After watching “When Harry Met Sally” in theaters back in 1989, Gina Prince-Bythewood said she became inspired to create a similar love story with a Black cast.
“I loved ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ and I wanted to make a Black ‘When Harry Met Sally,’ ” the filmmaker said. “That was really the first impetus because we weren’t being put into love stories, and I wanted to see myself reflected. And then I started wanting to tell the story of this girl that I felt hadn’t been seen as well, an athlete.”
Prince-Bythewood sat down for a conversation on the roof of Spring Studios with Sanaa Lathan, who headlined “Love & Basketball” with Omar Epps, during the 2021 Tribeca Festival on Saturday. “Love & Basketball” stars Lathan as Monica and Epps as Quincy, two childhood friends-turned-lovers whose aspirations to become professional basketball players begin to supersede their love for each other.
Lathan pointed out that her character in the film, Monica, was shaped by Prince-Bythewood’s real-life experiences growing up and her relationship with her husband, Reggie Rock. Prince-Bythewood said she believes a filmmaker’s first project in Hollywood should be a personal story only they could tell.
“It shows Hollywood and the world what kind of filmmaker you want to be,” Prince-Bythewood said. “This was a very personal story. My first kiss was 10 seconds, not five, but we did count on our fingers. So it’s fun to pull stuff like that from your life.”
The most important asset a filmmaker needs to have, according to Prince-Bythewood, is a vision of what they want to say to the world.
“It’s a false thing, these trends, like if a sci-fi movie does well, then everybody suddenly must do a sci-fi movie,” Prince-Bythewood said. “But the reason that movie might have done well is something personal the filmmaker brought to it. So to chase that is just inauthentic and you’re going to fail. The key is to just stay true to the stuff that you want to say.”
Later during the panel, Prince-Bythewood discussed the “constant fight” filmmakers often face in Hollywood when trying to keep their visions alive amid studio politics.
“My argument to the studios when we’ve had a conflict on something is that, like, ‘you guys have a ton of movies. I only have a couple,’ ” Prince-Bythewood said. “My legacy is my work. And I have to believe everything up on screen.”
The filmmaker said “the biggest, scariest fight” she ever had with studio producers was during her time working on “The Secret Life of Bees,” which was based on the 2001 novel of the same name.
“My vision was I want to tell the story of a little girl who killed her mother and has to live with that,” Prince-Bythewood said. “I got a note early on that [the producers] thought, ‘wouldn’t it be better to have that be a mystery? Did she kill it or not?’ And I said, ‘well, it’s a bestseller and most people know what happened.’ ”
Although the studio told Prince-Bythewood she could shoot the film the way she wanted, another set of producers stepped in during the final mix and told her to hide the fact that Lily (Dakota Fanning) killed her mother.
“They had the power where I had to stop what I was doing and cut a version of that,” Prince-Bythewood said. “It literally felt like death to me because they have more power than me.”
The studio screened both versions of the film, which Prince-Bythewood said tested exactly the same. Even though the studio head let her stick with her vision, Prince-Bythewood said this “scary moment” shows why she wants final cut on her next film.
“As a director, it is your vision,” Bythewood said. “It shouldn’t mean that you don’t hear other people’s thoughts and notes because there can be good stuff coming in, but it is a thing. I’ve got to have [final cut] on my next [film].”