A 90210 ZIP Code. A 40-foot interior waterfall. Private movie theater. Rooftop deck equipped for 500 people.
The $14-million Beverly Hills mansion had all the trappings of a verifiable celebrity home. With its antiseptic glass and concrete and steel, it looked just like the kind of place the new-money pop star at the center of “Beyond the Lights” would live.
An unruly group had recently decamped from the residence, and their all-night ragers had left neighbors irked. Now a film crew blocking streets and creating even more noise pollution? Wasn’t gonna happen.
But director Gina Prince-Bythewood wouldn’t take no for an answer. So she had the movie’s location manager gather signatures from local residents who were in support of the shoot, which ultimately helped her to secure the location.
As Stephanie Allain, one of the film’s producers, put it: “Gina walks quietly, but she does carry a big stick.”
Before production even began on “Beyond the Lights,” Prince-Bythewood had decided that everything in her movie would have to pass muster with modern-day music fans. The film, which hit theaters Friday, follows an up-and-coming singer named Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who falls for a strapping young cop (Nate Parker) after he saves her from jumping off a hotel balcony.
Though the core of the film is its dramatic romance — akin to the one in the director’s most-recognized project, 2000’s “Love & Basketball” — its pop-world setting plays a vital role. In addition to her flashy crib, Noni stays at high-end hotels, stars in provocative music videos and walks the red carpet at award shows. She has a lavender weave, bejeweled fake nails and a stage mother who forces her to abstain from carbs.
In fact, the character is so entrenched in the pop world that film executives initially insisted the part be played by an actual musician. Sony Pictures, which at one point bought the option to “Beyond the Lights” for a year, wanted Rihanna or Beyoncé. But Beyoncé was attached to Clint Eastwood’s remake of “A Star Is Born” — a project that never came to fruition — and Rihanna wasn’t interested in playing a singer. Alicia Keys, who Prince-Bythewood had worked with on her 2008 film “The Secret Life of Bees,” shared insider industry advice with the filmmaker and briefly considered the role, but that also fell through.
“So I started reflecting on my favorite music films, like ‘Walk the Line’ and ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter,’ and those had actors at the head,” recalled the soft-spoken director, 45, who also wrote “Beyond the Lights.” “I looked at the script and realized the depths that this character had to go and thought, ‘Let me go the actor route.’”
Enter Mbatha-Raw, a 31-year-old Brit. The actress — who won raves earlier this year in the period drama “Belle” — had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in musical theater and was capable of picking up the necessary song and dance. But Sony wasn’t convinced she was destined to become a star and decided not to make the film.
But the producers still had an important ally in their corner — cable network BET, which was looking to get into film and had already agreed to finance part of “Beyond the Lights.” Execs at the outlet passed the script to Relativity Media, and soon the production got the green light.
Prince-Bythewood, meanwhile, had already been readying Mbatha-Raw to play pop-music royalty. It was a world the director knew well.
“Gina’s a pop head,” explained her husband, Reggie Bythewood, who also served as a producer on the film. “When she’s coming home, you just hear the music blasting out of her car.”
The director often writes to music – Beyoncé or Katy Perry — and reads Vibe and Rolling Stone magazines religiously. She’s a fan of reality TV and hired a voice coach she’d seen on “American Idol” to work with Mbatha-Raw. A veteran of Sean “Diddy” Combs’ “Making the Band” show, Laurieann Gibson — a choreographer who has worked as the creative director for Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj – was another one of the filmmaker’s first calls.
But what Mbatha-Raw had to learn wasn’t taught at the Royal Academy.
“I had to get Gugu to rehearse in her bra and panties,” Gibson said. “Like, ‘Listen, chick. This is uncomfortable for everyone. But I need you to get ratchet. And she was like, ‘Ratchet? What’s that?’ I said, ‘Girl, it’s when you just throw every feminine instinct out there and don’t have any mystery about your feminine wiles.’”
At first, it was difficult for Mbatha-Raw — whom Prince-Bythewood describes as “very proper” — to embrace the raunchiness. The director gave her CDs filled with “the most ignorant hip-hop that there is, because I wanted Gugu to hear the N-word and the B-word and make it normal to her.” Gibson also forced the actress to stare at herself in the mirror during dance rehearsals to replicate what it would be like to shoot a music video.
“As an actress, you spend so much time pretending the camera is not there, and this was the first time I had to sustain an intensity into the lens,” Mbatha-Raw said. “Laurieann was keen to emphasize the narcissistic element, and that was really tough for me.”
The choreographer also took Mbatha-Raw to Greystone Manor, a popular L.A. hot spot where they found themselves surrounded by Clippers players. (The night out actually inspired a scene in the movie in which Noni gives the team’s DeAndre Jordan a lap dance at a club.) The duo also went to see both Beyoncé and Rihanna in concert, which gave the actress a surprising boost of confidence.
“At the Rihanna show, Gugu looked at me and said, ‘I’m not too far from that,’” Gibson said. “I was like, ‘Yes, babe, I’m doing my job. I’m not gonna let you down, lamb chop.’”
Producers Allain and Reggie Bythewood were busy convincing prominent African American faces to make free cameos in the $7-million film to add to its authenticity. And they landed a ton. Chaka Khan walks by Noni backstage at the Billboard Awards. The faux pop star performs at the BET Awards with tattooed rapper Machine Gun Kelly. Noni talks about her suicide attempt with both Gayle King and CNN’s Don Lemon. And The Dream wrote four songs for the movie’s soundtrack.
Though the film debuted with only $6.5 million over the weekend, it earned strong reviews from critics and filmgoers, who assigned the movie an average A grade on CinemaScore. And if Price-Bythewood is lucky, she might soon get an endorsement from the ultimate pop diva.
“I ran into Beyoncé at SoulCycle a couple of months ago, and I was like, ‘I gotta talk to her,’” the director said. “She said she’d heard great things about the movie and was excited to see it.”