Beyond the Lights
Taglines: Open your heart, find your voice.
Beyond the Lights is the story of Noni Jean, a hot new award-winning artist who is primed for superstardom. But not all is what it seems,and the pressures cause Noni to nearly fall apart – until she meets Kaz Nicol, a promising young cop and aspiring politician who’s been assigned to her detail. Drawn to each other, Noni and Kaz fall fast and hard, despite the protests of those around them to put their career ambitions ahead of their romance. But can Kaz’s love give Noni the courage to find her own voice and break free to become the artist she was meant to be?
Beyond the Lights is an American romantic drama film directed and written by Gina Prince-Bythewood. The film stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Minnie Driver, Nate Parker and Danny Glover. The film had its premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival on September 7, 2014. and is set for a theatrical release in the United States November 14, 2014.
About the Story
Writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood uses music as creative inspiration. So it comes as little surprise that inspiration for her new film came while sitting at an Alicia Keys concert. “Alicia was singing her song ‘Diary’ which is an epic love song, and suddenly this character and love story came into my head. It was one of those rare, great moments as a writer where a movie just starts flowing out.”
Inspired by some of her favorite music films like Purple Rain, Lady Sings the Blues, and The Rose, Prince-Bythewood continued to develop the idea of love blossoming within the complicated world of hip hop and R&B. “I love the way music can fuel a movie, and everything just seemed to come together.” And so the story of Noni’s struggle to realize her need for a fulfilling personal life while maintaining her creative dreams began to coalesce.
Over the next four years, the story of Noni evolved with support from husband and producing partner Reggie Rock Bythewood. The director’s ‘first eye,’ Rock-Bythewood describes himself as “the first person she gets to argue with about her vision.”
And her vision was simple: “I wanted to create a great love story.” Gina Prince-Bythewood credits her husband for helping her through the writing process. Instead of writing Noni’s mother as African-American, he suggested she take a page from her own book; and make the character Caucasian, and Noni, biracial, like her and her own mother. “Why don’t you touch on your own life because things get stronger when you write from a personal place,” she recalls him saying. “Now I can’t imagine the story any other way.”
Industry reaction to the finished script was overwhelmingly positive but getting a commitment to underwrite production was long in coming. “Getting ‘no’ is soul-crushing but we refused to give up.” One of their biggest hurdles was in getting past studios’ need for an A-list star in the role of Noni. Their combined belief in the story’s potential kept them hopeful. “I kept turning down other projects because suppose Beyond the Lights goes?” Prince-Bythewood explains. Rock Bythewood came up with a solution to shift the tide in their favor. “Reg encouraged me to shoot a presentation for the studios. That really changed the game and led Relativity to green-light the film.”
After shooting the presentation, Prince-Bythewood sent the script to producer Stephanie Allain. “I’d worked with Stephanie on Biker Boyz and love her energy. She loves the process and I respect her opinion.” The response was immediate. “Stephanie called later that night and said ‘I want to be part of it.'” Allain offers. “Gina had actually shared it with me years before. I was really happy she called me again for such a classic and timely story.”
Allain joined the filmmakers to produce the story after viewing the presentation. “Gina is a visionary. She knows exactly what she wants and how to get it, says Allain.” Having Allain on board buoyed spirits. “I loved that she was so excited about it. I had passion, Reggie had it, now it was great to bring Stephanie on as well so it was three of us really pushing and fighting together.”
Creating An Artist
The process of transformation was one of the ideas that attracted Mbatha-Raw when she first read the script. “I liked the idea that you can start as a caterpillar and end up as a butterfly and, and go through all of this massive journey just to come back to who you really are.”
The filmmakers needed to ensure that Mbatha-Raw was prepared for the challenge of bringing Noni to the screen – a process that started before Relativity came on board. They needed to transform her into a R&B hip-hop artist. To do that, “we had to surround Gugu with the very same people who surround Rihanna, Beyonce, JLo, all the amazing talented women at the top of their game today,” explains Allain. “We wanted authenticity, even though we were creating it.”
The filmmakers started with the music. “The acting was dope and she sang Nina Simone’s Blackbird but it was a different kind of singing,” recalls Prince-Bythewood. “She comes from musical theatre but this is R&B hip hop.” Debra Byrd, vocal coach for the American Idol and X-Factor contestants, was hired to work with Mbatha-Raw. “Debra really helped to add the right quality and texture to Gugu’s voice.”
“You can’t sell a music movie if you don’t have authentic music,” says Allain. Following Mbatha-Raw’s work with Debra Byrd, the filmmakers needed to partner with a hit-maker to create songs for her voice. “And the only person Gina had in mind was The Dream. He has made hit after hit for Beyonce, Rihanna. He was the one we needed.” Prince-Bythewood clarifies. “I needed someone who could write a song like “Ride” with Ciara and Ludacris, which is really raunchy to writing “1+1″, a beautiful love song for Beyonce.”
Music supervisor Julia Michels contacted The Dream who, as an admirer of Prince-Bythewood’s previous films, agreed to join the team. “The Dream is very specific,” the director explains. “He sings all his demos and then you sing to what he did, so it was really giving Gugu the tone and swagger that the songs needed.”
“We’re so lucky to have The Dream,” says Mbatha-Raw. “Each song is different and charts a different aspect of Noni’s journey, starting with Masterpiece, which is probably the most raw and aggressive number and then Private Property, which still has that element, but is a little slinkier.”
“We’re hoping this is one of those films where people rush to get a soundtrack,” says Rock Bythewood. “But music is just another character in the film and as entertaining as the music is, it’s really an opportunity to challenge people’s perspectives about what we’re saying in music. Can an artist be authentic and still be commercial? That’s one of the things we struggle with as filmmakers, and it’s one of the things Noni struggles with as a singer.”
“Once we had The Dream and after he created these great songs, and we knew Gugu could master them, we felt really confident,” explains Allain. ” But that’s only part of it because the next part is artist development. Could Gugu really step into the role as the pop diva queen?” To help find out, the filmmakers turned to Laurieann Gibson.
“We had an amazing meeting and she started crying,” explains Prince-Bythewood. ” I knew she was the perfect person for Gugu because she believes in tough love but she’s also giving and enthusiastic and impassioned about what she does. Thankfully Gugu has a dance background, so she had a place to start.”
Allain continues. “Laurieann is the artist developer. She works with Nicki Minaj, she’s worked with Katy Perry and Lady Gaga. I’m talking choreography and carriage, how they walk and how they look and how they wave at fans, and just being a diva. Laurieann is amazing.”
“Gina wanted the knowledge, the passion, the commitment I had to the movie to translate in my process working with Gugu,” explains Gibson. “She’s very specific and did not want there to be any preconceived notion about what happens in a club, on the stage, in the music industry, and that element of ‘sex sells’.”
“The work with Laurieann was really important for me to get the physicality, the dance and, that Ã¼ber-cocky sexual confidence that comes with the swagger of being an artist like Noni,” explains Mbatha-Raw. “Laurieann, Gina and I saw Rihanna live, we saw Beyonce live, we went to the Grammys, Greystone Manor, LA’s hottest hip hop club, and visited artists performing in the studio. Anything that can help to build the character.”
Gibson continues. “We had to do things that could be very uncomfortable but Gugu threw herself into the physicality of it and allowed me to push her. What Beyonce, Lady Gaga and Nicki do looks easy, but it’s not. There’s an athleticism to being a performer, and to the stage, and to what it really takes to be number one. Gugu was determined. It was a pleasure to help her discover the character.”
Beyond the Lights
Directed by: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Starring: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Minnie Driver, Nate Parker, Danny Glover, Aisha Hinds, Hayley Marie Norman, Deidrie Henry, Elaine Tan
Bcreenplay by: Gina Prince-Bythewood
Production Design by: Cecilia Montiel, Hannah Purdy Foggin
Cinematography by: Tami Reiker
Film Editing by: Terilyn A. Shropshire
Costume Design by: Sandra Hernandez
Set Decoration by: Lori Mazuer
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content including suggestive gestures, partial nudity, language and thematic elements.
Studio: Relativity Media
Release Date: November 14, 2014