They Made This Relationship Work

Greg Braxton is a Times staff writer

Good vibes danced with anticipation at a casual September lunch at HBO's Century City headquarters before a screening of the urban love story "Disappearing Acts." But as director Gina Prince-Bythewood and others associated with the film settled into their seats to watch the rough cut, the anxiety level rose.

Slipping into a back row was author Terry McMillan, who had flown in minutes earlier from Oakland to see the high-profile cable channel's adaptation of her 1989 novel about the steamy, bittersweet romance of a young black couple. Though she is one of the project's executive producers, McMillan had no direct involvement and was seeing "Disappearing Acts" for the first time.

Prince-Bythewood and the others involved with the film felt good about the project. But still, it was not exactly Terry McMillan's "Disappearing Acts" up there on the screen. The novel's rawness and sexual heat had been turned down a few notches. The leading man was more sympathetic and less self-destructive. The ending had been altered. A brief episode of domestic violence, as well as some of the emotional abuse detailed in the novel, had been deleted.

Those gathered in the screening room knew the opinionated McMillan would be more than blunt about the movie. Shoulders and necks stiffened as the film rolled.

McMillan watched quietly at first as the romance between Franklin Swift, a struggling Brooklyn construction worker portrayed by Wesley Snipes, and Zora Banks (Sanaa Lathan), an aspiring singer-songwriter, ignited, then slowly deteriorated.

The author started talking to the screen. She sniffled and sighed heavily. And as the final credits rolled, she abruptly burst out of the screening room.

"I was crying like a baby," recalled McMillan. "I had to run to the bathroom to compose myself. I finally told everyone, 'I like this better than the book.' It took me back to memories I had 20 years ago, and made me look at where I am now and what you're willing to go through when you're younger. It's elegant, sexy, gritty and honest. They didn't sugarcoat this the way they usually do in Hollywood. When I told them what I thought, I could see their shoulders drop."

"Disappearing Acts" represents perhaps the most dramatic and complex entry in a genre historically given short shrift by movie studios and particularly the major television networks: contemporary love stories focusing on black couples. Despite occasional films such as "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" (also adapted from a McMillan novel) and this year's acclaimed sleeper, "Love & Basketball," Hollywood is not head over heels about serious black love stories.

The film's low-key approach is indicative of the risks involved with the project. Aside from a few crucial scenes, "Disappearing Acts" shows both main characters riding a roller coaster of passion and despair. Though it is not without humor, it is devoid of cathartic set pieces such as when Bernadine Harris (Angela Bassett) sets her cheating husband's clothes and car on fire in "Waiting to Exhale." And although there are intimate love scenes between Snipes and Lathan, the film does not have anything like the sex-in-a-shower moment that turned "How Stella Got Her Groove Back" into a women's-night-out favorite.

Prince-Bythewood, Snipes and other key members of the "Disappearing Acts" team say the story is powerful enough on its own and are optimistic that the film will break through the stigma that mainstream audiences won't relate to the story.

The cable movie can be seen as a thematic companion piece to "Love & Basketball," which was written and directed by Prince-Bythewood. Like that film, which starred Lathan and Omar Epps as a couple in love and in competition, "Disappearing Acts" is delicate and deliberate in its depiction of how a man and woman find each other, first in friendship, then love, only to nearly collapse in the face of societal and social pressures as well as their individual growth.

"Yes, I believe that love can conquer all," said Prince-Bythewood as she relaxed in the fashionable Sherman Oaks home she shares with her husband, writer-director Reggie Rock Bythewood ("New York Undercover," "Get on the Bus"). The film is one of three personal projects she and Bythewood are juggling: Bythewood's satire about the TV industry, "Dancing in September," is scheduled to hit HBO early next year. And the Bythewoods are expecting their first child.

More than the future of the cinematic black love story is riding on the reception of "Disappearing Acts." Prince-Bythewood, who is already in demand due to the success of "Love & Basketball," is hoping that the film firmly launches Lathan into the ranks of young leading actresses. And Snipes is counting on the film to bring more notice to his production company, Amen Ra Films, which produced "Disappearing Acts" and is developing a stream of projects in film and publishing.

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Still fresh in the minds of the filmmakers as "Disappearing Acts" nears its Saturday premiere on HBO was the challenge of diluting or eliminating several aspects of the novel without compromising's McMillan's original vision.

In the novel, Snipes' Franklin is a loving and caring companion to Zora who yearns to support her financially. However, he also drinks heavily and is fighting numerous demons, including his estrangement from his former wife and family, and his inability to land a consistent construction gig because of discrimination. During the course of the novel, Franklin emotionally abuses Zora, slaps her and threatens her. Snipes was adamant that many of Franklin's more negative characteristics be changed.

Having numerous women on the set was integral to setting the right mood during filming, Prince-Bythewood said: "It made things run a lot smoother and calmer."

Snipes chuckled when asked about having so many women around: "I have the blessing of being raised in a house filled with women, so I was used to it."

Still, there was some friction on the set, according to Snipes. More than once, he stepped out of acting mode to "pull rank" as executive producer when he encountered difficulties on the set and with Prince-Bythewood, a young director who, he maintained, lacked experience.

"The experience was positive, but there were times when I had to . . . exercise a certain amount of executive privilege," Snipes said. "Gina has talent. She is very sensitive to the dynamics and the understanding of characters. Unfortunately, on the other side, having quick success can blind you to your weaknesses." He said Prince-Bythewood had difficulty making the transition from a studio movie ("Love & Basketball") that had a budget reportedly around $15 million and that she "massaged for two years" to a smaller-scale project with a limited budget, less production time and a script written by someone else.

Prince-Bythewood smiled and nodded when asked about problems with Snipes on the set.

"I didn't go into this project thinking of Wesley as a producer, but as an actor," she said. "Going into it the other way just clouds things. All I care about is getting the best performance."

She also said, "I disagree about there being problems. This film came in on time and under budget."

After pausing a few moments, Prince-Bythewood added, "You know what? What matters the most is what's on screen. It's all about the film. It's not about ego."

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Though generally lesser known than McMillan's blockbuster "Waiting to Exhale" and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back," "Disappearing Acts" is regarded by a legion of the author's fans--particularly black women--as her most insightful work. The novel is told in alternating chapter-long monologues by Franklin and Zora, and McMillan devotees say they are amazed by her ability to get into the head of a black man struggling with his lover, his family and the world at large.

McMillan said Franklin is a composite of several men she has known: "When I wrote it, I was very close to the story, and it was autobiographical to some extent. A lot of people didn't understand how I could write from a man's point of view. I identified with Zora, and writing this allowed me to identify with Franklin."

Lathan, Prince-Bythewood and screenwriter Lisa Jones had all read the book when it was first published and found it to be a seminal experience.

Said Lathan, "In college, I just went crazy over this book. These people sounded like people I knew. The dialogue is so black yet so universal."

"The rawness and the honesty has stayed with me," said Jones, who wrote the miniseries "Oprah Winfrey Presents: The Wedding." "If you're a middle-class black woman, you can't avoid having a relationship like this. The message of the book is, 'You have to honor yourself first.' "

HBO acquired the rights to the novel in 1997 and eventually brought it to Snipes and Amen Ra Films. While he loved the book, Snipes realized that adapting it to film posed obstacles, particularly with Franklin's character.

"We had to find some more redeeming qualities with him," said Snipes. "What is the benefit of showing a character with a lot of dysfunctional issues? I didn't want to go down that route."

Jones agreed.

"It's a story about a blue-collar man and a white-collar woman, and there is dialogue about misogyny," she said. "The film had to come from another place. As for the verbal and physical violence, a little of that goes a long way. We wanted to keep the same dynamics of the book but create a new Franklin . . . and create a Zora who wouldn't put up with violence but would put up with a lot."

McMillan, who has not read her book in 11 years, expressed satisfaction with how Snipes and Lathan portrayed her creations. She understood the alterations for the screen, adding that she has mixed feelings about Franklin.

"I'm not apologizing for Franklin, I hated his guts," McMillan said. "What I loved about the movie was the fact that they conveyed enough of what he was going through, his anger and who he ended up taking it out on. Wesley really made Franklin three-dimensional."

One scene in particular moved her, as it examined the disintegration of the relationship. Frustrated by his continuing inability to land steady work, Franklin goes home, forgetting to pick up his and Zora's son from the baby-sitter. Zora comes home with the baby to find a pile of dirty dishes in the kitchen and Franklin on the couch drinking beer. He starts to play with the baby but hands the child back when the diapers need changing.

"That scene was so emotionally packed for me," McMillan said. "I could feel the weight of everything in that room. That is what so many women feel, when there is all this [expletive] to get done and you realize that no one is helping you."

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It's midafternoon, and Lathan and Prince-Bythewood can't stop laughing and poking fun at each other as they discuss "Disappearing Acts" at Prince-Bythewood's house.

The project marks their creative reunion after "Love & Basketball." Their personal bond is obvious.

"Gina and I became friends after 'Love & Basketball,' " said Lathan. "Doing 'Disappearing Acts' was fun. 'Love & Basketball' was not as much fun. There was a lot of stress and pressure. Now we have so much more trust with each other. We got along much better."

Prince-Bythewood started working on "Disappearing Acts" just as she was finishing up "Love & Basketball." That project in many ways was more personal because she wrote the script as well as directed. But her personal connection to "Disappearing Acts" provided a valuable link to the project as it went from novel to film.

She credits most of the film's impact to McMillan's original story and the script by Jones. Her favorite moment is one of the film's quietest: a simple scene in a living room with a man, a woman and their baby. Despite its bare-bones structure, the context is filled with pain, love and uncertainty.

"It's the scene I'm happiest with," said Prince-Bythewood. "I love the simplicity of the moment. As a filmmaker, you're always trying to tell a simple story. I think that scene captures that."

One of Prince-Bythewood's goals was to approach the story with an earthy realism similar to what director John Cassavetes used in films such as "A Woman Under the Influence": "I wanted people to feel like they were watching real life."

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* "Disappearing Acts premieres on HBO on Saturday at 9 p.m. Rated TV-MA (may not be suitable for children younger than 17 with special advisories for adult language, adult content and brief nudity).

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