Markus Imhoof made his documentary debut earlier this year with More Than Honey; a film that looks at the life of the bee as well as why so many are dying around the world.
We caught up with the filmmaker to chat about the film, what inspired the movie and how the movie has been received around the world.
- More Than Honey has just been released on DVD, so can you tell me a little bit about it for anyone who hasn‘t seen it yet?
I worked for five years on this movie, and so it is hard to sum it up in one sentence (laughs). It is a film about endangered bees; it is not just an apocalyptic film, but is also about the life of the bee.
Therefore, it is a kind of science fiction journey into the beehive. At the same time, it shows how people treat them in different ways in different continents. We try to find out why they are dying.
- You are in the director's chair for the film, so where did this project start for you? In addition, what sparked your interest in this issue?
First of all, it was a family story as my grandfather was a beekeeper; he had a canning factory and so the bees worked for his factory. My daughter and my son-in-law are both bee scientists - so it really has started out as a family background.
When the bees started dying all over the world, it became more than a family story and became something important to everybody; one third of everything that we are eating is based on the work of insects.
- You are known for your fiction films so what has made you move into documentaries? And how have you found your documentary experience compared to the films that you have made in the past?
I am use to actors I love actors. I had a project that I was going to make with actors, but I felt that this was a more important project to do as we are in a hurry to find a solution.
All of my fiction films I am working in a very controlled environment, to work with bees and bee-keepers I had to find out how to make a documentary; maybe it was good that I didn’t know how to do that. A fiction film background did help me when it came to telling the story.
- This is a film that has taken you five years so can you talk a bit about the research you did for this film?
First of all, I made the film in my head with a pen and a small camera to just remember the things that I had seen. I travelled around the world by myself; I started in the family of my daughter and grandchildren in Australia.
Then I went from to there to the United States and then on to other continents. I had maybe twenty interesting characters as possible protagonists, and then I had to choose the seven most important through whom I was able to tell a story.
I needed very opposite characters in the way that they are treating the bees, from the industrial beekeepers of the United States, to the more hippy kind of beekeeper working with the killer bees.
The different characters gave me the possibility to tell a story that the audience would like to listen to. However, as I went along the bees started to become the protagonist of the film.
- You had such a broad scope of material by the end of the research period, so how did your work as a fiction filmmaker help you make sense of all that and construct a narrative for the film?
For example, I didn’t know when I started that killer bees are the healthiest bees; I thought they were just an invention of Cold War Hollywood.
When you write a screenplay, it is always best if you know where you want to arrive; it is much easier than if you are Columbus and you want to go to India but you arrive in America.
To construct the structure of the story is easier if you know where you want to arrive, and you can figure out the rest as you are travelling. The dialogue between the different approaches of the beekeepers helped me as I was going along.
- You capture some wonderful images of the bees in the film so can you talk about how you managed to get those images? And was there ever any talk about perhaps creating the bees digitally?
When my producer saw the budget that we had for shooting the bees, he said ‘for this money it would be cheaper to make them in 3D. They will also not sting you and they will obey you’. We would never have truly captured the way that they move if we had created them in this way; they are all real life bees when flying and when they are in the hive.
We had two teams - one team of five people for the human side, and a team of ten people for the macro side; this shows that it is much more difficult to film a bee than a beekeeper. This macro team travelled with us to Arizona to capture the killer bees and capture the swarm that you see towards the end of the film. We edited the major part of the film and we wrote a screenplay for the bees.
We had a bee studio in Vienna, where we had about fifteen hives with different races of bees. We had a bee whisperer on set, he was a very strange guy who could understand the bees; he couldn’t speak to them but he knew what they were going to do next.
In the studio, we would prepare the light and he was looking in the hives to see if we could capture what we wanted to film. He would then bring a frame into the studio and we would have a few minutes to film them; sometimes it didn’t happen and we had to film something else, or we didn’t film anything. The mating scene of the Queen been was the most difficult thing to film.
Normally, people are afraid of insects because they move so quickly, we discovered that if we shot them three times slower than they really move, they move like us. This gives you time to observe them carefully and see how beautiful they are. All the flying bees we shot at three hundred frames a second; one second reality gives me twelve seconds of film.
- How have you been finding the response to the movie so far?
I am astonished how well it has done; in Switzerland, it is the most successful Swiss film of the year. It has sold in almost thirty countries around the world and has been opening theatrically.
It is also the Swiss entry for the Best Foreign Film at the Oscars; it is also in the documentary section as well. I am astonished and I never expected anything on this scale. I never expected something like this. It seems to be doing well all over.
- Finally, what is next for you?
I am travelling around the world at the moment promoting and talking about this film. I have a little larva of a screenplay, which is bothering me as it is like a crying baby in my suitcase. I should be working on this screenplay, but I am travelling around the world and talking about bees. I hope that I can soon complete this new screenplay.
More Then Honey is out on 11th November.