AfterEllen had the recent opportunity during the Toronto International Film Festival to sit down with Annabel Jankel, the director of the highly anticipated lesbian film Tell it to the Bees, and I asked her all of the things you’ve been wanting to know! Slight spoilers for the film are contained in this discussion.
AfterEllen: First of all, what a beautiful movie you made. I sobbed the whole time. I have a wife and a daughter. She’s 6, and so I had all the feelings while I was watching it.
Annabel Jankel: Oh that’s so lovely to hear. The whole businesses with motherhood and two women falling in love…
AE: Yeah, the whole scene toward the end where they’re all lying in bed together. I lost it.
AJ: Do you know what is so interesting? The thing that’s been really fascinating to me is what bit, like what the emotional pressure point that each individual has.
AE: Yeah for me it was looking at that moment with the three of them, and I felt like I saw my own family, so that was really incredible. I don’t get to see my own family on the screen like that, very rarely.
AJ: Very rarely. And that was such a tender scene. Because, it’s just the quietness of it, and the fact that there’s no dialogue. And it was just that little moment. And that’s just inevitable what you do. You know they’re exhausted, nobody has got the time to actually get undressed and get into bed.
AE: Yes they’re just finding comfort in one another and just having a quiet moment. It was really wonderful.
AJ: That’s really great. Nobody has actually specifically picked up on that particular point just yet. Normally it’s like the big kiss or…but that’s really great.
AE: Well it was just so simple and familiar.
AE: So, I noticed you had a couple other adaptations besides this one. What drew you to this story?
AJ: Well, I wanted to do a love story. And it wasn’t specifically a gender-based love story. That didn’t even occur to me. I just wanted to examine the human connection. Because I’ve found, as I’m getting older, that’s really my great interest, is how we’re all functioning in our little individual communities and relationships. And that’s what fascinates me. So to actually examine a relationship that is at odds with the time, and is at odds with the class structure in the U.K. specifically. An upper-middle-class woman having a relationship with a factory worker, regardless of gender, was completely unacceptable. And of course, the gender aspect. Instead of the idea of just looking to do a love story, this was a love story that had a lot of extra opportunities to explore.
AE: Well even for the time period, the concept of separation and divorce was pretty taboo.
AJ: Yeah, and you can tell with the Robert character he probably wasn’t going to get married to any of these other women. He’s just…
AE: He’s abusing the idea that he can have what he wants when he wants.
AJ: …Yeah! It’s just a sense of entitlement, you know, that is so prevalent, still.
AE: So what elements specifically from Fiona’s novel were really important to you to reflect visually on the screen?
AJ: Did you read the novel?
AE: I did.
AJ: Ok so you know the ending is different as well.
AE: Yes, I have a little question about that too.
AJ: Okay, yes. Well, first I was completely captivated by her writing. It was so beautiful, and it felt very delicate. But it was dealing with some very violent aspects, and I really loved that balance. And it was almost metaphor for the way bees are. They can be very violent as a community, but they have this tremendous beauty. And of course, they are the future of the planet. So there are so many aspects about it and one of the things that happened to me is I was reading the book. And I felt the kind of claustrophobia of the small town, so the location became very important, to find the right street. Which we found.
But also I really was totally kind of enveloped in the buzz from the bees. So once I kind of had this noise in my head of the bees always there and being there in the background, and I thought, this is the audible I’m hearing, but what about the visual? There was the visual poetry in the book of the bees, but it was like oh we’ve got a bit opportunity here with “Tell it to the Bees”, and I wanted to explore that visually. And so that was the major element that we added into the main storyline.
AE: I love how they’re present all the time. You can always see them through the window in the house, and Charlie’s always watching them and what’s going on. It felt like a constant buzzing, but also a safety and security for him during the story as well.
AJ: Exactly. And also, tell it to the bees, I mean, it’s a form of confessional. It exists in all of nature, you know, a way of confessing. And of course it is the stuff of folklore, but people still practice it. When somebody dies, a purist will put the black cloth over the beehive and talk to the bees because they do respond, as Jean says, to voices, and they respond to faces.
AE: And they say that our planet will only survive five years one they’re gone.
So the story is primarily told from Charlie’s point of view, largely in the book, but in major ways during the film as well. It kind of begins and ends with his voice, and we’re seeing his experience of everything throughout. Which, as I told you, really moving for me to see innocence, love, and openness through the eyes of someone that little. So I was wondering what it is about Charlie’s character to you that makes him so special?
AJ: Well I think it’s to do with his curiosity. And so people that are curious are open, so that’s why they’re not necessarily phased. There’s a moment in the film where the two women express their love for each other, spoiler alert, but it’s when he’s watching them kiss. And he says “Ohh!” You know but it’s not him, it’s on them, and, so the focus doesn’t pull to him, because it’s not about him being so visible that he’s acknowledging it. It’s about that fact that he’s part of the fabric of the times where change is beginning to come and he just accepts it. So I love his quietness and his sense of discovery and interest. And in fact, in the book, I think he ends up being an entomologist.
AE: I love how his curiosity was balanced with, you know, he had a similarly shocked reaction when he saw Annie in her moment with her love, and so I love that balance of him just learning the world.
AJ: Absolutely, and funny enough, I think we’ve all had that first experience that was like “what is this?? Just complete confusion, this prepubescent aspect that just like, gross! Yeah, so that’s true, but at the same time he just takes it on board.
AE: Yeah he’s really wonderful.
AJ: Yes he was an incredible find. That’s the thing about child actors, you can’t really plan ahead with them, you just have to count on that moment in time that you’re shooting with them.
AE: How old is he?
AJ: He is 10. Well I think he’s 11 now. He’s a lovely kid.
AE: He seems so sweet.
AE: So, we rarely get to see a well-crafted love scene between two women on screen that is realistic and true to who we are. Anna Paquin and Holliday Grainger had really amazing chemistry on screen. So I was wondering, what was most important to you when it came to filming their intimate moments?
AJ: As a gay woman did you find that it was not exploitative or to the male gaze?
AE: Yes, it was tender and felt very vulnerable and real.
AJ: Well, what we did was, it was a really important moment in the film. But it’s not about the sex, it was about the connection and the tenderness and you know, not looking for it to be something that was a turn on. So I guess it was through the eyes of the female that we developed it, so despite the fact that it didn’t look choreographed, it was very choreographed so that the everything happens at the right time. So it was planned out beforehand, we did a couple of rehearsals and then shot it actually very quickly.
AE: Yeah, so many sex scenes, whether between a man or woman, or two women, so easily can seem like they’re exploiting a woman’s body and for the male gaze. And that’s why I was curious, but I loved it. I wanted to live there in that moment. I wished my wife were there with me to watch it as well.
AJ: Oh, please go and see it together!
AE: Oh we will, I told her as soon as I left that we have to go.
AE: I just have one more question for you, and it’s about where you see Lydia and Jean’s lives going after the film, and about your decision to tweak the way that it ended.
AJ: Ok well, I think the more we thought about the characters, the more I wasn’t comfortable with having the ending as it is in the book. Because it didn’t feel, although it actually worked beautifully in the book because the structure is slightly different and Charlie isn’t as old as the character we have in our voiceover reflecting, it felt like it had to be more true to the time. And even though there was a bittersweet aspect to it, it’s intended to actually be a very positive note.
You could argue why change the ending because by having that original ending you are in effect imprinting the potential for change by showing that as an idea, but because the whole story and the whole theme is about potential change for good, it felt like it didn’t need to prescribe to just a prescriptive happy ending. However, the two characters and of course Charlie, I know that what they did was they fulfilled their destiny. They achieved in their lives independently and reinforced each other. They liberated each other. They were generous to each other. And it was inevitable that this was really a summer of love that was a small time in both of their lives that had massive consequences.
Be sure to also read our review of Tell it to the Bees, and let us know what you think of the film once you’ve seen it!