Bully: A $2.2 Million Exercise in Perversion or Art?

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Bully was controversial upon it’s release. Ex-child stars strut around basically nude, having sex, doing drugs, and nonchalantly committing violent crimes. But that was no surprise as it was the combined efforts of Kids director Larry Clark and David McKenna who penned American History X. But the edgy content wasn’t the only fuss. In fact, it seems that Clark’s camera was too perverted for McKenna who was hoping for scathing insight into youth culture, and felt that Clark’s interpretation of his script reduced it to mere pornography. Before Bully hit the theaters, McKenna took his name off the project, opting instead to be credited as Zachary Long.

Larry Clark didn’t seem to mind. From the beginning, he was unhappy with McKenna’s writing. He called it “an after-school special” and requested multiple rewrites. It didn’t matter. McKenna aired his grievances, so did Clark, calling him a “Hollywood hack” who was too scared to keep his name attached to something so controversial.

For those of us that love this sort of hissy fit, the best part of the story is the scathing letter from McKenna to Clark. Not only does he criticize the direction but also tears apart many of the performances. Like all good angry letters, it’s the work of a man who is pushed to his limit. Imagine the laugh Clark must have had upon receipt – he really couldn’t care less under what name his screenwriter was credited. Clark always considered himself the true auteur of the picture anyways.

The letter in full:

Larry Clark, Don Murphy, Fernando Sulichin:

The purpose of this letter is to inform the above parties that I, in conjunction with my attorney, am removing my name from the film Bully. I will instead be utilizing the pseudonym Zachary Long for my writing credit. The Writer’s Guild has been informed of my intent to use this pseudonym.

My reasons follow. When Don Murphy gave me this book [novel by Jim Schutze to adapt, I looked at it as a gift from the gods. Here was a story and a character study unlike anything I had ever read before. Bully was an insight into youth that hadn’t been documented since Larry Clark’s first film, Kids. And, unlike many, I did not feel Kids or Bully was irresponsible. Honest, poignant and terrifying maybe, but not irresponsible.

As far as the translation of Bully from book to script. I felt we had achieved greatness. After meeting with Larry in New York and conjointly making some great changes, the result, I felt, was some of the best work I had ever been associated with.

The film I watched on December 1st left me completely dumbfounded. What I witnessed was revolting, offensive and childish. I could not believe what had been done to what was once an extremely compelling and emotional story. Though I realize that at this point I have no control over what ultimately happens with this film, I can only hope that others associated with it will understand and agree with my stance.

After all, this is not a movie. It much more closely resembles a porno. It has all the qualities to verify that claim: Unbelievably gratuitous sex, no story, zero motivation, no character development, and horrible acting. I knew early on the discontent I was going to have once Bijou Phillips said “his dick was beautiful and he ate my pussy for an hour.” I knew right then what the directors vision was and I immediately regretted ever giving him the script. It was clear that he had forgone drama and character development in order to gratuitously create a one dimensional pornographic whore. In the book and in the script, Ali is a character with depth and complexity. The compelling aspect of Ali is how beautiful and presentable she is on the outside, and how stupid, insecure and diabolical she is on the inside. none of this is explored in this movie. She merely exists for perverse crotch shots and grotesque sexual escapades. Virtually all scenes involving Ali are nothing short of repulsive. And to what end?

The same holds true for Lisa Connely. first of all, Rachel Miner, as sweet as she is, should not have been in this movie. She was clearly miscast. The character of Lisa demands a fat, ugly loser who’s ridiculed by Bobby so bad that she’s driven to kill him. Here, she’s portrayed as someone who’s actually beautiful and proud of her body. I can find no reason for so haphazardly destroying the character development and motivation that script provides other than for the director to showcase the half dozen or so wonderfully gratuitous shorts of her vagina. Additionally, we never see the growing hatred of Bobby that her character demands. The only scene that might be able to justify her motivation to kill, the Doberman attack scene, is nowhere to be found. Therefore, once again, what’s left is no character motivation and no believability, and only several gratuitous sex scenes that leave the audience repulsed and wondering why this movie was ever made.

The direction of the other actors also greatly disappoints. Renfro is all over the place. In the beginning he’s playing coy, nervous and shy (i.e. the deli, the Camaro, the Copa), ten minutes later he’s singing Eminem, talking shit, and being abusive to Lisa (Note: This went down in 1992, when Eminem was still in high school). Renfro laughs through his speech about the first time he tried pot with Bobby and then offers some bullshit cry that is nothing more than a feeble attempt for sympathy.

Derek Dzvirko also hails from the Bully school of acting. The method? Pretend you’re a zombie and say your lines as fast as you can.

Michael Pitt at least has some energy to his character, but where’s the other dimension of Donny Semenee? Where’s the sweet, caring kid who’s manipulated into this by Ali? The same holds true for the Hitman. Leo Fitspatrick, who has in other films demonstrated that the is a talented actor, screams this way through every scene. Where’s the humor behind the stupid camp counselor leading the kids into battle? Where’s the umm’s and uhh’s? the only notable performance comes from Nick Stahl. The kid’s a great actor, but, then, again, his likeability makes him miscast. He garners sympathy form the audience, when the reality should be that the audience detests him to such a degree that they understand what ld these kids to murder him. It’s a travesty. Nearly every aspect of this story that drove me to wan t to get this movie made has been destroyed.

What is this movie truly about now? In all honesty, I think it’s a $2.2 million exercise in perversion. Every scene Ali and Lisa are in, the camera is focused on their vaginas. The sexual distractions are amateurish, unnecessary and offensive. Crotch shots over pedicures, giving blow jobs in the cars (another long lasting crotch shot), pinching nipples, putting clothes pins on nipples, Lisa fucking Marty five times, Ali fucking Bobby twice, Ali fucking Donny, Ali making out with Donny, Heather rubbing Donny, Donny making out with Heather, Heather making out with Ali, where’s the fucking story?!

The bottom line is that by all appearances, the intelligence of this film has been desecrated in lieu of perverse and childish intentions. What makes a movie great are the little things. It is no surprise that with these little things Bully fails miserably. Here, Iíll explore just a few that I felt contribute to the demise of this film. After the first attempt of the murder fails, Donny says to the girls “you guys need professional help.” Where is Aliís epiphany of seeking out “professional help?” All you see in the next scene is the Hitman with a bunch of children saying nothing of importance to each other. Itís like theyíre trying to say something but can’t think of anything. so a few face shots are inserted to kill time until the mother comes outside with the phone. Then we see Cousin Derek outside cutting grass. Not only can he hear his cell phone over the deafening machine, he automatically knows that it’s Lisa. Later, when the kids arrive to seek out the help of the Hitman, a camera shot, clearly stolen from Scorsese in The Color of Money, is used and abused. Here we have one of the most important scenes with the Hitman and instead of the scene moving the story forward, the audience is left completely dizzy and again wondering why. Here I’ve mentioned four justifiable complaints within a period of five minutes.

It is with much sadness and regret that I remove my name from this film. It was a story very close to my heart, one that I fought long and hard for. It is not easy to let two years of hard work and perseverance go down the drain, but there is no doubt that in order to preserve my name, I must.

Thanks to Chris Hanley and Harmony Korine for providing access to both sides of this story.