How to Turn Your Idol into Your Mentor into Your Collaborator
Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love and Basketball”, “Shots Fired”) and Tina Mabry (“Mississippi Damned”, “Queen Sugar”) are unstoppable forces on the rise — writing, producing, and directing for TV and film while mentoring the next generation of filmmaking talent.
Gina premiered an early short film at Slamdance in 1998 (“Bowl of Pork”, starring Dave Chappell) before her breakout first feature “Love and Basketball”. The film that redefined sports films and broke new ground on how women and people of color are depicted onscreen inspired Tina Mabry to abandon her LSATs and apply for film school. Tina’s 2009 debut feature “Mississippi Damned” (starring Tessa Thompson with cinematography by Oscar nominee Bradford Young) won Gina’s admiration and respect and the two filmmakers have since become mentor/mentee, friends, colleagues, and are now collaborating on an upcoming film.
Both Slamdance alums, they came to our offices to discuss their experiences navigating the industry with all its highs and lows, and offered some valuable wisdom for fellow filmmakers. Listen to their conversation in it’s entirety or read some highlights below.
“I mean, making a good movie is hard. Getting a movie made is a miracle.”
Tina on meeting Gina after watching “Love and Basketball” and stalking her for years:
Tina: The first time we actually met in person — it was at Sundance. It was like a little writer’s intensive. Ava [Duvernay] ended up introducing us because I was scared to go up to you. Just coming up and finally meeting you and being able to tell you how much of an effect you had on my life, I couldn’t help but cry. I couldn’t help it because you changed my life — and it’s not just me, you changed all our lives that we’re working right here today. And I guarantee you, you ask any one of us black females that are working as directors, producers or writers in this industry, we all bring you up. You changed the shit and you broke the mold.
On making films worth giving your all to:
Gina: I don’t know who said it, but the talent is in your choices. And you know, sometimes it’s hard. Like I’ve been making movies for 15 years, well 18 years now and I’ve made 4. Which, 4 in 18 years doesn’t seem like a lot, but…
Tina: It is for us.
Gina: For us, and knowing what goes into making a film. Like this is a year, year and a half of your life. Now I have a family. If I’m going to be away for that long or that singularly focused on something, it has to be something I’m passionate about. Not all of us have that [luxury], but that’s the thing that’s going to give us longevity. That we care about what we’re putting out into the world, and not only care about it but care about it enough to give all of ourselves to it. Because that’s what it takes. I mean, making a good movie is hard. Getting a movie made is a miracle.
Tina: That’s what I always try to think about. Would I do this if they weren’t paying me? And if the answer is yes, that’s the damn project I need to take.
On Stamina and Work Ethic
Tina: I don’t feel like I have the luxury to fail. If I fail at this then I’m not going to get another chance. So all of my all has to go into it. And for me, it’s like if I don’t sleep for this much time, it’s fine. I’ll rest later.
Gina: I just wish every girl could be in sports because of what it teaches you. For me, it’s “outwork everybody.” When I was training, and even now. If I’m not writing or studying a movie or something, I feel like, “damn, somebody else is,” you know? So outwork everybody. “Leave everything out on the floor” is a big one for me. You literally had to pull me off the floor at the end of the game of basketball. And now, with movies, I’m the first one there. And then I shoot, I go home, and I watch dailies. Then I put together my shot list, and then I go to sleep for a few hours, and then I’m back. And you have to do that.
That whole work ethic that not everybody has in this industry, it drives me crazy. Yes, I know there are work hours and stuff like that, but you take the opportunity to show that you care about this more than anybody. And you should if this is your passion. You should want to be on set or want to be in the office, or want to be reading everything you can. I don’t want to hear you “want to go home.” Because I didn’t, you know?
“And to see the sexism and racism he had, that was something that really wasn’t surprising but it still hurts. The fact that he did not even have the respect for this particular show that he claimed to love. No, he loved himself.”
On dealing with disrespect on set as black female directors:
Tina: This particular [1st AD], like starting on day one, I could tell in prep that he wasn’t there and I just went ahead. I was looking at the agenda and I see nothing on this page. I see “Time: 9 to 5” and there is nothing else on there. So I’m like, “Well, where’s my concept meeting? Where’s my production meeting? Where’s my tone meeting? Where’s my show-and-tells?” Nothing was there!
What I learned is that he did not like a black woman — any woman, over him. And I had seen him actually 1st AD for a male director, because I was covering an episode that I wrote. So I saw how he treated him. Now I saw how he treated women.
And then on the one day…May 11th is the day my mom passed away. So every May 11th can be a little bit hard for me. So I had the crew together and I said, “So you know, I’m always laughing and happy and I’m still going to be laughing and happy, but if I’m having one second where I don’t respond real quick, just know this is a tough day for me, and that’s it.” And he immediately jumps in and gets on me in front of the whole crew trying to embarrass me, saying I didn’t know what I’m doing with these explosives and the squibs. And I said, “No, actually I do, I had this script 4 weeks before you had it. And I don’t ever like to be like this, but you’re pushing me to that point. Well, who’s name is on the call sheet on the front every day? It’s not yours, it’s mine.”
And you know, we had to bring in the studio and the network, and they’re worried about me. I’m like, “I’m fine. Worry about him.” We keep on pushing, and every time we came in on time, regardless of what he did.
It was just so unprofessional. And to see the sexism and racism he had, that was something that really wasn’t surprising but it still hurts. The fact that he did not even have the respect for this particular show that he claimed to love. No, he loved himself. And he let his own prejudices interrupt making a great show and the rest of us putting everything into it.
Gina: That’s the great thing about us moving into positions of power because there are people like that that permeate the industry. But the more of us that get into power, the more we actually don’t have to put up with that anymore. We can just let them go. And that first AD, having the arrogance of thinking that with you as a producer on that show, he could behave like that and there’d be no repercussions?
But it’s understanding our power as well. I think we’re not used to firing people. I think courage is a habit. And while you don’t want to have to go through things like that, the more you go through it, you’ll have the memory of it. And you’ll know how to handle it for the next time.
I dealt with a horrible experience with an actor on my…I’ll just say my second feature. After “Love & Basketball” being such an amazing experience, to come up and now I’m working with a star, and somebody I respected so much — to find out he is an incredible asshole. It was so bad. I had a female DP, Tami. He hated her too. He would say out loud in front of people that women shouldn’t be DPs, the camera’s too heavy for her — because she did her own camera. And the crew was starting to say, “God, we feel sorry for you guys.” And we didn’t want to hear it. I don’t want you feeling sorry for me. But he was a producer and I had to put up with his behavior.
Then the last day, we were shooting a big dinner scene with everybody and once he had finished his coverage, he said “we’re done.” And walked off set. He had walked off set twice before and each time I was like, “well, I guess I have to stop.” But it was the last day so I said, “you know what? I’m not done,” and we kept shooting without him. And suddenly who comes back? This dude sits back at the table and participates. And it was the ego of “Oh my God, she’s actually shooting without me.” But it took me the entire movie to get there. And then, I kicked myself — why did it take me so long to figure out how to deal with somebody like that? But it was so foreign to me.
He pulled something the very first… I should have known. We were supposed to meet before the movie started to talk about his character, talk about the script, talk about the shoot and we were supposed to meet at a restaurant. He never showed up, stood me up. Didn’t call, nothing. I was sitting at the restaurant for an hour. Then I got a call from the other producer that said — there was no apology, no nothing, “you can meet him at his house at 10 tonight.” And it’s funny, my husband was like,“uh… No.” But you know, being young, I’m thinking, “Well, I got to meet him! I’m the director!” But thank God I didn’t go. But that set the tone and I should have confronted him at that point. But it was the hierarchy thing of “he’s a huge star” — at the time — and “this is how it must be in the industry.” But it doesn’t have to be, and that’s because of us talking. Building a community among us like what we know other filmmakers have, you know? They’re hanging out and talking and we just have to do that more and more.
On commanding a set through respect and consideration:
Gina: The director sets the tone on set and if I’m not yelling and bringing that negative energy, I don’t want somebody else to because it poisons the set. Nobody works harder because they’re scared. They’re going to work hard if they’re inspired and they feel a part of it and it’s strange that people don’t get that.
The first thing I say when I’m interviewing a 1st AD is that extras have the hardest and least respected job and I want them respected. And I don’t like that they have to wait for everybody else to eat. I hate that. It just seems rude. They’re part of the crew. Without their performances, the show or film is not going to be as good. You can tell a lot about a 1st AD by how they talk to our background actors.
Tina: When we were on “Power”, there was a key gaffer who had to drive to Vermont from New York every Friday night to see his wife and kids and then come back Sunday morning. So for me, I’m looking at those things. If I know exactly what I want to shoot and I got what I want plus some specialty stuff, let me go ahead and get him out of here so he can drive to his family safely. The magic that we’re creating is having someone from transportation say, “thank you for having a short day because I had a chance to read a bedtime story and tuck my 8 year old daughter in for the first time in months.” That means a lot to me.
“…it feels like there’s a sea change and we get excited for a second but then you hear the numbers and you’re like, “Damn, where is the change?” But yes, there’s an absolute change happening. It’s incremental.”
On being a good mentor and mentee:
Tina: I consistently try to watch what you[Gina] do, what George [Tillman Jr.] does. I try to watch what Kasi [Lemmons] does. I just try to look at y’all and still learn because I feel like y’all are mentors. I don’t know if y’all have accepted me as a mentee but I just threw myself up in there. Please mentor me! Because that’s the thing, y’all haven’t ever said “no” to helping. You didn’t know me from nothing, and you sat and read my pilot script, had me come over to your house multiple times. We’re writing it in our socks! And that’s the very script that has gotten me every single writing job up until “The Hate U Give”. Every last one. And that’s you.
Gina: Well, no, it’s you, because the reason why I was happy to sit with you and talk with you is your script was so good! That’s a scary thing when you respect somebody and they send you a script. I was like, “God, please be good.” I already knew you were good from your movie, but then reading your pilot, I was like, “ok, she’s for real. Oh damn, she’s a writer.” So it was inspiring to help you because I want to help people who are dope. And then the fact that you take in…not everybody can take notes, I’ll say that. But you took notes and kept working on it, and working on it, as opposed to thinking, “this is as good as it’s going to get.” Not that we’re ever going to reach perfection, but you should be working towards perfection. Not everybody has that stamina. But you did. And I love to hear that other people are helping you because it’s not by accident. The talent is there and the personality is there. We want to help you because you’re cool.
On reaching back and paying forward:
Gina: It’s so important for us that once we get in, we gotta reach back. There’s so few of us. Still, it feels like there’s a sea change and we get excited for a second but then you hear the numbers and you’re like, “Damn, where is the change?” But yes, there’s an absolute change happening. It’s incremental. But I really do believe that it wasn’t necessarily the industry itself, but it was those of us reaching back and shepherding or pushing others in the industry to take notice. It’s important that now that we’re in, one: to do our best work absolutely. And two: who do you see? What recent independent film, short, or script makes you say to yourself, “damn, this person is dope.” What can I do? And it’s not always giving them a job. I mean, Kasi just talked to me and said she believed in me and she didn’t know me. I just left that meeting feeling empowered. So, there’s different ways you can reach back and help folk. And that’s what we have to do to help this industry. Because the opportunity’s there, but it’s up to us at the end of the day to find our folk.
Tina: I try to do my best, especially when I’m directing an episode, to get the studio to let me bring a few mentees on. Just so someone can shadow me, because that’s something that I found the most pivotal and most important. I really thank Melissa Carter, our show runner for Queen Sugar Season 1. She let two or three people come in and actually watch us break story in a room all day long. And afterwards some mentees were like, “nope, don’t want to do that.” And some of them were like, “yes, definitely want to do that.” But how are you supposed to know what you want to do if you can’t ever see it?
On adapting screenplays:
Tina: I’ve seen a million adaptations and a lot of them are just plagiarized. Literally. You can go through the book and you look across the page and the dialogue and you’re like, “You just copied and pasted, and you get the screenwriting credit for it.” And to me, to have someone actually be able to look at the material in its totality from the book and structure a story, then you actually wrote and adapted a screenplay.
Gina: The hardest thing about doing an adaptation — one: I do feel you have to stay true to the original because there’s a reason why people fell in love with that story or book. So why am I going to come in and throw it all out? That just feels wrong. But two: it can’t be your Bible, because you have to transfer it to film and it’s a different medium. You don’t need as much dialogue. You can use a look and that may take the place of a whole monologue in the book. But to be able to separate yourself for a moment is hard. Especially because with the adaptations I’ve done — I’ve done four now — I’ve worked with the author. But I want the author to love it more than anybody, even though I’m changing some stuff. But knock on wood, I’ve stayed really cool with the authors.
On their upcoming collaboration:
Gina: I guess we won’t talk about the title yet until it’s out in the world, but it is an adaptation that I wrote. But I knew I wasn’t going to be able to direct and the question came up, “who should direct it? And who do you trust?” I have an extremely tiny list, but you [Tina] were right at the top. But you know, it’s one thing for me to say, “I think this woman can do it, “ but you had to go in and knock out that meeting, which you did. I mean, I heard you made them cry, so…
The above excerpts have been edited for clarity and length. Edited by Adele Han Li