UB Full [Access]: “Beyond The Lights” – In Theaters Now

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Beyond the Lights is the story of Noni, 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? The contemporary love story stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Larry Crowne), Nate Parker (NonStop, The Secret Life of Bees), Minnie Driver (TV’s “About A Boy,” Good Will Hunting), hip-hop artist Colson “MGK” Baker and Danny Glover (Rage, Lethal Weapon franchise). Beyond the Lights is written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees, Love and Basketball). Stephanie Allain (Biker Boyz, Hustle ‘N Flow) produces, along with Reggie Rock Bythewood (Notorious, Biker Boyz), Ryan Kavanaugh (3 Days to Kill, The Social Network), and Amar’e Stoudemire. Kenneth Halsband and Marc Ambrose co-produce. Tucker Tooley (We’re The Millers, 3 Days to Kill), Matt Alvarez , Robbie Brenner, Ron Burkle, and Jason Colbeck serve as executive producers. The seasoned creative team is led by director of photography Tami Reiker A.S.C. (Pieces of April), production designer Cecilia Montiel (Biker Boyz), costume designer Sandra Henandez,( The Secret Life of Bees) and editor Terilyn Shropshire (The Secret Life of Bees, Black Nativity). They are joined by choreographer Laurieann Gibson, music supervisor Julia Michels, composer Mark Isham, and The Dream, who wrote and produced Noni’s original music for the film.

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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.”

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ABOUT THE CAST AND CHARACTERS

As she wrote, Gina Prince-Bythewood envisioned a real singer in the role of Noni. However her perspective changed when reality hit. “Nothing clicked” as she started auditioning people, singers primarily with a sprinkling of actors. After re-watching Walk the Line and Coal Miner’s Daughter, her thinking evolved. “The role of Noni calls for singing but there’s so much depth to the performance. I realized it was more important to have someone who had the chops to go there.” Auditions continued but none of the actors matched the image Prince-Bythewood had in mind, until Gugu Mbatha-Raw appeared. According to Prince-Bythewood, “Gugu came in, and started doing the scenes and it was just a thrilling moment. It was ‘oh my god, this is happening, this is her, this is her.” At the time of her audition, the film was set up at another studio which wasn’t as enthusiastic about the choice. “They wanted an established star to lead the film and Gugu was an untested newcomer,” explains Prince-Bythewood. “I was crushed.” The filmmakers eventually left that studio but found themselves dealing with the same issue at each turn. However she was undeterred, and she decided to prove Mbatha-Raw’s suitability for the role. Rock Bythewood offers. “Gina and Gugu started working before we had a deal at Relativity. They just started doing the research and the work. Neither one of them really lost faith that they were gonna get this film made.” Allain adds. “It was really a leap of faith and Gina’s passion for creating Noni out of a relatively unknown actress.” That persistence paid off when first BET came on board with the first funds, and ultimately when Relativity Media committed to finance and distribute the film. “They had no qualms about the fact that we were creating a star,” says Prince- Bythewood. According to Rock Bythewood, Mbatha-Raw helped to elevate the material. “Gina wrote for an American-born singer but Gugu really helped Gina see it in a different way, so that it now seems impossible to imagine Noni as an American-born singer.” Deciding to change the character from American to British “made the character more interesting and also added a global feel to the film,” says Gina Prince-Bythewood. “She’s the full package,” adds Allain. “Not only is she gorgeous but, trained at RADA, she’s got the chops.” Mbatha-Raw describes Noni’s life as the story begins. “She’s just won a Billboard Award and everything is going fantastically with her career.

Everybody just adores her and then she tries to end her life. Suddenly we see that this seemingly perfect person is actually deeply unhappy, and feels her whole life has been masterminded by her mother. She feels trapped and that there’s no way out.” “This is a movie about how love saves you,” says Allain. “So it was really important to find who Kaz Nicol would be.” The filmmakers didn’t have to look very far. Nate Parker, who has been on the filmmakers’ radar since appearing in The Secret Life of Bees, was interested in playing the socially-minded cop and aspiring politician. She explains. “Nate’s dope. He just needs that one great role to propel him to leading man status. He’s very giving, and focused and specific. It was great to put him and Gugu together and immediately see the chemistry.” Allain agrees. “Gugu as Noni has a very acquired persona and Nate, as he plays Kaz, is very grounded, very behind-the-scenes. It’s a very interesting connection between the two of them.” Nate Parker describes Kaz Nicol as someone he “would want his daughters to be involved with. He was raised right but he’s flawed like everyone else.” Kaz has to overcome his biases about Noni and her lifestyle. “Noni’s this Rihanna/Beyoncé-type living a lifestyle contrary to the way he’s been brought up,” explains Parker. “He’s leveraging the way he’s been raised, and his morality against what’s happening every day in her life, and the things that are acceptable in her life.” Of Noni and Kaz, Mbatha-Raw offers. “They’re from different sides of the tracks in some aspects. Kaz is very solid and grounded. As a police officer, he works in the real world while Noni works in the artificial bubble of the music industry.” Reggie Rock Bythewood explains. “ Beyond th e Lights is a love story between a man and a woman, but on a deeper level, it’s a story about Noni learning to love herself.” Mbatha-Raw agrees. “Noni discovers her own voice in more ways than one. She finds love when she meets Kaz, who stops her from jumping off the balcony. They develop a relationship and she is able to finally become a woman, stand up to her mother and make her own way in the industry.” Meeting under such extreme conditions triggers a connection that neither could have foreseen. But it forces them to examine their lives which leads to life-changing decisions. “This is a man who sees Noni at her worst moment and still sees the good in her,” explains Prince- Bythewood. “Through his love Noni discovers unconditional love, finds it in herself and ultimately finds her voice.” Mbatha-Raw adds. “Kaz sees her in such a vulnerable state. From that point on, even though she tries to put the barriers up again, they can never really go back. He helps her see herself in a different way, and grow into herself. He sees her as a person and the love story evolves.” Similarly, Kaz discovers himself through his relationship with Noni. Abandoned by his mother, Kaz doesn’t trust women or relationships. “But he meets Noni who throws him off his game. He fights it constantly because it doesn’t make sense, personally and professionally, to get involved with her. But there’s something about her,” continues Prince-Bythewood. “He’s probably written off women like Noni as shallow and unattainable but eventually sees that she is more than the image. That’s a revelation for him. Even though Noni is very emotional and has her issues; Kaz finds that intoxicating because he’s able to see the person beneath it all,” concludes Mbatha-Raw. “People don’t do love stories like this anymore. We see lots of romantic comedies, but the chemistry and the love story element to this film is what’s really elevating it to another level,’ states Rock Bythewood. “It feels immediate.

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The intensity Gugu and Nate bring to their roles will really resonate with audiences.” Parker found it easy to connect with his co-star. “On top of being extremely beautiful, Gugu’s super-talented, super-thoughtful and easy to fall in love with on screen. We came into the project with our tool boxes, put ‘em on the table and, and figured out how we could work together to make this love story really work.” He credits Prince-Bythewood for giving them time to build their onscreen relationship. “Gina made sure we had a lot of rehearsal time. We rehearsed every day for hours, and so it was a lot easier once the cameras went up.” In addition to the love relationship between Kaz and Noni, parental love is also explored in the film. In casting the role of Noni’s mother, the filmmakers wanted to ensure that Macy was not being seen as the ultimate stage mom. “As written, Macy is an impoverished, British white mom of this beautiful mixed baby. And could easily have been the evil mother or villain,” explains Allain. On meeting Minnie Driver, it was very obvious to everyone that she was the right person to bring the complex character to the screen. Prince-Bythewood offers. “Minnie brings so much to a character that on the page could have been a very one-dimensional person. As a writer, to have somebody take your words and take them to another level, and that’s what she did with every scene, was very exciting. It was also gratifying to see her and Gugu feed off each other.” For Prince-Bythewood, it was rewarding to have two British actors in the cast. “They brought their Brit connection and phrases and words. The reference to Ready Breck, a breakfast cereal that Macy would have fixed for Noni as a girl was something they came up with. Those are the type of specifics that I’d never come with on my own.” “I really loved working with her,” says Mbatha-Raw. “Minnie is so warm-hearted and brings a manipulative quality which is so real and three-dimensional. I’m interested in mother-daughter relationships and appreciate how intense that bond can get. Macy’s fierce maternal instinct leads to Noni feeling claustrophobic and controlled, and she has to figure out how to deal with that.”

For Minnie Driver, Macy makes hard choices from necessity. “Macy had Noni when she was 17, and has been kicking and shoving and trying for so long and she’s pretty hard,” reflects Driver. “She does love her kid but it’s been overshadowed by her ambition. Macy finds herself in perilous water when her greed for recognition for Noni overcomes her moral compass. But she’s not a bad person, she’s just had it hard and it shows. The other parental relationship explored in the film is that of Kaz and his father, Captain Nicol, played by Danny Glover. “Danny was up on my vision board early,” recalls Prince- Bythewood. “He has such a natural warmth and gravitas and strength but I didn’t know if we could get him because of our budget.” She needn’t have worried because the script, and her “clear idea of how she wanted to construct the story” piqued his interest. Glover was also interested in exploring the character, seeing links between Captain Nicol and Tom Bradley, the former LA mayor. “There’s a way that Tom Bradley’s life and the people who became his mentors reflected the tough world they had to deal in, coming up through the ranks and then finding a political life within that,” says Glover. “All of these things which Captain Nicol was not able to realize or achieve. Any father expects his child to go farther than they have. In fact, they want to think that they prepared the circumstances for that success to happen.” Like Macy, Captain Nicol is a single parent whose thwarted ambitions are being carried by his son. “So you have these two strong parents who devoted their lives in various ways to the success of their child. Now, their own success is reflected in that child’s success,” continues Glover. “Kaz is being pushed by his parent into a role he may not be totally comfortable with. He and Noni have parallel lives but one is healthier than the other,” explains Prince-Bythewood. “Kaz’s father really wants the best for him whereas Noni’s mother is really using her to prove to the world that she’s worthy.” Both Captain Nicol and Macy are wary when Kaz and Noni begin their relationship. “It couldn’t be further than what Captain Nicol wants for his son and his political aspirations. He says, “She’s not First Lady material.” It creates a conflict within Kaz whether to honor his father’s wishes or to follow his heart,” says Allain. Driver empathizes with Macy’s feelings towards Kaz. “I understand why Macy is pissed off at him. He’s getting all up in her grill about how she should parent and he just showed up five minutes ago.” As the story begins Kaz is actively pursuing his father’s dream. “He wants Kaz to make it further than he did. Kaz goes to college and majors in political science. He becomes a cop as the stage before entering politics,” explains Parker. “It wasn’t until Kaz meets Noni, that he realizes that he’s living someone else’s life. They help each other deal with the people pushing them into a corner of the world where they don’t want to be.” Noni and Kaz’s relationship takes place within the world of R&B and hip-hop music.

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The character Kid Culprit embodies all of the swagger, glamour and bravado associated with the genre. “Kid Culprit is somebody who’s in the game. He’s a top rapper, and helped bring Noni into the game. She sings the lyrics to one of his songs and it helps her to blow up,” explains Rock Bythewood. The filmmakers wanted to cast a real hip-hop artist in the role and Colson Baker, better known as Machine Gun Kelly (MGK), made a strong impression on the director. She explains. “He understood the character and understood the world.” She went on to see a lot of rappers for the role “but Colson stood out so far above the rest. He has a natural ability and I needed that foundation to build on.” MGK auditioned four times before getting the call. Allain recalls. “He really campaigned for the role. He wrote letters. He sent things. He just had the passion.” Prince-Bythewood was finally convinced when she saw him with Mbatha-Raw. “You could see the chemistry there and I started to see the dynamic of that relationship.” MGK adds. “The reason why I was so adamant about this being my first role was because the character wasn’t too far off from who I am as a person.” He also appreciated that “Gina believed in me. She didn’t have to give me a chance to read. Kid Culprit wasn’t even scripted for anyone that looked like me.” His sincerity and authenticity also led her to recruit his friends to play Kid Culprit’s entourage in the film. Parker was very impressed by MGK. “We developed a really cool relationship outside the script. Inside the script, he’s a misogynist who has really bought into the idea that the rapper can objectify women, get what I want, it’s the way things are type character,” says Parker. “In real life, he’s cool, talented, raw and humble. He came in asking questions like what can I do to get better? Or am I doing this correctly? Or do you have any advice for me as an actor?” When the story begins, Noni is involved in a sexual relationship with Kid Culprit. Mbatha- Raw describes Noni’s relationships with Kid Culprit and Kaz. “The two relationships epitomize Noni’s evolution. The one with Kid Culprit is very much about sex and the industry. It’s a very superficial relationship that’s enhanced by the fact that they’re on the same label. It’s very convenient but not very deep. Kaz and Noni’s relationship is very much a soul connection.” Kid Culprit “starts to hear about a police officer with his lady. At first, he’s not threatened because he doesn’t think a police officer can compete with what he and Noni have, but, as it turns out, Noni and Kaz have something that Noni and Kid Culprit don’t have,” explains Rock Bythewood. His true feelings come to the fore when he humiliates Noni during their BET appearance. “And, throughout all of his bravado and his foul language and antics, Kid Culprit’s actually pretty hurt by Noni leaving him for Kaz.” Kid Culprit’s antics leads to a fist fight with Kaz. “Kaz has a problem with him disrespecting Noni – because that attitude has a direct effect on Noni, someone that Kaz is growing to love more and more every day,” explains Parker.

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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, Beyoncé, 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 Beyoncé, 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 Beyoncé.” 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 über-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 Beyoncé 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 Beyoncé, 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.”

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