by director Michael Lembeck
As I sit here about to begin sharing my personal experiences of making Queen Bees, it comes as no surprise to me that my brain is filled only with thoughts of Ellen Burstyn. I consider working with her during the making of this movie to be one of the privileges in my life.
Ellen was the one we wanted. When she said yes pending a meeting with me to discuss the screenplay and her character, I could hardly contain whatever the hyperbole of excitement is. I consider her one of America’s greatest actors ever, and now I was going to visit her in her apartment in New York City, where we would share ideas and exchange thoughts.
Let me set the stage......she comes to the door, my adrenalin is careening through my body, heart is pounding, and she warmly invites me in. I’m joyfully taken on a quick tour of her gorgeous apartment, and when we get to her office, I am quickly overwhelmed by all the reminders of her career in photos, letters, awards, and collected memorabilia that inhabit the walls, shelves, and desk-top of this room. My personal tour ends, and Ellen guides me to a seat on her couch in the living room. We begin to pour through a pile of photos randomly stacked on a coffee table. Ellen knows I need photographs of her based on this early draft of the movie, and she has supplied me with a treasure trove of the photos of her life. They are glorious. But there’s a real surprise in there. The movie starts with Ellen’s character having lost her husband of many years, in the not too distant past, and she has shut down any desires of finding new love, or any kind of happiness outside her daughter and grandson. In this pile were a group of photos of her brother, who died many years ago. When we began to talk about him as maybe the face of her movie husband in photos around her home, she was quick to tears and sadness. Her ability to talk to me about loss was so genuine, so heartfelt and deeply shared. And I cried with her. And we cried a lot that afternoon. Ellen is so viscerally in touch with her emotions, the truth of who she is, and how she processes the sum of her experiences. She readily shares her joys and mistakes, and is unafraid to talk about them genuinely, authentically, and deeply. And I loved her immediately.
Working with her on-set was no different than being in her apartment. Her spirit and depth of character were just breathtaking. We continued to share, to seek excellence, to make sure every line spoken had meaning and intent. You don’t teach dedication, and you can’t teach willingness to take a chance. Ellen’s dedication to every minute of the day, to working as hard as she can all day, to raising up her fellow actors with her work ethic, all of that was present in every day of our 23 days filming. We, not just me, cried on set constantly as she would find new, deeper emotions per take. And when it was time for me to create a comedy premise in which the wonderful players in this movie could share their consummate comedic skills and provide us with substantial entertainment value, Ellen dove in head first. HEAD FIRST. Her cast loved her, and she and the ladies hung out a lot together.
I know this is supposed to be more than just a love letter to the Ellen, but the movie has no anchor, no spirit, no love, without her. She inspired me to dig deeper and deeper to find the soul of the movie. The character of Helen not only chooses to survive, but to survive undiminished. She chooses love and friends again, and not to be warehoused in a place where people are forgotten. She has to confront the negative or positive consequences of creating a new life for herself. She wrestles with the concept of being entitled to be happy again. And in the experience of great loss she deals with the issue of choosing isolation, or finding friends and love.
Making this movie was a great joy, and if you’re wondering, Ellen and I have never stopped talking. This movie was a gift to me.
Posted May 24, 2021