Based on its name alone, Attack of the Murder Hornets sounds less like a documentary and more like a sci-fi film from the '50s, but anyone who checks out the new discovery+ film will be treated to an experience that somehow manages to satiate both interests. While some creators were quick to jump on the ominous nickname "Murder Hornets," also known as the Asian giant hornet, to deliver cheap thrills, filmmaker Michael Paul Stephenson knew that he didn't have to sensationalize the real-world threat of the invasive species arriving in Washington state, as the reality of the situation was already unsettling enough.
In November 2019, beekeeper Ted McFall was horrified to discover his strong colony of 60,000 honeybees had been mysteriously decimated- honeybees beheaded and their hive wiped clean. He had no clue as to what kind of creature was behind the carnage, until a looming threat provided him the answer: the Asian Giant Hornet. This dangerous, new, and invasive species has made headlines across the nation since its arrival in the U.S., specifically the Pacific Northwest, where the first nest was discovered in Blaine, Washington.
The all-new feature documentary, launching February 20th on discovery+, centers on a concerned crew of beekeepers and scientists who must work together to protect their quiet Washington community from the threat of the "Murder Hornet."
ComicBook.com recently caught up with Stephenson to talk the line between reality and sensationalism, finding his film subjects, and previous filmmaking efforts.
Return to Ghoulie Manor
ComicBook.com: Before we get into the Murder Hornets, as fan of Halloween and being from Massachusetts, your documentary The American Scream [about home haunters in New Bedford, Massachusetts] is one of the films, outside of Trick 'r Treat and Halloween, that I have to revisit every October. It evokes so many great memories of Halloween and growing up trick-or-treating and just that part of the country at that time of the year, so if nothing else, I just have to thank you for that film.
Michael Paul Stephenson: Thanks for the kind words. Massachusetts, your state, forever has a place in my heart from that whole experience. It's funny, because I still will talk to those haunters or hear from them every few weeks. It's impossible to not make a film around -- for me anyway -- subjects that don't sort of become a strange extension of your family. I care about the people that I make these films about and so it's impossible to not stay close to them as years go by.
Well that begs the question, if you're still in contact with the people from that movie and we're coming up on its 10th anniversary soon, has there ever been talk of, maybe not a full movie, but any sort of reunion to look back on the experience?
I'd do it in a heartbeat. Victor [Bariteau], it wasn't long after the film premiered when he took me back to his Ghoulie Manor and gave me a lights-on tour and it was incredible. Seeing him light up and talk about this dream now that it was realized, as he walked me through this 18,000-square-foot haunted house, it was incredible. Obviously, not an easy business. I thought making movies was probably the worst business, but probably making a haunted house is worse than that. But I know that once you're a haunter, you're always a haunter. And these guys stay very close and Victor has taken a couple of years off, but he is very much ... you can't help but see him do it and feel that's his calling or, at least, something that he gets a lot of joy out of.
I hope that he gets a chance to do what he does best again, and that's to scare people. And if he does, and I have the opportunity to see it, I would do it in a heartbeat, mainly for my own [enjoyment], just to see his face light up again in trying to make another haunted house.prevnext
Between The American Scream and Best Worst Movie [about the cult following of the film Troll 2], I associate your name with a certain realm of documentary, and that realm isn't natural history. What was it about the spread of these "Murder Hornets" that you knew, even if this wasn't your specific realm, that you had to get involved?
It's funny because I'm drawn mostly to just character stories. Character stories told from within interesting, visual, fun, scary, entertaining worlds. It's funny because I don't look at things and think, "Oh, that's a topic I want to [explore]." Even with The American Scream, I wasn't like, "Oh, I want to make a film about haunted houses," but I wanted to make a film about amateur haunted house creators. Or Best Worst Movie even, I didn't really think, "I'm going to make a film about Troll 2," but I want to make the film about a director who comes to grips with what his movie has become all these years later. So I'm drawn towards people. I'm drawn towards characters.
I don't think I've ever even said the word "entomology" before in my whole life, but when I read the article, the New York Times article in May, I was drawn to the beekeepers and the government pest-control workers and the scientists and them having to try to stop the threat of an invasive species. For me, it felt like, "Here's a great chance to..." It felt like a horror movie. It felt like a science-fiction drama. You've got characters that, let's face it, are up against all odds, right? Not unlike folks in The American Scream, not unlike an Italian director who's setting out to make his horror movie in Utah with actors who can't act. And I think that's what I'm drawn towards a lot, is not only character stories, but these people that are facing the impossible.
In reading that article and thinking about, this is the team that is on the front line trying to stop this thing, how difficult and how impossible [it is], and there's no way this is going to work. That's where my mind is, like, "How is this going to work?"
It was really great as I worked on the story because I felt like I was living science in real-time. All of a sudden I was observing the world a little bit more and was considering bugs and insects and the ways that they impact our ecology, all these things that you don't ever really consider, but I'm always drawn first, just a spark towards people.prevnext
Your previous documentaries focus on specific people, by nature, so when it came to deciding who the subjects of this documentary would be, how did you go about researching the appropriate people to tell this story?
My process, and same with The American Scream -- Best Worst Movie was different because they were my cast members. So I knew it's going to be cast members, fans, and I knew the director was a big deal. But I did have a moment with Best Worst Movie where, the very first screening in New York of Troll 2, it was the first thing I was filming for the documentary.
Quick story: I got out of the car, I was with George Hardy at the Upright Citizen's Brigade theater. The line erupted because they recognized me. And they're like, "It's Farmer Waits!" And it was raining, George was in the middle of the street and George was like, "Michael, come on, this is great!" And he ran over and everyone's cheering. And that was the moment where I'm like, "This is the film. This is the guy."
And The American Scream, it was similar. It's funny because I had done a whole process of meeting with haunters throughout the East coast. My first thought was, "I've got to do it on the East coast, New England, because it's Halloween." But then my second was like, I've got to cast the net and I've got to meet these people and get a feel for them. And Victor, I had everyone submit forms online and I kind of graded them like, "This is interesting, maybe not so much, and this and this." Just trying to cast the net, because we had 800 people submit within a week. And then with Victor, during that, we were going through, I did a two-week scout and was meeting with different folks that I had categorized in my, "Hey, I should meet these folks pile."
The night before we went on that, I saw randomly on a haunter's forum, I saw a picture of Victor and his daughter, and his daughter standing in front of this gigantic spider. I was like, "Wait, what's this?" And I looked and he was in my yellow pile. I went back to it and I looked at the address of his house, and then I was like, "Oh, it's close to where we're going over here. Let's just throw him into the green pile." So then I met him and the first time I met him, his daughter dumped Barbies with their heads chopped off at my feet. And I was like, "Okay, this is great."
To talk about this movie, this was a similar thing, I Zoomed with [Ruthie Danielsen] and Ted [McFall] and these guys are really interesting and I love them. Then I was like, "Man, I'm really got to have somebody in the WSDA and in the government." A lot of people, when it comes to thinking about having to work with the bureaucracy of government, it can feel daunting. Chris Looney had done some press, he had done some things, but for whatever reason, we hadn't connected yet. So when I came out here prior to start shooting and scouting, I met Chris ... or I met Ted and Ruthie. Hadn't met Chris yet. He was on my list. And I finally had a chance to meet him. They were moving some beehives, I ran out there and drove out there in my car, I see him on the road walking towards the beehive and I'm excited, I'm in the car. I'm like, "Hey, you're Chris Looney, right? I'm so excited to meet you." And he just looked at me, he's like, "Yeah, that's me." And he kept walking.
I'm like, "This is the guy." I was really drawn to him as a scientist. There were a few people, other people that we met, but there wasn't a lot of time. I had to really quickly dig in and say, "This is where we're going to make this movie." I wanted it to be small and intimate. I wanted it to feel like an ensemble, like The American Scream. I didn't want it to feel like experts speaking and lots of people that you don't really care about. Again, it all starts with, how do you get invested in it? So that's how. The short answer is, until you meet someone and until you have a face-to-face, it's hard to know. With The American Scream, I had people that seemed like, and even with this, I had people on my list that I thought, "Oh, they'll be great and perfect," but for whatever reason, it just wasn't our movie.prevnext
Heightening the Horrors
The title, of course, feels like a silly sci-fi movie, but this is a real-world threat for the environment. The movie itself also finds this great balance of leaning into more dramatic elements, yet staying grounded in the real situation. How did you find that right balance between staying grounded in the science while also leaning into the more dramatic elements?
When I saw the New York Times article, it hit me in a moment of time that all of us were experiencing [the coronavirus pandemic] where we were all living a horror movie, right? And then, all of a sudden the Murder Hornets came and everyone's like, "Oh, what more? Now it's Murder Hornets." And it just felt like, "What horror movie are we living?" And when I read the article, right from the get-go, I was like, "Man, there's a science-fiction-drama horror here. Like, that's what excited me creatively. And it wasn't a natural history doc, it wasn't an environmental doc. It was a character-driven documentary and told in a way that felt like a real-life, stranger than fiction, science-fiction horror movie.
When I pitched it, the first piece of art that I had created, it looked like a '50s horror movie or '60s horror movie. I had a gigantic hornet hovering above the scientists. So that was always like, it was the fun way to lean into this world. And, look, science doesn't have to be boring, right? It's funny because I showed my kids a cut of it, they had no idea. I have three daughters -- 5, 10, and 13 -- and when they watched it for the first time, they were like, "Man, dad, we thought you were just making this boring science movie." I think like that's the trick, or at least the luxury with entertainment, is if you can entertain and create a world where you feel attached to the characters, then you can just as effectively smuggle in themes that are important that the movie speaks to and get people to consider things like the impact of the honeybee and how that can impact their agriculture.
And, "Wow, why isn't the federal government giving more support to these people in this part of the world who are the only ones fighting this invasive species?" All these sorts of things. I'm not someone who makes political docs or issue-oriented docs, but that's mainly because what gives me the gas to see it through is I find a genuine respect and love for the people that I'm centered on and it doesn't even necessarily matter if I agree with their viewpoint, if I feel like they believe in something and they have purpose for something, you've got my respect, I'm in.
It was fun to think of it like ... I mean, the media contextualized it early on and everybody was like, "It's horrific." The media contextualized it and a lot of that fear was sensational, it was driven, but it is a very real threat. It's interesting for me to have met these characters and see somebody like Ted, the beekeeper, who ... that's a real hit to his family. Losing bees, bees are his family and his livelihood. And he's scared of this thing, right? And he's very much like, "God help us." Then you have the scientist, Chris, who is very rational and methodical and just wants to do his job well. That was the thing that surprised me about this film, is just seeing the example of public service and the small faction of government actually working with its people. Getting to see someone who ... and Chris says, "Look, I didn't want to be just some slug sitting in my office picking up public money." I was like, "Wow, that's the stuff you don't see coming." Like early on I thought, "I want to make a horror movie." I never imagined that I'd be like, "Oh, public service."prevnext
WARNING: Spoilers below for Attack of the Murder Hornets
One of the more unexpected parts of the film is the climax when a nest is discovered and the beekeeper shares his excitement at them all possibly being killed as the scientists felt some remorse over these creatures that don't know they're doing harm. Then even more obstacles emerge that take everyone by surprise. How did you personally react to this journey coming to an end like this?
My first reaction was, they did the impossible. Like, this is historical. They found the nest. I think I get to this point of every project and I go back and I'm like, "Man, if that didn't happen, if that didn't happen, if that didn't happen, this whole thing [wouldn't have worked]." And at the beginning, you're like, "I don't even know if they'll find a hornet, let alone find a nest." I mean, you hope, but when we were filming, it was getting to the point in the window where the window was closing where I was already in my mind thinking, "How am I going to end this without them finding the nest?"
In fact, the scene where they're in the field or they're in the park, the city park, using the new technology practicing was right towards the end of them stopping for the season. I went and I shot that and I was also asking them that day, "Okay, we didn't find it. What's next? What's next year? What do we do now?" And they, of all people, were like, well, "Look, we still may find it." And my brain, I was like, "I don't know." That day, we got the call from Philip, that homeowner who caught the other hornet. And then the next day we were chasing them in the woods, trying to locate this thing. So my fear was always, "Will they find it?" When they find it, I felt that moment is forever seared into my brain, being there that moment when they find this thing, because that's what you live for in non-fiction. There's so many ways that you can miss that moment and to be there and witness it was amazing.
To see everybody's individual reactions, from Chris being like, "You can't describe the morals of man to an insect, Murder Hornets nonsense." To Ted being like, "I hate this thing and I want it to go back to Hell." It's everyone having their own reaction to their relationship to this hornet and its world. As human beings, the thing that makes us fascinating is that our emotions are complex, it's not black or white. It's easy to be like "good versus evil" in movies sometimes and, in real life, people are not that way. People have different reactions. For Ted, he's very fear-driven. This impacts his family. For Chris, he's relieved because at least he feels like he earned his paycheck.
When [other human obstacles occur], I was like, "Wow, here are these heroes that went so far to find this thing only to get only to get obstructed by another obstacle. Another thing they didn't see." Of course, my head went to, "That's science and progress. It's constantly trying to get over hurdles that just are uncontrollable, you don't seem coming, these sorts of things." So that was really emotional.
Then, again, when Chris says, and this is the defining moment for me in his character and who he is, when he says, "It's hard for me to fault somebody who can make this much money -- without moralizing or being grandstanding -- that's self-sacrifice." And it's the defining characteristic, in my mind, of a real hero. And I would've never ... I wouldn't have pinned that objective. Again, always the ever-present scientist. So yeah, pretty wild.
Attack of the Murder Hornets debuts on discovery+ on February 20th.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can contact Patrick Cavanaugh directly on Twitter.prev