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October 2008
THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES | An Interview with Director Gina Prince-Bythewood

An Interview with Director Gina Prince-Bythewood
by Wilson Morales

October 15, 2008

It’s been some time since we last saw Gina Prince-Bythewood, but she is back on the scene again. Having establish herself as a fierce director with back-to-back acclaimed films, ‘Love and Basketball’ and ‘Disappearing Acts’, Bythewood took a long break from the director’s chair to work in other capacities. With several scripts being thrown at her, she waited for the right one to come along, and sure enough, it’s a goodie.

‘The Secret Life of Bees’ is based on the book by Sue Monk Kidd. Set in South Carolina in 1964, the film is the moving tale of Lily Owens (Fanning) a 14 year-old girl who is haunted by the memory of her late mother (Burton). To escape her lonely life and troubled relationship with her father (Bettany), Lily flees with Rosaleen (Hudson), her caregiver and only friend, to a South Carolina town that holds the secret to her mother's past. Taken in by the intelligent and independent Boatwright sisters (Latifah, Okonedo and Keys), Lily finds solace in their mesmerizing world of beekeeping, honey and the Black Madonna.

In speaking with blackfilm.com, Prince-Bythewood talks about her attraction to the project and casting such talent at Alicia Keys and Tristan Wilds.

How did this book and film project fall into your lap?

Gina Prince-Bythewood: It’s interesting. I did two movies back-to-back, ‘Love and Basketball’ and ‘Disappearing Acts’, and I was totally burnt down after that. I really had no break and I would never do that again. ‘The Secret Life of Bees’, the book, was sent to me right afterwards, but because I was so burnt, I couldn’t see myself doing it, so I just put it in the closet and didn’t read it. Through the years, people kept telling me that I needed to read this great, ‘The Secret Life of Bees’. Finally, about two years ago, I was talking to a friend, an actress, and she was telling me she was going in to audition for the movie and this guy was going to direct it and I got really jealous. Obviously it was no reason since I still had not read the book, but at the same time, I was like, ‘That’s supposed to be my project. So I went home, read the book that pissed, and was completely pissed off because of what I had missed out on. Then, miraculously two months later, I got a call from my agent and they said that the project was put into turnaround to another studio and that they were going to start over and this time I jumped on it. I was actually writing something that I was about to go out with and this is probably the only thing that would have made me put that down.

With adaptation comes changes, and since you mentioned the film was put on hold for some time, what were the challenges in trying to get it on the big screen?

GPB: Fox Searchlight was the only studio willing to make this film, which kind of shocked me given the cast and the fact that the book was on the best seller’s list for five years. It seemed like a no brainer. Adapting it, well, I loved the book so much I didn’t see any reason to stray from it. There were some things I need to change, but the book was my bible to the script. I think the biggest change to the script were the ages. I made the characters younger, especially Rosalie, played by Jennifer Hudson. In the book, she’s in her 40s. I thought it was important that Lily have not any maternal influence at all.

Who was the first one onboard?

GPB: Dakota Fanning has been with the project for four years, which is crazy because this is now the time when she can do it. She’s old enough for the part. I guess it’s a good thing I had not picked up the book years ago. We also wanted the best talented African American actresses for the roles and that’s why we went to Queen Latifah first. She had been nominated for an Oscar and she also read the book and many people, she too loved it. Because I stayed true to the book, they were on board once they read the script. I had seen Sophie Okonedo in ‘Hotel Rwanda’ and I just knew that she had to be May. While I was writing, Jennifer Hudson came out in ‘Dreamgirls’ and we know what happened there. No brainer there. She was going to be Rosalie. With the last character June, I wanted to find someone who break out, and was like a newbie to the whole thing, in terms of acting. Alicia Keys is definitely new and someone that can break out with this film.

Besides the females, you also have some talented guys like Paul Bettany, Nate Parker, and Tristan Wilds. It’s amazing that luck would be in place for Tristan to have a hot new TV show with ‘90210’ and be in this film as well.

GPB: With Tristan, I’ve been watching ‘The Wire’ since day 1 and with season 4 with the kids, my husband and I were glued to the TV. When I was writing this, he actually suggested this and I was like, ‘Why didn’t think of that?’ When he was audition, it was like watching his character Michael from The Wire. I had no clue who Nate was when I was writing, and then last year I saw ‘The Great Debaters’, and another actor had been cast in the film and a week before he was supposed to start shooting, he couldn’t get out of his other film and I was completely screwed. So after watching ‘The Great Debaters’, it was perfect timing for Nate and myself. The chemistry between he and Alicia was essential and they just clicked just like that. I was very fortunate. With Paul Bettany, he .made me step up my game. He was so great and focused and he and Dakota fed off each other. It was great to work with that level of actors.

Although you had work in other capacities, what was the initial feeling when you got back on the set to direct a film after either years?

GPB: In between those years, I did a lot of writing, producing, and doing some short projects, but on the first day of shooting, I did a close-up of Dakota lying in bed and I just could not figure out the shot. It took me about a half hour to set the shot. It was completely freaking me out. ‘Oh my God! I forgot how to do this.’ Finally, I made a decision about the shot and the minute I said ‘Action’, this thing clicked inside and I said to myself, ‘I do know what I’m doing’.

What have you learned over the years as you approached this film?

GPB: I had two boys in between those years and it hasn’t really changed because my husband, who’s also a writer, and I always had this thing where we would never take a job for money; but when you have two boys, doing a film is very consuming, and I would only take something that I believed in 100% percent. That really focuses my choices.i could have directed ten times over during this break but I wasn’t passionate about the films that were being offered, and yes they did well, but would I be proud to have my name on them. No. I really wanted to wait for the right thing to come.

Who’s on the soundtrack?

GPB: We have a number of soul singers from Indie Arie, to Lizz Wright to Alicia Keys. Alicia has a kick ass new song at the end of the movie. It’s also mixed with a lot of 60s music that folks probably have not heard before. We really dug deep and some found great tracks like ‘Breakaway’ by Irma Thomas.

Why should anyone see ‘The Secret Life of Bees’?

GPB: It has an amazing cast and they all knock it out of the box.



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