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Gina Prince-Bythewood

An Interview With The Secret Life of Bees Director

Gina Prince-Bythewood

By Wendy Ward | Posted 10/15/2008

Writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood sat a spell in Washington hotel lobby bar a couple of weeks back to talk about her new movie, The Secret Life of Bees,which is set around a pink house in 1964 South Carolina and the three African-American Boatwright sisters, white 14-year-old Lily, and middle-aged black Rosaleen who live there. She looks surprisingly small wrapped in a pale yellow cashmere sweater, curly brown hair falling around her shoulders, a glass of water in front of her. This soft-spoken powerhouse of a writer and director started her career in television writing for A Different World, in 1992, and went on to write and direct other TV series, such as Sweet Justice and Girlfriends, before writing and directing her feature debut, Love and Basketball, and writing the screenplay for (based on the book by Terry McMillan) and directing the made-for-television Disappearing Acts, both in 2000. She turned 38 this summer.

City Paper: What drew you to this story?
Gina Prince-Bythewood: I fell in love with the book. It was sent to me about six years ago. It was the spring, and I was coming off back-to-back movies, and it was right before it came out as a book. And I was completely burnt out and I actually tossed it in my closet and forgot about it and didn't read it. And then through the years everyone--my mom, cousins, friends--kept saying, "You got to read this book." And [I said], "Yeah, yeah, yeah." And then about two years ago, a friend of mine--an actor--said she was going in to audition for The Secret Life of Bees, and this guy was doing it, and I got really jealous. I said, ‘No, this is mine. This is supposed to be my movie.’

I went home that night and read it in one sitting. You know, I got to that line when [Lily] says, "I am unlovable," and it just wrecked me. That line in itself made me--it was like, I have to tell this story. And then these Boatwright sisters, I've never seen black women portrayed like that, it just kind of smashed every stereotype. Just the opportunity to bring them to life I thought would have been a gift, and again, I was like, I blew it.

I don't know who in the world made it happen, but two months later I got a call from my agent saying that it fell apart at the other studio, they wanted to start over--would I be interested in writing and directing for another studio? And I jumped at it this time and went after it hard and thankfully got it. I've kind of come into this thing in the last couple of years: Everything happened for a reason. I think five or six years ago I wasn't ready emotionally to tell it, Dakota [Fanning] certainly wasn't old enough to be in it, Alicia [Keyes], Jennifer [Hudson] . . . So I think it just happened at the right time and when it was supposed to happen.

CP: The cast is so solid. Was there someone you were especially excited to be working with?
GP-B: I have to be honest--down the line. Every single [one]. We got first choices for almost everybody. Dakota was attached when I came aboard--which is another reason that I wanted to do it. I just didn't think there was another actor out there--young actor--that could handle it. . . . I'd seen Man on Fire and was a huge, huge fan. Queen Latifah--you know, August is this iconic character, and Latifah's just larger than life. She's got this innate warmth and strength. I knew she'd be great. Sophie Okonedo--I wouldn't entertain anyone else but her for that part. [laughs] That part is complicated. In the wrong hands it could have been really bad. And Paul Bettany--I just felt like I was lucky to get him. He wanted to work with Dakota . . . which is amazing to me. He just thought she's a great actor--she's not a great kid actor, she's just a great actor. Jennifer Hudson had just come off of the Oscar [win] when I was writing. Alicia Keyes . . .

CP: It was nice to see Jennifer in a good role.
GP-B: It's hard man, her first role she got an Oscar.

CP: How was working with so many women? I saw The Women and then saw an interview with Jada Pinkett-Smith where she talked about the power of women in the business and how great it was to work with a lot of women.
GP-B: She's executive producer [on Bees].

CP: So, it must have been exciting to be surrounded with women on this project.
GP-B: Definitely. And the main producer is Lauren Shuler Donner, who comes from The X-Men and all that, and this was her baby. You know, she's been fighting to get this done for six years now. It was very female-driven, and I kind of feel like my films seem to fall into that--I wouldn't even say it's a comfort level, it's, you rarely get that opportunity to work with this many women. When I started my career, it was on A Different World, which was run by women, and it was such a nurturing environment and that was my first exposure [to the industry]. So maybe I'm attracted to that.

With this group, you just never know what the chemistry is going to be like. Is anyone going to come in with a diva thing--you know you're working with some giants here. I think the thing that drew everyone . . . everyone came aboard for no money, I mean, no money. [laughs] And that really set the tone, I think. We're all here because we love this movie, and if we don't take huge cuts in pay, it doesn't get made--and that means films like this don't get made. Everyone coming in with that belief just made it. It was a great set.

You know, when I'm so in it, I wasn't able to step out and feel it as much as I did in editing and now after. Alicia asked me one day on set, "Can you feel it?" I was like, "What?" She said, "Can you feel how special this is?" I said, "I can't see past the next day of shooting." But, now in retrospect, [I can see] it was a blessed shoot, and I wish--what I'm going to do from now on, really trying, as stressful as directing is, I want to stay in the moment because it was great, it was really great.

CP: It's good that the actors were willing to work for less money.

GP-B: I know, because they don't always do that. And it was hard. It was freezing cold, it was a 34-day shoot, Dakota could only work nine hours because she's still a child actor. I mean, this was a ridiculously tough shoot.

CP: But it's a summer film.
GP-B: I know. Oh my god, it's so funny to watch the dailies of this movie because you're watching the actors and you hear "cut," and then all these people come in and we're all in parkas and wool hats. The actors would have to chew ice before each take so that breath wouldn't come out. I mean, it got down to 25 degrees at times--it was freezing.

CP: It doesn't look that way.
GP-B: I knew I needed blue sky and actors willing to run around in shorts.

CP: This was such a great opportunity for Tristan Wilds to portray someone completely different that Michael on The Wire and to experience a part of history in a way that's beyond reading or seeing, but in actually character. Was racism and the civil-rights movement part of what drew you to this story? We seem as people to need to keep telling that story.

GP-B: What was important to me was to tell it in a different way. One of the changes I made from the book is that I pushed the civil-rights movement a little more to the forefront. What was important for me was all of the research that I did. My husband's family is from South Carolina, so I talked to all of his aunts that grew up during this time, and what I heard that struck me that then I pushed into the script and the film was, you know, when we think of '60s and black folks, every time we're portrayed, it's only about the struggle--that's our life. And what these women were telling me was that while that was going on, it was also this time of hope when people could see some brightness, finally. And they're living their lives--they have businesses, they're falling in love, they're going to church, they're playing outside. Their life was not solely dominated by one thing. And that, again, was something I hadn't seen before and that I really wanted to do with the story.

CP: June's NAACP T-shirt in the movie wasn't in the book. These people weren't letting the past dictate their future. There was a story change that involved Zach--why did you make it?
GP-B: I based it on this picture I saw of a group of teenagers who had just been hit with fire hoses and they were laughing and dancing in the water. It was such a great F-you to the cops and the firemen that were standing around. And, that's what it was for me with Zach, I know what I'm not supposed to do, but you know what? I'm going to do it anyway. And, yes, they're being subversive and they don't think they're going to get caught, but it's still an F-you.

CP: It was tragic to have him just disappear.
GP-B: Half the time they came back, half the time they didn't come back. I can't even fathom that--me having two boys. I can't fathom that and May couldn't fathom that, but I could never make a film where he died. I couldn't take that--I wouldn't want to do that to an audience--but it's important that that is what was happening at that time. The fact that he came back but so changed. He was so exuberant, and Tristan was so great at that--that smile of his, like you just felt his youthfulness. And then when he comes back he's a changed kid and there's a sadness in that, but you also see determination, which I think is important--like that's not going to break him.

CP: So, sisterhood and motherhood were a great part of the story and do have a lot to do with racism and civil rights. Can you talk about that?
GP-B: For me, I was adopted by a Salvadorian mother and a white father, and I have a younger brother who is black and was adopted and two white sisters. So my life, my existence was this hodgepodge of people, and we were all different, but our differences were celebrated. There was never this, "We are one," but there was a beauty in that, and the fact that we were different in no way inhibited our ability to love each other.

I think that is one of the things that I loved about the book, just the unique ways that people become family. It shouldn't have worked--this girl comes in lying about who she is, and June can't stand her for that and was upset from back in the day when she was abandoned, really, by her older sister who spent all her time taking care of Lily's mom. But they're able to come together and love each other, and I just thought there was a beauty. I mean, it sounds simplistic, but there's a beauty in that, and that was the story of sisterhood and this pink house, which is like the womb that Lily and Rosaleen are reborn in with this Mary figure that people worship--that was great. And I don't want to take it away from men, because men watch and cry, too, so I don't want to say this is just for women, but I feel like anyone, regardless of race or religion, can identify with that. Everyone at sometime is searching for love and searching for belonging. And that's what this is, a journey of trying to find a home.

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