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DOUG ATCHISON on 'AKEELAH AND THE BEE'
Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment

April 1, 2006


In the inspirational drama Akeelah and the Bee, an 11-year-old girl named Akeelah (Keke Palmer) uses her talent for spelling to make it all the way to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. In her quest to win the prestigious academic competition, she is coached by a stern but passionate professor (Laurence Fishburne), even as she grapples with the implications of her natural gift and a strained relationship with her hard-working single mom (Angela Bassett).

Although Akeelah resorts to just about every trick in the book to pull on the heartstrings of the viewer (lost relationships, selfless sacrifice, regrets, and triumphing against long odds, all set to overtly sentimental music), it manages to do so in a surprisingly acceptable way that imparts a feel-good vibe. The cast is strong across the board, but Keke Palmer in the title role particularly shines--she should definitely be remembered during awards season for her performance as Akeelah, a stalwart and sympathetic heroine audiences will cheer till the very end.

In this interview, writer/director Doug Atchison talks about the making of the movie.


Buy/Explore the DVD

One of the best reviewed films of the year, Akeelah and the Bee is now available to own on DVD. Special features include audio commentary, behind the scenes video, deleted scenes, a gag reel, and a featurette on director Doug Atchison and the film's young star, Keke Palmer.

And thanks to a partnership with Lions Gate, the DVD is also available at your local Starbucks!


The Interview

MEDIA: What inspired you to do this story?

DOUG: I had been watching another sporting event, and one of my destination channels during commercial breaks is ESPN [laughs] so I just switched over, and I was like, "Am I on the right channel? There's like kids here." And I was fascinated by it. I was fascinated by the kids, I was fascinated by the tension, it was so tense watching these kids, and I thought it would be a great venue, a great competition to focus a story on. But then, as I watched it, I realized that most of these kids came from pretty privileged backgrounds, and they had a lot of time in their lives where parents had set aside to devote to the studies of this. And I had gone to the USC film school, which is in South LA, and I knew that neighborhood, I knew families that lived there, and I thought this would be a great opportunity to tell a story about a kid who's truly talented but doesn't have those advantages, and to tell a story about a kid that I would root for. So I have the idea, and I didn't write it for a long time because I realized that in telling the story, you would be telling the story about the black experience in America, and who am I to tell that story? Right? But that's exactly what Akeelah thinks. "Who am I to go to the national spelling bee?" So after thinking about it for four or five years and telling people the story aloud, it just kind of reached a critical mass where I surrendered to it, and I wrote it. And around that same time, I started mentoring and tutoring and a place called Home which is a youth center in South LA, and I got to know a lot of the kids there, and realized how important it was to tell this story about these kids. And I also knew it would be exciting, and it would be like Rocky when I was 10-years-old, and I saw that movie, and it made me cheer.

Whose idea was it to reunite Laurence Fishburne and Angela Bassett, and how easy was that to pull off?

He got involved in, I think, 2003 he signed on as a producer and an actor. The next cast member that we got was Keke, and it seemed logical to me at that point to re-team Laurence and Angela. Not logical, but desireable. I thought that that would be fantastic to have them in a movie together. And I met with Angela, we met her together, and she wanted to do it, we wanted her to do it. Laurence talked to her, and we were able to put that together.

Was it difficult to get financing for this film?

Yes. The difficulty was I was a relatively unknown director, but I was determined to direct this. Nobody had seen a movie like this. When I wrote Akeelah in 1999, none of these other spelling bee projects were even known about at the time. Also, this is--I've asked, I've challenged everybody I've met with to tell me another one, because I can't think of one--the first major theatrical release from his studio on the big screen where an African-American little girl is in every scene in a movie but one. It's the first time it's ever happened that I can think of. And so even though that wasn't voiced as an objection, when people see something that's brand new that they've never seen before, there's a hesitation because they're going to spend a lot of money on this movie. And I kept saying, "Don't worry, you're going to make the money back. This is something you have seen before. You've seen Rocky, you've seen Hoosiers, you've seen the Karate Kid, you've seen this before. This is just a different character doing a slightly different sporting activity, but it is going to be a sports movie."

Is there any precedent for people from lower income and education levels to make it in the spelling bee?

Yes. Every year, there are people from lower income status who do quite well in the spelling bee. A Jamaican girl won the bee in...I don't know the exact year, it was like '96, '97. But Jamaica always does really well because they have a good spelling curriculum there. And you know, there's always a handful of black spellers. The spelling bee has not been as successful as they would like to be in reaching out to children of color, and that's why they got behind this movie. They thought it would be a good marketing tool for them to get more kids like Akeelah and the Bee. Because the kids like this. We did a screening in South LA at the Pan African Film Festival, and we had 4th to 7th graders there seeing the movie. And before the movie, Keke and I autographed some posters and gave them to the kids if they spelled some words correctly. And we were giving them words like "placid" and "doubt." Easy words. And I said, "Well, let's try to give them a toughy." So we gave them "prestidigitation." And five or six kids stumbled through it, couldn't spell it. And the festival director came up and said, "Go back to the easy ones, let's get this over with." And there was this little girl [raising her hand]. And we called her up. Fourth grade, 9-years-old, glasses, looked just like Akeelah, braids. "P-r-e-s-t-i-d-i-g-i-t-a-t-i-o-n." She gets it right. Keke and I looked at each other. We both know the word. And I said, "Did she get it right? Spell it again!" [laughs] She got it right. I said, "How old are you?" "Nine." "Have you ever heard of the national spelling bee?" "No." She had never even heard of it. And I said, "Well, you watch this movie. If this gets you excited, if this looks fun, then go talk your teacher. Because you're 9, you're in the fourth grade, you could do this for four more years. And if you can spell prestidigitation off the top of your head like that, you could do it." But she doesn't know about it. So one of the points of the film is that for a lot of kids, there's no access. There's no one saying, "This is for you." There's no encouragement. And you see that in her community. At the beginning, it's just her principal, really. Her mom's not even on board. And then she persists, and as she ventures out into this strange other world, and then learns that this world is not so other and it's something she can be a part of and do well in, other people are encouraged by this.

Is there a way to get this shown in schools? This would be great as an educational tool...

Everybody says that. Every screening we go to, people say that. I know Lions Gate is doing things with parent/teacher organizations, with education organizations. We showed it to hundreds and hundreds of kids from the local schools, and I know that we've had lots of students at all of these word-of-mouth screenings that we're doing around the country right now. We're doing something in DC next week, and I think there might be education people there as well, and civil rights people.

How hard was it to find someone to play Akeelah?

That was, for me, the scariest thing. Were we going to be able to find somebody? A huge, huge weight got taken off my back when we found Keke. We saw about 300 kids. We saw them in LA and New York, there was some searching going on in Atlanta. Keke came out in LA. She's from Chicago, but she was here because she had done a movie called the Wool Cap, and her parents relocated here. I saw her on her second audition. We started every kid doing the speech that's on Larabee's wall. We had every kid do that first. We eliminated half of them just on the basis of that. And when you see the same thing done over and over and over again--and I sat in on most of those auditions--little variations stand out. And Keke--and it sounds small, but it was a big deal--was the only one that moved her eyes back and forth like she was actually reading something for the first time on the wall. And it struck me that this kid is very good at being real, in the moment. And then we called her back a couple more times. She came in for the producers...And what really clinched it for me is when I interviewed her. Her fifth audition. She came in with her mom and we did like a 20 minute interview. And I asked her questions about the script. She was only ten at the time, but her level of analysis of the script, which she only read once according to her, was deeper than some adults. I would ask her, "Why does Akeelah do this? Why does she do that? Why does Dr. Larabee stop teaching her?" And she'd say, "Oh, he's starting to get too attached and she's reminding him too much of his daughter, and that's freaking him out, and he doesn't want to go there with those feelings. He needs some space at that point." And I'm like, "Yeah, that's right. Could you explain that to some of the studio people that question me about that scene?" [laughs] So I realized that in Keke, I had found somebody...I didn't want to have to painstakingly extract a performance from a kid line by line, but somebody who I could collaborate on as an actor and a director, and not just a child, even though she was a child. She wasn't overly precocious like a lot of these kids.

Who wrote the quote on Larabee's plaque? It sounds familiar...

Yeah, you've heard it before. It's a rather famous quote that has been apocryphally attributed to Nelson Mandela. It turns out that he actually didn't say it, but Marianne Williamson, in her book Return to Love, it's a quote from her.

So it's not Mandela?

It's not. But she doesn't mind that people attribute it to him...It so encapsulates the thesis of the film in a way that I think is appropriate, and people love that scene.

When you heard Starbucks would be involved, were you worried about product placement?

Starbucks didn't pay for the movie. Starbucks got involved, actually, when we were done with the movie, so they had nothing to do with the making of the film. It's a promotional arrangement between Lions Gate and Starbucks to promote the movie.

Where does the name Akeelah come from? Is there a certain significance to it?

I had talked about this movie for a long time and I had it in my head and I had a treatment, and I didn't know what to call her. And I was a the Pitfire Pizza Grill in North Hollywood, California [laughs] and they had a coffee bar there, and there was a girl behind the bar, and I was chatting with her. And I asked for her name, and she said, "My name's Aqueelah." And I went, "That's her name! How do you spell it?" And she spelled it A-q-u-e-e-l-a-h." So that's what I wrote down, was "qu." So I said, "Well what does it mean?" And she said it means, in Arabic, she said, "My mom told me it means princess." So I called it "Aqueelah and the Bee" with a QU. And then everybody who read it, they were like, "Aqueelah and the Bee." And I was like, "Okay, let me change it to a K." I just liked the sound. Akeelah and the Bee. It sounded good. And I changed it to a K, and we showed it at ShoWest a few weeks ago, because Keke won Rising Star of Tomorrow, Laurence won Star of the Decade, answer people from the Hollywood for press were there, and one of them came up to me, and he was Arabic. And he said, "So do you know what Akeelah means in Arabic?" And I said, "Yeah, it means princess!" And he consulted with his wife, who's also Arabic, and he goes, "That's not what it means." And I said, "What does it mean?" He said, "It means intelligence."

How appropriate!

I said, "That's better!" And I hope he's right! He was Arabic, so I presume he knows what is talking about.

Was it important to you to shoot in South Central LA?

Early on, there was a smaller budget. Smaller amount of money to make the movie with. And it would have...I don't even know if we could have gotten the movie made for that amount, but we couldn't have shot in LA, that's for sure. We would have had to shoot somewhere else. But I wasn't about to try to make Vancouver look like South LA. So it was important for me to shoot there, it was important for me to get real kids from the neighborhood in the movie, which we did. We did open calls. One of the girls we found her at the youth center that mentor at. The little girl who's on the TV, she goes, "I'm already studying for next year's bee!" She was another member at APCH, she was actually a candidate to play Akeelah at one point.

Did the Scripps people have any concerns?

Yeah. At first, didn't know who we were. I think they get a lot of people that say, "We want to stuff about the bee." And they're protective of it, rightly so. And they permitted us to come down and shoot their bee in 2004, but hadn't yet given us permission to use the footage. They read the script, they liked the script, they had some notes about the script that were authenticity notes. And I made some adjustments, which were good ones. And there were some other ones that I didn't want to make, and I explained to them why, and they agreed and they let me do what I wanted to do. They came out when we were shooting. They liked what they saw, and then in October, I think, we screened it for them in New York, and they loved it. Absolutely loved it.

Was there ever any pressure to introduce a romantic subplot for Laurence and Angela's characters?

No. Only jokingly was it ever talked about. I mean, we knew it would tip the tension away from where it should be, which is on Akeelah. No one really seriously entertained that.

Thanks for your time.

Thank you.

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