So, is it true that you’ve been working on this film since 2007?
It hurts every time I hear that. [Laughs.] The first draft was written in 2007, and then I took a break and did The Secret Life of Bees, which took two years. And then I came back to it in 2009, and wrote it for two years before going out and trying to sell it. I was excited about it. I’d written this love story that was also speaking to what’s happening in music today, and it was contemporary. And I went out with it … and got crickets! Which was shocking. Only one studio stepped up to option it. They didn’t even say, “We’re going to make it.” They just said, “We’ll option the script for a year.” Then I thought I wanted a musical artist for the lead. But the one that I wanted ended up not working out, and the ones that the studio wanted I didn’t think were right for the piece. Once that fell through, I started thinking about my favorite music films like Walk the Line and Coal Miner’s Daughter. They had actors at the center, so I started thinking that that was probably the better way to go. The Rose was also a huge influence on this film as well; Bette Midler was a singer, but she also developed into a really good actress.
Is that how you found Gugu Mbatha-Raw?
I started auditioning, and Gugu came in through the door and changed everything. This was before Belle. She was an unknown. As she started auditioning, I saw the film while she was talking. It’s just a great moment as a director when you know this is the one. Then, the second half of the audition, she had to sing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird.” It was very scary for me, because I was like, “Could she just hold a note? Something I could build on?” She was great! She has a background in musical theater, and she could sing. I was very excited to find her, and excited to tell the studio … and they said, “She’s not a star.” And they weren’t going to put millions of dollars into this film and bank on somebody who’s not a star. So they let the option go, and the film was dead for a moment, which was scary. Then we created an eight-minute presentation to showcase Gugu and give the vibe of the film, and we hooked up with another producer, Stephanie Allain. We got it to BET, and they saw the presentation and were blown away by it and said, “We’ll put in a couple million if you find a studio.” So, now I have this presentation that showcases Gugu, I’ve got a couple million, and [I] thought, Okay, now it’s going to be easy. Went back to every studio, and … same thing! It got closer, though. Everyone loved the script, loved me, loved Gugu, but she’s not a star. So we thought it was dead again. But then we decided to shoot this independently. I thought, What am I whining about? Stop asking for permission. This is a story I’ve got to tell, it’s stuck in my head. It’s driving me crazy, so let me just shoot it. And that’s when Relatively Media stepped up. They had seen the presentation. They said, “We get it, she is a star. Go for it. And for the male lead, cast whoever you want.” And suddenly I had a movie