Double or Nothing?

Gina Prince-Bythewood talks about her love of all things filmmaking.

17 August 2016
Matimba Kabalika
By Matimba Kabalika
Matimba looks after the talent development programme BFI NETWORK and manages the accompanying website.
In the lead up to NET.WORK at LFF (this year for BAME filmmakers), I started thinking about the power of positive representation, and how important visible role models are. I was lucky enough to sit down with one of my own personal heroes, Gina Prince-Bythewood, at the 15th anniversary screening of Love and Basketball.  Just hearing Gina talk about her approach to filmmaking, and how she treated her first feature with the power, precision and passion of the most elite athlete (insert Simone Biles refs here) was so inspiring.
I first watched Love & Basketball when I was 15. My friend had rented (yes rented) it on DVD for a girl’s night in, and it was the first time I can recall watching a film with an all-black cast that wasn’t about being black; there were families, love interests and three-dimensional characters. Especially powerful for me as a young black woman was Sanaa Lathan’s exquisite performance as focused future WNBA player Monica. I soon purchased my own DVD (and the soundtrack – Maxwell will never sound the same again!), and watched the film repeatedly throughout my teenage years. Here are some snippets from our conversation. 
In the beginning
GPB: When I first got out of film school, I did a short film that got some press and got me great meetings but I didn’t have a screenplay. It was such a wasted opportunity because I would sit with these heads of studios and they’d say ‘we love your work, what do you want to do?’, and I had nothing.
I realised pretty quickly also that no one was just going to give me a script to direct – that’s what I thought was going to happen coming out of film school  - so I realised I had to write something.
GPB: On writing as a labour of love
Love & Basketball took a year and a half to write. I cry a lot when I write, because it’s so frustrating and lonely. Writing is really hard. Some people love it; for me, it’s like being on the court – you’re by yourself, and you just – it’s self loathing, and you suck, and nobody is going to want to see this, and who cares and I can’t figure it out – like that is a constant thing that goes through my head. The writing process starts with the playlist, and a Nina Simone song is always on the playlist. And then honestly it’s a good month where I have a notebook, and I just sit and I think and think and think. Ideas will come, something about the characters: a line of dialogue, a structure, a scene. And I just write it in the notebook and the notebook slowly starts to get filled up, and structure starts to come.
I do incredibly detailed character work; everything from their appearance, their hobbies, their religion, their sex life, their childhood, just everything. So that they become real to me, because the goal for me as a writer is to create characters that start talking to me – where I’m not even thinking, I’m just typing. Which is amazing, to just get in that zone.
When your writing you have to do a bullshit draft where you just write. You don’t censor yourself, you don’t go back, you don’t rewrite anything. Because the hardest thing is to get it all down - and it’s scary to get it all down because it’s never going to be as good as it was in your head, so you know once you finish it you’re going to read it back and realise that it sucks. But it’s OK, because it’s your first draft. In Love & Basketball, I rewrote this one scene literally thirty times. It didn’t even end up in the movie!
two girls look at each other on a basketball court
GPB: On why she loves love stories
I love love stories. It’s my favourite kind of movie, the kind that just wreck you, y’know? When you’re doing a love story you have to completely give yourself over to the character – you don’t have a boyfriend, you’re not married, you are those two characters. I’ve been very fortunate with the love stories, that I’ve been able to find actors that can do that.
GPB: On rejection and the road to getting it made
I really wrote and wrote and wrote… and every studio turned it down. It was so crushing because I had just spent a year and a half of my life doing this. The whole thing of fall seven times, stand up eight – that’s what this business is, you’re going to get turned down. It’s so much easier for people to say no than yes because yes means money. So the only thing that’s going to get you up off the floor is that you have to tell this story.
GPB: On her relationship with Sundance
Literally two days after the last studio turned it down, Sundance called and [said that] two different people on two different consecutive days had mentioned the script.
I sat with them and they accepted me in to the programme and it changed everything. Then the other big thing [Sundance] did is that they put on a reading of it and that is where Spike Lee’s company came and heard it, and said we want to be on board with it.
GPB: On casting an actress who couldn’t play basketball in Love & Basketball
I knew I could never cast someone who had never ever played ball before – I hate watching films and T.V. where you see a female athlete and she can’t play – y’know I just think it sets us back. But Sanaa [Lathan]’s performance in the reading was phenomenal and really got it going. I wanted to get a real athlete and we saw like, 700 people for it but nobody could compare to Sanaa. I went back and forth and finally realised it’s a love story first, set in the world of basketball – go with the actor. And thank God I did.
What you want is an actor to come in and elevate your material, and show you something you didn’t even see in your own material. That’s what’s exciting. With Sanaa, suddenly I had a movie. [During the shoot] she hated, hated me. I would show up at the practices and I couldn’t hide [my frustration] – I grew up playing ball, so to watch someone having trouble dribbling and stuff, y’know, I was so hard on her. But ultimately, she was able to take all that angst and really use it as an actor - because as a female athlete, what Monica had to go through was not getting respect and having to fight.
a man and woman look at each other in conversation
GPB: On remembering the Sundance screening of Love & Basketball
We had two previews prior [to the premiere], but they were all black audiences at the Magic Johnson Theatre in Crenshaw and we had huge numbers. So we knew it worked – now we’re going to Sundance – all white audience – thirteen hundred people. First of all I didn’t know if anyone was going to show up, so that’s the first scary thing. And it was sold out, that was amazing. And then, sitting in the theatre, the movie plays and I remember when it ends and the credits go up and it’s dead silent. In my head I said to myself, oh well, they didn’t get it. And then the place exploded, and there was a standing ovation.
GPB: On having confidence as a woman in a man’s world
You have to have belief in yourself, and I don’t think we are always given that as girls. That’s why I love sports so much because it instils that in you; to go after what you want, to fight for what you want, to believe in yourself and your talent. Believe that what you’re typing, or that story in your head – other people want to hear. That’s a hard thing for women to do because it means ego. But healthy ego is ok, trust yourself, believe in yourself, believe in your vision and believe that it is going to move somebody and that is again why you have to write something that is authentic to you that only you can write.
Gina’s advice to filmmakers
Your first film should speak to who you are, because it’s going to set the tone for your whole career. It’s like your… It’s your birth announcement. That first one, that’s a really special thing, and you need to have confidence in that ‘I am the only person who can tell that story’.
Listening to Gina talk about knowing yourself as a filmmaker and being able to express your distinctive voice is something that gave me life, and more importantly resonated with me about what it takes for filmmakers to succeed in this industry. NET.WORK at LFF aims to continue this conversation across its entire programme, and will provide a unique opportunity for up to 15 writers and directors to get involved in the discussion too.
If you’re a filmmaker looking to find out more, about this year’s programme, click here.
two men are talking sitting at a bar