“This town has always seemed outside of time for me,” Dr. Jean Markham (Anna Paquin) confides to her new neighbor Lydia (Holliday Grainger) in “Tell It to the Bees,” returning to the small town in Scotland where her father once practiced medicine. Although in the 1950s, a female doctor is an unusual sight, not much else in the community has changed from her childhood as Lydia can attest, trudging back and forth to the mill that most in town depend on for her livelihood while taking care of her 10-year-old son Charlie (Gregor Selkirk) after her husband, still lurking about the streets, has all but abandoned them. Both women are having a hard time reconciling the reality in front of them with where their minds are at, which is why it seems only natural that they find a safe haven in each other’s arms in Annabel Jankel’s lovely adaptation of Fiona Shaw’s novel that carves out a place of its own in time.
Having long been a forward-thinking pioneer when it comes to the use of technology in filmmaking, co-creating the iconic 1980s character Max Headroom with partner Rocky Morton, Jankel naturally brings a progressive verve to telling the period love story that unfolds between Jean and Lydia, who stir up more excitement than the bees Jean keeps on her estate. With Lydia evicted from her home, she and Charlie give Jean company in a home that’s far too big for her, yet in a town that remains small-minded, it still might not be big enough to protect them from the vicissitudes of the outside world as Charlie gets bullied at school and Jean and Lydia face whispers about their activities. Following the film’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, “Tell It to the Bees” arrives in theaters and VOD this week and Jankel spoke about her first feature in nearly a decade, the film’s striking color palette and balancing out a story told from three different perspectives.
How did you get interested in “Tell It to the Bees”?
The book was given to me by my agent because I really wanted to do a love story. I was just feeling now is the right moment in life and I just wanted to tell a love story. And I wasn’t expecting it. It was really surprising, original and heartfelt and felt particularly relevant even though it is set 70 years ago – a little love story between a boy and nature and between two women. There’s so many elements and it became evident that it would resonate [more] as being a genuine evocation of times gone by with a contemporary audience who is obviously conscious of conditions that other people in other countries and other places or in their own communities.
Then there’s the additional cherry on the knickerbocker glory, which was bees, and it was a great challenge of how do we wrangle 40,000 bees on a daily basis, and that is where the technology came in, so there was a wonderful challenge actually on two levels. It is a really beautiful, emotional love story, but it also has this kind of interesting technical challenge to take on.
You’ve described the film’s setting as a hive – what was it like figuring out how to make a limited location feel so dynamic?
Originally, the book is actually set more generally in Yorkshire, but for all sorts of reasons, we ended up in Scotland, and when I was scouting, I found one street in a town called Deanston that we renamed that has a mill at the end of it that was once a working mill, it became very evident that this street was emblematic of a hive because you’ve got these identical houses that mirror each other on either side of the street and you’ve got the mill workers. Everything about it felt hive-like, so it was a really great location to be able to embed ourselves into and once we had that location, it felt like, “Okay, we are inside our hive now.”
The color green stood out to me in terms of both the costumes and the house – was there any significance there?
Green happens to be my favorite color, but it was never actually discussed as a color. I knew that we didn’t have the latitude of a budget worthy of the story as a setting and a period drama, so we were very conscious that we had to be very judicious with our use of limited funds and I asked the production designer and the costumer — and that would be Andy Harris and Ali Mitchell, who are both brilliant — to consider the two characters as two somewhat elemental descriptions of what the color might be if they were colors, and not just the characters but the bees as well.
It was oily marine for Jean, which is a nonexistent color, but it’s somewhat got a green tone in there and a darkness, and for Lydia and for the other aspects of the bees because bees are striped obviously, she was alchemy. So oily marine and alchemy became the descriptive words to name any elements [for those characters] really from our art direction point of view. The wardrobe, the interiors as much as we possibly could and there were certain interiors that were a given like the interior of the house and things like that, and then there’s interiors that Andy Harris was able to use these two words to somehow evoke that character.
When you’ve got three central characters, was it tricky to balance out their different perspectives?
That’s a question that actually kept coming up in various script meetings was “Whose story is this?” In a way, it’s an equally told story despite the fact that we have the voiceover at the bookends, it’s as much Lydia’s story as Jean’s as well as Charlie’s story, the so-called narrator. However, it became apparent that it was a genuine three-hander and that’s not conventional in cinematic terms. Normally, you would a single protagonist and it’s much more familiar territory to have multiple perspectives in television, but it was really important to somehow to try and weigh equally the story between the two women, so it wasn’t weighted in one particular perspective but that it was an equally told story. And that’s where Jessica and Henrietta [Ashworth], the writers, did a really beautiful job of that balance and getting that nice sense of forward motion but being respectful of each individual storyline.
Of course, the other characters [in the community] – Annie, Pam and Robert – all became integral and it was very interlaced how the story would unfold so that there was this sense of community that was always essentially on top of each other like a hive.
After being in the works for eight years, what’s it been like putting it out into the world?
It’s so exciting and just fantastic. We’ve had a marvelous run on the festival circuit. We went to the premiere at Toronto and then recently, Guadalajara and Dublin and Glasgow. Of course where we shot it was the UK premiere and I think I’m going to be in Connecticut at the end of the month, so it’s just been a brilliant experience because one of the most worthwhile parts of that festival circuit process is actually having the interaction with an audience and finding out what it is that has really touched them or resonated or what issues or consternation [they may have]. When you’re doing the film, it’s so insulating with your team and your collaborators that when you go out into the big, bad world, it’s like, “Okay, now bring it on.”