FOX’s newest Wednesday night drama Shots Fired is the latest brainchild of husband and wife directing and producing partners, Reggie Rock Bythewood and Gina Prince-Bythewood. After having to explain the police shootings that involved so many young Black people to their teenage sons, the couple felt like it was important to create and produce a show that was timely and impactful.
However, this is not the first time the Bythewoods have worked together to bring America some of our favorite Black cult classics, the couple has collaborated on projects like Biker Boyz and Beyond the Lights. From the time they met, Gina and Reggie aspired to create provocative art through film and television of the Black experience through storytelling. In fact, it’s the very way this Hollywood couple fell in love. The couple has been married for 19 years and their love story began in the early stages of their careers. He was a young man from The Bronx who moved to Hollywood under the Disney Writers Fellowship Program and a she was a recent UCLA film graduate from Pacific Grove when they both became writers on 90s sitcom A Different World. ESSENCE sat down with the Bythewoods to discuss how their love for storytelling blossomed into a marriage and a one-of-a-kind working relationship:.
Take us back to the first time you both worked together and how it sparked something more than friendship?
Gina: I had an internship at Quincy-Jones Entertainment, and everybody there kept talking about this writer out of New York, Reggie Rock Bythewood. Then I read a script that was in the office, and I was blown away by it. It just so happened, either that night or the night after, I went to a taping of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Reggie was there also as a guest, so that’s how we first saw each other.
Reggie: I was just writing plays in New York and I came out [to Hollywood] because there’s a program called the Disney Writers Fellowship Program. It’s a program that wants to help bring writers into the industry and teach them about the industry. I was with the executive from another company and he brought me to a taping of Fresh Prince. I happened to look over my right shoulder at the few rows up, and there was a young lady that was glancing my way, more than once, and the person that was next to me told me, “Oh, that’s Gina Prince”.
Gina: So a week later we were both hired on A Different World, Reggie as a staff writer, and I was hired as a writer’s assistant for the Apprenticeship Program. We were the younger writers on the show, they put us together a lot, to work on scenes and things like that and we just clicked. We became best friends very quickly because we had the same kind of mindset of what we wanted to do in the industry and what we wanted to say.
How did your work dynamic change once you started dating?
Gina: I was actually working under him as a writer as an apprentice. So as a female, I didn’t want people thinking I was trying to work my way to the top inappropriately.
Reggie: There was a point where we thought, hey, this is not cool, let’s not date each other. Let’s just be colleagues. So we did try it for a while and eventually, it didn’t work. But what was great about our break was that it allowed us to just focus on our friendship, and that’s really the basis of who we are, our friendship.
What aspect of your early dating years has contributed to a successful working relationship?
Reggie: Before I turned in a script to the rest of the [A Different World] staff, Gina would read it, and vice versa. So we just naturally began to work with each other that way.
Gina: We go through each other first. For one, because we respect each other. And two, you have to have that person that is prepared to be blunt if something’s not working. We don’t want each other to go out in the world with something that’s not ready, or is not going to do well. So we have to be harder on each other than the industry is going to be. So we definitely have a process with each other as well.
After working with each other on A Different World, did you talk about working with each other on future projects together?
Reggie: The other thing that was really great about A Different World is that it also allowed us to deal with subject matter that we really were interested in, and it was just the perfect first job for anybody to have. It was Gina’s favorite show, it was my favorite show, and we also felt like we were saying something.
Gina: At that time, we had more conversations about the big things that we wanted to do in this industry. On a bigger level than just a script or a project. It was creating a place where we could create our own content and put it out in the world, and help bring other writers out as well. We were thinking on that big scale. How could we impact the industry for Black folks in a big way?
Reggie: We had conversations, extremely idealistic about what if we could write a show, or what if we could create a film that could impact people’s lives. I think that level of idealism has stayed with us.
Gina: One of the turning points for me and for my career but still fueled by our relationship and still speaks to our relationship and who we are. There was a film that I was asked to work on, but there was so much in the film that I’m against, as an artist and a Black woman, but my agents’ voices were in my head: ‘Just get your foot in the door, do this and it’ll help your career.’ So I spent time putting together a whole list of fixes and notes, but Reggie happened to be in my apartment and started watching it. Right before I was about to go to a meeting for the film, he looks at me and said, ‘What are you doing?’ He said to me everything that I was telling myself in my head. I broke down for a moment, because he was right, and I just realized, wow, he was again speaking to me in the way that I was saying to myself but I didn’t have the courage to step out and do. And I ended up going to the meeting and I gave them my thoughts, but as soon as I left, I called my agent and said, ‘Look, they can have my ideas for free. I don’t care, I just don’t want anything to do with the project’. I walked away, came home, had one more good cry, dried my eyes and started writing Love & Basketball.
Not many people can say they work with their spouse. What’s it like running your own production together and creating content?
Reggie: We worked with each other for so long, we don’t always agree. There were times when we were in the writers’ room, we have a staff of seven writers, and Gina and I could look at each other and really quickly be on the same page. Then there might be other times where Gina would see it differently and we’d have a little debate. The writers would always be uncomfortable, there like ‘okay, what’s jumping off here?’ But for us, it felt very normal, and an essential part of our process, because we have a mission statement for every project we do. We take the approach that we have a cause bigger than ourselves, and we really have to just challenge each other and ask each other difficult questions throughout the process.
How did you both balance work and family while filming Shots Fired?
Gina: Our sons ended up on set after school, they would both come to the office, and have a snack and do their homework. Then we would all have dinner together there. It was exciting being able to share it with them. They watched all the cuts and it wasn’t that we had to force them, it made us feel good because our kids are honest.
What are some things that you learned, when trying to balance work and family during filming?
Reggie: We have two boys who are both teenagers, 13 and 15. Earlier in our career we were just going hard and just spending 24 hours, not sleeping and doing whatever it would take.
Gina: I always thought when they got older, it would be easier. It was very hard when they were little to be away while on set all day. As much as we could we’ve always brought them on set, but I always thought it would be easier to juggle, they’d be more self-sufficient. But honestly, I feel like they need us even more now.
Reggie: We learned to bring our kids into the process. Together we went through the process of why we feel at this time, we have to do this project, and put this out in the world, what it is we aspire to change. We really talked to them a lot about some of the lessons we’ve learned, and having a cause bigger than yourself. This is a family project and our kids understand why we’re digging in so hard. I think that allowing them to be a part of our mission helped them and it helps us.
How do you maintain your relationship outside of work?
Reggie: There’ll be like a period where Gina’s like, we need to have a date, we need to go out. Then there were times when I would say it’s time for a date. I think that’s been good, and I think the one thing we’ve learned, or made attempts at, is when we go on a date, to try not to talk about the next script coming up.
What makes you most excited about working together on Shots Fired?
Gina: I think that what I love most about being able to do this project together is the fact that, meeting on A Different World where we became best friends and having these dreams of what we wanted to do and then now to say to the world that we’ve never lost that idealism to impact the world. Maintain that optimism, still fight for the opportunity as well. The fact that we’re just always on the same page together, shows what art can do. To be able to do it together and put out projects in the world that we’re so proud of feels really good.