Mississippi elementary school principal directs horror film

Published 8:01 pm Saturday, October 30, 2021

Shot entirely on the Mississippi coast, school principal Sean Riley’s second film, “Royal Jelly,” used local talent to create a horror film about bees.

Now available on major streaming platforms, including Amazon, iTunes and YouTube, the horror feature sees the protagonist Aster, a high school outcast and bee enthusiast played by University of Southern Mississippi alumna Elizabeth McCoy, taken under the wing of a mysterious mentor, only to discover that she is being groomed as a hive’s next queen.

Riley, writer, director and producer of the film, said the story idea originated in 1999 but was re-worked in 2019, with production beginning that same year and wrapping in 2020.

He got the idea for the film after learning about bee hierarchies at USM as an undergraduate student. Riley thought it interesting that the bee hierarchy, with females being at the top, contrasted with traditional societal roles. He wanted to incorporate that into his film.

“It’s kind of like flipping what we might think of as traditional society on its head,” Riley said. “I knew that the concept was the foundation of the makings of a good movie.”

The bees in the film were handled by Dan Allen, a beekeeper from Jackson County, Mississippi.

Riley also wrote, produced and directed “Fighting Belle” (2017).

In addition to lead actress McCoy, a USM theater graduate, the film also features Mississippi native Raylen Ladner, supporting actress; Christopher Boler, USM film graduate and sound recordist; Adrienne Newell, Hattiesburg resident and background actress; and Joe Hodgin, composer. Several USM theater students were background actors in the film as well.

Shooting locations for “Royal Jelly” included Gulfport, Biloxi, Diamondhead, St. Martin and Lucedale.

Riley has been a Mississippi public school educator for 18 years, serving three years as principal of Benndale Elementary School in George County School District. Riley graduated from USM with a degree in film in 2001.

“I made ‘Royal Jelly’ while working full-time as an elementary school principal and completing my (education specialist) degree,” Riley said. “Oh, and there was also that little COVID-19 thing unfolding at the time as well.”

When people find that out, they think I must be an insane workaholic. It’s amazing what you can accomplish, though, when you’re truly passionate about something.”

Lead actress McCoy described the film as Riley’s passion project. She said filming took over a year as opposed to a typical two months because it had to be shot on weekends.

“’Royal Jelly’ was a great experience,” McCoy said. “There’s some really talented people on the coast. … I feel like it’s getting to be more common for movies to be filmed in Mississippi, and I feel like it’s picking up just a little bit. … I feel like all the projects I’ve worked on in Mississippi have been very unique.”

McCoy, a New Orleans native, has been involved in other shorts, series and films, including a starring role in the film “Twisted Ambitions” and a role in TV documentary series “Dark Waters: Murder in the Deep.”

McCoy said working on the film helped her grow as an artist, and working with the bees was the most unique takeaway.

“It was a frightening process at first, but I got pretty comfortable with (the bees). … It was just fascinating to see the queen bee in the hive and how she looks different from the other bees.”

Supporting actress and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College graduate Ladner said it was exciting to see filming locations in her hometown.

“The first time we filmed was actually in Diamondhead and I drove two minutes to set,” Ladner said. “… It’s amazing to be able to bring my own home life and my own territory into such a cool project.”

The movie was picked up by distributor Uncork’d Entertainment for worldwide release.