A Wrenching Issue, A Rating Controversy, And A Social Media Sensation: Behind “Bully”

Bully director Lee Hirsch talks about telling the heartbreaking stories of bullied kids, the shocking indifference of adults, and what it’ll take for change.

A Wrenching Issue, A Rating Controversy, And A Social Media Sensation: Behind “Bully”

The Weinstein Company’s new documentary, Bully, isn’t an easy narrative. The film focuses intensely on a small handful of bullied students and their families–as well as parents of children who took their own lives after the abuse became too much to handle. It’s an important piece of a larger movement against a crisis facing youth and being met with varying degrees of indifference by many adults.


Plagued by the Motion Picture Association of America’s refusal to grant the picture anything less than an R rating, The Weinstein Company chose to release the film unrated, which means director Lee Hirsch faces an immediate obstacle in his goal of having one million children see the film. But in the wake of the MPAA’s misstep, the film has generated a wave of publicity accelerated by a Weinstein Company Twitter campaign to encourage further discussion of the rating decision, the film, and the issue. The company asked people to Tweet: “Did you know 13 million kids get bullied every year? I support @BullyMovie. Let’s make it a trend: #BullyMovie.” As a result, hundreds of celebrities, from Justin Timberlake and Jimmy Fallon to Anderson Cooper have spread the word to their followers.

Hirsch spoke with Co.Create about the social media factor, his approach to making the film, and the most shocking aspects of telling the story of bullying.

Co.Create: This is a tough story to tell. How’d you begin your process?

Lee Hirsch: It was such a personal film for me that, creatively, the choice was to go it alone and shoot it by myself and sort of throw away all the options you can have in terms of having a crew and having lighting. There are many ways you can approach telling a story with a documentary, but I just wanted to strip it down as raw as humanly possible. Which, ultimately, was a handheld Canon 5D Mark II with no lights and just absolute bare minimal. I mean, I could carry my whole gear around with me on my shoulder. That was a big creative piece for me, feeling liberated to approach it that way.

Did that end up being the right approach?

I think we gained a lot from it. I think it hurt us some ways, like some focus moments early in the film that I’m not so proud of. It gets technically better as the movie rolls along, but it ultimately allowed me to get started and make the film and not be stuck, in terms of raising finance or waiting for people to set things up and take things down. I could just really be in the moment, and that mattered a lot.


Did you have doubts the narrative wouldn’t play out the way you’d hoped?

There were days upon days where we’d film inside the school and we weren’t finding any story. We shot in two schools for the school year, and only one is in the film. We struggled to find our narrative heart in the other school and we just couldn’t. But also, being alone and going out and meeting these families that were grieving, and navigating–how do you begin a dialogue, how you begin to film folks who have had that kind of loss? Particularly with the Smalleys (the family of a boy who committed suicide after being bullied); literally, I met them the morning they were burying their son.

And just to clarify: The bullying you witnessed was so brazen that the students wouldn’t even modulate their behavior when they could clearly see an adult filming the situation?

They did not. That’s my understanding. I’ve talked about it with Alex (one of the kids featured in the film) multiple times, he’s talked about it with the press. He says, “This is what happened to me whether there was a camera there or there wasn’t.” I think if anything maybe it was a bit worse for him when I wasn’t there. I think his rides to and from school were often full of assault. And that’s something I really realized that day we shot the particularly violent scene that sparked our decision to share the footage with the family.

Was it shocking?

Having experienced it, I knew what bullying looked like. That was sort of how I had it when I was a kid, so I understood that. People often say “that’s so shocking,” but to me it was the indifference I encountered, not the actual bullying itself.


Indifference on the part of adults?


What’s the call to action? What needs to change?

My feelings on this change. Three months ago I would’ve said it’s all about changing the hearts and minds of adults so that they can create safe schools and communities and build programs. But I’m so inspired right now by our youth, by the youth engagement we’re experiencing with this campaign, that I feel like this may be the generation of teenagers that steps up and says, “We’re not gonna wait for you guys. We don’t wanna turn the page, we want to rewrite the story, and we’re sick of bullying.”

What was the social media play for this film? There’s been lots celebrity support.

I think we had one of the biggest days in the history of Twitter on Tuesday. We’ve had unbelievable support. I’m just awestruck of the power of social media. We’ve reached out to social media companies from day one and asked them to partner with us on this journey and we could’ve taken a very different approach and said, “Oh, we’re gonna get them, for the role that they played.”


The role they played in cyber-bullying, being forums for that to occur?

In each of these companies there are amazing people that are working their tails off to minimize the impact of bullying on their platforms and make a difference every day. I think this gives them an opportunity to be helpful. The response of tech companies, of Bing, of Twitter, Facebook–there’s been so much support, it’s been extraordinary.

How and when do you judge if Bully is a success?

I already feel successful because I’ve read the emails of people who’ve experienced this. So many people have written to say “thank you for validating what I’ve been carrying around for a lifetime,” whether they’re 16 or 60. That means all the world to me. One of the things that grabbed me the most was when kids wrote in and talked about how they were now stopping bullying and how they were stepping up, having seen the film. One student in particular, a kid name Max, wrote in and said “After seeing this film I saw someone being bullied on the bus on the way home and I stopped it. I went with that kid and I took them to speak to the counselor and it wasn’t that hard and I never would’ve done it had I not seen this movie.”

How is the film working with the larger movement against bullying?

The movement is greater than us, and the movement has multiple players–it’s Gaga and her fans, it’s all these great organizations, we have so many youth partners, and To Write Love on Her Arms and America’s Promise. We make a mistake if we think we’re the movement; the movement is just people making the choice that they can step up and make a difference. I just want to be a piece of it, a kind of nudger that helps amplify.

What’s your final word on the MPAA rating debacle?


I feel like their system is out of touch, and yet there are people within the MPAA that have come to me and said, “I wish this rating were different.” I think that they are missing an opportunity here. I would not like to be unrated forever. I would love to think that they will still come around. But at the same time, there is just a scene that’s too critical to alter and could take away from what happens and how those words are carried out; violence is in them.

Bully opens March 30 in select theaters. Visit the Bully site to see a list of theaters showing the film.

Update: The film has now been rated PG-13 with some profanity edits.