Friday, April 10, 2015

You Only Need One Yes

BinderCon Recap #4

Keynote: Gina Prince-Bythewood (Love and Basketball, The Secret Life of Bees, Beyond the Lights) with Keri Putnam (executive director of the Sundance Institute) 

One of three awesome BinderCon keynotes
When Gina Prince-Bythewood was 12, her TV broke, and her parents didn’t buy another one until she was in high school.

“We were shocked and horrified,” she said.

In high school, when she had a TV again, she became obsessed with soap operas.

“I read an article about how much soap opera writers made,” and thought, “I want to do that.”

She attributes her success, however, to sports.

“I’m sitting here because my parents put us in sports at age four.”

She played soccer.

“The boys didn’t want us there.” But her parents said, “Keep playing.”

As a result, Bythewood “was good or even better” than the boys.

Sports is everything,” she said.

Sports taught her to trust herself, and taught her “swagger. Talent has no gender,” she said. “Put your
daughters in sports. 90% of female CEOs played sports.”

Prince-Bythewood applied to UCLA film school.

“Back then, there were 700 applicants for 12 spots. I got rejected.”

That didn’t stop her.

“I had my little freak-out,” she said. Then, “the next day, I asked to appeal. I wrote a letter to the head of the film school about why she made a mistake.”

The head of the film school called her and said, “You’re in.”

That must have been some letter.

This “set a tone” for Prince-Bythewood’s career, she said.

“Film school is a safe place to fail,” she added. When she was at UCLA film school, she decided to become a director.

After film school, she persisted with not taking no for an answer. Initially, she was turned away from a job writing for a soap opera, but she called them every day until they finally hired her.

Putnam explained, “It’s about clarity of where you want to head, clarity of what you want.”

“That was definitely the heyday,” Prince-Bythewood said, referring to The Cosby Show.

“That’s the power of the media to shape the culture and how generations of people feel about themselves,” said Putnam.

“Nine times out of 10, if you walk into a room to pitch your script, you’ll walk into a room of men,” Prince-Bythewood said.

When she pitched Love and Basketball, she told herself, “Pretend you’re walking out onto the basketball court.”

That worked.

You’ll hear a thousand nos. You just need one yes,” she added. “I write to direct. Writing is extremely painful. My husband writes very fast. It’s frustrating. Tears. Weight gain. Self-loathing. I write to direct to protect what I cried over.”

After five years of working in TV, where she had to be “all-in” pulling “all-nighters,” she knew she “had to take a year off to write [her] screenplay.”

With TV writing, “you pour over something and hand it over to the director. I would sneak around and whisper notes to the actors, which you’re not supposed to do.”

She was always a director, even when she wasn't.

When she first tackled a screenplay, she “tried to write something that sells.”

It was a romantic comedy, not the story she was aching to tell.

“I struggled. This other story I cared about was in the back of my head. I was lying to myself and listening to other voices.”

Putnam added, “We read scripts from writers who are second guessing what someone else wants. That never works.”

“We all have a story only we can tell. I implore you to write what you’re passionate about, a story you have to tell,” Prince-Bythewood urged.

That story for her was Love and Basketball, which took her “many, many drafts for a year-and-a-half.” It “got turned down by every studio. They thought it was too soft.”

But, Prince-Bythewood “doesn’t have a pile of rejected scripts because [she] sticks with it.”

She said, “It’s about the ability to have perseverance to fight and fight and fight until you get that one yes.”

She advised, “Surround yourself with people who are brutally honest,” and, “don’t go out with something that’s not ready yet.”

She wrote the first draft of Beyond the Lights in 2007, but she put it down for two years to work on The Secret Life of Bees

She wrote Beyond the Lights in two years.

“Sony optioned it. We disagreed for a year about casting.”

She lost Sony and her producers simultaneously. Again, she didn’t give up.

“I shot an eight-and-a-half minute presentation and paid everyone $100.”

She shot this video with the actors she wanted. Then she went back to the studios. Then she decided to raise the money and do it herself. After two years of struggling and BET giving her funding, she found a studio.

Plus, she wrote 55 drafts of Beyond the Lights.

The BinderCon audience listening to Gina Prince-Bythewood's inspiring story
(My new friend sitting next to me said, “Her middle name must be Tenacity.” I agree.)

Putnam pointed out that it’s important to “have a clear idea of what kind of storyteller you are.”

Prince-Bythewood has that in spades.

“I had drive and vision early,” she said. “I actually drive my agents crazy.”

She tells them, “I need to get this story made.”

She balances “having an ego,” and writing about what other people care about. She asks herself, “Are people going to care?”

“Cultivate a writing community,” Putnam said, “a sounding board.” You need “honest feedback to push you.”

Prince-Bythewood left the crowd with this: “It starts with a story. Cast it very well. Always be clear of your vision—what you want to put into the world—because people will have opinions about it. Don’t compromise vision. Compromise if it makes the story better. Be open.”

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