Ellen Burstyn’s ‘Queen Bees’ comedy shot and conceived in Atlanta

Ellen Burstyn and James Caan star in "Queen Bees," a comedy shot in Atlanta. COURTESY OF GRAVITAS VENTURES
Caption
Ellen Burstyn and James Caan star in "Queen Bees," a comedy shot in Atlanta. COURTESY OF GRAVITAS VENTURES

Credit: Ray Bengston

Credit: Ray Bengston

All-star cast includes James Caan, Ann-Margret, Christopher Lloyd, Jane Curtin and Loretta Devine.

Are retirement communities like high school?

“Queen Bees,” a mostly sweet but occasionally tart comedy film shot in Atlanta, tries to answer that question with a resounding yes.

The modestly budgeted movie, conceived and pitched by 34-year-old Sandy Springs producer Harrison Powell, was shot in Atlanta in 2018 and carries an impressive all-star cast led by 88-year-old Academy Award-winning actress Ellen Burstyn. She plays Helen, a fiercely independent widow who reluctantly moves into a retirement community temporarily while her house is being renovated.

Ann-Margret, Loretta Devine and Jane Curtin in "Queen Bees." GRAVITAS VENTURES
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Ann-Margret, Loretta Devine and Jane Curtin in "Queen Bees." GRAVITAS VENTURES

Credit: GRAVITAS VENTURES

Credit: GRAVITAS VENTURES

There, Helen parries with the “Queen Bees” — who model high school “mean girls” — led by a salty Janet, played by 73-year-old Jane Curtin, with Sally (71-year-old Loretta Devine) and Margot (80-year-old Ann-Margret) in tow. Margot flirts shamelessly with Arthur (82-year-old Christopher Lloyd), who wears a ridiculous toupée but is considered a catch among the ladies. The vivacious Sally befriends Helen and gradually brings her into the fold.

And the minute 81-year-old James Caan arrives as Dan, you know he’s going to break down Helen’s defenses because he’s, well, James Caan in prime charm mode.

James Caan charms Ellen Burstyn in the film "Queen Bees," out on VOD and theaters June 11, 2021. GRAVITAS VENTURES
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James Caan charms Ellen Burstyn in the film "Queen Bees," out on VOD and theaters June 11, 2021. GRAVITAS VENTURES

Credit: GRAVITAS VENTURES

Credit: GRAVITAS VENTURES

“Queen Bees” came out earlier this month on demand and in movie theaters, where it has generated just shy of $1 million in box office gross since June 11 on 600 screens. While critics have given the movie a collective average positive score of just 48% on Rotten Tomatoes, 90% of viewers who paid to see it liked it.

Powell came up with the film idea, inspired by his wife’s grandmother Sparky Moredock, a widow who moved to a Jacksonville, Florida, senior community. She was appalled at first by all the dating and social revelry, but eventually blended in, met a new guy and got married in 2016. He pitched the idea to Astute Films, who hired Donald Martin to write a script.

“The pitch I brought in was a little more dramatic,” Powell said. “Donald brought in elements of comedy, which was terrific.” He also crystalized the struggle of an older person letting go of a past love and embracing the future and new happiness.

The cast was pieced together by University of Georgia grad and casting director Kerry Barden (”Spotlight,” “Dallas Buyer’s Club”) and Michael Lembeck, a 72-year old director with a long resume, including “Friends,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and two “Santa Clause” movies.

Martin, Powell said, had Burstyn in mind when he wrote it.

To convince the actress to be the lead, Lembeck flew to New York City and spent several hours with Burstyn at her apartment. “We had this amazing experience,” he said. “We laughed and cried. We went through pictures of her career and her family ... She had so much to offer in terms of her own life experiences and a lot of that found its way into the script rewrite I did.”

Burstyn was drawn to the script because it showed four fully-formed women in their 70s and 80s. “It doesn’t depict them as old grandmas,” Powell said. “It’s just a fun film.”

The biggest cast get, of course, was Caan, who originally had some issues with his character. Lembeck accommodated some of the actor’s suggestions. “I gave Dan more vulnerability where he needed it,” Lembeck said. “I beefed up the comedy for Jimmy.”

Powell said the script continued to be tweaked by the cast, and incorporated stories gleaned from seniors at the actual senior community Parc at Duluth where most of the film was shot over 23 days.

“Some of the stories were even crazier than what we showed in the movie,” Lembeck said. “It’s wild in there!”

Members of the community also got to play extras and gawk at the stars. “When Jimmy showed up the first day, they were literally crowded in the hallways trying to find a new husband,” Lembeck said. “They were so obvious about it. It was absolutely adorable.”

Lembeck loved his time in Atlanta, except for the heat and the bugs, which are common complaints.

“I had to change several exterior scenes and made them interiors,” Lembeck said. “I didn’t want to be on the front of The New York Times saying I left Ellen Burstyn roasting in the sun.” And annual summer cicadas would often screech right after he yelled “Action!”

He also hired some local actors, including Matthew Barnes in the key role of Helen’s grandson who convinces her to join the retirement community. Barnes said it was a bonanza for an actor like him to absorb the centuries of acting experience of the cast, getting to go mano a mano with Caan and spending long hours with Burstyn. Three years after the film was shot, he said he stays in touch with her.

“She was willing to connect and share with me,” Barnes said. “She remains incredibly important to me. I love her dearly. We built something special.”

The four lead women stayed at Le Meridien Atlanta hotel by Perimeter Mall. “They formed a great rapport off camera,” Powell said. “Their rooms were at the end of the same hallway. They held little cul-de-sac parties with bottles of wine.”

The film was supposed to be released in 2020 but, like many others, was delayed due to the pandemic. It’s relatively early to be back in the movie theaters but Powell said they wanted to get the movie out before the marketplace got flooded.

It’s not the type of movie that necessarily does well in theaters nowadays, even in the best of times, with horror and action leading the way. But the budget was only $5 million so there is still a chance the film could eventually make back its money from various sources.

Powell said he hopes word of mouth will keep “Queen Bees” around in theaters for a few more weeks. The movie dropped only 29 percent in box-office take from week one to week two. “It’s sad comedies are no longer big in theaters,” he said. “But comedy can build on itself. People want to laugh with other people. And I hope with our target audience largely vaccinated, that will get them out.”

Lembeck doesn’t worry about these types of details. “I’m sleeping well,” he said. “I made the movie I intended to make. I went to see it in a theater with an audience. People laughed in the right places and cried in the right places. It was so satisfying. I haven’t read reviews in 35 years.”

Sparky Moredock (left), the inspiration for Ellen Burstyn's character Helen in the movie "Queen Bees," conceived by Sandy Springs native Harrison Powell (right). CONTRIBUTED
Caption
Sparky Moredock (left), the inspiration for Ellen Burstyn's character Helen in the movie "Queen Bees," conceived by Sandy Springs native Harrison Powell (right). CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

Credit: CONTRIBUTED

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