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A pleasant surprise at the box office this past weekend was the limited debut of "Bully." Normally, Lee Hirsch's documentary would have generated a significant amount of press just because of its timely subject matter, but a very public battle over the MPAA's unexpected R-rating for the film (due to language) turned things up a notch. While the film has become a centerpiece for a national conversation about bullying of kids in America whether in school or in your local neighborhood, the latter news resulted in unexpected support including a campaign from teenager Katy Butler whose change.org petition to convince the MPAA to drop the film's rating ruling to PG-13 has garnered over 500,000 signatures so far. A passion project for Harvey Weinstein, who acquired the picture at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, the doc hit theaters in New York and Los Angeles this weekend unrated and grossed a stellar $115,000 or $23,000 per screen.
It was in the context of weeks of impressive events including a NY screening hosted by Meryl Streep and Katie Couric as well as support from dignitaries such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (as well as 35 members of congress), Michael Jordan, Johnny Depp, New Orleans QB Drew Brees that director Lee Hirsch took some time to chat about his amazing and unexpected journey with "Bully."
Even with all the high profile attention "Bully" has received over the past few months, Hirsch seems to have remained humble about his latest cinematic endeavor which took up a good chunk of his life.
"Well, I don't know that it’s turned into something else," Hirsch insists. "I think it’s just gotten a lot of attention. Certainly, the ratings issue propelled us into the national conversation in a way that we hadn’t been before, and lots of organic things have happened, like this sort of incredible petition by Katy Butler on Change.org. So it’s just been a lot of kind of stuff including increasingly brilliant work by the Weinstein Company to sort of up the profile of the film."
It's also the right film at the right time. Hirsch says, "I think we’re coming at sort of the arc of two years of stories of tragedy that have gripped the nation. And I feel like this takes us into that world, but it gives the viewer some hope. And I think what's propelling it is this idea, and I’ve spoken about this a lot in the past, but this idea that the film gives voice to people that have had this experience or have struggled with it or whether kids have struggled with it. You know, [that] there's a binder here that's a lot bigger than I think than the narrative previously around bullying had been."
Moreover, Hirsch seems relieved that the attention the film has received hasn't been force-fed by the studio (something that was disturbingly apparent in Paramount's campaign for "Waiting for Superman"). Hirsch adds," In an extraordinary way we're just grassroots and organic and that's totally awesome."
"Bully" documents the lives of a number of kids who are dealing with bullying in their lives and parents struggling to find ways to protect them or convince their local schools to help them.
Lee met his subjects in different ways. Kelby's mom, for instance, had written to the producers of "Ellen" looking for help for her daughter which found her on a bully-related episode. The key figure in the doc, however, is the misunderstood Alex and Hirsch and his team unearthed his situation while filming at his school.
"I always spend time with people that I wish to film sharing who I am and why I’m doing this project and what it means and what the sort of process is like," Hirsch says. "And I share my story and we build as much trust you can before the cameras start rolling. And that's very important because in this film in particular, I feel like the kids and the families were not just classic subjects of a documentary but were really partners with me in making this film."
The film was shot during Alex's 2009-2010 school year and one of the most startling scenes finds him being tormented and bullied on his school bus while Hirsch was on board filming the class. Many would assume the scene was either staged or Lee was wearing a hidden camera. Sadly, it was all very real.
"The camera was not hidden," Hirsch says. "It was me by myself with a Canon 5D Mark II, which is a very small camera. And I mean just I think it was more a product of the fact that we’d been around all year and shooting and kids stop noticing that."
Hirsch felt compelled to show the footage to Alex's parents who confronted the school district about it. The school's reaction might not sit well with some audiences, but Hirsch thinks the fact they let him film there in the first place is a sign they are trying to deal with the problem.
"To their credit, this is a district that's been trying to work and think out of the box and institute change and they’ve been working at this stuff," Hirsch reveals. "There had been ten years of concentrated effort; various programs and initiatives. [Something not noted in the doc] This was, I think, an extension of that commitment and part of what they knew going in was that we may uncover some things that are uncomfortable. Y'know, sort of like their dirty laundry. And, ultimately, they said, 'Look, we’ll learn things here. It’ll make us better. And if it can help illustrate what goes on, then we’re going to stand by that.' So that was just pretty awesome and very courageous decision and they’ve stood by it."
Whether "Bully" can have the long term influence on bullying that "An Inconvenient Truth" had on global warming remains to be seen, but the fact it's already created so much conversation regarding two contentious issues is a remarkable achievement. And that should bring Hirsch and his team a tremendous amount of satisfaction no matter how the film fares at the box office in the coming weeks.
"Bully" is still playing in New York and Los Angeles. It expands nationwide on April 13.