Learning to adapt

Special to The Times

SIX YEARS ago, when Gina Prince-Bythewood was first offered “The Secret Life of Bees” to adapt into a screenplay and direct, she blew it off without even reading the book. Never mind that Sue Monk Kidd’s novel about a young white girl growing up in the civil-rights-era South was a bestseller. Prince-Bythewood had just come off directing two movies without a break and she was exhausted.

So the filmmaker was surprised by her reaction a few years later when an actress friend mentioned she was going in to audition for “Bees.” “I got so offended and jealous,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘No, that’s my movie!’ and I hadn’t even read the book yet.” She went home that night, read the story in one sitting and realized, “Oh my God, I messed up.”

Two months later, the film was in turnaround and she was offered the project again. This time she was ready.


Second chances abound in Prince-Bythewood’s career. As a UCLA student, she applied for the undergraduate film program and was rejected. Against her counselor’s advice, she appealed the decision, writing an impassioned letter to the board, and it relented.

After graduation, she landed an interview at “A Different World,” one of her favorite television shows. “It was by far the worst interview I ever had in my life,” she says, cringing at the memory as she sits in a West Hollywood cafe. Facing a room full of writers and producers, “I was just giving monosyllabic answers. I didn’t know what I was doing, like you should come in with stories.”

She didn’t get the job, but again, she didn’t give up. Calling producer Susan Fales every other day for a month, she was finally given another shot. “I would never do that today,” she says. “Now I know how annoying that must have been.” She got more than a job; her future husband, Reggie Rock Bythewood (writer-director, “Biker Boyz”), was on the writing staff. The couple has two sons.

After five years working in TV, Prince-Bythewood wrote her first film script. “Love and Basketball” (2000), about a female college ballplayer dealing with romance and ambition, was rejected by every studio in town. But someone at Sundance got ahold of it, and after attending labs for screenwriting and directing, Prince-Bythewood found producers and made the movie.

That first film was inspired by her years as a high school ballplayer. Her connection to “Bees,” which opens Friday, went even deeper. “Lily’s journey was so similar to something I went through,” the filmmaker says of the story’s young lead, who, abandoned by her mother, searches for a place to call home. “I was adopted by a Salvadoran mother and a white father, and growing up I had a lot of issues about who was my real mother, why was I given up,” and about being black in a white family. A scene in the book, in which Lily insists she’s unlovable, struck Prince-Bythewood with particular force. “That was the moment where I said, ‘I have to make this film,’ because I said those exact words myself.”

Lily (Dakota Fanning) runs from an abusive father with her black housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson), herself in trouble for standing up to white men while trying to register to vote. They end up at the home of three remarkable sisters, August, June and May, played by Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys and Sophie Okonedo, respectively.


Bringing people, places to life

IN ADAPTING the story, Prince-Bythewood says the book wasn’t just a blueprint, it was her bible. She sent Kidd her script, noting that she took about 99% of the resulting notes. “I just respect her as a writer,” Prince-Bythewood says. “I can’t even picture myself blowing her off and saying, ‘OK, thanks, peace.’ That doesn’t make sense.”

She also can’t imagine not directing her own scripts. “When I write, it’s such an all-encompassing thing,” she says. “You fall in love with the characters and you’re picturing it in your head. To hand it over to someone else is like death.”

Prince-Bythewood assembled such a stellar cast for the film that she had to get over being a fan before she could direct. “But the greatest thing is that they came aboard this film because they loved it, no one got paid anything,” she says, referring to the movie’s $11-million budget. “The film wouldn’t have gotten made without Latifah, and the fact that she was willing to take this pay cut and make it happen says a lot about her.”

The director gave the cast members books and DVDs about the time period. During rehearsal, she arranged for Fanning and Hudson to visit a drugstore populated by extras who had been told to treat the actors as if it were 1964.

Filming in North Carolina in winter, the weather was just as unwelcoming. For the summer scenes, the cast was running around in sleeveless shirts in freezing temperatures. But the conditions also provided a bonding experience. Prince-Bythewood turned August’s bedroom set into the actors’ holding area, so the group hung out, huddling together for warmth and getting to know one another better between takes.

The hardest scene for Prince-Bythewood to shoot was one in which T. Ray (Paul Bettany) forces his daughter Lily to kneel on a pile of grits as punishment. “I said, ‘I will kneel on it first and see what it feels like,’ ” recalls the director. “I lasted about 15 seconds.” But Fanning insisted on kneeling on them, even for the close-ups. “First of all, I’m thinking, ‘You’re just dope, I love you,’ ” says Prince-Bythewood of Fanning, “but I started feeling worse and worse. I’m a director but I’m also a mother and what am I doing to this girl?” For her part, Fanning says by phone from Washington, D.C., just before the film’s premiere there, that it was actually one of her favorite scenes to film, “because I loved it from the book so much, so getting to actually film it was challenging but a really fun challenge.”

Releasing a film in a politically charged October 2008 that highlights voting-rights issues in 1964, while purely coincidental, is “a great time to be out because it’s such a tie to the election,” the director says. Filming at the same time Barack Obama won the South Carolina primary last winter, “it was also such a great emotional tie for the actors, given that Rosaleen is fighting for the chance to vote,” she adds. She relates telling some of the younger cast and crew that “folks back then would say, ‘We’ll get a chance to vote someday, but not in my lifetime,’ and you could say that most of us, even a year and a half ago, would have said, ‘There’ll be a black president someday but not in my lifetime.’ ”

And yet, the more things change, the more Hollywood stays the same. Prince-Bythewood says she was shocked by how long it took for the film to get made (nearly seven years all told). After all, the book was a bestseller, the film’s cast is top-loaded with award winners -- who happen to be black. She points out that while she’s never felt discriminated against personally, “What’s discriminated against are some of my choices, which focus on women or black women.” She adds, “Nobody reads the book and thinks it’s a black book, it’s just a great book.”

But despite the challenges, Prince-Bythewood is finally able to relax and enjoy this happy ending. “After all this, last week we were on ‘Oprah.’ I’m sitting there, thinking, ‘How did I get here?’ ” she says, smiling. “So this is the fun part.”