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A decade on, Bee Movie’s creators reflect on its many memes

“Well, let’s be honest, a bee and a woman carrying on is kind of weird to begin with. It’s weird stuff.”

According to all known laws of film-making, there is no way that Bee Movie should still be flying today. First released in the UK ten years ago on 14 December 2007, the animated family comedy was branded “scarcely memorable” by The Daily Telegraph, “instantly forgettable” by Film4, and “eminently forgettable” by the Apollo Guide. Even critics who liked Bee Movie hardly imagined it was the kind of film that would still be talked about a decade on. But Bee Movie, of course, continues to fly anyway. It doesn’t care what movie critics think is impossible.

“I would not have thought in a million years that this movie would be embraced the way it has,” says Barry Marder, one of the movie’s four main script writers and a close friend of Jerry Seinfeld, who first conceived of the film. “We just thought it was a movie and boom, that’d be it.” It wasn’t it.

Bee Movie's opening title

From 2011 on, Bee Movie has spawned hundreds of thousands of memes. People send its entire script to each other in messages as a joke, editors remix the trailer on YouTube so it speeds up after every utterance of the word “bee”, and one man even caught a real-life bumblebee and made it watch the film. People shrink and superimpose the whole script onto T-shirts, others make PowerPoint presentations analysing the plot, and earlier this year, some claimed Donald Trump plagiarised the film for his inauguration speech. But most – most Bee Movie meme fans – create posts about the film’s two protagonists, Barry and Vanessa. Barry is a bee. Vanessa is a human. In the film, multiple scenes imply they have romantic feelings for each other.

“It was never going to be sexual or anything like that,” says Steve Hickner, the film’s director. “It was purely this friendship... maybe in Barry’s mind he thought... but it was never going to be that.”

Barry and Vanessa’s relationship is undeniably at the heart of many Bee Movie memes. “Well, let’s be honest, a bee and a woman carrying on is kind of weird to begin with,” says Barry (Marder, not the bee).“It’s weird stuff, I have to be honest.” Fellow script writer Spike Feresten says people are either “entertained or repulsed” by the storyline, which some have nicknamed “Beestiality”.

“I suspect it’s that odd relationship between an insect and a human woman,” he says, when I ask why he thinks the movie has been so memed. “There isn’t really an interspecies love affair movie, I think… we don’t really want to sell that to kids.” So how did it happen?

“Often we would lose sight of those characters in the room. They would just be Barry and Vanessa, and we would write this dialogue for Barry and Vanessa, and read it over and have to remind ourselves, well, this is a tiny bee saying this, and the tiny bee is fighting with her boyfriend, so let’s dial it back to friend, and make it less romantic, because it’s getting weird.”

“Weird” is the word each of the film’s writers use when I ask why they think their movie is so popular online. Jerry Seinfeld first mentioned the idea to Steven Spielberg over lunch as a joke – but Spielberg immediately loved it. The movie’s creators tell me much was adapted and lost over the four years they worked on the film, but the basic premise – of a bee who befriends a woman and attempts to sue the human race – was never going to change. Steve Hickner, the director, summarises it best: “It’s a weird idea!” he exclaims. “It’s not a fairy-tale.”

***

One of the presents Madison got for her 17th birthday was not like the others. Despite the fact she wasn’t a fan of Bee Movie, or even Bee Movie memes, the student received a shirt featuring the film’s entire script, from start to finish. “I don’t actually know why my friend got it for me,” she says now. “I thought it was a cool gift, though.”

When a stranger complimented her shirt in 2016, Madison decided to upload a picture of it to Tumblr. Within a few days, hundreds of thousands of people had shared, commented on, or liked Madison’s picture, and in the following months, strangers came up to ask if she was “the Bee Movie shirt girl”. She hasn’t worn it since.

“We were all confused, delighted,” Spike says of the writers’ reaction to the shirt. “Jerry and I talked quite a bit about it – I even went so far as to buy the shirt myself.” This was the first time Spike became aware that Bee Movie had become a meme. “We weren’t quite sure if we were being made fun of, which would have been fine, or if we were being celebrated.”

Barry says he was the first to tell Jerry about the memes – having found out about them around four or five years ago. When his computer broke, he called his son’s friend, Matthew, around to fix it. When he was finished with the job, Matthew turned to Barry and asked: “You know what’s going on with Bee Movie, right?”. Barry didn’t. One Google search later, he realised the film’s impact. “The Bee Movie has become some kind of religious cult almost,” he says now. “It surprised me, because it wasn’t something that we had thought about.”

The last writer to find out about the unusual impact of their work was Andy Robin, who retrained to become a doctor after helping to write the film. “My 18-year-old daughter said something like ‘Bee Movie is really popular on the internet right now’ and showed me a sped-up video and a T-shirt with all the words printed on it,” says Andy, explaining he found out just a few months ago. “It wasn’t too surprising to me. Life’s full of random stuff and inexplicable fads that are far less appealing than a quirky, goofy film.”

***

How did Bee Movie get to be such a quirky, goofy film? Ten years on from its UK release on 14 December 2007, the general public have very few answers. Why were Barry and Vanessa so flirty? Why is there a joke about suicide pacts? Why does Ray Liotta own a honey company?

“Most animated movies are put together by executives as opposed to writers or directors or people that have a vision,” says Barry, who explains that Jerry was allowed creative freedom after the huge success of Seinfeld. “There’s some weird stuff in there that you probably wouldn't see in Toys or Coco or stuff like that, although fine movies. This one was put together by artists and not some corporate paint by numbers.” Spike concurs. “We weren’t focused on writing a movie for children. We were focused on writing a comedy, and seeing where that premise went.”

The fact Bee Movie is a children’s-film-that-isn’t-really-for-children explains why it’s so memed. Many Bee Movie meme-makers were kids when they first saw the film a decade ago, and have only begun to understand many of its adult jokes. Yet the movies’ writers and director tell me the film was constantly undergoing focus group screenings (where samples were screened to an audience of children) to ensure it was on the right path. Did no kids ever criticise the surreal plot?  

“Many, many filmmakers loathe these focus group things where you take your movie before it’s finished, put it before an audience, and see what happens –  [but] Jerry actually loved that process,” says Steve. “That was as close to stand-up comedy as you can get in animation.” Yet he elaborates on why this might not have changed the movie too much. “Jerry didn’t care anything about what their notes were, all he cared about was sitting in the audience when they were watching the movie and hearing where they laughed and where they didn’t.” As an eminent comedian, Jerry cared about his jokes more than his plot. 

By a remarkable coincidence, Madison (the girl with the Bee Movie script shirt) took part in one of these focus groups when she was around seven years old. She was shown an unpolished clip from the film and asked which bits she liked and which she didn’t. “I didn’t want to hurt their feelings, but they said it was important to give my honest opinion, so I told them I didn’t like it at all, the bees creeped me out, and I wouldn’t want to see it again.” When she finally watched the whole film, aged 10, she still didn’t like it. “The first time I had fun watching it was sometime in high school, when I was with a big group of friends and we could spend the whole time heckling.”

***

How did Bee Movie memes begin? Paris Martineau, a writer at New York magazine, took it upon herself to find their origins last month. With great difficulty and a vast amount of research, she found the first ever Bee Movie meme was created on Tumblr in 2011 – but why did she bother?

“When we talk about films and other art, we generally measure success based on audience interaction… but meme making and sharing generally requires a level of interaction and understanding far beyond that of the average spectator,” she tells me. “Memes represent important socio-cultural moments.” This is something that each of the writers remark on – that the film had an unconventional version of success (“It doesn't have the reach of, say, Frozen,” says Steve), but it was successful nonetheless (“It has a fan base that really loves it. That’s what you hope for, to create something with longevity”).

The rough timeline of Bee Movie memes, discovered by Paris, goes a little something like this: the film was heavily promoted before its release, with Jerry Seinfeld donning a bee costume and flying through the air at Cannes (“I do remember seeing a ton of advertising for Bee Movie and thinking it was a bit much, like they were announcing the second coming,” muses Andy). In 2007, critics were divided upon the film’s release, which scores just 51 per cent on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. In 2011, a Tumblr user shared a sincere screenshot of the film’s opening monologue (“According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way a bee should be able to fly…”) with the hashtag #inspiring. In 2012, Tumblr exploded with absurdist Bee Movie memes, which were propelled into the mainstream by a Twitter account, @Seinfeld2000, dedicated to parodying Seinfeld.

“From my perspective, Bee Movie was this obscure, kind of weird footnote on Jerry Seinfeld’s career, this medium-successful animated film he decided he should do. It seemed like a funny thing to joke about that would surprise my small audience,” the creator of the @Seinfeld2000 account tells me over email. But what appeals about the film itself? “Bee Movie speaks to the human condition and Barry B Benson is the perfect avatar for the soul’s journey through life on this planet. Any image or joke derived from this contemporary masterpiece will carry a sliver of magic within it, no matter how careless.” Makes sense.

Yet the meme that propelled Bee Movie memes off of the internet, to inspire Vanity Fair to write an article entitled “How Bee Movie Won 2016”, is arguably the best one. “Bee movie trailer but every time they say bee it gets faster,” was a YouTube video that is exactly what it sounds like, created by 18-year-old Australian Darcy Grivas. It was viewed over 17 million times.

“I actually only saw the movie as I was editing,” says Darcy, who was inspired to make the video after being added to a Facebook group entitled Melbourne Bee Team. It took him hours at a time to create his videos, which involved painstakingly noting every time “bee” was said in the film before he could begin editing. “Now it’s been a year since it happened but people find out... and they are like ‘Oh my god you are the terrible meme guy’,” Darcy laughs.

“Why” is not a question one can really ask of memes. “It’s gotten to be funny, for some reason, but I don’t know the reason,” muses Spike. “I understand why it could become a meme, I think anything can. But I don’t think I’m going to be let in on the joke.”

Darcy has a simple answer – and has coined a term that may become increasingly important in the coming years. “In the same way films can become cult classics just because there are a group of people that like them, films can now become meme classics.”

***

Almost everyone I speak to who worked on the film tells me a story about food. Barry recalls Spike getting coconut cupcakes every morning, and “paninis constantly coming in” throughout the week. Steve emphasises that because an animated movie takes “for-ev-er”, Jerry would dedicate certain days to certain foods. “He would periodically be like, today is cupcake day so we’re going to find the best cupcake in Los Angeles,” Steve explains. “Another day would be the best yoghurt, the next day would be cookies, or, you know, who makes the best French toast?” Once, Barry was forced to write three grovelling letters (posing as Andy and Spike) apologising to Dreamworks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg.

“We got in trouble because we were eating out of the hotel’s honour bar,” says Barry. “We were eating too much food. Andy Robin, in particular, wasn’t using the money for room service, he spent $1,200 on Toblerone bars.” 

“There was just weird stuff going on the whole time,” is how the scriptwriter describes the process of creating the film.

One crucial element of this weirdness was how far the writers were willing to develop the “bee world”. Spike says they argued over whether bees, who drive cars in the film, would have insurance companies (Jerry said no). “Well then, we would argue, why are they driving around in cars, who made the cars, Jerry?” recalls Spike. “With animation, you’re creating the world and the rules for the world, and when that meets comedy, everything gets blown apart. If this world is separate from the human world, how can there be a Bee Larry King in the bee world – what does that mean? Who is Bee Larry King?”

Bee Larry King

Overall, the process of creating the film sound undeniably hilarious. Close friends came together to create something, deciding to have as much fun as possible along the way. “I asked Jerry one time, ‘why did you pick me’, and he said ‘I thought you might be funny because you had crazy hair’,” reminisces Steve. “Basically, he was there just to have fun every day.”

***

“To be honest with you we didn't expect it to take off the way it took off, as being some kind of cultural event, we just wrote it as a funny movie,” reflects Barry on the whole meme phenomenon. Spike recalls that Jerry wanted to “write a timeless classic”, to which he initially reacted with scepticism. “But ten years later, somebody starts talking about it, and maybe, well, he pulled it off, seems like he did.”

But does all this mean Bee Movie 2 is on the horizon?

“Jerry and I talk about 20 times a day and we discuss constantly about possibly doing some other bee stuff,” says Barry. Instead of a feature film, he says they’ve spoken about creating eight webisodes. “One of the things that I always wanted to put in there, was I wanted an obese bee that had to be cut out of the hive by fire-bees,” he says, listing other jokes he’d like to expand on. There would be a bee beard (“that’s like the worst thing you could do to bees, that was almost a racial thing you know”), a Jeff Bee-zos (the first billionaire bee), and a bee army (their weapon would be a giant mosquito). “As recently as yesterday Jerry and I were talking about idiotic bee stuff, you know.”

Spike had an even more memeable idea. Last year, he told Jerry he should print off a script with “Bee Movie 2” written on giant letters in the front. Then, he should walk into a restaurant and allow the paparazzi to take a picture. “That would really contribute something to this fun.”

But just because Bee Movie 2 might not happen, it doesn’t mean Bee Movie memes are going anywhere. Though it is already arguably the most-memed film in existence (followed closely, perhaps, by Shrek), Bee Movie memes show no real sign of stopping among their core fanbase. According to Netflix, one person in the UK watched the film 357 times this year alone.

Amelia Tait is features editor at Shortlist.com, she was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer, and tweets at @ameliargh.