges far beyond those normally with establishing character and tone.

Centered around a pair of racially charged police shootings in North Carolina, Shots Fired was filmed in the Tar Heel state in the spring and summer of 2016—when memories were still fresh of the fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., by a white police officer. And during production, fatal shootings of police officers in Baton Rouge also made headlines.

"It really affected the cast and crew a lot because you hate to have art imitate life in that way," says Prince-Bythewood, "but it also really pressed upon us the responsibility we all had to get it right because we're telling essentially real stories. And not just telling, but wanting to be a part of the conversation to help change the way things are going at this point."

Prince-Bythewood, best known as the writer-director of such independent features as Love & Basketball and The Secret Life of Bees, and her husband, Reggie Rock Bythewood, wanted to explore police brutality against people of color, an interest that coincided with discussions between Fox Television Group chairman and CEO Dana Walden and Imagine executives Brian Grazer and Francie Calfo about initiating a project that encompassed similar themes.

"Early on we didn't have a story really, but Gina and Reggie did so much research and came up with a single-line narrative that is really powerful and compelling," says Grazer, an executive producer on the project.

"I think the most challenging scene to shoot from the pilot was the big opening scene," says Prince-Bythewood of the incident that gives the series its name. "It's a charged scene that changes tone and purpose halfway through. It is seemingly about a sheriff's deputy shooting a young man, but it is really about a besieged community's reaction to the shooting. It was vitally important that it played visceral and real, and set the tone for the series. We pulled residents from the neighborhood to be background, which can sometimes be a risk. I remember the first couple of takes I just let them go and the scene crackled; the anger and despair was real."

Fever Pitch: (Top) Gina Prince- Bythewood confers with actor Stephan James on location in North Carolina; (Middle) The creators mixed locals with extras to give an added dose of authenticity to a besieged community; (Bottom) Aisha Hinds plays a local pastor/activist who urges residents to not stand idly by in the face of racial injustice. (Photos: Fox)

Once the pilot was shot, the couple created a 75-page bible of how the story would unfold over 10 hours. The combination of pilot and story earned Shots Fired a straight-to-series order, for which a diverse group of directors from film and television—including Jonathan Demme, Kasi Lemmons, Malcolm D. Lee, Anthony Hemingway and Ami Mann—were recruited. Reggie and Gina each directed an additional episode.

"We stole a few tricks," Bythewood joked after being on the set and watching DGA and Academy Award winner Demme.

"It was very important to me to serve the tone and vision that Gina established in the pilot," says Lemmons, who guided episode five. "She was very specific about how she wanted it to be experienced… more raw and authentic. That way, the emotion hits you without reaching for it."

Adds Bythewood: "The directors are all different, but their level of commitment was the one unifying factor. We had a great conversation with Jonathan about riots and the history of uprising for his hour, and Malcolm Lee was listening to audiotapes of town hall meetings."

A "film mentality" was employed in the production, with the use of practical locations in North Carolina, with the exception of a hotel, which was built. "It was exciting for us to shoot in the real places, for the actors to be in the real places," Bythewood says. "It added to the authenticity and gave North Carolina a character that had its own flavor and nuance."

Prince-Bythewood says where they shot "was very close to the [2015] murder of Walter Scott, which we reference in the show. I know when we were shooting, the fact that happened so close, it definitely permeated the set."

Although police shootings can be an incendiary subject matter, the North Carolina locals provided only positive energy to the production, say the Bythewoods. The locals also brought verisimilitude, allowing the directors to shoot, for example, real residences in a part of town known as "the houses," or other images such as a father holding his child on the front porch of their home.

To achieve the right tone and cinematic feel, Prince-Bythewood chose to avoid splashy use of primary colors. She also steered clear of any angle that made viewers aware of the camera.

"We knew that we would never use slo-mo or cranes," she says. "We also played with focus a little bit in terms of who you're focused on in the scene, and trying to get into characters' heads, at times maybe being on the side of them or the back of the head, even though someone else was talking in the scene."

Considering that the racial roles are reversed from the expected torn-from-the-headlines narrative on which the series is built, Prince-Bythewood was careful to avoid using broad strokes. "We all have virtues and flaws," she says. "It was our hope to explore that duality in all of our characters. We never worried about making [them] always likeable. We wanted them to be real, and true to who they were."


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams in episodic television, movies for television, daytime drama, reality, sports, news, variety, childrens, commercials and other television genres.

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