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Director Lee Hirsch Discusses The Journey of Making His “Bully” Documentary

Over 13 million American kids will be bullied this year, making it the most common form of violence experienced by young people in the nation. The new documentary film “BULLY”, directed by Sundance and Emmy-award winning filmmaker Lee Hirsch, brings human scale to this startling statistic, offering an intimate, unflinching look at how bullying has touched five kids and their families. “BULLY” is a beautifully cinematic, character-driven documentary. At its heart are those with huge stakes in this issue whose stories each represent a different facet of America’s bullying crisis. Filmed over the course of the 2009/2010 school year, BULLY opens a window onto the pained and often endangered lives of bullied kids, revealing a problem that transcends geographic, racial, ethnic and economic borders. It documents the responses of teachers and administrators to aggressive behaviors that defy “kids will be kids” clichés, and it captures a growing movement among parents and youths to change how bullying is handled in schools, in communities and in society as a whole. Icon Vs. Icon’s Jason Price recently caught up with director Lee Hirsch to discuss the origins of the film, it’s impact on audiences, his battles with the MPAA and much more. 

Hello, Lee! Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us about your film today.

Hey, man! How are you? Thank you so much for talking to me! It’s my pleasure!

I wanted to give our readers a little background on you. What originally intrigued you about the world of filmmaking and made you pursue it as a career?

It really grew out of my political activism. My first film was about the power of music in the South African freedom struggle. I spent the last few years of high school very, very engaged there. I think it was the idea of, “Where do I evolve from someone who goes to protests and engages at that level to being able to become part of the conversation and to be able to tell stories that will move people?”

In Theaters April 13th!

“Bully” is a very powerful piece of filmmaking. What was the catalyst that inspired you to make such a thought provoking film?

It was very much inspired by the fact that I was bullied. I felt for many, many years that this was a film I wanted to make at some point. It took a while to get the courage up, figure out how to make it and put a team together. It was that plus this idea that inherent in this story is this access to what it is to step up and make the choice to stand up for somebody. That is an idea I have been exploring in my work throughout my career. I also thought there was a real need for this film because there really hadn’t been a major documentary which took us inside that world and gave us that window. Those are some of the key motivators.

How did you find the kids and families affected by this topic who are featured in the film? How did that come about?

It came about in very different ways. We met Kelby through her mom posting on Ellen DeGeneres’ website, along with many other families we reached out to. That is how we met the Johnsons. For the Longs and the Smalleys, whose children had committed suicide, we read about. With the Longs, we had read about the town hall meeting that they were trying to organize and we reached out to them. With the Smalleys, I was very nearby shooting another story and we were able to get permission to come and meet them and film the funeral. That is how the relationship began. It was very, very hard and very emotional. With Ja’Maya, I had read about what had happened on her school bus. The narrative in the press was that this was a story about a hero who had tackled this crazy girl. For me, I wanted to understand why a 14-year-old girl had pulled a gun on her bus and what was happening to get to that point. With Alex, we were given access to film inside the school system, which was really the big breakthrough for this film. So, we met Alex on the first day of school.

Did anyone have any reservations in sharing their story for this documentary?

I am sure everybody had reservations. I can’t imagine someone being approached by a filmmaker and not thinking very carefully about it. With Kelby, they really wanted to tell their story. With the Longs and the Smalleys, they really wanted to get their story out and have their voice be heard. With Alex, we really had to try and understand what he was going through and to get to know him and his family. It was a relationship that we built over time. But we always began with my story about how I had been bullied and why I was doing this. I asked the families to be partners and really participate and really choose it. That was really important part of our relationship as things developed.

How do you feel the film impacted the lives of the subjects of the film?

I think it is great and I feel that they have such a voice now and it has been wonderful. Ja’Maya and her mom have chosen to not be out on the publicity tour but they really love the film. I don’t know that I feel that it has made a real impact for Ja’Maya in a positive way. With Alex and Kelby, it is just extraordinary to watch them grow into these incredible role models and youth advocates. It has been so incredible and every minute of seeing their journey has been deeply gratifying.

As the filmmaker, how has this amazing journey impacted you?

Wow! Ask me in a year! [laughs] It has been exciting and it has been overwhelming. I am really grateful for the support we have had and the way people have been responding to the film. It has been crazy trying to keep up with all of the press but we are very, very grateful the film is receiving the attention it has.

Lee Hirsch

What was the biggest challenge for you as a filmmaker from the initial idea for the film to the completed project?

I think the biggest challenge was telling the story, getting it right and the process of finding your film’s voice. It was a very emotional and difficult film to craft. I couldn’t say there was one particular piece. It was weeks and weeks and weeks of all-nighters to get to the finish line. We showed up at the Tribeca Film Festival with our film, which we had finished only eight hours before, for our world premiere. It was a marathon!

Is this a subject you can see yourself revisiting again in film form in the future?

Probably not. I feel like there are other stories I want to tell and that this movement has a lot of fire. We have great people and incredible organizations working on the issue. There are other stories that will be told but I feel I have done my piece.

There was a little controversy surrounding the film and its rating. I am sure that can be a mixed blessing but I was curious to hear your thoughts on it.

You know, I think I stand today having gone through an extraordinary process with the MPAA. I have been incredibly moved by the power of Katy Butler’s decision to put up a petition on www.change.org to capture the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people. I also feel that a lot of ink has been spilled to talk about this and the MPAA, in some ways, may be a different organization today as a result of it. I feel victorious! I feel we were able to retain the scene they wouldn’t let us have and it was a victory for independent filmmakers as well as a victory for the advocates who fought for this. It was a wonderful experience and it was great to see so many celebrities support the film. That meant the world but just getting into the petition and reading the comments and the stories — the outpouring of sharing was extraordinary!

Obviously, you are in the thick of it right now with the film’s release and press tour. Have you given any thought to what you might like your next project to be?

I’m looking for a comedy! [laughs]

I can respect that! [laughs] Thank you for your time today and for putting together such a thought provoking film. Best of luck to you in the future, sir!

Thank you very much! I appreciate your support!

For more information on this powerful and thought provoking film, visit the official website at www.thebullyproject.com .