`The Secret Life of Bees' to the big screen

March 13, 2008 7:42:15 AM PDT
The setting sun reflects on the porch of a garish pink farmhouse as Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys stand, in '60s dress, gazing toward the west.

Dakota Fanning runs down a path toward them while a film crew struggles to capture the moment in the fading light. After several takes, they resort to bringing in a spotlight as filming on "The Secret Life of Bees" nears its conclusion.

A setting sun was fitting.

It was Latifah's last day on set in this crossroads farming town about 30 miles north of Wilmington, N.C., last month. A few days later, filming wrapped on the Fox Searchlight Pictures adaptation of the beloved first novel by Sue Monk Kidd. The book was a publishing phenomenon, selling more than 3 million copies and remaining on best-seller lists for months.

Although it took years to bring it to the screen, moviegoers this fall will finally be able to see the civil rights era drama of white girl Lily (Fanning) who runs away with her black caretaker (Hudson).

The two live in a small South Carolina town with three sisters, the Boatwrights (Keys, Latifah and Sophie Okonedo). The sisters are beekeepers and live in a house, described in the book, as Pepto-Bismol pink.

Co-producer Lauren Shuler Donner bought the rights before the story - first published six years ago - was even in print.

"I wanted it so badly I didn't want to lose it," she said. "It's based on characters who go on a journey and go through an emotional arc. I thought all that would translate to the screen."

But, she said, translating a well-loved book to the screen "is one of the most dangerous things a filmmaker can do."

Writing the script fell to director Gina Prince-Bythewood ("Love & Basketball"), who only got nervous when she finally sent her version to Kidd.

"She actually didn't respond for three days and I was completely freaked out," Prince-Bythewood said. "Then I got this amazing e-mail thanking me and saying how much she loved it."

Kidd said it was a tough process for her, too.

"When it finally arrived, I found I could not read it immediately," she recalled. "I kept walking around it. You have turned over your novel to have it adapted into this other form and you don't know what's going to happen."

Latifah plays August, one of the beekeeping sisters, and said it's the kind of part she's always sought.

"These black women are educated property owners; business, you know, entrepreneurs, and they have a good bond - a good foundation as a family," she said.

At first, the producers thought they might use computer-generated bees. But they didn't look realistic.

So in several scenes, Latifah removes honey from real hives amid thousands of bees. Because she plays an experienced bee keeper, she does it without a mask and gloves.

"It was tough. I was very nervous," said Latifah, who wasn't stung. "I've done all kinds of stunts. I've driven all kinds of cars. I have shot guns and I have snowboarded. The bees win."

Hudson, who won a supporting-actress Oscar for her performance in "Dreamgirls," said researching her role for this film made her more aware of the civil rights era.

"Once I got here, I couldn't even sleep at night because it was so in my mind from looking at the documentaries and seeing what was going on at the time," she said. "`Dreamgirls,' when I researched for that, it was just the music of the '60s and I didn't really see what else was going on."

Fanning, who grew up in Georgia, read the book several years ago after her grandmother told her about it.

"I have lived with the story for some time and that's why it's really special," she said. "The book is amazing and such a classic story of the South."

She said having Latifah, Hudson and Keys, singers as well as actresses, added texture and a lot of singing around the set.

"Musicians have a lot of soul," she said. "They bring a certain amount of warmth to the characters that someone who has never been a musician does."

But Prince-Bythewood said casting singers in the main roles wasn't by design.

"I wouldn't have trusted any of these parts to anyone who could not have carried it," she said.

Kidd, no singer herself, also got a chance to try out her voice.

The novel mentions a tune the sisters sing, so she got a call asking her to sing it.

"I said, look, you have Alicia Keys. You have people who write songs - Queen Latifah - can't they write it?" Kidd said, laughing.

No. The producers wanted her version, which Kidd said was polished by the musicians later.

"It was just awful, singing this on the phone while they recorded it in California," Kidd said. "It was pretty terrible because I am not a singer. After I finished, the guy I sang it to, there was sort of a pause and then ... `Well, OK."'