What BULLY Director Lee Hirsch is "Not Willing to Cut," Plus: Earning Trust and Getting Footage

Featured Critic; Toronto, Canada (@filmfest_ca)
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What BULLY Director Lee Hirsch is "Not Willing to Cut," Plus: Earning Trust and Getting Footage
I sat down Monday afternoon with director Lee Hirsch to talk about his film Bully (read my review of the film here), the challenges of making a film about kids in terrible situations, and the latest on the ratings issue that has plagued the film's release in the US.

Can you comment on last week's reports that suggest that, based on leaks from [American producers] the Weinstein Company, the film might be cut to a PG-13 rating in the States?

I'm not willing to cut the film.

I'm certainly not willing to cut the scene that's causing us trouble, I'll make that clarification, the one that's got us in trouble. There's six curses in the film, a couple I could live without having, but the scene that they're really rating us for is the one I won't cut, the one on the bus.

When you saw several provinces in Canada giving it a PG rating, what did you think?

Honestly, I was jumping with joy, as we were in the middle of this fight. To take on the MPAA is  not a small thing. I started thinking, "am I crazy?" Then the phone calls started: BC, PG. Yes! Sasaketchewan, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario... it just kept coming, and it was so great. It gave courage to me, and our supporters.

There's not a teenager in America who has not heard or used "bad" language. The bigger problem for the MPAA is that they continually rubber stamp movies with hyper and extreme violence, or the kind of sex that they think is appropriate.

Hunger Games gave us this wonderful contrast in the middle of this.

Americans are saying, actually, "Fuck off! You're not speaking for us!"

The bigger question is who does the MPAA really represent, and are they doing an adequate job, are they really speaking for parents. I hope that while we haven't been victorious, I know for a fact that there's been very deep conversation within the MPAA because of this, and there may be changes.

What I like is that [theatre chains] are taking this on a case-by-case basis, and they are being forced to evaluate where they stand on it. It's been fascinating to see resistance. I think a lot of studios are actually cheering us for this fight.

This is a project you're extremely close to - when you're filming something so raw, how hard was it to take that home every day?

This was a really hard to make, fundamentally.

You take on a lot, and I think that that was something I felt, something my whole team felt. It wasn't just the families just in the film, we filmed with many more families not in the film, so it was even more of that.

I think that it meant a lot the connection that we had with the kids in the film, it meant a lot to them that I showed up to tell the story. I almost feel like the healing began at that point.

I filmed with five families that lost kids that year, and there's only two in the film. The youngest was nine years old, and he had hanged himself in the bathroom of the nurse's office. That was insane, actually, I can't even put words to what that feels like.

I met [one family] the morning they buried their son. The emotional navigation of that was something you're never prepared for. Sometimes, you see journalists ready to, "how do you feel about..." [mimes shoving mic into faces], and I'm not like that, I've never had that experience before.

It was a profoundly quiet experience. We met, they said "what do you need?", and I said, "you need to wear a microphone". We didn't talk again.

At the end of the funeral he said, "Hurry up. Get this film out there, and try and help as many people as you can."

Most of the kids were situated in the Midwest of the US - how did that come about, and how did you find your subjects?

We talked to kids in LA, we talked to kids in New York, we talked to a kid in Halifax. We filmed a family, a very wealthy, urban story in Minneapolis [that didn't make it into the film].

The stories in the film are the stories that were ultimately the strongest. The breakthrough for us was getting permission to film inside of a school, and that landed us in the middle of the country in Iowa.

It wasn't a conscious choice that we were only going to film in small cities and towns, it was just ultimately where the stories were.

It's important to note that the same problems happen in urban environments, in hyper progressive liberal college towns. Bullying doesn't know from geography, or class, or race, it's one of the only things where those don't play a role.

In big cities, though, kids that don't fit in have more ways to find validation or community than in some of the smaller places.

Without a clear ending to the story, how did you decide between the kids' tales? What made some of these stories stronger than others leading to their inclusion in the film?

The concept of resolution was a really strange concept when making this film, because these narratives are open arcs with very little resolution.

I think that it was important that we had different types of stories - we don't have five stories about LGBT kids being bullied. Ultimately, the film is four vignettes and one really big story.

I think Alex's story is the throughline, has the arc, the full journey. The others were more cobbled together, and that's how it was with the rest of the stories because we didn't have access, it was testimonial.

How were you able to get the footage on the bus, was it just a matter of always being there?

It was largely that.

bully-doc-1.jpgI'd ridden the bus a bunch, and that was towards the end of the school year when that happened. I felt that the kids kinda stopped noticing us on week two, [and this was] week 80 or whatever.

Kids today are used to living their life under cameras - buses have very visible cameras on them in this district. Schools have cameras all over the hallways. I wonder if that also played a role, the concept of being filmed is just a different headspace.

What I found troubling is that it seemed they had license to bully [Alex], that they'd been doing it for a long time, and they'd gotten away with it for a long time. They just felt it was OK.

The vignettes were, for lack of a better term, very one-sided. Can you talk about the challenges of getting access to their schools, to talking to the bullies themselves?

I tried to talk to the bullies. [The story of the African American girl who brought a gun onto a bus to cease her own bullying] was a really strange story, because it was a national story about the heroism of the boy who tackled her, it was a very big story. Everyone had closed rank to throw this girl away and celebrate the hero. It happened to be the one who tackled her happened to be the number one draft pick in the state at the time, so he was already a Golden kid.

I couldn't get the school, I tried to get the bus driver really hard, I couldn't...

Look, this film tells the story of the people that are... um, in a way it's a story for victims, it's a film for them.

It's not a perfect piece of journalism, it's a film that steps into the world of people dealing with this and tells their stories.

What's interesting for me about that particular part of the story is that the victim of bullying herself became a bully with a gun. What you have on the bus are a bunch of people as terrified as she must have ever been.

But the film doesn't deny that. Everyone can see that what she did was totally terrifying.

I wish that I had been able to talk to some of those kids, I wish I understood from them what they thought was happening, what they thought was going on with her.

How did you get access to the actual people, the schools that you did get access to?

The big piece of that was getting access in Sioux City [where Alex's story, and the main thrust of the film, takes place]. [At one] school , they gave me ten minutes if I didn't show a single other student, which, if you notice, it's very carefully shot, just walking through the hallways.

In Sioux City we were incredibly fortunate because the school district granted us unfettered access for a year. You see we're in the Principal's office, we're in the hallways, we're privy to stuff you wouldn't normally be privy to. It was very brave decision on their part. It sucks, in a way, because they're a district that's trying really committed to a difference, that's trying really hard, and they have ten years of elbow grease into the fight to try and transform those school. It was an act of courage. The were like, "we [think] we're doing a great job, but maybe we're not. We'll learn from this, and it'll make us better, even if it reveals stuff we're not very proud of." So it's pretty awesome that they did that, and stood by us.

Then we had a pretty complicated system with releases. We had general releases for all the students, but if they were interviewed, or seen bullying, we had to go get more formal, proper, individual releases. 28 out of 29 kids that were involved in some way bullying Alex, their parents all signed releases after the fact, which is pretty amazing.

Had those parents said no, we would have had a really different film.

We were really fortunate - we got everybody's permission but one, and that's because he left the district and we couldn't find him. It's the kid that's actually blurred on the bus - it's wasn't that they denied us permission, it's that we couldn't find them. There's a lot of transient families in that community, they were one of the families that had just come and gone.

How did you choose the kids to follow in the first place?

Each story was very different. Ja'Maya [the African American girl], we reached out to her mom, and I just had a fundamentally different take on what was happening, and just wanted to tell their side of the story. We got in with the pastor, and her family, and her counsellor, that's how we got inside where she was incarcerated.

Kelby, she and her family were desperate to tell their story, "Please come, how soon can you get here?" That's how it was with a lot of the families.

They found you online?

We found them, her mom had written into Ellen [Degeneres'] blog. Ellen's producers connected us, we sent them a letter, and they were immediately very welcoming.

Were you at the school already when you found Alex?

I found Alex on the first day of shooting, and I just knew. That's the irony, some people say, "Oh, you can't really see bullying. I care, I just don't see it." I would say, if you're looking, you'll see it.

If you're looking for who's left out, who's being trampled over, you'll see it.

So, you picked the school, and found the star of your film.


What did you do to earn the trust of the kids?

It was so easy, all I had to do was say I was bullied and just talk to them like a human being, I want to tell your story, and I care.

I'm a warm guy, I'm open, I was very candid about what the film was. I asked for their partnership. I'd break bread with the families before we started filming, we'd really talk about what this film was about, who I was, where I was coming from and my hopes for the film. Those things mattered.

Did you talk to any of those doing the actual bullying?

The kids that bullied Alex, when you talk to them, they look like little angels, like the way they play it in the principal's office.

bully-doc-poster-250.jpgIt didn't feel to me like the film, the film felt like it was with these families. When I threw away the notion of doing a sort of rigorous, intellectual, expert driven documentary, and just found the heart and soul of the film being with these families, that all just sort of fell away.

Then you're getting into explaining the pathos of a bully, and there's all kinds of conflicting views on who is a bully, and what drives that. Some people think they're little psychopaths destined for a life of misery and incarceration, other people think they're little kings and queens and are doing quite fine, and are well adjusted.

There was just so much disparity of views that to go down that road would require...[pause] It'd be a different movie.

I sort of like the kid, Trey, who says he was a bully and then he stopped. There's correlation between being bullied and then, if you then have an opportunity, [exhibiting] that bullying behaviour.

Because the film is not a psychologist-driven exploration, it's a story that is character driven. It's just a different film.

Was there concern that following Alex around with a camera would draw additional hostility?

Totally. We were very careful to have lots of kids we filmed in the school. So had decoy kids.

The staff kind of knew - we were discussing our concerns with the administration before we even showed them the footage, it was already escalating. It was no secret to the administration that Alex was being bullied and we were very much following what was happening to him, and how it was handled.

I don't believe the student body figured it out, which was really good.

Alex, of course, knew. He was a partner, he had to choose this every day. We'd have to find each other, and I'd slip him the microphone, and off he would go.

It's early days, but what is the impact the release of the film is having on Alex and his family?

Alex is doing so amazing right now. He saying, "I feel like I'm a teacher, I want to teach everybody to get along better." He's found his voice, he's confident, his lip doesn't shake anymore, he stands upright.  He smiles, he's gregarious. His transformation is probably the thing I'm most proud of.

The Vice-Principal comes off quite badly in the film - what ramifications have occurred for her with the release of the film?

She's really struggling with the film. It's made her really sad.

She stood up at the screening and apologized to her community for getting it wrong, and for not doing more for Alex, which was very brave. I have a lot of empathy for her. Others don't, but I do.

She takes more than her fair share of the villain role in the film. A lot of the emotion that compounds from other stories lands on her. I feel responsible on some level for that, because I didn't realize that's how audiences would perceive it. I'm protective of her, because people want to make her an absolute villain. I think she's somebody that definitely got it wrong, definitely screwed up, we're all capable of that.

She makes the little mistakes that administrators make all over that allow bullying to thrive. The gift that she's given us, and other educators... She said to me at one point, "If this film is going to help other educators, if it's going to help other educators, then I can deal with the harm it's caused me personally."

Imagine being her, your superintendent tells you you're going to let these filmmakers shoot in your school for a year.

It's not cut and dry, I'm not willing to throw her to the wolves, because I appreciate her for her courage. It's the righteous person that judges her and says, "I'm not that!"

When I've screened it for groups of administrators, the person that I think is honest stands up and says, "we've all made those mistakes".

Has the school board changed?

The school board has been extraordinary.

This is the work of change, I think they were being brave.

We screened it there for 1600 people, we had a free public screening. They are rigorously in this conversation, in part because they were there prior, and because this film has accelerated that.

How did you handle telling those that gave you their trust but didn't make it into the film?

There are whole stories that I film that we couldn't use. Making those phone calls to the families saying you're not in the movie... [pauses] If you look at the original trailer there's a kid who's very eloquent, we spent a lot of time shooting that story with that family.

I felt like I broke their hearts.

Is there anything that you encountered that surprised you more than you thought it would?

I was deeply bothered by Kim Lockwood [the Vice-Principal] and the way that Alex's situation was handled, and that was very upsetting on different levels, for things that are in the film and things that we were party to.

[Also there was] the failure of the school district in the wake of Taylor Long's suicide to attend the town hall meeting. It wasn't a lynch mob, it was a community gathering to talk about bullying in schools. It was organized by local politicians, police, all the key players in the community, and the school boycotted it. It just raised the roof of anger and frustration, it felt so heartless.

It was a hard movie to make, I promise you! But these kids were so inspiring.

There's little things in this film that I love so, so much, like when the girl signs Alex's shirt, on the last day of school. There's a million kids, and they all have a million names on theirs, and Alex doesn't have any, and she just turns and says, "Hey, can I sign your shirt."

That whole day, we filmed so much cool stuff with him. He was singing songs, he was doing philosophy, when he says, "I don't believe in luck, I believe in hope".

Alex to me is just...magic.

Bully is now playing in limited releases in New York and Los Angeles It expands across the U.S. on Friday, April 6, and also opens in limited theatrical release in Canada.
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Find more of Jason Gorber's cineruminations at www.Filmfest.ca or follow his tweets @ twitter.com/filmfest_ca

More about Bully

Ard VijnApril 3, 2012 4:56 PM

Great interview Jason, this was a very interesting read. And I like that Lee Hirsch openly discusses the issues about one-sidedness and proper journalism himself.

Jason GorberApril 3, 2012 9:23 PM

Thank you as always, sir.

I found it pretty interesting, personally, how he basically checked off all the issues I had with the film, dismissing them as not being the direction of the movie he wanted (or was able and willing) to make.