Director Dave Rodriguez, “American Bully”
Regarding the film “American Bully,” out on July 26, the term “controversial” is perhaps not quite a strong-enough assessment of the film. An incendiary indictment of American culture and a cautionary tale against unchecked youth aggression, “Bully” follows a group of high school students circa 2004 who, in retaliation for a terrorist beheading video, seek out to claim vengeance in their own neighborhood, not realizing they’re taking vengeance by essentially killing their own.
In this interview, “Bully” director Dave Rodriguez discusses how our mass media-drenched society is creating a generation of angry, disenfranchised teenagers, the role parents play and how it all connects to racism.
So I watched “American Bully” last night, and…wow. That was quite an experience. Can you tell me a little about where you started with this film?
Well, yeah, actually I came up with the story of “American Bully” before I even did my first film, “Push.” At the time, which was around the summer of 2004, that was the year that the Nick Berg beheading video was making its way around the Internet. The idea was that I thought about what would happen if a handful of uber-patriotic, middle-American high school kids got a hold of this video and decided to retaliate. And remember, that was right around the time we had just started going into Iraq, and there was a lot going on, a lot of flag waving and so on and so forth, and it just felt like, idle minds are the devil’s playground, and what if these kids decided, “Hey, you know what? I’m going to commit a crime against someone who just looks Middle Eastern in retaliation.” The video WAS so horrific, and it took me six or seven times for me to just hit play [to watch the video]. But I didn’t have, quite frankly, the courage to push play, and when I did, I know how I felt just as an American, and then I was a lot older than a teenager obviously, so I was able to disseminate that information and come to a conclusion with a lot more information than a younger person would. But still, it made me angry and it made me upset, and I thought about how that would affect a handful of young guys who just want to get their revenge.
Did you have any hopes of getting this distributed on a mass level theatrically, or did you just hope to get the DVD release?
You know, we did. Obviously when we first got into this, we felt we had a strong picture, and I felt that we had something meaningful to say, and I never in a million years thought otherwise. I thought for sure we’d get a theatrical distribution. One of the first reviews we got was from Variety. Robert Koehler, who is not the most generous critic, gave us a great review and said in his review it would be a great title for an independent theatrical distribution. I didn’t think it was going to be a 3,000-screen thing. I figured we’d get a few hundred screens. But the sad thing is I don’t think we ever found a courageous distributor to actually spend the money to have people go see this film.
Well, the first thing I thought was, “Why haven’t I heard more about this movie?” Then when I saw it, I saw the reason why. “Controversial” almost isn’t enough of a word to say. It’s very relevant, though, especially today in a post-Bush administration America — not that it’s necessarily a Bush administration problem. But there’s so much going on, and the film says so much about the ignorance of these young kids — and the blind patriotism — in the Internet/mass media/pop culture society we live in today. And it even says something indirectly about parenting today as well.
Oh yes, because there’s an absence of parents in this film. One of the things that I never really wanted to do was to politicize this film. It doesn’t sway to one side or the other. It’s not about being anti-American because it’s not about anti-Americans. It’s an anti-ignorance film. It talks about education, and it’s the lack of parenting as you said, and lack of adult supervision generally speaking, and how people come to these conclusions based on skin color, or on what they see on the news. And the fact is so many of these young kids, a lot of their political conversations are just a regurgitation of what they see on the news, but also what they hear at home. And that can lean in either direction, left or right. It’s really about educating one’s self, and what’s right and wrong, and are these people evil? I remember hearing right after 9/11, “Well, let’s just nuke ‘em all.” Well, hold on, you don’t want to nuke a country with millions of innocent people because a small group of extremists are holding a religion hostage and using that to exact certain crimes and bombings on Western civilization just because they don’t believe in it. That’s such a microcosm of what’s going on globally. This was never meant to be a political film, but it’s a political thriller.
Well, we mentioned the Internet and mass media. What part does that culture play in this sort of mentality?
It really boils down to the idea of censorship — what we can or can’t see. There’s nothing that we really can’t see. Parental controls aren’t really about pushing a button on a television or on the Internet saying, “Alert me if my kids view inappropriate content.” I think parental control is parental control. It’s being a parent and having control over what your kids watch and, if they’re going to watch it, at least having the ability to say, “This is not right. Just because you’re reading this on the Internet, don’t give yourself a slanted opinion and you’re going to run around and use this as a topic of discussion.” Of course, I’m talking about this political stuff and the beheading videos. But I think that’s what it boils down to. It’s about censorship, about control, about parental supervision and about how accessible all of this information is.
Whenever there’s any political kind of story in the Internet community, there are people who quite frankly resemble the characters in this film, where they say, “Kill ‘em all!” or “This is such-and such’s fault.” You see it every day, and it’s kind of funny because I always thought that racism, for example, would fade away in the next generation. I’ve always said that in my kids’ generation, racism would be far less prevalent than even my own, which is itself far less than my parents’ generation. But there’s this undercurrent of anger from this younger generation. Can you talk a little about how this still exists so strongly in this post-Civil Rights era?
That’s funny because the issue of racism is so huge. I don’t have an answer for why people behave the way they behave. I’ll give you an example that hits home for me. I’m a Latino filmmaker and in Hollywood, I’m considered a Latino filmmaker. I always say to myself, “Well, why?” I’m proud to be Latino. I love to go back home to my mom and dad’s place and eat roasted pork and rice and beans and fried plantains, and I speak Spanish and I don’t hide that, but I’m not a Latino filmmaker. I’m a filmmaker. I just happen to be Latino. I think it goes both ways in terms of certain people wanting to be grouped into certain minority groups for the purposes of empowerment, and there are others who don’t want much to do with that and want to be trailblazers and do their own thing. I tend to lean toward the latter. I want to do my own thing. I don’t want to make Latino stories or black stories or whatever, I want to just entertain in whatever medium. Talking directly to “American Bully,” I’ve heard many times where people look at an Indian, whether they’re Sikh or whatever, and they see the turban and say, “Oh, look at that Arab.”
It happened in the movie “Inside Man,” where the cops pull out the Indian kid and they treat him like a terrorist. Then there’s that scene where he’s in the diner with Denzel Washington and Chiwetel Ejiofor, and he says, “I’m Indian, man, I’m not Arab. I want my turban back. You’re violating my civil rights.” And as funny as that scene was, that stuff happens — people seeing a young black man walking down the street in a predominantly white neighborhood, thinking he’s casing the neighborhood for the next house to rob. That’s the way it is. Unless the minority stops doing things to perpetuate the stereotype and the majority stops categorizing and putting the minority into the stereotype, it’ll never stop. And it all starts with the adults, the young adults, guys like you or me with young children, teaching them that everyone who is that color is not that way, or everyone who is Latino or black or Middle Eastern is not that way.
Can you talk a little about the realism you were trying to convey? There are things that I tried to dismiss as being too sensational, but then I started thinking about the news stories where things really close to this actually happened. Were you looking for a sense of realism?
Yeah, absolutely. You hear these stories about kids who kill other kids and there are beheadings, and Columbine and West Virginia, and these things happen. This situation could have happened. And who knows if it will happen? I hope I’m not the catalyst of something like this happening. But one of the reasons I wanted to play it so slow and deliberately in the beginning is so the audience can get a sense of these characters, to sympathize with them, to watch what they go through, then go on this crazy, horrific, terrifying journey with them, then take away something that could inspire debate. I never tell people who watch “American Bully” that “I hope you enjoy it.” I say, “I hope you can appreciate it.”
That’s apt because it’s one of those movies that is difficult to watch — one you don’t necessarily want to watch over and over but one you want to watch and discuss and tell others they must see. That’s a great way of putting it.
But “American Bully” reminded me of two things. The first was a book called “Ordinary Men,” about these young Nazi soldiers during World War II who went along with these atrocities just because that’s what their superiors said. The other is the movie “Boys Don’t Cry,” where similar things happen. In “American Bully” there’s a sense of that because there’s a character who hesitates to go along with all of this.
Yeah, I’m always flattered when people compare “American Bully” to “Boys Don’t Cry.” There’s another one too …”Elephant.” It’s great to be spoken about in the same breath with those great films. That goes back to the realism of those two stories. That can happened and has happened. I certainly feel that we have an important film that has the merits to be compared to those films, and I’m just grateful to be a part of that.