Actor turned director Michael Paul Stephenson has moved from genre-centric documentaries like Best Worst Movie and The American Scream to macro camera nature docs with Attack of the Murder Hornets – but he’s kept his B movie roots intact. Following an eccentric group of beekeepers and scientists, the new Discovery+ film covers the early days of the murder hornet outbreak in Vancouver and Washington state.
One look at the poster design for Attack of the Murder Hornets by legendary illustrator and hardcore horror fan Ghoulish Gary, it’s easy to see the 50’s sci-fi aesthetic. That through line keeps injecting a sense of pulpy fun during the running time but, surprisingly, Stephenson’s intimate access reveals a much more inspiring tale about how citizen scientists and the local government can actually work together to help the world survive a potential ecological crisis.
In a lengthy convo over Zoom, Stephenson was honest about what a welcome distraction the murder hornet was during COVID, how moved he was by the selfless work of the many oddball characters he encountered, being stung during shooting, and whether or not he would drink a murder hornet cocktail. There are crazy conspiracy theories about how the hornets got into the U.S that we also discussed.
To give you an idea of some of the quirky characters you’ll be introduced to, Stephenson mentioned that Ted McFall, one of the featured beekeepers, actually names all the bees. “Queen Eliza-buzz, Bee-yoncé, this is the new one, they had a queen Cobra Kai and they called her Cobra Kai because Ted had accidentally in working with her and moving her had broken one of her legs.” But the most important question was asked first: Who would win in a fight between a Murder Hornet and Godzilla?
Synopsis: The film dives deep into the Murder Hornets phenomena, one of 2020’s massive viral stories, and chronicles the exciting hunt to prevent the threat of this dangerous species that is laid out in stark terms when a beekeeper discovers 60,000 honeybees DECAPITATED one day, kicking off a Michael Crichton-esque collaboration of scientists, the public, and government workers to solve the problem.
The documentary leans playfully into genre elements – combining slasher and 1950s creature-feature tropes – and fits well within Stephenson’s acclaimed documentary filmography, exploring the lighter side of horror in movies like Best Worst Movie and The American Scream while highlighting fascinating subcultures.
Dread Central: The queens in this movie are just huge, it’s frightening.
Michael Paul Stephenson: They look like creatures from another planet, right? They have such character, their faces.
DC: When did you first hear about the murder hornet?
MPS: For me it was the NY Times article which was May 2nd. Like everyone else, we were all at home in our underwear, not going anywhere and not showering, miserable. It was hard. All of a sudden, here comes murder hornets. Of course! Sure. Why not? It became a phenomenon. It went from, like, news to late night comedy. I was interested in the character story of it all. I thought it was a real interesting mix of a beekeeper who this issue effects, obviously, very seriously. Having his bees decapitated and not knowing what did it to government pest control workers having to try to find this thing, track it, hopefully find the nest…it just seemed impossible. What could go wrong? These guys never dealt with this thing before. I don’t get excited so much about, necessarily about issues or politics; I get excited about characters, people. And these guys were against all odds. I had never considered the impact of an invasive species and it just felt like…this feels like a horror movie.
DC: There are a lot of serious issues but you’re also leaning into the B movie aspect of it. So who do you think would win, a murder hornet or Godzilla?
MPS: (laughs) Are we talking one murder hornet?
DC: If we’re talking one murder hornet then it’s going to have to be Kaiju size.
MPS: Oh wow! Kaiju size murder hornet? I can’t imagine anything more terrifying. It can fly, spit venom. If the stinger on a normal two-inch size murder hornet is literally this long, on a Kaiju size we’re talking a foot long and more.
DC: Good math skills.
MPS: I’d have to say the murder hornet.
DC: If 10-15 bites, I think the documentary said, can kill a human…and that footage of the bites…it looks almost like a shark attack…it’s crazy. If that can kill a human, I would say maybe fifty for Godzilla.
MPS: And it has wings and they’re fast. They’re super just robust creatures for their size. Imagining that at Kaiju scale? One of the first things that I did when I was starting to work on this project was I created a piece of art that has a gigantic…I mean the fear that took hold of people throughout the country was out of a horror movie. The first piece of art that I made for it had this gigantic hornet hovering over our beekeepers. So, it’s interesting to imagine that now Kaiju size.
DC: And Ghoulish Gary did the artwork for this.
MPS: Yeah, Gary Pullin. I’m a longtime fan of him, his work, and wanted to work with him for awhile.
DC: Did any prints get made for poster art?
MPS: I think Discovery is making some prints ’cause I want to give them just to surprise people with gifts. I take poster art really serious and I like to frame stuff and hang it. I was really excited with the poster and the art and Gary’s work. I don’t think there’s any plans right now to make prints outside of that. One could hope, you know?
DC: Was anyone stung while shooting? I could not believe in some of those scenes that they were not being attacked at some point.
MPS: So, nobody was stung by a hornet. I had to wear a whole hornet suit and we had to be very safe and nobody got stung, fortunately. Except I got stung. I was shooting the bees and I was with Ted and it was at night. I was in a full beekeeper suit. It’s dark and you’ve got the sound of the bees around you and it makes this incredible sound. It’s a sound that you can almost feel in your blood. It vibrates inside you. I looked and I see this bee crawling up and I said, ‘Wait a second, that’s on the inside of my suit.’ I got stung right after that. Us being amateurs, I had left part of my bee suit open and they had gotten into my suit. So, within about a minute I had six or seven bee stings.
DC: I would’ve panicked.
MPS: It was something. When they sting, they also let out, I believe, I’m not the scientist, they let out a pheromone and then others will sting so more come.
DC: It’s like blood in the water. There are crazy theories in the documentary that you explore about how these apex predators got into the country in the first place. Who was smuggling hornets to foodies? What do you believe? Would you try a murder hornet cocktail? I had scorpion wine once.
MPS: Okay, so, to answer your question, yes, I would try a murder hornet cocktail. I would. Because that’s just who I am and I would make anyone who was with me try one, too. If I’m going to suffer or enjoy I want to suffer or enjoy with someone next to me. Would I? Sure.
Now, the theories in terms of how they got here? Whenever there’s a problem that’s unexplainable everybody wants an answer. How did this happen? The reality is that nobody’s going to know how they got here. Ever. There are theories that I’ve presented in the film and these are the theories that were told to me. I think that everybody can conclude that they’re here because of humans. They’re here because of us. In some form or another, we brought this species into an environment where it was not native. You’ve got the landscape of based, logical and rational; and you’ve got the emotional and the fear and the far-fetched and the illogical, right? And the hornet’s no different. They’ve actually caught people at the border with larvae and that it is a delicacy. I’ve had people tell me that they think it’s intentional and that it’s more nefarious and that this is an actual attempt to try to impact U.S. agriculture. I play with it. Let’s make a cartoon out of this, let’s make it from educational to ‘Ok, this is crazy.’
Hopefully, people come away from the film not only learning about it as a serious issue but feeling like they were able to relate to some or one of these characters who are in the midst of this. And, along the way, had fun. The murder hornet, in an otherwise grim year, has been a bright spot of light for me. To get to know folks like Chris and Ted and work on it, it’s a gift. And then be able to look at it through the lens of what’s a horror, what’s a science fiction drama look like through these guys.
DC: Hopefully, we can have a murder hornet cocktail in person one of these days. Oh! And don’t think that I missed the Star Wars reference, The Empire Strikes Back, the Dagobah reference because I totally did.
MPS: You’re the only person that has mentioned that so that’s awesome! Thank you for watching the movie, that means everything.
Attack of the Murder Hornets premieres February 20th on Discovery+ as part of the Undiscovered series.