Film & TV

Gina Prince-Bythewood on Shots Fired and Bringing to TV an America TV Usually Ignores

Fred Norris/FOX
Shots Fired's Aisha Hinds meets the press.
Gina Prince-Bythewood has directed two of the most devastatingly romantic films of this millennium — Love & Basketball (2000) and Beyond the Lights (2014) — so it might seem odd at first to see her at the helm of a TV show about police violence, unsolved murders, and race relations. But with its sober, gripping storyline and its nuanced, all-too-human characters, Shots Fired, a ten-episode miniseries premiering on Fox on March 22nd, proves very much in line with the filmmaker’s previous work. Shots Fired follows a Justice Department lawyer (Stephan James) and an investigator (Sanaa Lathan), who travel to a North Carolina city to investigate the death of a young man at the hands of a police officer, only to discover a community ready to explode with racial tension. In this case, the victim is white and the cop is black. But soon, the duo discover that the recent, mysterious death of another young man, an African-American, has not been investigated.

Prince-Bythewood created and executive produced the series with her husband and frequent collaborator, Reggie Rock Bythewood (Biker Boyz, Gun Hill). She also directed the pilot; subsequent episodes were directed by the likes of Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) and Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs). We spoke to her about the challenges of telling a politically charged story, and what kind of dialogue she hopes to achieve with this show.

It was nice to see two episodes of this projected on a big screen at the Sundance Film Festival. I want to see more TV that way.

That was exciting for us, and something Fox hadn’t done before: taking a show to a film festival. We’ve had the opportunity to do a couple of screenings now, and it makes a big difference. With television, you put it out and don’t get to hear much of a response, because people are alone in their homes. For us to sit with an audience, see it on the big screen, hear it the way we intended when we were mixing it, and to get the big gasps, the silence, the laughs — that’s a beautiful thing, to feel an audience watch your work.
Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood.
Al Pereira/Fox/PictureGroup
Was it conceived as a direct response to events in the news?

This really was one of the moments where desire met opportunity. Reggie and I both wanted to speak to what’s been going on ever since the [George] Zimmerman trial. That just so rocked us, like it did so many, and it absolutely rocked our older son, who was 12 at the time. Instead of hugging him and telling him it was going to be OK, Reggie actually opened his laptop and showed him a documentary on Emmett Till, and started discussions in our house about how the criminal-justice system works — and, oftentimes, doesn’t work. Through those discussions, our son wrote a short story about Trayvon Martin going to heaven and meeting Emmett Till, and that was actually the basis of the short story in hour five that the young boy John writes and reads to his mother — so, actually, our son was kind of the first writer on the show.

Then Ferguson happened, and it felt like America erupted again. Dana Walden at Fox wanted to create a show that dealt with those things. She reached out to Brian Grazer and Francie Calfo at Imagine, and I had just done a pilot with them. So they asked if this was something I wanted to do. I was not thinking about going back to television; I already had my next film lined up. I thought about it and came home, and we talked. “We, right now, have an opportunity to write a show about anything we want, to talk about what we’ve been talking about, and we can tell it any way we want to tell it.” That opportunity is rare, as is the opportunity to tell it over more than just two hours in a film — so we took it. Fox let us tell the story we wanted to tell, and a 10-hour special event series felt perfect for us. Because one of our caveats was that it couldn’t be longer than 13 episodes — we didn’t want to be locked into television that long.

Your films are, in some ways, very classical in style and tone. And you’re often working on them for a very long time. Is it different to do something that feels “ripped from the headlines,” as it were — where the news is continuing to develop while you’re working?

It was surreal at times to shoot a scene that you saw play out on the news the night before. That was the sad part. You would think we were following these headlines, but it was happening concurrent to these events popping off. But that also grounded us and reminded us of our responsibilities, because we’re dealing with real subject matter and real people and a real issue that has to be addressed.

But TV is definitely different than film. The biggest difference is that you’re doing multiple things at once. In film, you’ve written a script and it’s done; then you direct and it’s done; then you’re editing and it’s done. Doing a show, there were times when we were writing, directing, editing and producing all at the same time. But what we ended up doing, for the sake of our sanity and our show, was slowing down the process. One reason we were able to do that is because we knew we weren’t coming out until March, so we didn’t have to shoot and be on the air in two weeks. So we had an opportunity to slow down and make sure the scripts were right.

One of the things I admire about this show is the way it uses its central crime narrative to explore a whole complex community.

We wanted the show really to feel like an autopsy of Ferguson. And it was important for us to give a view from every seat in the house. So we did an incredible amount of research — we called it Shots Fired University. Writing the script was its own research, but then we brought a team together for a two-week intensive course, where we brought in people to talk. People like Eric Holder, who was so important to the process. We also met with Ray Kelly, who was former police commissioner of New York and really instituted stop-and-frisk. While we disagree with his policies, it was important for us to hear him out. We met with Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant — the young man about whom Fruitvale Station was made. We met with other people in law enforcement, people in the Department of Justice, to get a full perspective so we can give these characters humanity — not make everything easy and not make just “good guys” and “villains,” but make people that are well-rounded and flawed.

In terms of where we set it: What was so striking to people watching Ferguson happen was that many were shocked that this was America. For us, it was important to show on television parts of America that we rarely see there. We wanted that Southern feel that Ferguson had, and settled on Charlotte. It felt visceral there. Once we decided on that, we met with the residents of the neighborhoods we were shooting in, because we really wanted them to feel like a part of the show, and not like Hollywood was coming in to occupy. They gave us such authenticity. 

You don’t shy away from big emotions — you never have. How do you stay honest to realism, but also have the confidence to go for a big moment?

For us, it’s about straight drama. The nature of this story, where its real-life aspects are so heartbreaking and run so deep, is that it heightens the emotions for every character. Our hope was that we never pushed into melodrama. Drama is always steeped in reality, while melodrama I think is heightened reality. Obviously the mothers, both of them, having experienced loss, we were excited to bring together these two women who would’ve never crossed paths but are suddenly members of a club that no one wants to be a member of. Their story and truth felt real to us. On the flip side, the character of Ashe [Sanaa Lathan’s character], who’s dealt with incredible stress and loss and PTSD — the fact that she killed a kid in the line of duty, which is something you don’t normally see with women. Having a woman struggle with anger issues and thinking that karma’s going to come back and take her daughter from her because she took someone’s child. Those are real issues you’re putting onscreen.

From our previous conversations, I know that you like to improvise before shooting by putting actors in situations that they’re not quite aware are staged by you, to see how they respond in the moment. Did you do that this time?

The rehearsal process for the pilot was a little different. Each actor was bombarded with real-life research. We wanted to build characters and backstory so that everything felt real to them. Like DeWanda Wise, who plays Shameeka [the mother of a boy whose death is being investigated], we had her meet with Wanda Johnson, the mother of Oscar Grant. Stephan James had a couple of meetings with Eric Holder. We used rehearsals to make their characters real to build them up from childhood, which was exciting.

The show goes into surprising philosophical territory. Ultimately, it feels like a debate over whether people are inherently good or bad. Was that always there, or did it emerge during writing?

When Reggie and I talked about what we wanted the show to be, we did talk a lot about that. Exactly what you said: Are people inherently good or bad, and what happens when a good person does a bad thing? Or can a bad person suddenly do good — and what does that mean? It became visceral when we sat with Francesca Cintrone, who was the basis for Ashe’s character. She is an investigator for the DOJ. Her history is Ashe’s history: She started young in law enforcement and was battered by racism and sexism, and ascended; then she was pulled by the DEA and put into undercover, working the cartels. The things she’s seen absolutely changed her, and she talked to us about this. Most of us feel that people are inherently good. She feels that people need to be taught; you teach your child not to fight, and to share. That infused our narrative even more, hearing from her about that.

You like to switch genres. This is the first time you’ve done a crime-thriller.

This is the first time I dipped my toe in the genre, but Reggie has done a couple of crime dramas, so this is definitely his wheelhouse. But I wanted people to feel like they were watching real life. I never wanted it to feel exploitative or sensationalized. That really spoke to shooting handheld, in natural light, and no dissolves, slow-motion, or crane shots. We just wanted you to always feel like you were watching real life and not let the camera be a character.

Something else that we did was play with is focus — in terms of being on the side of the head or the back of the head. We were trying to put the audience into a character’s mindset. We did that a lot with Tristan Mack Wilds’ character, Joshua Beck. We’re following a trajectory of “Is he telling the truth or not?” and watching this young man implode as the walls start closing in on him. So, we definitely had rules. Then we put together such an incredible group of directors, most of whom come from features. We had these rules, but we hoped our directors didn’t feel constricted, but rather emboldened by the fact that we’re capturing real life, and focusing on the performances. Because trust me: It’s hard to tell Jonathan Demme, who I respect so much, “You can’t dissolve.” [Laughs]

In TV, as executive producer and director of the pilot, you set the tone for all these other directors. Do you feel a greater responsibility as a result of that? Does it change you as a director?

It’s exciting, because you are setting the look and tone of the show. The hardest thing is that conversation with each director. Within those rules, can they bring their own aesthetic? Obviously, Kasi Lemmons’ style is totally different than Malcolm Lee’s. But they each brought something special that started within the language in our show. When I look at their episodes, I can see the differences. Jonathan Demme did the big uprising in hour six — that was a huge hour. Watching what he brought to it and how he worked with the actors, I was on set, learning. Another great director we brought on is Ami Mann, Michael Mann’s daughter. She did hour nine. Which is incredible. It’s so incredibly shot.

An artist working with a subject that’s so politically charged often has to bring nuance to a situation where battle lines have already been drawn. Is it difficult to do that when people are looking for simple answers that merely reinforce their views?

I think the show speaks to one of the mantras that Reggie and I often talk about in terms of writing: Anyone can portray reality, but an artist portrays what reality should be. People may come in and have their mind made up, but it is our hope that through the power of television you can sit and watch and identify with and care about these characters you might not normally engage with. It’s interesting that some people are struck by the fact that they care about Tristan Mack Wilds’ character, [police officer] Joshua Beck. Same with Shameeka: This is a woman who’s impoverished and has lost a child, but you may turn on the news and think differently about [someone like her]. One thing we love about [DeWanda Wise]’s performance is the absolute dignity she brought to that character, and that was important to put out into the world: Break away from these stereotypes and start to make these people real, in a way that you don’t normally see on television.

People often talk at each other, not to each other. It’s absolutely important that this isn’t just Reggie and I venting for ten hours. We hope the show gives some clues as to how things can change. Law enforcement and the community, we have to talk and work together; it can’t be us against them. Reggie’s grandfather was a police officer in the Bronx and policed in the community he lived in — so he knew the coaches and preachers and teachers and parents and kids, and that certainly affected the way he did his job. But if the police are so separate and it feels like they’re coming in as occupiers, that too affects the way they police, and the way people respond to them. We were with a former police chief from Oakland who watched the first six episodes. He’s excited about the show and feels police should watch it, because it will allow people to see from all different sides and talk. And that’s just what we need to do: talk.

You’re drawn to characters who are very ambitious — from the basketball players who turn pro in Love & Basketball, to the romance between the rising pop star and the rising politico in Beyond the Lights, and even Sanaa Lathan’s aspiring singer in Disappearing Acts. And now Stephan James’ lawyer character in Shots Fired, who clearly has great ambitions.

I guess you could say it started with my first film, but I think it also comes from having done sports my whole life. Playing at a high level is so much about drive, ambition, believing in yourself, leaving it all on the floor, outworking everyone — knowing that wanting to be the best is a good thing and not something you should shy away from. Those were all positive attributes that were pounded into me, especially as a female. That’s rare, for a girl to be tough at a young age. It absolutely fits who I am. And characters are often an extension of you. That’s a fascinating thing to think about.