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Gina Prince-Bythewood

What Gina Prince-Bythewood always wanted to do was direct. At UCLA Film School, she received the Gene Reynolds Scholarship award for directing her thesis film “Stitches.” But when she left UCLA, she took a “temporary” job writing for television. And suddenly five years have passed during which she’s penned teleplays for such series as “A Different World,” “Sweet Justice” and “Courthouse.” She’s also picked up two Emmy nominations and an NAACP Image Award for writing and directing the children’s special “What About Your Friends” for CBS.

“Once you’re in (TV), it’s hard to leave,” says Prince-Bythewood, referring to the financial security she enjoyed in her television days. But there was another side to television about which she wasn’t as enthusiastic.

“It’s very frustrating to write things and hand it off to someone else.”

So she took a deep breath and quit. She gave herself a year to pen an idea she’d been developing, “Love and Basketball,” a love story about a female hoopster. “Being an athlete myself (she qualified for the Pac-10 Championships at UCLA in the triple jump during her sophomore year) I wanted to explore whether love and a career can co-exist,” says the Pacific Grove, California native.

One year turned into two. But the script was accepted into the Sundance Institute’s Writers and Directors Lab, and representatives from Spike Lee’s production company came to the reading and expressed interest. “They hooked me up with Michael DeLuca at New Line.” As a first-time director she expected the usual run-around. Her fears were unfounded.

“Within 10 minutes, DeLuca said ‘When do you want to make this?’ He never even questioned that I wanted to direct my script. He even gave us more money than I asked for and left me alone during shooting.”

Prince-Bythewood had the entire cast in her head while writing the script — everyone except the female lead. And she managed to land every single star. After interviewing dozens of potential leads, however, she returned to Sanaa Lathan, who had done the reading at Sundance. Though Lathan was not an experienced ballplayer, Prince-Bythewood says it was easier to teach her how to play than to train a more experienced player in the basics of acting.

“Love and Basketball” debuts as the centerpiece at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and bows nationally April 21. Prince-Bythewood is looking to eventually shed writing to concentrate on directing, which has been her aim ever since helming her thesis film at UCLA. “I originally grew up wanting to write. But the experience of directing just clicked with me. I am very happy sitting on a set. It immediately felt like it was something I was born to do.”

As for television, Prince-Bythewood hasn’t completely ruled it out of her future. “I miss being around the people every day. But I’ll only go back and do it if I can run the show myself.”

While film is a lot slower than television, the real attraction is the freedom and the personal control she can exert.

“In film you can say a lot more,” she says, simply.

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