Because of his latest work, Bully, some critics and audience members are calling filmmaker Larry Clark a pornographer. The film, based closely on a true story (adapted from Jim Schutze's 1998 book Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge), is an unflinching examination of how a group of South Florida teenagers brutally murdered a 20-year-old neighborhood bully, named Bobby Kent, in 1993. Among Bobby's murderers were his best friend, Marty Puccio, who was 16 at the time and had grown tired of repeated humiliation and assault at Bobby's hands, and Marty's pregnant girlfriend, Lisa Connelly, who masterminded the heinous crime.
What upsets some viewers is not so much the violence, drug use, and homosexual undertones depicted in the film but more that Clark shot numerous scenes containing highly graphic (and, in some viewers' opinions, gratuitous) sexual content with his young actors, who included Brad Renfro (The Client, Apt Pupil), Rachel Miner (The Guiding Light), Nick Stahl (The Man Without a Face, Disturbing Behavior), and Bijou Phillips (Black and White, Sugar Town).
"Some people are just so prudish," retorted Clark in reaction to the backlash he's been receiving. "Or maybe they don't realize that this is a true story and that this was really what was happening. It was really more extreme than what I showed in the film. I mean, there was a tremendous amount of sex, violence, and drugs, and I was trying to [capture] the atmosphere of all this."
Clark's recent detractors may be overlooking that the filmmaker has spent nearly four decades documenting the seedier sides of human nature. Prior to becoming a director, Clark made a name for himself as a respected documentary photographer. His 1971 book of photography, Tulsa, which exposed the violent life of speed freaks in his native Tulsa, Okla., stands as one of the most important photographic works in the last quarter century. His other photography projects, Teenage Lust and Perfect Childhood, and his 1995 directorial film debut, Kids—a raw, disturbing look at a group of Manhattan teens involved in drug use and unprotected sex—further established Clark as an artist who does not shy away from controversy.
However you choose to judge Clark for his latest work, it would be a shame to ignore the immense talent and uninhibited courage of the young actors in Bully. Clark spent seven months working with casting director Carmen Cuba (whose previous credits include associate casting on Erin Brockovich, Bowfinger, and Living Out Loud) to track down the cast, and even when he found an actor whom he thought was perfect for a part, it didn't necessarily mean that person would agree to do the film. Such was the case with Anna Paquin, who was originally cast as Lisa but who backed out after apparent pressure from her representation, according to Clark.
Rachel Miner landed the part, giving an absolutely chilling performance. She, too, was cautious about taking a role that required so much nudity and violence, but ultimately Miner believed the story's relevance was worth the risk.
Miner, whose stage credits include The Diary of Anne Frank on Broadway and the current Blue Surge at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, recalled, "I had hesitations for two reasons. One was the nudity. On a personal level it was difficult to do, and it's a very vulnerable feeling. So I had to get past that, but I felt it was worth it. It was also difficult to decide to do because I was worried about the outcome, in terms of the morality of the story, but I felt that in both cases Larry would do it right. I actually think he's a very moral human being, and I thought that the way he portrayed both the nudity and the violence was so realistically disturbing that it wasn't going to be appealing to people. I think the only danger in this story is if it made people want to be like the characters in the film."
Added Miner, "There's something about Larry that's very nonjudgmental, and it comes through in his work. It's why you can feel more comfortable in front of him. He sees the beauty in flaws. He's not looking for perfection."
Seeing the beauty in flaws was crucial to Clark when it came to casting the film. Clark met with many young actors for Bully, but most were too polished-looking for his tastes.
"I'm looking for people who are fresh and who aren't necessarily those you see in every movie. I'm looking for attitude and realism," explained the filmmaker, whose next project, Ken Park, now in post-production, will showcase entirely new talent.
Clark cast Nick Stahl in the role of Bobby Kent, the title character—a casting decision he had to fight for tooth and nail to get approved by the financiers on the film.
"I saw tons of people for that part and wasn't really impressed with most of them," recalled the filmmaker. "These actor kids I was seeing would bounce into the auditions like they didn't have a care in the world—you know, just happy as a clam and super confident. They would actually skip in and sit down with a goofy kind of smile. Then Nick walked in—all introverted and kind of weird and not making a lot of eye contact. He seemed very nervous. He certainly was not the 'Bobby Kent' type—this big bully type. But there was something about him. This kid was really interesting. He seemed real."
Stahl, indeed, brings something amazing to Bully—sympathy for his character. Even as Bobby proceeds to brutalize his best friend and those around him, Stahl reveals the pain and insecurity that drives his character to hurt others. It is Stahl's subtle, affective work that makes the murder scene in Bully one of the most chilling I've ever scene.
As for Brad Renfro, the other lead in the film, Clark said that he was the first and only choice for the part of Marty.
"Out of all the young actors that age, I thought Brad was by far the most interesting young actor. I knew he could do some amazing things with this role, so I went after him," said Clark, adding that, thanks to Renfro signing on, he was able to get financing for the film, which cost $900,000 and was shot in 23 days in the same South Florida suburb where the actual crime occurred.
Of all the actors in the film, Renfro had the most at stake as far as already having an established career. Still, Renfro, like the rest of Bully's cast, believed in Clark's vision.
"I usually hate everything I do as far as films go, but I even enjoyed myself in this picture," Renfro was recently quoted as saying. "Larry just let me open up [as an actor] and bleed, but I also knew that I had somebody I could trust, so if he did come with a little tweak, I wasn't afraid to go there 'cause we had established relationships as friends. It was like fighting a war. We were on a mission."
What most intrigued me about this film was not just that the performances were so affective. It is that Clark clearly enjoys giving neophyte actors a chance. Such was the case with Kids, in which then-unknown performers like Chloë Sevigny, Rosario Dawson, and Leo Fitzpatrick (who plays a murderous thug nicknamed "Hitman" in Bully) broke out from total obscurity.
As for new talent in Bully, Clark was particularly struck by 16-year-old Kelli Garner, who plays the role of the drug-addicted Heather. Garner introduced herself to Clark by sending a video copy of her film debut in a short film The Architecture of Reassurance, which had played at the Sundance Film Festival. Clark cast her on the spot.
Clark was also impressed by 20-year-old Michael Pitt, whom Gus Van Sant had recommended to Clark after Van Sant cast the newcomer in a small role in Finding Forrester. Pitt's performance as the drug-induced, seemingly harmless Donny in Bully is a standout. Pitt, who also gives a solid performance as a plagiarizing rock star in the current release Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is an actor to watch.
My favorite casting story related to Bully is the discovery of Daniel Franzese, the only Florida local in the principal cast. Franzese happened to be singing at a Fort Lauderdale club, where he met Clark and Cuba, who were scouting for possible dancers for a scene in Bully. Cuba saw potential in Franzese and called him in to audition for the role of Derek, Lisa's overweight, anti-social cousin reluctantly drawn into the grizzly murder. Franzese, who has a degree in musical theatre and acting from the Florida School of the Arts, had long ago predicted to a friend that Todd Solondz, John Waters, or Larry Clark would cast him in his first film. Clark beat Solondz and Waters to it.
Clark initially dismissed Franzese, based on their initial encounter, but, thankfully, Cuba called Franzese in to audition for Clark. "He read for Derek and he was just great," said the director.
Most filmmakers would have trouble selling so many unproven film actors to financiers, but, as Clark told me, "You just have to fight—and stick by your guns."
I think the same could be said about making a film like Bully, which on the surface might appear to some as immoral trash, but on another level is painting a disturbingly realistic portrait of apathetic teenagers and also presenting a significant showcase for new talent. BSW