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Interview: Director Annabel Jankel on Making ‘Tell It to the Bees’

May 6, 2019Ben MK

Tales of forbidden love are a familiar theme in movies, but it's only fairly recently that filmmakers have truly begun to explore the impact of such stories as they pertain to the LGBTQ community.

In her adaptation of author Fiona Shaw's novel of the same name, Tell It to the Bees, director Annabel Jankel does just that. Starring Anna Paquin and Holliday Grainger as two women from different walks of life who find in each other not only true love, but ultimately the freedom to be their true selves, the film is a carefully crafted period piece that follows thoughtfully in the footsteps of such movies as Disobedience and Blue is the Warmest Color.

I sat down with Annabel Jankel during Tell It to the Bees' world premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival to chat about the film, to find out what it was about this story in particular that resonated with her, and, of course, to touch on the most infamous movie in her filmography, 1993's Super Mario Bros.

How did Fiona Shaw's book come to your attention and why did you want to make this film, which obviously deals with timely themes and subject matter?

Jankel: After I finished my last film, Skellig, my agent said to me, "What would you like to do?" And I said, "I'd really love to do a love story." She knew about the book and gave it me to read, and I read it and I just completely fell in love with it. So I fell in love with the book, and then I thought, "This is perfect, I'm in love with the book that I want to make a love story about." And so it was just the long, slow process of development. From the get-go, the BFI became involved and stayed involved all the way through, and are supporters and advocates.

Funnily enough, 8 years ago, the subject matter was not as timely as it is now. So really, time has caught up with the subject matter. And, of course, LGBT rights were not so in-the-news. There wasn't anything like the visibility of this type of programming, with Transparent and Orange is the New Black. It's really fantastic, the developments that have happened over the last 8 years with same-sex marriage and all the advances that are being made. They're not as incremental as they had been in the previously 70 years, obviously, but it wasn't that I was looking to do something that was specifically timely or controversial or anything in particular. Really, I just wanted to examine the human condition of love.

When I was reading the book, I did feel this kind of enveloping sense of not only the enclosure of this small town community, but also the enclosure of the hive, and that correlation. The bees are actually interesting because, when I was reading the book, not only was I completely wrapped up in this microcosm of a small community, but I felt that audible buzz of the bees. So as I was reading it, I was thinking, "This is very visual." This is potentially a lot more visual than it necessarily was on the page. And so that was an area of the story, unlike the book, that we developed.

And the way that these two women are falling in love is something that's been examined in some depth in literature and in movies for men. Homosexuality was, until the '60s, an illegal, incarcerable offense. So this was a much more opaque situation — what actually would happen, and what would be the net result of these two people having this relationship that becomes dangerous.

You mentioned that it took 8 years to make the movie. During that time, we've had the similarly themed Disobedience, and before that, there was Blue is the Warmest Color. Did you try to set Tell It to the Bees apart from those films?

Jankel: Not at all. I was just very pleased to see that there were films dealing with the subject matter, which was encouraging, really, because it was a fairly small film. It's a small, independent film, and getting these small films off the ground is a struggle. And so to have the reinforcement of [such] films having success, and audiences really responding, was nothing but a really good thing for us.

Being set in 1950s Scotland, this is also the first period piece that you've done. What was that experience like for you?

Jankel: I would say that, to some extent, Super Mario Bros., in a way, was a different period — it was the dino period! That was a huge, great spectacle — and debacle — but it's also gathered up this massive, cult following. Which is really intriguing that it's been rediscovered. It's true fandom; it's fantastic.

I'm in that time in my career where I really am interested in human emotion, connections. Music is something that really is [also] hugely important to me, and I just want to tell stories about people — and bees. [laughs]

Can you tell me more about the cast? What did Holliday Grainger, Anna Paquin and Kate Dickie bring to their roles that genuinely impressed you?

Jankel: [Anna and Holliday] are both, individually, really fine actors. We talked at great length [with Anna] about her character [Jean], her backstory, what her need is, why she has to actually ultimately do what she does. And as we are shooting out of order — obviously, because we do — she had to really be very conscious, very deliberate with this very incremental shift in the character. Because you don't really know where the character's going to go, where they're going to end up. So that was very compelling about her performance. You just don't know where she's taking you, because she's taking it so very subtly and arrives at a place which is deeply satisfying.

[As for] Lydia, Holliday Grainger's character, she's not a professional woman, and so we don't know where she's ultimately going to go. But we do get the satisfaction of knowing from her son, who describes her inevitable journey.

And Kate was just so incredible. She's just an unbelievably talented actor, and her range is just staggering. The minute that Kate's name came up as a possible Pam, it was, "Oh God, yes please." She was so lovely as well, because she said, "I will take care of Pam's character."

Last but not least, what do you hope viewers will take away from this film?

Jankel: I would love people to take away with them the knowledge that change is possible. It's a time for change, and that we are going through a change in this particular subject. And it has been very slow, it's really speeding up, but there's a lot more work to do. So it's just a recognition that, actually, change for the good is worth keeping the pressure on.

Tell It to the Bees is now available on-demand and in select theatres.

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