With Navy veteran David Ayer’s latest film, The Beekeeper, he’s stepping somewhat outside of his usual work. Ayer has a filmography rooted in the streets of Los Angeles, with movies such as the cop drama End of Watch or the action film Street Kings. He’s done historic war films like the tank classic Fury and more fantastical movies like Suicide Squad and Bright, but with a certain grittiness ot them. The Beekeeper is in Ayer’s own words a “pop movie,” but one he wanted to make sure had intense action.
The movie follows Statham as Adam Clay, a beekeeper renting from Eloise Parker (Phylicia Rashad). It turns out Clay is also a retired capital B “Beekeeper,” an all-around unstoppable secret agent who operates outside of any chain of command, with the purpose of protecting “the hive” (yes there are several bee-related metaphors, code names and threats delivered by Statham). When Eloise is robbed by online scammers, leading to her death, Clay decides to get revenge the only way he knows how: direct and violently.
Written by Kurt Wimmer and directed by Ayer, a former submariner, The Beekeeper is a tight one hour and 40 minutes film, with several set pieces, jars of honey and Statham taking on everyone from special operations veterans to South African mercenaries. Clay himself is less snarky than many Statham characters, with a weariness in his life. That weariness disappears when it’s time for Clay to fight gangsters, FBI agents and the aforementioned South African mercenaries, but it does help add some emotional weight to a film that escalates very quickly.
Ahead of the movie’s release, Task & Purpose sat with Ayer to talk about the film, on-set bee-related injuries and creating verisimilitude in military action.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Task & Purpose: I’ve seen all of your films you’ve written and directed. Usually you direct films that you’ve written, what drew you to Kurt’s script?
David Ayer: You read a script and you’re reading for character, you’re reading for structure, you’re reading for mythology. This kind of had everything. I just saw it. I knew how to make it. It’s this weird alchemy, you can’t predict what you’re going to react to as a filmmaker. I just wanted to step into a kind of a new space and really create some fun, escapist cinema.
Q: Jason Statham has been kicking ass for two decades now and you’ve been making action movies for two decades. You both know what you’re doing, but when you come into this, what’s your approach to bringing this movie to life, working together, and getting the action and story together?
A: The challenge with Jason is he’s so experienced. This is a guy that does his own stunts. He’s a fighter, he’s an athlete. He moves, he knows the game. And he has an encyclopedic knowledge of every punch ever thrown in every movie ever. It’s wild. So I felt myself backpedalling sometimes. He’s challenging me to bring, not my A game but my A++ game. Between us we found a grammar, we found a language. There’s so much action in this movie, and how do you start and not blow the whole thing out in the first half of the movie and still have places to go. I’ve shot a lot of action, I think I learned more about action from this movie than anything else combined.
Q: So in terms of being on set filming, have scenes been pre-choreographed, or on set are you guys saying “let’s try this,” or “maybe let’s see how we can shift this and make it more exciting?”
A: It’s all of the above. You do a lot of stunt viz, you’ll choreography scenes, you’ll video them, then you edit the video, then you reset and try again. And Jeremy Merenis, who comes from the 87 Eleven school, is just an incredible fight choreographer. He also shot the second unit. He has this supernatural ability to understand how human beings move and how to create this kinetic movement for the camera. Stunt fighting and real fighting are very different. You have to be able to do it again, it has to be highly repeatable, and it has to be safe. So between all of us this team formed that was indomitable.
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Q: In terms of the story, you’ve done stories of super powered individuals to very grounded dramas from the streets of L.A. In terms of finding that tone, finding that balance, here you’ve got elderly, vulnerable people, you’ve got ex-government, secret ops guys, what was your mindset going in?
A: That’s I think the hardest part of a director’s job: tone and tonality, and finding consistency and pacing. And so, it’s a fun movie, it’s a pop movie, crazy silly things happen. But also grounded things happen. Find that if you can ground it a bit in the world of the military or the process of government and the structure of government, it allows you to take the audience a little further on some other things.
Q: You’re a Navy veteran yourself. I’m guessing you weren’t dealing with tier one special ops guys fighting Beekeeper stuff, but did your experience come into play? Were you working with people you knew from the military community?
A: I was a submarine guy, so I’m really good at looking at a sonar display. But I do have a lot of friends from the more door kicking, kinetic side of things. If you know anything about that community, they can be ruthless. I didn’t want to hear it later, so I brought some friends in. We eyeballed things, tried to get things as correct as possible. Like at the end of the movie he’s wearing a [Dräger oxygen rebreather]. Getting a Dräger on set was a big deal, as it’s a controlled item.
So it’s getting things right, getting the little details right. Working with folks who know how to patrol, move tactically as much as possible is important. Then you teach the stunt guys how to move and clear and all of those neat stuff. So it’s important to get those details right. That’s a huge community that’s immensely important to me. Everyone who wears a uniform, I always want to be as respectful to who they are and what they do.
Q: I can tell by watching the movie that you were having a really good time mocking tech bros and that world.
Q: Who hurt you?
A: Oh man, maybe I bought into some crypto and got rubbed or something. It’s a fascinating world and the sort of grandiosity of the tech bro world and the crypto world does lend itself for a movie.
Q: The costuming, the microphone in the scam set, I was getting a Wolf of Wall Street vibe, big party vibe.
A: Yeah there is a kind of aesthetic with that world. I did research a bit, I’ve got friends in that world, I hope they forgive me.
Q: There is empathy here. For all of the insanity of the tech world in the movie, the people who are being hurt by it, you treated them seriously.
A: For me it’s all about heart. If you look at my films, typically they’re kind of a slow burn. At the beginning I take the time to spend time with the characters and set them up and create some stakes. Phylicia Rashad is kind of America’s mom, and to see her get victimized by these jackals is such great motivation for a hero to come in and fix things.
Q: You signed on or joined in late 2021, early 2022. From script to screen a lot of things change. What was the journey of this for you?
A: It was Kurt Wimmer’s script, and he did the hard part of filmmaking which is structure, story, character. From that my job as a director is how do I bring that to life? On this one, I wanted to make more of an accessible, open, pop movie than I normally do. That was the challenge for me, to kind of recalibrate my thinking and embrace Kurt’s vision and then bring that tone to everything else.
Q: To make a more pop movie, in your movies there are a lot of certain elements that come through. Has [The Beekeeper] changed your approach to filmmaking?
A: You know, it’s interesting. it’s a genre movie. Normally I make kind of genre breaking movies, I like to color outside the lines. As a filmmaker I guess I’d been questioning, if I go make a straight up genre picture, is there anything for me to do as a creative? What I learned in this is there is a lot. You can really elevate the game, and I think that’s what I did here. We love Jason, we love his movies, we love watching him fight. But I wanted to give him the best possible vehicle in which to do that.
Q: I have to ask the question, were there actually bees on set? Did you get into that world yourself? Did you get stung?
A: They’re wild! It was deep, I learned so much about bees and mythology and history and this idea that beekeeping is the first job of civilization. Without bees there’s no agriculture, there’s no grain there’s no cities, there’s no civilization without a beekeeper. This idea, this mythology of the beekeeper tending to the hive, taking care of the hive, being this almost invisible hand behind the scenes keeping things working was just fascinating to me.
Jason got with a real beekeeper and learned everything. And we had live bees on set, it’s him doing everything. The bees are actually there. No one got stung except me. I was running camera and I got lit up pretty bad.
The Beekeeper is in theaters now.
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