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Talking to director Lee Hirsch :: Is the MPAA bullying ’Bully’?

by Jim Halterman
Contributor
Monday Apr 2, 2012
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"Bully" found itself in a media firestorm when it was rated ’R’, which pretty much prohibited it being seen by teenagers, the audience director Lee Hirsch hoped to reach with his film. With a campaign to change the rating & rave reviews, EDGE spoke to Hirsch as the film is to open nationally.

Documentary films don’t usually get an avalanche of attention in the media or even from film-goers but one - "Bully" - has garnered much controversy and chatter well before it opened last week in New York and Los Angeles. It has a wider release on April 13, 2012 in other US cities. The film, directed by Lee Hirsch, follows several teens in different parts of the country who are being bullied and documents how it affects not just their lives but also the lives of the people around them.

Definitely a film all teens and adults should see, an uproar began when the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) slapped the film with an "R" rating due to language spoken by real teenagers in real life situations. What that means is that teenagers, the primary audience that needs to and should see Hirsch’s film, will have a difficult time getting into theaters to see a film that could actually change their lives and the lives of those around them.


Quickly upon the MPAA decision, a petition by Michigan high school student Katy Butler began online and successfully grabbed signatures of celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres, Anderson Cooper, Johnny Depp, Justin Bieber and Meryl Streep as well as nearly 500,000 others hoping to get the MPAA to change its mind.

On Monday, with the opening day coming and the MPAA not budging on its decision, the Weinstein Company, which is releasing the film, announced that it would put the film in theaters as UNRATED. In a press release issued yesterday to announce the news, Butler said, "the MPAA might not recognize the reality that thousands of bullied kids face each day in school, but nearly 500,000 people around the country, from celebrities to politicians to bullied kids themselves, stepped up to speak out about bullying by signing my petition." One large theater chain - AMC - also stated in the press release that it would definitely show "Bully" in its theaters even with an UNRATED rating.

Also the Weinstein Company continues negotiations with the MPAA in hopes that they will reconsider their decision.

Ironically, EDGE’s Jim Halterman was talking to director Lee Hirsch about an hour before the Weinstein Company announced its decision and talked about the reasons behind the MPAA’s rating decision and why he and supporters of the film continue to be so adamant about getting "Bully" seen by as many people as possible.


Super charged by support

EDGE: I’m guessing with everything that’s been going on that you must be pretty exhausted. How are you holding up through all this?

Lee Hirsch: I’m really exhausted. [laughs] I’m really charged. As exhausting as it is I’m super charged by all this support. It’s been amazing how this movement is growing and how people are being moved by it. As much energy as I’ve given out I’m getting that much back.

EDGE: It’s not every day that you have Meryl Streep touting your work, right?!

Lee Hirsch: I know! Meryl shared a really personal story about being bullied that was very powerful but at the same time there was this incredible moment because in the same ten minutes she also learned that her daughter [actress Mamie Gummer] had stood up to bullies and was someone who had defended kids who were being bullied and that was a special moment.

EDGE: As of now, we are still at an R rating, right?

Lee Hirsch: We’re fighting with everything we’ve got. The pressure is mounting and the newest voice is Governor Mike Huckebee and how extraordinary is that? I just learned the Michael Jordon might be signing the petition. It’s exciting. The biggest piece of this is the true grass roots activism. Katy Butler, who is extraordinary and amazing, started this petition that focused our cause in a way that we never could have dreamed. We’re hoping that they’re going to reverse the decision.


Why rated ’R’?

EDGE: What is the MPAA’s reasoning for the R rating?

Lee Hirsch: Strictly language. Violence is fine but language is not.

EDGE: And it’s language you picked up in real schools with real teenagers.

Lee Hirsch: Yes, exactly!

EDGE: Do you feel like you or the movie is being bullied?

Lee Hirsch: [laughs] I wouldn’t go there, no. I think that the MPAA...I do think that they’re out of touch with what really matters to families and America. I think the bigger conversation for them as an organization is about how they approach these ratings and I took a lot of heart from every Province in Canada giving the movie a PG... I think we’ll see a difference in the MPAA after all this is said and done.

EDGE: When did you realize that Alex Libby [a 12-year old in Sioux City, Iowa] would end up being the centerpiece of the film? Did you know that during filming?

Lee Hirsch: No, not so much early because Alex’s story unfolded over the course of a full year. Certainly with Alex we had the most access to tell the story. We were inside the school, we were with his family and we were able to be in those moments and so that felt like it had a huge amount of emotional velocity but we found this film in the edit room.


A fly on the wall

EDGE: You said in the press notes that when you were in the school you wanted to be a fly on the wall but did filming take you back to your own experiences with being bullied when you were younger?

Lee Hirsch: You know, a lot of my stuff I have memory blocks around. People tell me about things that happened. It took me back in ways that were very familiar but at the same time you’re very in the moment of all the things that are happening like trying not to fall over on the bus.

EDGE: One of the messages I got from the movie is not to be inactive about bullying if you see it whether you’re an adult or a kid. There are instances in the film on the school bus with Alex being bullied and the kids don’t do anything.

Lee Hirsch: Here’s the cool thing. There are so many ways you can get involved and make a difference. If you’re a teenager, think about what it means to stand for somebody that’s going through this. That can be direct intervention in the moment. Studies show that bullying basically stops within ten seconds when someone actually intervenes but if you don’t feel safe intervening, you can hand a note to that kid. There are so many ways to stand up for kids that are dealing with this.

Young people can figure out what makes sense and there’s also lots of resources on ouR website that can help them. But I almost feel like with all the ways that bullies have to bully, young people can be just as creative at finding ways to transform schools and help kids who are bullied and take a stand and that’s really exciting.

EDGE: Besides a long nap or vacation, what’s next for you, Lee?

Lee Hirsch: I’d like to direct a feature film. Maybe that will be something that is possible for me.

EDGE: Are you thinking more dramas or comedies?

Lee Hirsch: I’m going to do something that’s a total comedy! [laughs]

For more on seeing the movie "Bully" and to find resources if you or someone you know is being bullied, visit the film’s website. You can also follow the film on Facebook and Twitter.


Watch the trailer to Bully:


Jim Halterman lives in Los Angeles and also covers the TV/Film/Theater scene for www.FutonCritic.com, AfterElton, Vulture, CBS Watch magazine and, of course, www.jimhalterman.com. He is also a regular Tweeter and has a group site on Facebook.

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