The latest movie from producer Tracey Bing MBA '01, Nappily Ever After, will be released this month on Netflix! Starring Sanaa Lathan, Ernie Hudson, Ricky Whittle, and Lynn Whitfield, the film is adapted from a novel of the same name by Trisha R. Thomas and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour. Stream it on Netflix beginning September 21st! (Harvardwood also caught up with Tracey to talk about her career previously—read her full alum profile!)
Q. Congratulations on the upcoming release of Nappily Ever After! This project was previously in development by Universal Pictures fifteen years ago, before being revived more recently. How did you first become involved with this project?
A. In 2005, when I was VP Production and Acquisitions at Warner Independent Pictures, an executive from Marc Platt Productions at Universal submitted the project to me. At that time Halle Berry was attached to the project as both an actress and producer. I fell in love with the material because it so resonated with my own experiences. As a little girl, I was never happy with my hair, and having been influenced by European notions of beauty that proliferated society through advertising and images that were prevalent (and one blond-haired Barbie), I begged my mom to straighten my hair. My hair was never the same. And this issue continued throughout my life. We didn’t end up making the film at WIP, but the story always stayed with me. And now and again, I would ask what happened with the project and whether it was made.
Five years ago, I was asked to put together a slate of African American films for eOne. And Nappily Ever After was the first film I thought of. But after several years spent getting the rights out of turnaround and developing the script, eOne’s business had changed and I had to find a new home for the project. I took the film to Netflix, and they said yes. The rest is history. They’ve been exceptional partners all the way through.
Q. The team behind this film is impressively diverse, from of course the cast led by Sanaa Lathan to director Haifaa Al-Mansour. How difficult was it (or wasn't it) to get all these busy folks together and attach to the film?
A. My goal is always to work with a diverse team both in front of and behind the camera. About two years ago, we started discussing who could play Violet. We needed to find someone who had the chops to go through such an intense emotional rollercoaster, and who could lay themselves bare. Though there are many comedic moments in the script, the story is so much deeper and required a strong actress. And someone courageous enough to shave their head on camera, which takes major cojones! We immediately thought of Sanaa.
So we reached out to Sanaa’s agent, and Marc Platt called her directly. Having a producer of that caliber is an invaluable asset. But convincing an actress to shave her hair off on camera was not an easy proposition. It took time. And Sanaa wanted to know who would direct her in the film.
In terms of directors, we really wanted to find someone who was going to give the film a unique point of view. We wanted it to feel fresh. There are a number of African American films that follow a formula. We didn’t want to do that. I felt strongly that a woman, and preferably a woman of color, should direct the film, though we met with all types of candidates. Sometimes it’s difficult to get a female director to do a romantic comedy because they feel like they are being pigeon holed.
I asked Rena Ronson at UTA for suggestions, and she asked if I had met Haifaa Al-Mansour. I was a huge fan of her film Wadjda, which I saw at Toronto many years ago. She had just shot Mary Shelley. And when we met, she had a distinctive point of view, and we knew Sanaa and other cast (and crew) would respond to her. Plus she has really curly hair and understands some of the issues our lead character endures through her own experiences in Saudi Arabia.
Q. Nappily Ever After is based on a novel by Trisha R. Thomas. Was the script (by co-writers Adam Brooks and Cee Marcellus) in place from the very beginning, or were they brought in together to handle the adaptation? In your experience, were there any challenges throughout the production of the film that were particular to it being an adaptation?
A. The book was written in 2000, and the script has been in development since approximately 2001. There have been about 6 writers through the years. Most recently, we worked from a 2007 draft that needed some updating because hair issues have evolved since 2000 and some sculpting for pacing.
It’s always challenging to adapt a book—to remain as faithful as possible while making the story cinematic. And you of course don’t want to disappoint audience members who have read the book.
Q. How did the film end up at Netflix? Is the streaming release something you'd envisioned from the beginning?
A. I had previously brought Netflix a film called Southside with You, which was a project they were interesting in financing— although they didn’t end up doing it. Since we were looking for a home for Nappily, I said, "Why don’t you take a look at this other project?"
When I first read the script in 2005, Netflix was not a prevalent force in distribution. And even five years ago, when we were actively putting the film together, a theatrical release was always envisioned. That said, the distribution landscape has vastly changed, with major players in the so-called urban space like Screen Gems and Lionsgate diminishing their appetite for these films, and other companies like Relativity and Broad Green no longer with us. We needed to adapt our approach.
Plus we have always seen this story as a universal one that all women can relate to. And Netflix meant that our film would reach a global audience, a variety of cultures, as opposed to a traditional theatrical approach where this film would barely play in other territories. I’ve even gotten a request about a Chinese remake.
That said, I always knew women would want to see this movie together. And I’ve been getting emails about hair salons and friends hosting viewing parties. So it’s great Nappily Ever After will be on Netflix and also in select theaters on September 21st.
Q. Earlier this year, you executive-produced critically acclimated sci-fi movie, Prospect, and your previous credits include Southside with You and March of the Penguins. Your slate of projects is so varied—what draws you to a project at first read or first introduction?
A. I am drawn to diverse stories that we haven’t seen before. With March of the Penguins—which I acquired as a finished film and oversaw the changes from the French version, including commissioning a new script and score, and hiring Morgan Freeman, etc.—it was the beautiful narrative nature of a story told through a documentary lens. And it tackled the issue of global warming in a very real way.
As soon as I read Southside with You, I knew it had a very similar feel to Before Sunset, which I worked on at WIP. But I thought, "We never see black characters depicted in this way." It’s such a sweet and pure love story.
Regarding Prospect, I fell in love with the short when it premiered years ago at SXSW, but it was given to me by Depth of Field, and I thought the filmmakers had a very interesting take on how to expand that material. And with Nappily, it’s the story of self-love and acceptance that I wanted to tell.
Q. You've just launched a new production company, Badabing Pictures Inc. Yet another round of congratulations to you! Can you share more about the Badabing team and any upcoming news or projects?
A. Watch this space! We are working on several films, including remakes of ll A Deja Tes Yeux, Song for Marion aka Unfinished Song, and El Futbol o Yo, which is set up with AGC Studios. I am writing a treatment for a hip-hop project. And I am also working as an Executive Producer on the adaptation of the French novel Alex, written by renowned French crime writer Pierre LeMaitre, to be directed by Louis Leterrier. And who knows—maybe a sequel to Nappily...???
Q. The animated logo to Badabing Pictures is beautiful! What inspired it?
A. Back in 1998, I worked on a film with Michael Imperioli, who went on to star and write on The Sopranos, and he always called me “Badabing.” Ironically, the name of the bar in that show! But the nickname just stuck. And I love that it is a pun on my name.
As you mentioned, my projects are varied. So I always thought of a kaleidoscope or mosaic where bursts of different colors become more clear and beautiful as one image. And as a kid, I used to make small stained-glass windows. And that was reminiscent to me of the stained glass in Chartres Cathedral, where the images are abstract, impressionistic, and kaleidoscope-like. But again, the pieces form a more beautiful whole picture.
My dad loved butterflies and used to make tissue-paper butterfly cards for me. To me, the seams of a butterfly’ wings mirror those in a stained-glass window. So I wanted to make a stained-glass window of butterflies. And Helen Greene of Greenhaus gfx came up with the idea of the butterflies flying into position.