Written by Shira Gotshalk
Gina Prince-Bythewood was coming off back-to-back movies when she first heard about The Secret Life of Bees. Sue Monk Kidd’s novel about a young girl in the ‘60s South haunted by the memory of her mother’s death hadn’t been published when producer Lauren Shuler Donner first approached her with the rights to adapt, but a burned-out Prince-Bythewood tossed the manuscript in the closet without reading it.
Then, after Bees’ publication, everyone from her mother to cousins to friends kept telling her “You gotta read this book!” It wasn’t until she was sitting on the set with an actor friend who was preparing for the film’s audition that she got incredibly jealous. That is supposed to be my movie, Prince-Bythewood remembers telling herself. “So I went home and read the book in one sitting and got so disappointed in myself because I loved the book, and it spoke to me so deeply, and I realized the opportunity I had blown.” Her agents called a couple of months later with a miracle: the production had gone into turnaround and Fox Searchlight was wondering if she was interested. This time she jumped at it, pitched it, and got it.
In a discussion with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site, Prince-Bythewood reveals what she has in common with a little girl from 1964, what it’s like living with another writer-director -- husband Reggie Rock Bythewood -- and how children have made her a more efficient writer.
What themes from the novel were important for you to explore?
When I was reading the book the line that just wrecked me was when Lily said, “I’m unlovable.” It was that line specifically that told me I had to tell this story. I guess it just so mirrored a time in my life, being adopted and really wondering why I was given up and the constant search for my birth mother and who I was. And when I found her, finding out about the circumstances of my birth were very unpleasant, to say the least. You just wonder, how could anything lovable can come out of something so horrible? For a couple of years, I really went through that and had those same exact feelings. I so identified with Lily. I thought it was kind of amazing that I, as a black woman today, have felt the exact same feelings as a white 14-year-old in 1964. It really struck me how universal her story was.
And it was really also the Boatwright sisters, these black women. I had never seen women written or portrayed like that. It just blew every stereotype out of the water and the opportunity to give them life was really exciting and something I really wanted to do.
How did the adaptation work, craft-wise?
Photo: © 2008 Twentieth Century Fox
Dakota Fanning and Queen Latifah in The Secret Life of Bees.
This was a tough one because it is a great book. And because Lily is talking to us the whole time, so one of the biggest challenges was how to visualize her thoughts. I also had to cut it down, but still maintain the story. I always wanted the book to be my bible and not a blueprint. I just read the book over and over and highlighted turning points and key lines for different characters. As I did that, structure started taking place. The key was condensing all of that. The character arcs were based on the natural arc of the book and were really about those key lines I had pulled out.
You’ve directed both of your features. How important is that to you as a writer?
Directing your own words when it is 100 percent your vision, you cannot beat that. You just know the film better than anyone, and it gives you such a comfort and confidence. I have written one thing that someone else directed, and I don’t think I could ever do that again. It is just too hard to have spent so much time on a script. You fall in love with the characters, and they become your own, and the story becomes your own. You’re visualizing it as you are writing it, and then to have to hand it over to someone who is going to then impart their own thoughts and vision on it, it is just very, very tough for me. I do understand I am a control freak, but I think it goes a little deeper than that. I had that issue when I was writing for television. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to break out and start directing. As I write, I am directing in my head, and it is great to be able to continue that process.
What is your writing process like? Are you a disciplined writer?
I have a love-hate relationship with writing. It is so hard and lonely. When I am really in it, I try to set a schedule. Before I had kids, I would wake up at 10, write for half the day, watch Oprah, eat, and then write again ‘til two in the morning. Now that I have two kids, it’s really got to be like a nine-to-five, which is a little tough because writing is not always coming exactly when you want it. Half my process is sitting in a chair thinking. My husband calls it sleeping, but I’m actually sitting there thinking.
Something my husband actually taught me, which was really the key to unlocking my process, was to do a BS draft first. I used to write and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and never finish. Part of that, I know, was the fear of If I finish and I have to look at it, it might not be good, but with a BS draft you cannot stop. If you don’t know the line, you just write anything. The amazing thing I found is that half the time I think that I have written something that is garbage, I go back and it is actually good. I think it’s because everything is completely from your heart, and you aren’t censoring yourself. I think it’s probably the truest draft that I have.
Are there challenges to being married to a writer?
No. Actually, I don’t know how you could not be. One, because when I’m writing and it is going badly, I am such a crab, but he completely understands it and vice versa. And two, I respect his writing more than anyone, so the fact that I have that voice to give me notes...it is like we both want each other to succeed and we are brutally honest with each other. When he is looking at something I have written and saying this is completely on the nose or this is corny, obviously I don’t want to hear that, but I can trust it and know that I am not going to go out with a script that hasn’t gotten pounded through. It’s very easy to read somebody’s script and say, “Yeah, it’s fine, it’s good.” It takes time to really go through and try to fix problems that are there. We never let each other go out without something that we’ve pounded and pounded and pounded.
Looking ahead, what kind of projects are important for you to work on?
I want to entertain, but also say something. And I know it sounds cheesy, but when people come and see a film, they are giving me two hours of their life, and I don’t think it’s fair to waste those two hours or have them leaving the theater feeling badly. I want people to leave my films feeling hopeful and feeling good. I don’t think that means writing anything corny or simple… There was a film I saw that was great on a technical level, great writing, but it was just so depressing. One of the leads gets killed at the end and it just left me feeling so badly. It struck me that it was really not what I want to do as a filmmaker. I would rather let people leave feeling pretty good. That is one of the important things about my process. There is a quote that my husband and I use, “Anyone can write reality, but an artist writes what reality should be.” That really guides our writing.