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For her second feature film, director Gina Prince-Bythewood was handling a huge amount of talent and expectations with her adaptation of The Secret Life of Bees. Directing a cast that includes Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo and Jennifer Hudson, Prince-Bythewood says achieving the sisterly bond between the women was no challenge, despite their individual star status.
"The great thing was that they all had a mutual respect for each other," Prince-Bythewood said at a roundtable interview in New York last month. She explained how each of the actresses took pay cuts to appear in the film, led by Latifah, who took the biggest cut of all. "[The attitude was] we are all in this because we want to be here and we love it. It's not about the money."
Prince-Bythewood specifically remembers a moment on set when Keys was absent, being scheduled to perform at the Super Bowl instead. "We put her performance on the monitor. I looked over, and the entire crew was surrounding the monitors, and Jennifer, Sophie and Latifah were right in front cheering her on."
Read below for more on Prince-Bythewood's experience making the film, including her personal attachment to the story of an orphaned girl, Alicia Keys' surprising acting skill, and directing Dakota Fanning in her first-ever onscreen kiss.
Adapting a popular book like this, how do you decide what to keep? There are so many hardcore fans out there.
I think the great thing is that I'm one of the hardcore fans. My original draft was 140 pages, and I obviously knew that could never fly. I realized what's most important is that the character's arcs are similar, as well as the overall story and feel of the book. Again it's very tough, but I feel like the iconic scenes are in there, and I feel like that's enough.
Why did you want Queen Latifah for the role of August, and what did she bring to it that maybe surprised you?
Latifah just has this innate warmth and strength about her. You just meet her and she's larger than life, and that's really what August had to be. I just believed that Latifah could do it. And when I met her she had loved the book before, and loved the script. She just really wanted to play that maternal thing. She felt she was in a place in her life where that's where she wanted to go. She played that role on set. She was the Queen Bee. And everyone took to her like that, all the other actors.
What did Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith provide as producers?
They were really formidable in the beginning in getting it set up. Lauren Shuler Donner has this project for six years, and Jada had read the book and loved it and really wanted to do it. So they really pushed Fox Searchlight to pick it up. They really pushed at the beginning, and then Jada was supposed to play the Alicia Keys character, but she decided to direct her first film.
How did you work with the movie's racial and political issues?
Foremost, I wanted to stay true to the vision of the book. But there's a reason I identified with this. It mirrored so much of my personal journey.
In what way?
I was adopted by a Salvadorian mother and a white father. Growing up having complete identity crisis. Then my search for my mother and trying to find out why I was given up, and how could a mother give up a child, then finding out the circumstances of my birth was pretty traumatizing. I was able to put all that into [Lily's] journey. The racial aspect was important, but we didn't want it to dominate. It was important that we not play the period, but that they exist within this period.
How did you handle the kiss between Dakota and Tristan?
Honestly, I handled it like I would an adult love scene. I cleared the set-- it was just me, the camera guy and the boom guy. And her mom was actually really appreciative of that. Maybe that's me being a female director, maybe a male wouldn't have thought of it. She was almost 14, and it just seemed like that would be a big deal. She's so cool and collected, and she was saying she wasn't nervous, but it was the first time I'd seen her nervous. And Tristan was nervous. We rehearsed, but we didn't want to rehearse the actual kiss yet. It was also the first kiss, so we wanted a little of that newness of it.
How was the chemistry between the main actresses?
The great thing was that they all had a mutual respect for each other. They just all loved the book so much, and all loved the script so much. No one got paid on this. Latifah really set the tone with that, because she's obviously the highest-paid actor out of all of them . The fact that she took such an enormous pay cut set the tone for the other women. "We are all in this because we want to be here and we love it. It's not about the money." I think the greatest moment was when Alicia went to go sing on the Super Bowl. She had to leave, and we put her performance on the monitor. I looked over, and the entire crew was surrounding the monitors, and Jennifer, Sophie and Latifah were right in front cheering her on. They were just genuinely excited to watch her.
Whose performances surprised you most?
Surprised is probably the wrong word. I think I'm most proud of Alicia, because she was the newest of everybody. She came in so incredibly focused. She didn't bring anybody down to visit. She didn't want people to recognize her. She was cool with the 'fro. She just wanted to be great, and she worked so hard at it. I'm very proud of her, because people are really responding to her.