The Secret Life of Bees - Gina Prince-Bythewood and Lauren Shuler Donner interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
DIRECTOR Gina Prince-Bythewood and producer Lauren Shuler Donner talk about bringing popular novel The Secret Life of Bees to the big screen, as well as working with real bees and casting such a talented and eclectic ensemble cast.
Lauren Shuler Donner also gives us a little insight into the forthcoming X-Men prequels Wolverine and Magneto…
Q. How daunting was it to adapt and then direct a favourite book?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: Initially, it was daunting. But I think the key was that I loved the book, like everyone else. So, it really served as my bible and my blueprint. I think the hardest thing for me was feeling the freedom to move away and start writing my own scenes and dialogue. That took a minute because there’s so much in the book. And also what do I not put in, because there’s so many great, great moments? But I had to get over 400 pages into 120 [screenplay], so something had to go. It then became about keeping the same themes, the arcs of the characters and condensing the story.
Q. This has a strong female element to it… did it feel that way to you when making it?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: It’s just so weird to have a female producer, a female director and that many female actors on set. It just doesn’t happen, sadly. So, there was a really great energy. It was fun. There was no drama… you know the cliché that women are going to be cat-fighting all the time? It wasn’t like that at all. The women immediately bonded. There were men in our crew, so it wasn’t all women. But it was amazing how the women all just really bonded.
Q. Was it difficult to cast the sisters to get them looking so alike?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: Well, because of their schedules… Sophie [Okonedo] was in London, Alicia [Keys] was on tour and Queen Latifah was on a film tour. So, I had three hours two weeks before shooting to get them together. That was the only time they were together before shooting, which was mind-boggling. But it took two weeks to wrangle that three hours in a hotel room and I had to fly to New York.
But in that three hours, we just sat at a table and started talking and it was so clear early on how much they’d thought about their characters and their relationships to each other that they just started feeding off each other. I really just watched the sisterhood form before my eyes. Afterwards, we took a picture of the three and I was so excited about showing it to everyone. They looked and felt like sisters. You just never know on paper if that’s going to happen.
Q. How did you come to place Paul Bettany in all of this?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: Paul’s process is so intense. We just knew he’d learn the accent. I guess, going in the only fear was whether he was going to look British. Other people feared that. But when we met him for the first time it was mind-boggling how much he looked like Dakota [Fanning]. He’s just so tall and imposing, just like T Ray [his character]. It’s been great to hear from people who’ve seen the film that they don’t even realise it’s Paul Bettany until the end of the movie.
Q. How did he adapt to playing such a nasty character at times?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: Well, he didn’t want to be the moustache-twirling kind of villain, which is not what we wanted. So, we really tried to find glimpses of humanity within him. But we shot almost in continuity, so it was just Dakota and Paul at the beginning and I had to tell Dakota – because she was getting so beat up – that in a week’s time it would be pink houses and love, kisses and hugs. So, she got beat up but they wanted to go toe to toe with each other and they just fed off each other. It was really cool to see.
Q. Was Dakota always a first choice, because I’d imagine there aren’t that many child actors who can pull off the mix of emotions she conveys in this movie?
Lauren Shuler Donner: I actually brought her on before Gina came on. After I first optioned the book she was 11, which is way too young for the character. But I really believed that she had the acting skills to act older. The good news, however, is that it did take so long to get made that by the time we started filming she was the right age. She turned 14 the week after we wrapped, which is the age of the character in the book.
Gina Prince-Bythewood: It’s funny… I knew she was attached before I came on board, which is one of the reasons I wanted to do it also. But I had to meet her before I could solidify it in my mind because the last time I saw her was Charlotte’s Web. At 13, 14 some girls go through a really awkward time, so I wanted to know if she was going through the same thing. But when she walked through my door there was this beautiful young woman – so mature and she so got the character. I knew we were going to be OK.
Q. How was working with the bees?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: The bees were fascinating creatures. I was afraid of them going in. I hoped doing the film would get me over those fears, and it did for a while. On-set, I could literally walk into a greenhouse of 12 hives, which is like 6 or 700,000 bees without gloves and be OK. Now, if there’s one in my house I’m back to screaming it down. But it was so cold when we shot – because we shot in the dead of winter – that we actually had to truck in bees from Florida, because they don’t like weather under 60 degrees.
But I was very fortunate with the actors I had as well… because in my research I found out that real bee-keepers don’t wear gloves as well, so I asked Latifah and Tristan [Wilds] and just hope that they’re the kind of actors that want to be authentic. Thankfully, they were. But there was fear there. You can’t train them but you can understand when they will sting you, and when they won’t. Poor Tristan did get stung twice, though.
Q. Was there anything about bee etiquette that surprised you?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: They only sting when you mash them. If there’s one on you, flick it off and they won’t sting you.
Lauren Shuler Donner: And don’t eat bananas. There’s something about bananas that will draw them to you and they’ll sting you on the lips… they’ll go right for the bananas.
Q. As a black female director, how difficult do you find it?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: Well, it’s interesting… for the most part I feel like my choices are discriminated against in that a lot of things I want to focus on are female-driven or black female driven and those are the toughest things to get made. I have dealt with racism pretty face-to-face. But for the most part, I’m able to just push them aside and focus on what I’m trying to do and continue to believe that talent has no race or agenda, and that I have every right to be here.
Q. Why did the film take so long to get made and how instrumental was having Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith as co-producers?
Lauren Shuler Donner: Well, to answer the first question, I’d set it up at a different studio and brought in a different writer-director, who was lovely and talented in his own right… but his tendency was to veer away from the book and make it his own. I totally understand that but it wasn’t what I wanted. So I took it away from that studio, left that writer-director and took a year where I was making other movies. Then I went to Fox Searchlight, approached Gina and set it up as it is now. It takes a while to write the script and get it going as well.
As for Will and Jada, my fellow producer, Joe Pichirallo, was at Searchlight when I first went to set it up. So, by the time it came to get it made I went to him and said, “come on, produce it with me,” he was at Overbrook, which is Will and Jada’s company. So they’re our godparents on this movie. They were not involved day-to-day but we always knew they were there [laughs]. So, if we needed some muscle for the studio, there was Will Smith.
Q. How do you go about choosing which films you’re going to produce?
Lauren Shuler Donner: It’s pretty much a gut feeling. It’s do I want to spend a year or seven making a story? And does it inspire me? Does it spark my own ideas? Is is an original story? Does it have good, original characters? So, it’s really just about liking it and feeling it.
Q. How is Wolverine coming along?
Lauren Shuler Donner: It’s good… it’s very good. I’m very pleased with it. It’s very much an origins story. It’s very much in the tone of the first X-Men.
Q. And how about Magneto?
Lauren Shuler Donner: We have a great script on Magneto. I’ll tell you the honest truth… I’ve made four movie this year and I was so busy that I didn’t at all talk to the studio while making Magneto because I couldn’t have done it. And David Goyer, who wrote and is going to direct it, also did another movie. So now, he’s done with his and I’m done with two of mine, so when I get back that’s my first order of business to say: “Come on, let’s go and make Magneto.”
- Buy it on DVD (Amazon)
- Read our review
- Paul Bettany interview
- Gina Prince-Bythewood and Lauren Shuler Donner interview