Published on: 03 August 2022 in Longform
Creating comedy chaos: an interview with Man vs. Bee director David Kerr
Reading time: 27 minutes and 7 seconds
In Man vs. Bee, Rowan Atkinson plays Trevor, a desperate house-sitter pitched into battle with a crafty insect nemesis.
The concept is simple, but the execution was anything but. We spoke to director David Kerr about the intense preparation that went into creating the chaotic comic showdown.
From pulling apart pianos to working with state-of-the-art VFX, producing precision storyboards, and – of course – working with a global comedy icon, David explores his experience as director in depth.
Read our full interview with David Kerr below.
Tell us a bit about how Man vs. Bee got started – were you involved from the beginning?
The kernel of the idea grew from a sketch Rowan did many years ago as Mr Bean: trying to have a picnic, and being pestered by a bee. Rowan thought the idea could be expanded, so he started developing it with the writer Will Davies and producer Chris Clark. We’d all worked together successfully on Johnny English Strikes Again, so they approached me once they had a rough outline script so that I could help to develop it.
Was the idea always to go with Netflix? How did the show find its home?
It was originally pitched to Quibi, the short-form streaming service that launched with big ambition — and decent budgets. It was aimed at an audience who didn’t have much time on their hands, so they could stream shows in quick bites. Hence the name Qui-Bi. But then the pandemic happened, and the one thing everyone had was time. And Quibi folded. But Netflix UK, specifically Vice President of Content Anne Mensah, loved the idea of Man vs. Bee, and of Rowan bringing a brand new character, Trevor, to the screen. So they swooped in and backed the show.
Rowan Atkinson and Will Davies are credited as writers on the show. What was your input on the writing of the programme? Did you get your scripts sent to you complete or did you feed in as they were developed?
The scripts first reached me as a glorified beat sheet, a sequence of actions that shaped the plot. How we developed it was a painstaking process involving months of rehearsal. We’d sit in a room. Rowan, me, and usually Will Davies and Chris Clark. And we’d talk through each beat of the action in incredibly fine detail. Everything was up for grabs. What makeshift “weapons” might Trevor deploy? What would be the consequences? What’s the funniest version of each moment or interaction? Is it believable — and true to Trevor’s character?
We’d all chip in, but I knew that it was always going to be down to me to make something work. So a big part of my role was thinking through the practicalities. What props might we need? Could we achieve something in camera, or would we need VFX? Would we have to adapt the set to accommodate a visual gag? And how could I sustain the visual interest of the show, keep its momentum while making it feel cinematic.
Usually, at the end of each day, Will Davies would take the ideas we’d agreed on and commit them to script form. But nothing was ever totally fixed ahead of the shoot. We’d keep revisiting and refining each set-piece.
What pressures come with directing a script that’s so low on dialogue, and so much about the pure visual medium?
The paucity of dialogue in this show is really unusual. Apart from the first episode where we meet Rowan’s character, Trevor, and the owners of the house he’s sitting, Trevor’s mostly alone. He makes the odd phone call, but he’s not talking to himself — so most of the time we’re dealing with visual storytelling.
And there’s a real purity to that kind of film-making. Which I love. It goes all the way back to silent cinema, the work of masters like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, who were incredible innovators. Almost every time we, as modern-day directors, think we’ve done something clever with the camera, we discover they’ve already done it.
Some years ago, I was lucky enough to be asked to direct the entire first series of BBC2’s Inside No.9, with Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. And one of the episodes, A Quiet Night In, was effectively a silent movie. It was about two hapless burglars trying to steal a valuable painting in a modern minimalist house. And it played out in this one location in more or less real time. That was a huge challenge, because going into it, I knew I couldn’t rely on funny lines to land the comedy. So it really put the pressure on me as a director to get performances at exactly the right pitch — that express a character’s state of mind at key moments. And also to find precisely the right frame and camera choreography for each comic beat. It’s much harder than directing comic dialogue where you can feel pretty confident that yes, this line’s a zinger, there’s a laugh in it. And there’s a fairly reliable grammar of something funny being said aloud, which motivates a comic reaction from another character.
So when I directed Inside No.9, I was fairly terrified that a modern audience might not have the patience to engage in a film without dialogue. And not feel bored. One thing I gave a lot of thought to was trimming the fat. Trying not to have needless longueurs. You have to be very precise and specific. You’re thinking about what the audience needs to know at any given moment, and when to reveal the next detail that’s progressing the plot, or the joke. So, one of the joys of Man vs. Bee was taking some of what I’d learned from directing A Quiet Night In and deploying those techniques on a bigger canvas.
When it comes to casting, naturally Rowan was involved from the start — but you do have a supporting cast that makes appearances throughout Man vs. Bee. Tell us about how you found those actors.
I’m in awe of great actors. And when you’ve worked with a great actor, you want to work with them again. When I’m casting, I often start by thinking about people I’ve loved working with before — who might be able to bring something special or fresh to this role. In the case of Man vs. Bee, some of the supporting cast were people I knew from our previous collaborations. So, Tom Basden, policeman, had written some episodes of Fresh Meat that I directed. But I’d also cast him as an actor in a commercial — over a decade ago — in one of his first TV jobs. I’d previously cast Greg McHugh, who plays Coleman the gardener, as one of the housemates — Howard — in Fresh Meat. The great Claudie Blakley, who plays Trevor’s ex, I had cast twenty years ago in a TV comedy. And Julian Rhind-Tutt, who plays the homeowner, Christian, I had cast in the first ever episode of Inside No.9.
With all these actors, there was a pre-existing level of trust and a shorthand between us that means you can often get further, faster in terms of the work.
But thanks to our brilliant casting director, Aisha Bywaters, I got to work with a bunch of people I’d never worked with before, such as Jung Lusi, who I’d loved in Crazy Rich Asians, and Aysha Kala, who’s a rising star.
Moving on to location. This set was purpose-built — how was it designed to meet the story’s demands?
The house needed to be opulent and lustworthy, so that when Trevor is wowed by it at first sight, the audience feels the same. And the interior had to feel fabulous. It’s the trophy home of a rich, international couple. And one of Netflix’s few notes was that the interior should be a place the audience also wanted to spend time. And of course, the more lavish and grand the house, the greater the jeopardy when Trevor’s battle with the bee gets destructive. I had a lot of back and forth with our production designer, Carly Reddin, where we’d share visual references about architectural features, colour palette and tiny details, down to light fittings and door handles.
We thought about shooting in a real location, but that was going to be tricky. Surprisingly, rich homeowners weren’t queuing up to let us in to trash their beautiful houses. And Covid made it even less likely.
So, we committed to building a house set pretty early on. The basic footprint of a big open space with a kitchen at one end was there from the get-go. But as we rehearsed, we realised we’d need a mud-room to contain the dog. And a glass door to improve sight lines. And we looked at options for where we could place the library. How big should it be, how much of a glass jewel-box. So many of the jokes and set pieces depend on what Trevor can or can’t see at any moment from his vantage point. I needed to be really specific about timing reveals — like Trevor realising the house-sitting manual is on fire — so I got Carly’s team to make me a 3D navigable computer model of the set using SketchUp, and I spent hours positioning virtual lenses on that model and feeding back thoughts, which we’d then use to adapt the set. So, it really was the house that jokes built.
Comedy like this needs to be ruthlessly prepped. Could you tell us about the work that went into the storyboarding and planning — and how much the final product deviated from that?
I’m a big believer in storyboarding, and on a show like this I couldn’t imagine going without it — so I pretty much storyboarded the whole show. Boarding helps me figure out how I want to parcel out information, because so much of comedy is about when you reveal certain things, what’s in the frame and what you’re holding back for another frame, when you want to push the camera in for emphasis. All of those things become very purposeful in this kind of comedy, so boarding is a process of road-testing the story and making sure the comedy is solid. In a sense, it’s my first go at shooting the film – just on paper.
There was an added importance in this show because of the amount of VFX we had. Once you show the bee, you’re committing to a certain amount of FX spend, so storyboarding is a way of making sure in advance that you’re getting the right bang for your buck. You also want to start thinking about how the bee is going to move in the frame, and how it interacts with Trevor – and that was an extra challenge in this show. Normally you can get two character reactions clearly in one frame, but in this show the antagonist is absolutely tiny, almost a dot in the air in a two-shot. So, I had to think up shots where the bee is heavily foregrounded with Trevor behind, a kind of deep-focus two-shot, just to give it some presence and some scale.
The other consideration was how to frame the bee. If you go in close up to a bee’s face, it’s actually pretty terrifying! Although there are times we wanted to tap into the unsettled feeling Trevor has, we didn’t want the bee to be a monster. We wanted the audience to have an affection for the bee.
Finally, the boards were essential for working with Rowan. Rowan is not the sort of actor who shows up on set and says “Where do you want me to stand? Okay, over to you.” Rowan takes part in designing a lot of his own performances. He’s smart enough to know that where the camera is makes a huge difference to the comedy. So, storyboards became a very useful template for the conversations I could have with Rowan. I would use the boards as a talking point ahead of the shoot – and occasionally he’d suggest tweaks, and we’d try it two different ways.
In terms of how much the end result resembles the boards? Some sequences are pretty much identical. Some had a bit of difference, but generally they were similar throughout. The whole thing was about as far away from loose improv as comedy gets.
Let’s move on to performance – starting with the “Man” part of Man vs. Bee. You’ve already worked with Rowan in the past, on Johnny English Strikes Again – did your director/actor relationship have the same dynamic as when you worked on that project? Has it changed at all?
I like to think there’s now a greater trust. With any actor, as a director, you have to quite quickly figure out how they operate – because no two actors want to work the same way. Rowan is very interested in the conceptual side of comedy: thinking through the logic of why something could lead to something else, and how that could be funny. It’s no coincidence that he trained as an engineer. So, you do end up having a lot of – for want of a better word – “intellectual” discussion of some of the most silly sequences. Deep, involved days of talking about how Trevor is going to slide into a big pile of dog poo.
What he wants from me is a sounding board for the ideas he might have, and someone who will put those to the test. He’s a perfectionist, and sometimes I almost have to protect him from the perfectionism. For example, when performing, he might want to keep going and going until we get the perfect take – but the danger is that, as it’s a physical performance, he might run himself ragged and exhaust himself. So, he might get to a place where there’s a greater technical proficiency by take 13, but it’s lost something of the immediacy and fun that was there in take three. So, we might have a situation where I have to convince him: “You’ve already peaked, Rowan, you don’t need another one. You’ve got it!”
Of course, Rowan Atkinson is world famous. Does that bring about any other pressures for you as a director? Are there any considerations that come with that superstardom?
Rowan is a very private, quiet and modest guy, and one of the joys of doing Man vs. Bee was that it was in quite a closed off and controlled environment, with little interaction with the outside. So, when you’re shooting, you’re not thinking about working with Rowan, global and international megastar. This is just Rowan playing Trevor and you’re trying to get the performance as you would with any actor.
I think when you do take Rowan into the wider world, to film on location – that’s when you realise a lot of people get starstruck. For example, filming Johnny English Strikes Again in the South of France, a lot of people were calling out “Monsieur Bean!” and occasionally people would see Rowan and be literally dumbfounded.
But when you’re working with people who have that international profile you still need to be frank with them. You’re no use to them if you’re just trying to butter them up, and not be honest about their performance. They need that input.
Trevor has an emotional hinterland, with a subplot involving his family and being apart from his daughter. Was that something you were helping Rowan consider in rehearsals: the emotional motivations of his character as well as the comedy?
Oh absolutely. Mr Bean is a sort of superannuated child, with the emotional perspectives that that brings. And though Trevor has some innocent qualities, he is nevertheless a divorced man in late middle age who needs this job. And that personal plight just adds a little more jeopardy to the comedy – but of course you never want that to be too dominant. If you’re spending too much time with those elements it gets a bit sad. That was something we kept an eye out for in both the script stage and in the edit. Are we keeping to the promise of the title, or are we losing track of the comedy? Are we losing track of the bee? If you call a show Man vs. Bee, people don’t want Kramer vs. Kramer.
So how does it actually work? How does Rowan perform with an invisible co-star? What is he actually interacting with when you’re shooting?
We’ve all seen shows or films where there’s a character or co-star that’s been created in CG, and you just don’t believe it – and that takes you out of what you’re watching. For instance, something like the eyelines of when a character is looking at a CG character can be very unforgiving. Audiences have very well-tuned antennae for that.
We were very keen that this would be a photo-realistic bee, not some kind of cartoon bee with a cane and a top hat. And if there was going to be some malign behaviour on the part of the bee, it was only going to be drawn from a repertoire of real bee behaviour. So, working with Rob Duncan at Framestore, from the get-go he and I talked about how we could achieve that realism. He and his team spent hours watching nature documentaries to study bee expression and movement. They’d then get ideas about how a bee cleaning their antennae could also suggest preparing for the next attack, or how a bee rearing up on its hind legs could look like it was mocking Trevor. Just small, bee-appropriate gestures that could be seen to have some kind of story-telling meaning.
So, we knew what we wanted to achieve conceptually, but then it was time to bring that on set. We had a puppeteer, Sarah Mardel, who was there pretty much every day with a range of very life-like bees on the end of wires and rods. She too had studied a lot of bee behaviour, and in a typical scene she would dangle the wire in Trevor/Rowan’s orbit for him to interact with using whatever weapon the scene called for. That then gave us a very real touchstone for the ultimate CG design of the bee. We would do a few takes which looked extraordinary on set — this woman dressed all in black running around the place with a bee attached to a fishing rod — and would keep doing takes until we got what we liked. Then we’d do one without the bee, with Rowan effectively relying on muscle memory to recreate where the bee was at any given point. Then Framestore would get their references from the photography, and when we cut the scenes together that’s when they’d really do the work of animating the bee.
I’ve done a lot of work with VFX before but never to the level of having a CG co-star, and I saw that one of the things you have to take on trust is that the co-star is going to be a character you can invest in and feel engaged with. If you’re constantly thinking it’s a ropey CG bee, you’re right out of the show. The early iterations of the shots we got from Framestore were fairly crude, and then very quickly they started ramping up, while we had a constant back and forth refining the bee’s performance. And I have to say, the brilliant work of Framestore gave us our co-star. Hopefully, the end result is that people aren’t conscious of the bee as a visual effect — it’s just a bee.
Let’s talk cameras and camera movement. What did you shoot on, and why?
We used ARRI large format cameras. I say cameras because we had two cameras most of the time — but I approached it very much as a single-camera aesthetic. I like to think about what the primary shot is at any given moment, which very often means not using the second camera. But it’s there in case it can provide you with some benefit.
Often the danger of a second camera, if you’re using it for every set-up, is that it can end up compromising both shots. That was one of the advantages of having such a big set — there was actually room for us to keep one and get a complimentary shot. Still, in the shots I had spent so much time planning, there was really always one sweet spot for the camera to be. I wanted to have a very purposeful aesthetic — I didn’t want it to be handheld and frantic. Camera movement has a very emotional and psychological effect, and it affects the way we perceive action. Also, so much of what Rowan brings as a performer is full-body action. So, the shot design involved thinking: “Is this a moment where we’re going to want to see Trevor full-length?”
Meanwhile, the angel on my shoulder is telling me always to trim the fat. What’s the camera set up we need to keep it tight? What’s the complimentary shot I can get that gives me a cut point if I need it? Think of the precursors of a show like Man vs. Bee, like Jacques Tati, Buster Keaton, and so on – and Rowan is a big fan of Tati, as am I – but if you watch Playtime now, it’s wonderful, but you have to adjust your expectations. The films don’t deliver action in the fast-cut way we’ve become used to. It’s pretty slow, and it requires a degree of patience that audiences are less capable of providing now. In a show like Man vs. Bee you have to earn those moments where things are less frantic by providing some pretty propulsive action to go along with it.
Talk us through the edit – what sort of things emerged in post that hadn’t been apparent before? Was there anything that had to change?
The edit for this was long, partly because of the VFX, and partly because the lack of dialogue meant this was almost a purely visual story – and so a frame or two out of place would make a massive difference. Netflix supported us in having a fairly long post process, which I was really grateful for. You could make cuts on instinct and then revisit them the next day. There was space and time to think of how sound cues and other factors could enhance things.
Also, Rowan would like to come into the edit and see some performance takes, and most of the time we would be very much on the same page. Rhythm was the thing we would often discuss – we were trying to concoct a very delicate recipe with microscopic changes.
We didn’t do much test screening overall, but we did one fairly early on, and saw one moment that needed changing. It came in the scene (plot spoiler) where Trevor inadvertently gasses the dog, Cupcake, in his attempt to gas the bee. The dog falls unconscious, and of course we knew he was unconscious, we’ve seen the scripts, but... the audience thought the dog was dead. So this scene, which we thought was funny, with Trevor trying to revive the unconscious dog – the audience weren’t laughing. They were thinking “Oh my god, Trevor’s killed the dog! I don’t like Trevor.” So, very simple solution: we made the dog snore occasionally, so you’re reminded that, don’t worry, the dog is just sleeping.
This is your first time working with a big streamer like Netflix. How does that experience differ from others you’ve had in the past?
I’m not just saying this, but it was a fantastic experience. Netflix were terrifically supportive. Anne Mensah and Chris Sussman were really enthusiastic and wanted to support us any way they could. This was all during Covid times, so there were issues that arose from that that meant we overran a bit here or there – and they were always helping to support us in those situations. They did give us a few script notes in the early stages – but in general they just let us get on with it, I never felt micromanaged. But on the other hand, if I wanted input, they were there to provide it.
They also did their own thorough test screening, taking it to different focus groups in the UK and the States. It’s pretty astonishing the level of detail they go into there – but thankfully it was all very positive! It was all mainly a reassurance that people were on board with it.
Alongside those test screenings, what sort of reactions have you had to Man vs. Bee?
I have to say, the reaction has been tremendous. As Netflix hoped, it’s worked for them internationally. I believe it’s been in the top 10 of pretty much every country they operate in, so it’s been watched by tens of millions of people globally. To get ecstatic messages out of the blue from people I’ve never met, or never will meet – that’s a lovely feeling. Having said that, you don’t make a mainstream comedy like this and expect critics to applaud you, so of course we got a kicking in one or two quarters – but generally we got great press, from some surprising places too.
But the acid test was are people watching it, and are they staying with it? One of the things that’s new to me about working with a streamer is this idea of “click through”, where in the edit, you’re thinking about whether it feels like the episode ending works in terms of story and emotion – but also whether it’s going to make the viewer click through to the next episode. Again, Netflix collect this data intensively. They can probably tell you exactly at what moment the audience gives up in every episode – but fortunately it seems like audiences stuck with Man vs. Bee.
So, what’s your favourite gag from Man vs. Bee?
I’m going to allow myself two. I love the sequence inside the piano. A lot of Rowan’s comedy has revolved around the piano – think of the Olympics – so there’s a high bar when you’re putting Rowan and a piano together.
But the sequence with the bee inside the piano, and how the hammers just keep missing it — it felt like a great idea from the start, and also one that would be really cool to execute. I spent ages taking pianos apart and putting tiny cameras into them to scan how they might appear relative to the scale of a bee, and we even had a guy from Yamaha come in with different pianos he’d taken apart so we could look at the sight lines.
We shot with very special lenses, basically tiny tracking devices, and then built around that with CG. So, that’s special to me, because it was so difficult to execute – but hopefully the audience isn’t thinking that while it’s happening. They’re just watching a silly, funny sequence.
Possibly my favourite gag, in one moment, is when Trevor — who has pursued the bee relentlessly for a long time — thinks he’s killed it and is giving it a send-off with a little bonfire in the garden. He’s placed the vacuum bag — which he thinks contains the bee he’s squashed — on the flames, and is singing this funereal chant to the bee. Then there’s a shot with the vacuum cleaner in the foreground, Trevor in the distance, that just tracks to reveal the top of the nozzle where Trevor had sucked up the bee…and we just see the bee starting to creep out. Whether you see it coming or you don’t, I think it works.
So, what’s next for you after Man vs. Bee?
I have no idea at the moment! I’m attached to one or two film ideas that may or may not come to fruition, as is the way with films. I’m reading scripts from the US and the UK, and I’m very likely to be doing commercials next. I do a lot of commercial directing – and I love it. You get to fashion a story in short form and there really is no room for fat. I almost exclusively do comedy commercials, and you need to deliver something in 10, 30 seconds and be so focussed on the core elements of the joke. So, it’ll be commercials for now, while I wait to see which pot bubbles over next!
Thanks so much for talking to us today!
David Kerr is represented by Casarotto Ramsay & Associates. Man vs. Bee is available to watch now on Netflix.