On July 2, Reggie Rock Bythewood's long-gestating crime drama "Gun Hill" had its BET premiere, with plans of turning the two-hour pilot into a television series.
Named for Bythewood's childhood neighborhood of Gun Hill in the Bronx, NY, and inspired by his own estranged relationship with his father, the film stars Larenz Tate as a pair of twin brothers on opposite sides of the law. When one twin is killed, the other assumes his identity as a DEA agent in order to escape his troubled life as an ex-convict. Emayatzy Corinealdi and Aisha Hinds co-star in the film, which re-airs on Saturday, July 12 at 8pm Eastern on BET.
In a candid and in-depth conversation with Shadow And Act, Bythewood recently shared his experiences making "Gun Hill," the process to bring it to air, and seeing the responses to the film on this site and elsewhere, including our review. He also reflected on his decades-long TV and film career, which began with acting and grew to writing and directing projects like "A Different World," "New York Undercover," "Get on the Bus," "Biker Boyz," and "Notorious," as well as several collaborations with his wife and fellow filmmaker Gina Prince-Bythewood.
JAI TIGGETT: You've mentioned that "Gun Hill" is inspired by your relationship with your father and seeing a different, more positive side of him once he passed away. In telling this story, have you uncovered anything new about that relationship through the characters?
REGGIE ROCK BYTHEWOOD: It sounds pretty elementary, but I suppose one of the discoveries is that nobody's all bad or all good. What's fun is to do it in a crime drama narrative. We're in this world where even the good guys resolve most of their conflicts with violence and not enough intellect. So I had to resist the temptation of making the main character, Bird, too evolved in this first offering of "Gun Hill." If we're so blessed, it will be something that we continue to explore and see where the character goes and what revelations I can make for myself, and for this world.
One of the other things I took note of is Elia Kazan's "On The Waterfront." Marlon Brando's character resolves things with violence and then as the story progresses, his humanity and his conscience takes over. And so as we start to chip away at that, without being corny and on the nose, we do want to open him up and raise his consciousness. It's something that we really want to explore.
JT: The project has been a long time coming, with production taking place back in 2011. Tell me about your experience working on it over these past few years.
RRB: It kind of drives me crazy that it sat around for three years. But the positive is that you wrote a review. The funny thing is, when you have a review and there are some nice things said, you always focus on the negative. But I had an opportunity to say, "Well, let me see how it feels if I change some things."
I didn't want to take out all the voiceover because initially I was just looking to find a way to keep his brother alive and keep that connection. But to know that it felt like exposition, I thought, "Maybe the sister's right."
And then with the initial scene in the bar, I added some cinematic things to give it a little bit more punch. So hats off to you, I appreciate the feedback. I don't think I've ever even considered doing that before.
JT: Thank you. That's rare for a filmmaker to do, so I'm shocked that you considered making those changes. Were those the only tweaks, or have you sort of been working on the film all this time?
RRB: They didn't ask me to go in and make changes, but when something's sitting around you look at it again and always see something that you can improve. I really fell in love with Terence Blanchard's music, and I found a new way to approach it. In most of the action scenes from the first cut, the music started as soon as the action started. And then as I went back in, I said, "Let me just play around and see what happens if we start with just hearing the action and sound effects, and let the music sneak up on us."
That felt much better, because it compliments as opposed to taking over the scene. So there were little elements like that, that I felt good about.
JT: Tell me about audience reaction – how you've responded to it in the past and how you respond to it now. With "Gun Hill," you had a chance to see some of the audience's reaction to the project before it had a full release.
RRB: In the past, particularly in TV, you might get a couple of fan letters here and there. My first produced episode of TV was on "A Different World," and it was about this young woman who was being battered in a relationship.
JT: Right, Gina. I think we all remember that episode.
RRB: Yeah, exactly. The thing that blew me away was, I got this letter from a 13-year-old girl living in Canada. She said after seeing the episode she broke up with her boyfriend who was mistreating her. I was pretty impacted by that and just really took note of the idea that what we do has power, even if you're doing something like a sitcom.
There's something that a teacher taught me several years ago that I used as a template for "A Different World," which is to get your audience laughing and when their mouths are open, slip the truth in there. I kind of borrowed that idea for "Gun Hill," which is to get your audience at the edge of their seats and while they're leaning forward, hit them with the truth. So when you approach it that way, and you don't just want to put on a hot show but you really want to do something significant, you don't know what kind of feedback you're going to get. So it was very encouraging and humbling to get the feedback from folks online.
I'm not a huge social media guy or a party guy. I'm kind of just about the work, and I've always been that way. But it was cool to receive that response and I think it's actually motivated the entire "Gun Hill" team to put the word out.
JT: What was behind the delay with the release?
RRB: Crime drama is a different genre for BET. And I suppose they were looking to see how it fit in terms of their schedule and when we would have the best opportunity to have it become a series. A lot of that also has to do with financing. So there are a lot of elements that are coming together behind-the-scenes. But we're certainly glad to get it out there.