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The Buzz on Bee Season

Diablo gives you a sneak peak at a new movie starring Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche, and our very own East Bay


An Officer and a Gentleman. Pretty Woman. Chicago. Richard Gere brought his star power to these films and made them box-office blockbusters. Now, along with Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche, the star of Chocolat and The English Patient, Gere’s talent—and good looks—will join some recognizable East Bay locations on the silver screen in the new movie Bee Season, which was filmed in its entirety right here in our backyard.

Based on Myla Goldberg’s 2001 hit novel of the same name, Bee Season tells the story of the Naumanns—a happy-on-the-outside family you might run into at Broadway Plaza or on Fourth Street. Husband Saul (played by Gere) is a religious studies professor at a Berkeley-like university, while wife and mother Miriam (Binoche) is a research scientist at an Oakland Children’s Hospital-esque lab. Their children, straight-A high schooler Aaron (Max Minghella) and underachieving sixth-grader Eliza (Flora Cross) deal with the privileges and pressures facing young people in any affluent family community. But when Eliza surprises everyone by becoming a spelling bee champion, things get complicated for the Naumanns. Saul becomes obsessed with his daughter’s success, Aaron goes soul-searching with the Hare Krishnas, and Miriam enters a downward spiral of destructive behavior.

Like the 1999 film American Beauty, Bee Season gives audiences a story that could be happening to the family living next door. Or, perhaps, even closer than that.

Diablo talked to directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (whose previous film, The Deep End, was set at Lake Tahoe) as they were putting the finishing touches on Bee Season in their New York offices. We also scouted some locations you might recognize, and checked in with some locals who helped bring the film to life.

Consider this the best sneak preview possible. Make some popcorn, grab some Raisinettes, and settle in for an inside peek at one of this season’s most highly anticipated movies.

We kept hearing bits of gossip about the stars during filming, like Richard Gere was taking a philosophy class at Cal.
Scott McGehee:
Well, he plays a professor, and he just kind of wanted to see what it felt like to be in a lecture hall at Berkeley and to hear a charismatic professor lecturing about something he cared about, as a model for how he might play a scene. So he went and sat in on some of Professor [John] Searle’s philosophy classes.

You took philosophy classes from Searle while studying at Cal?
SM: Yes. There was one location that I was immediately, absolutely sure we were going to use for the classroom where Saul gives a lecture to his students. It was the place I had my first philosophy class at UC Berkeley [laughs].

Where is it?
SM: In LeConte Hall, there are these twin lecture halls. I had philosophy 101 my freshman year with John Searle, who actually has a little cameo in our movie. It worked out that we were able to film there.

Let’s go back to the beginning of the project. Why did you choose to make Bee Season?
David Siegel: We had read the book and loved it, but there was another director attached to the project. About a year passed and a screenplay was developed, [then] that director dropped out—and there was a movie with a script waiting for a director, so we signed on to do it.

What was it about the book that you liked so much?
DS: I think Scott and I were both drawn to its themes. It’s about love and spirituality and individuality, all things that we have been interested in. Myla told the story in such a beautiful way, a story about four people kind of reaching out for each other. That was appealing.

SM: I think one of the things that we liked is that it wasn’t just about a family reaching out for each other, but there was a sense of a quest for something larger—God, the meaning of life. She managed to do it in a context that felt familiar and not heavy-handed, but entertaining. In many ways it’s a story about looking for God, and that’s not something you see every day.

The book is set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Why did you relocate the film here?
SM: It came down to Pittsburgh and the Bay Area, and when it came time to shoot, we realized we could do something much more interesting with the Bay Area.

DS: We know and love the Bay Area. We lived and worked there for 15 years together. It was an easy place to re-imagine the movie. We knew the setting like we know ourselves.

SM: We’ve relocated to New York, but in a way, the movie was the greatest send-off, because [before this film] we hadn’t actually been able to shoot in the Bay Area, something that we cared about so much.

What are our most appealing visual aspects?
SM: The air is clear, the vistas are enormous, and it’s a very horizontal space, so it looks great on a wide screen. It’s very easy to shoot there. We had a really good experience with the Oakland Film Office. We were able to find all the locations that we wanted.

In your last movie, The Deep End, the locations of Lake Tahoe and Reno are almost characters in the film. Will the visual character of the East Bay play as prominent a role in Bee Season?
We hope so. We tried to work with location on our first feature, Suture, which was set in Phoenix. We like to find a place to set a story that feels like it’s playing into the story. We liked how the waterways of the Bay Area worked, the way the bridges connect everything, and the way the hills are sculptural—they could correlate to Miriam’s story.

SM: In The Deep End we had a situation where the lake was actually a part of the plot. There is something very simple about water that became a controlling metaphor in that movie. [The East Bay] is more a backdrop for this movie. But it’s a backdrop we tried to take full advantage of.

Any other spots for East Bay viewers to look for?
The hills and the port. The port is beautiful and photogenic, so we set part of the story there.

Did you have any cast feasts at the Top Dog on Durant?
We didn’t get enough Top Dog. We spent a lot of time eating at the Cheese Board, because the house we were filming at was close. We really miss the Cheese Board, now that we’re back in New York.

DS: And I’ll put my money on Top Dog as the best hot dog stand in America.

You shot the film in 2004, and now it’s coming out late in 2005. How long does it take to put a film like this together, start to finish?
From the time we started prepping until the time it was done was about a year. And it’s being released [in November] because the studio thought it was the right time to bring it out.
Fall seems to be when the big summer blockbusters go into DVD rotation, and the more serious,

Oscar-caliber films start coming out in theaters. Why is this always the launch period for the more interesting movies?
That’s a good question. It’s been the more traditional process, and it’s become what is expected. It’s a bit self-fulfilling.

SM: Part of it is that people want their films to be recognized, so they release them in the fall. It probably started because kids go back to school and people resume their lives in a traditional way.
Bee Season seems like a movie for busy moms who have been shuttling their kids around all summer to be able to watch on a Tuesday afternoon.

DS: [Laughs] I wish we could say we had thought of that for a pitch meeting.

SM: We’re excited about it being able to reach a broad spectrum of ages and people. It’s going to have a PG-13 rating, and it’s a serious movie, but it’s about themes that we hope people are interested in thinking about and looking at.

In her book, Myla Goldberg seems fascinated with vocabulary. Was that difficult to adapt into the screenplay?
Obviously, vocabulary is a lot of the fun of spelling bees, and they are a big part of the movie. But as filmmakers, we work with dialogue as opposed to narration. There are things that Myla can do in the novel that we have to present visually, or find other ways to demonstrate.
The framework of the spelling bees is a pretty unusual world to peek into, but one that’s gained popularity lately. The national bee is broadcast on ESPN, and the Spellbound documentary stayed in East Bay theaters for months.

DS: It’s a really entertaining movie. Spellbound came out just about the time we started getting involved in Bee Season. It was a nice thing to see the interest in spelling. And it continues to grow—there was a musical on Broadway about spelling [The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee] that won a Tony Award. It’s a strange phenomenon. Who would have thought spelling bees would be so captivating?

Speaking of academics, you were both undergraduates at UC Berkeley?
I got my degree as an undergrad, but I won’t tell you when [laughs].

SM: I was there as a graduate student in the department of rhetoric, years after David was there.
Juliette Binoche’s character, Miriam, is a lawyer in the book. Why did you switch her to a research scientist for the movie?

SM: The screenwriter [Naomi Foner] made the change to flesh out her character. In terms of images, its nice to be able to watch her looking through a microscope into a small, little world, and it reminds her of a kaleidoscope that she had as a child. The kaleidoscope was given to her by her mother, and it is very precious to her.

DS: In the book she’s a lawyer who has not been working for many years—she’s been leaving for work but not actually arriving. It’s a secret to everyone who knows her.

Binoche did some character research for her laboratory scientist character at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute. Did you ask her to do that?
That’s something she did on her own. That’s very much a part of her process. She just wanted to make sure she understood the business that she was going to be doing: to be comfortable around a microscope and to look like she was at home in the lab.

SM: Well, we adore Juliette’s performance. She’s extraordinary.

DS: She’s an amazing person and a truly talented actor.

SM: We both felt so privileged being on set with her and watching her. It was like having the best kind of theater experience imaginable, sitting just a few feet away from her and being able to watch her do what she does.

We heard Juliette Binoche celebrated her 40th birthday with a party at the Claremont Resort.
It was actually at Chez Panisse. It was less a party and more a dinner for her to say, “Whew, my birthday’s over!” It was a very nice dinner. Juliette Binoche is a delightful dinner companion.

DS: Maybe there was another party, and we were too busy to notice.

Binoche’s character is a kleptomaniac in the story. If you could steal just one thing from the East Bay and take it back to New York, what would it be?
: Oh, one of those cheese rolls from the Cheese Board [laughs].

SM: I think I’d like to take those beautiful blue skies.

Julie and Juliette

To research her role as a scientist, Juliette Binoche re­­quested a walk-through of the Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute. CHORI’s administrators introduced the star to Julie Saba, Ph.D., who demon­stra­ted laboratory and microscope techniques.

“Honestly, if it had been any other movie star, I think I would have said that I didn’t have time,” admits Saba. “But Juliette Binoche has been my favorite actress for a long time. To have her just come into my life was amazing.” Binoche returned the favor, appearing at a fundraising event for Saba’s cancer research.

Quick Cameo

A Cal professor shows Richard Gere how it’s done Professor John Searle can’t possibly remember all his students from his 46 years at UC Berkeley. But clearly, many students remember Searle.

“The great thing about teaching at Berkeley is that you get to teach so many great students,” says Searle, who has been teaching philosophy at Cal since 1959. “The sad thing is, you don’t get to know all of them.”

Searle had a second chance to meet former students Scott McGehee and David Siegel when the codirectors asked Searle to collaborate on Bee Season.

“They asked if Richard Gere could come sit in on my class, and that was fun,” says Searle. “But we didn’t get to talk about philosophy very much. He was there just to see how I spoke to the class.”

Searle’s participation in the movie evolved from advisor to actor, as McGehee and Siegel gave him a cameo. “Richard is approaching the main library, and I’m leaving, and we exchange a few words,” Searle says with a laugh. “That’s the extent of my movie career.”

Bee Season was fun, but Searle has no further dramatic aspirations.

“I like the live TV days, when they turn on the red eye and you just go; if you get it right, you get it right,” he says. “These guys, they film it over and over. I can’t tell you how many times we did that [scene].”

Hey, I Know That Place!

Keep your eyes peeled for these East Bay spots

Diablo readers have a lot to watch for in Bee Season, besides the film’s glamorous stars—the East Bay takes center stage from the first frame. “The opening of the film is a visual ode to Oakland,” says Ami Zins, director of the Oakland Film Office. “It’s going to be beautiful.” Here are some spots to look for.

Used as the Naumanns’ home. “The exteriors of this house were shot here,” says Zins. “But the filmmakers built the entire interior of the house—the bedrooms, the kitchen, the dining room, et cetera, on the Naval Station at Alameda Point.”

3500 block of Martin Luther King Jr. Way. Juliette Binoche’s character breaks into several homes in the movie, including one on this street. “The teens in the neighborhood kept saying, ‘That’s the woman from Chocolat,’ ” says Zins.

Albany High School, Piedmont High School, and Malcolm X Arts and Academics Magnet School in Berkeley. Used for school and spelling bee scenes.

The Altenheim Building, 1720 MacArthur Blvd., Oakland. (Right) Used for two scenes. In one it’s a mental institution, in the other a Hare Krishna center. “This building for many years was a retirement home. It’s recently been sold and is going to be renovated,” says Zins. “All the extras in the Krishna scene were actual [Hare Krishna] followers. When the directors would yell ‘cut,’ the Krishnas would continue with their chanting and dancing, which created a really interesting set.”

Oakland Police Station on Seventh and Broadway. “There was quite a buzz around town that night,” Zins recalls. “We got several calls that people had seen Richard Gere in the police station, wondering if everything was all right.”Rocsil’s Footwear, 1701 Telegraph Ave., Oakland.The directors wanted an upscale boutique in an intensely urban setting for a scene in which Miriam does some shoplifting.

Local Talent

Watch for Walnut Creek’s Justin Alioto, who has a small role in the film, misspelling lizard in a spelling bee. “I had to misspell a word and then look sad when I get it wrong,” says Alioto, a ninth-grader at Las Lomas High School. “I’ve been in spelling bees every year in school, and I’ve always misspelled words every year, but in real life I never really cared. So the part when I was sad—that was acting.”

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