The Director of Was Bullied Too

For Lee Hirsch, the camera was his way of fighting back for the kids in the film and for those all over the country who are experiencing the same thing.

BY Lucas Grindley

April 14 2012 1:38 AM ET

Bully lets us peek into the school lives of several kids who are being tormented by classmates — but only because director Lee Hirsch was there to witness it all happening.

What propelled him into making the eyebrow-raising documentary must have been, in part, his own childhood, when walking home from school was like pushing through a “gauntlet” and other kids beat on him for “sport.”  For Hirsch, the camera was his way of fighting back for the kids in the film and for those all over the country who are experiencing the same thing.

Hirsch spoke with The Advocate about growing up bullied, whether the problem really does affect LGBT youth more, and how he got former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to tell his Fox News viewers that they should go see the movie.

The Advocate: As people are watching the movie, I don't know if they realize that it's you behind the camera just feet away from all of this abuse that's happening. I know you expected to see these kinds of things that happened, so what did you do with Alex, for example, who is attacked often, to prepare for the moment when he would get beat up? 
Lee Hirsch: I don't know that there was anything that could I do to prepare. I didn't know what was going on to the extent that it was going on. A really good case in point is the first scene in the film where a student is saying profanities and threatening him on the bus. Because we were such a low-budget film, I didn't have any way to monitor the audio. So I remember kind of saying to Alex after that ride, "seemed like you had a good bus ride," and saying to my producer, "he might have even made a friend." That's how wrong I got that — until we were in the edit room months later and we actually heard what was said that day.

Obviously, the scene that was in the trailer and that people are really talking about, immediately after that happened we made the decision to stop the film and speak to the family and speak to the school. Alex and I talked a lot about bullying and the stuff that he was going through. He gradually opened up more and more over the course of the school year. What I know in my heart is that Alex knew that I had his back. And caring, being invested in his story meant a lot to him.

It's important that you had his back because you were bullied as a kid.  
And he knew that. He and I had talked a lot about that. It was a big part of the relationships and the conversations with families. I thought of Alex and his family and other families in this film not as subjects but as partners. So those relationships were very important, and it really mattered to me that they knew. There were families that we shot extensively for the film that aren't in the movie, and in each of those relationships it was really important that those students knew that I was there to fight for them. That's what this film was about.

What was it like for you to go home after a whole day of Alex getting picked on? As someone who was bullied, was it bringing up bad memories for you? 
The whole process has brought up bad memories for me. This was a hard film to make. There were many, many hard days for a lot of reasons. That was a really hard day in particular. There was a lot of emotion throughout, but that was hard. I think probably that the connection that you are making with my own bullying is interesting. It's the experience of having a group go at you and knowing what that looks like and feels like. It wasn't surprising because I'd been through that. There are lots of memories that I actually don't have. People tell me about things that happened that I can't even remember. I think I still have a lot of it blocked.

You’ve said just getting home from school was almost impossible for you. I know that a constant theme in the movie was people riding the bus home, which was harrowing. What was it in your case? Were you taking the bus, walking, what happened? 
I walked. Yeah, I just remember it felt like running the gauntlet. It was just sort of sport to hit me, or to go at me. One of the things I do remember is that there was a period where I felt like my arms were so bruised that they were just yellow. They went beyond black and blue. They just had this permanent yellow. So it was difficult.

You've gotten such an amazing response with celebrities coming out saying they had been bullied. Meryl Streep told you she had been bullied. How did that come about? 
She had offered to host a screening in New York, and it felt as though she had never shared this before, and I don't know because haven't been able to do the research. But she told this story about being up in a tree and that kids were hitting her with sticks, hitting her knees until they bled. It was almost as if as she told it, she was also, in that way, laughing it off. What she describes was harrowing, but she was very powerful. I had such a nice chat with her afterwards. The other thing that happened that night is she learned from another presenter who went to school with her daughter that her daughter is a defender. She had been the one who would always stand up for kids who were being picked on and bullied. That was awesome because she never knew that.

I think it's amazing for people to hear that Meryl Streep was bullied, or that you, the director of this big documentary, had been bullied. 
I think lots of people in our world were probably bullied. I think that maybe you know it’s one of those kinds of experiences that helps one be empathetic. I think empathy is required to act. I just wonder if our numbers are higher, which is also I think good news for kids who are being bullied out there to see others who have gone through it that have gone on to make a difference.

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