No one could have imagined that during a pandemic, while being quarantined, during a time of political turmoil and civil unrest, that we would also be dealing with an invasive species otherwise known as the Murder Hornets. But alas, that’s 2020 for you. Intrigued by this predominately unknown species, filmmaker Michael Paul Stephenson (Best Worst Movie, Joshua Waits in Troll 2) decided to make a documentary, aptly titled ATTACK OF THE MURDER HORNETS, that would center on a concerned crew of beekeepers and scientists who must work together to protect their quiet Washington community from the threat of the Asian Giant Hornet, known famously today as the “Murder Hornet”.
For the release of the documentary ATTACK OF THE MURDER HORNETS, Nightmarish Conjurings had the immense pleasure of speaking with director Michael Paul Stephenson. During our interview, we discussed everything from coming into contact with a murder hornet, approaching the documentary through a horror lens, and more!
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today! I loved your documentary which I found to be equally fascinating and terrifying. What made you decide to build a film around these murder hornets?
Michael Paul Stephenson: I guess this would have been around May 2nd, I had read that New York Times article. I was home like everybody else, doing nothing and just worrying about the world ending, it was just a low moment. I read that article and it was like, “Oh my, of course [there would be] murder hornets.” Then I read the article and Mike Baker, who’s the journalist, did such a beautiful job and featured some of the characters that were tasked with being on the front lines trying to stop the threat of this invasive species, and I got pulled into that character story. I get really pulled into people and I had never considered what it would take to try to stop a giant hornet from establishing itself in a part of the world where it’s not supposed to be. It felt like an impossible mission, you know? So I really got pulled into the people and this feeling of man, this sounds like a real-life horror film, a science fiction movie. Here we have these guys in this small part of the world who are expected to try to stop something that could impact a whole lot of important stuff.
What was it like being around all those bees and how scary was it when you finally came in contact with the murder hornet?
Michael Paul Stephenson: I have a habit of just sort of leaping before I look (laughs). At the beginning of this, we didn’t even know that they would even find a single hornet. There’s no guarantee. You think about what the odds were, they had to first track one, then track it back… like there was no guarantee that they’d even find a hornet. My biggest fear at the beginning was, do I have a movie? Do I have a story? What if they don’t find anything? When I was with entomologist Chris Looney when they found the first hornet, that was a moment of complete awe and wonder. I felt like all of a sudden I’d been taken to another planet and shown another species for the first time. Here you have this myth and folklore built up around the hornet for so long, when you finally see one you’re like, “Jesus, that’s big. Look at those mandibles.” Most of the time when they’re being handled, obviously in the film, they’re coming off of ice so they’re kind of sedated. But there’s a moment in the movie where the hornet is on an apple and is about ready to take flight. It lifts off, takes flight, and flies basically towards the camera and that was me shooting that. There was a moment where the hornet took off from the apple and came right for me and I had to drop the camera and duck fast. When I saw the footage, I was pissed because I didn’t hold the shot long enough but then I also had this feeling of “Oh wow, that thing almost landed on my face” (laughs).
The irony of it all is nobody was stung by the actual hornet, obviously. But when I was filming bees at night with beekeeper Ted McFall, bees have this amazing…when they surround you and they swarm you, the noise they make is incredible. It’s a very specific hum that you can’t place in any direction; it’s kind of a hum that you feel inside. It’s a very weird sort of feeling. While I was shooting, I had a beekeeper’s suit on and a face net, and I looked and saw this bee crawling up my face net, and it gets just above my nose, and I look at it and say, “Whoa, wait a second, that’s on the inside of my beekeeper’s suit.” And sure enough, like seconds after that realization, I got stung on the face. I had left a tiny little hole open in my bee suit and I had six or seven inside of my suit stinging me. It was the bees who got me.
Aside from the bees and hornets, you’re also filming during a pandemic, so how was that experience? And can you talk about approaching ATTACK OF THE MURDER HORNETS through a horror lens?
Michael Paul Stephenson: In reading that first [New York Times] article, it all felt like a horror movie, it felt like this weird science fiction sort of thing. When I pitched it to Discovery+, I did a piece of art that showed this gigantic hornet hovering over these beekeepers and scientists, very similar to the fifties horror movie art, sort of this Them feel to it. I’ve never pitched anything over Zoom, let alone try to connect over Zoom but this is at the beginning of [the pandemic]. I went into it thinking there’s no way they’re going to get excited about a giant hornet movie but they did. Howard, who is the executive producer at Discovery, we connected on horror films and genre films, and was immediately like, “Oh wow, I didn’t expect this.” I told my wife that most likely the next thing I would be working on is a doc about a giant hornet and then within weeks we were in Washington. That feeling from the beginning informed everything because look, I’m not a Natural History guy, I’m not a nature doc guy, I’m a character guy, and specifically, the world around these hornets that could make this entertaining and fun. The luxury or gift of entertainment is if you can engage with people in a way that is entertaining, then you can smuggle in the stuff you really care about and it doesn’t feel like it’s from a class textbook or somebody’s coming down and saying this is an issue you need to believe this way. For me, it’s like, these are people, this is what they stand for and what they’re engaged in, and these are the odds against them. If you can get with people on that level, then all of a sudden you start thinking about things like the importance of bees. So the horror and sci-fi part of it was really just like, okay, if this were a narrative what sort of world can we create around these people?
What was the most surprising thing you learned while filming ATTACK OF THE MURDER HORNETS and what do you hope people take away from this documentary?
Michael Paul Stephenson: The thing that I learned that I really didn’t see coming, or expect, was the value of public service and the function of government and people working at this level and actually succeeding. For Chris, he wants to do his job for the people,. He doesn’t want to be a slug sitting in public office and taking government money. He wants to feel like money was well-spent and I’ve never considered public service that way. And like a lot of people, you think of government and interacting with government, it’s hard. It’s not easy. It’s a pain. It’s difficult, arduous. It’s bureaucratic. This was one of those experiences where it’s like, wow, this is actually working. And these government public service workers too, they never dealt with anything like this before. They faced public scrutiny even though this process is trial and error. Science is an iterative process. But they’re in the ring actually trying to do something about an issue that’s important and despite failing, they still get up and then try again. That was super inspiring to me in seeing that personally.
ATTACK OF THE MURDER HORNETS is now available on Discovery+.