Brad Renfro (left) and Nick Stahl

Since Bully opens with a close-up of a young man asserting “I want you to suck my big dick,” (closely followed by the first female-spoken line of dialogue: “His cock is beautiful, and he ate me out for, like, an hour”), it should be no surprise where the film progresses from there. We are soon introduced to a barrage of full-frontal nudity, graphic sex, a brutal rape, intimations of pedophilia, gay porn, a boy savagely pummeling his best friend and a girl beaten with a leather belt during intercourse. And this is all within the first half-hour. Welcome to the world of Larry Clark.

Bully director Larry Clark has made a career of boldly exploring teenage sexuality, and the lives of those living on the fringes of American society. As a result, Clark has weathered a considerable degree of controversy, though Bully would appear to be his most provocative work to date, and one which will undoubtedly initiate another firestorm of cultural debate. Clark began as a photographer, and his 1971 collection Tulsa, a study of addicts in Clark’s native Oklahoma town, would heavily influence director Gus Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy. Van Sant would subsequently repay the favor by co-producing Clark’s belated directing debut, Kids (1995), the salacious subject matter of which actually has more affinity with Clark’s second monograph Teenage Lust (1983). With its candid dissection of the various moral transgressions of a group of NYC teens, Kids became the cinematic cause celebre of the year, as some found Clark’s investigation of adolescent sexuality to be necessarily explicit, while others regarded the entire spectacle as questionably prurient. Clark’s less feverish follow-up, Another Day in Paradise (1998), marked a return to autobiographical Tulsa territory in its chronicle of two 1970s addict-outlaws (played by James Woods and Melanie Griffith).

Based on actual events that occurred in Florida in 1993, Bully tells the story of 20-year-old surfer Bobby Kent, who was stabbed and bludgeoned to death by his lifelong best friend, Marty Puccio, and six other youths, including Marty’s 18-year-old girlfriend, Lisa Connelly, who allegedly masterminded the murder plot. Marty and Lisa were tired of the physical and psychological abuse Bobby heaped upon Marty, so they planned Bobby’s demise with all the forethought that would normally accompany a trip to the mall, recruiting five other teens who barely knew the victim.

David McKenna and Roger Pullis’ screenplay is remarkably—and often regrettably—faithful to Jim Schutze’s book on the crime, though the extent to which this makes the film adherent to reality is unclear, given the dubious nature of Schutze’s shoddy, speculative journalism. Regardless, Clark seems more concerned with using the Kent murder as a vehicle for investigating the general amorality and apathy of contemporary middle-class suburban youth, a nation of (to quote Schutze’s prose) “poor little white kids… wearing baggy pants, nose rings and perpetual expressions of sullen vacantness.” But whereas Kids managed to dodge accusations of sensationalism through its naturalist approach, the true-crime origins of Bully—combined with Clark’s more eroticized employment of nudity—makes his new film a more ideologically problematic enterprise.

Bully presents itself as courageous sociological examination, but Clark seems to thrive on the visceral spectacle of lithe young bodies on the blissfully ignorant path to moral holocaust.

His film occasionally resembles those 1930s poverty-row exploitation titles that would purport to criticize a topical social ill whilst actually reveling in the opportunities for excess that the subject matter would provide. As meticulously designed to shock as any film in recent memory, Bully could be a hip-hop-pumped, sweaty-palmed, post-Columbine Reefer Madness for the Eminem and PlayStation 2 generation.

So why, then, is Bully still the most compelling and vibrant American film to be released so far this year? Clark’s film is given emotional gravity by its remarkable central quartet of performances: Bijou Phillips as Lisa’s friend, Ali, Brad Renfro as Marty, Nick Stahl as Bobby, and particularly, the extraordinary Rachel Miner (who seems to be channeling Fast Times-era Jennifer Jason Leigh) as Lisa. All excel in conveying the diseased dynamics of these fatal friendships.

In a recent conversation with MM, Clark spoke about his new film Bully, which, though at once bold and confrontational and cruel and sordid, remains gripping viewing.

Clark

Travis Crawford (MM): Your film is actually less graphic than the book upon which it’s based, but were you still concerned with making Bully this explicit?

Larry Clark (LC): No, because I really think the way I did it was just true to the story. I mean, there are so many films you could’ve made from that book, with all the levels and subplots at work there, and there are a lot of events in the book that—like life—are hard to understand. And you can’t really know what Bobby and Marty’s strange relationship was like without dealing with this stuff.

MM: But for a film that ostensibly revolves around an act of violence, I was struck by how much sexuality there was—particularly in the first half-hour.

LC: That’s what the story was, though—a lot of sex and getting high—and I pretty much shot from the book. I had a screenplay, but before every scene, I would go to the book and take the dialogue verbatim from there. I found the story to be very sexual and very explicit, with the stories of group sex with the girls [and] the gay stuff in the clubs, and I thought that material needed to be in there. It was what was interesting about the story, because it connected to the violence.

MM: I can’t imagine Bully will get an R rating in its present form.

LC: Lion’s Gate is releasing it unrated because [the MPAA] wouldn’t give me an R. This seems to happen to me a lot. (laughs) I’m trying to make R movies, I’m playing by all the rules, and technically I should have an R for this movie. You see big Hollywood movies that go further than I’ve gone, and there’s nothing I’m doing that hasn’t been done before. But because it’s kids and it’s real, they won’t give me an R. And Kids should’ve been an R movie. There was no nudity, there was nothing that should’ve gotten me an NC-17. You can do American Pie and all that shit, and it’s okay as long as it’s a comedy, but if you try to make it real, they fuck with you.

The same thing happened with Bully. We asked the MPAA, ‘Tell us how to make it an R. Give us your advice,’ and they sent back a note telling us to tell America ‘Hide your children.’ Thanks a lot.

MM: But there were those who found Kids to be exploitative, and you’ll probably face the same charges with Bully

Bijou Phillips, Kelli Garner and Daniel Franzese in Bully

LC: Bully is based on a real story, and it’s straight out of the book. And when Kids came out, they said ‘This is an old man’s fantasy, this isn’t the way kids really are,’ and now look at what’s happening with kids in this country, with the school shootings … you can see that kids did reflect reality, and it wasn’t so far out. And Bully is reality, too. They’re both isolated situations, but they say things about what’s going on with kids in America today.

MM: What statement do you think Bully makes regarding teen violence in this country following incidents like Columbine?

LC: Well, I think it relates to the subject of bullies. Bully was supposed to be made a couple years ago, but everyone backed away from it because of Columbine—everyone was afraid of the story. It was very difficult for me to finance this film, because it seemed like nobody wanted me to make it. And now, since we have made the movie, there have been more school shootings and the kids who did the shooting claim it was because they were bullied. Everything in the papers is about bullies. So I think the film addresses a very topical issue, though that’s not why I made the movie. It’s funny that when you are making work that is issue-oriented, people want to go the other way, when I think it would be interesting to explore these subjects that are impacting the way we’re seeing kids in society today.

MM: When these incidents occur, people want to point fingers at the causes in society, and parents have often been blamed. In Kids, the parents are almost entirely absent, whereas in Bully they’re present but ineffectual, which is even more disturbing.

LC: One reason I found the story interesting is because the kids did live at home and the parents were around. The kids are in their rooms and the parents are in the living room watching TV, and the last thing they want is any confrontation. And the kids could be in their rooms taking drugs and having sex…

Bijou Phillips, Rachel Miner and Brad Renfro in Bully

MM: Or making bombs…

LC: Right, as long as they go to the kitchen to make a sandwich and grunt at their parents, the parents think everything’s okay.

MM: So do you place the blame on the parents?

LC: That’s a real oversimplification, but bad parenting has a lot to do with many problems. In other countries, where there’s so much poverty and everybody has to struggle, are kids going to have the time to be this bored? In this country, we’re so blessed, and we have so much, but our whole value system has been thrown out the door. We’re all so concerned with our kids being “happy.” We just want our kids to be “happy,” and I’m even the same way with my kids. In other cultures, the kids’ happiness is not the main concern. And it’s more than the parents here, it’s the whole culture. And I’m not making a judgment, I’m just saying that’s the way it is.

MM: The actual events of Bully took place in 1993, but the film seems to be set in the present day, as there are some contemporary references.

LC: I did take license. I thought if I made it 1993 it would distance people and it would seem a little out of date. Even if it’s only eight years ago, you’re still doing a period piece, so you can’t show anything that was made after ’93, which would also make it more difficult and expensive. We also had very little money to make this movie—it was very hard to get the money and I cast and prepared the film on nothing. We didn’t have a fucking dollar. We only got money to make the film two days before we started shooting; everything was on credit. The budget was two and a quarter million, and I had a little less than $900,000 to make the movie. I made it in 23 days, and we worked our asses off; it was insanity. After it was done there were items in post that we had no money for. When they did the budget, I don’t know what the hell they were doing, but there was $80,000 worth of stuff in post that wasn’t budgeted. So I flew to Paris to talk Canal Plus into giving me the money to finish. It was a struggle, but I learned a lot. Thankfully I had a terrific cast that was up to it.

MM: Did any of them have a problem with the nudity?

LC: Well, that was interesting. (laughs) It’s all about trust, really. They trusted me and I trusted them. They knew my work, and they knew I wanted to keep things very real, and we were all together in wanting to make this film reflect the human condition. The actors hung in there with me, and the work was intense, but I think we got to some places we wouldn’t have gotten to otherwise.

MM: In all your films—particularly with Bully—you’ve chronicled the lives of some pretty unsympathetic characters. Are you capable of retaining a fondness for these people, or is that even necessary as a moviemaker?

LC: They’re all like real people; they’re like us. You have to find a way to make them human, not all bad or all good. If you make them one-dimensional, the audience can stand back and say ‘That’s not me,’ but if you humanize them and make them like people you know, that’s what’s important.

MM: Another recurring theme in your work is an interest in the sexuality of youth. You’re currently in your late 50s, yet you still retain an affinity for this subject.

LC: I’m sure it’s all filtered through my experiences and my age, and I don’t think there’s any way to get around that, but I try to understand what’s going on today. Kids are bombarded by information today whereas, when I was a kid, there was no information. The kind of innocence I knew is gone completely. From a very early age, these kids know and see everything, and it’s interesting to me to see how they process that. I think that the ideal thing would be for Kids who are the ages of the Kids in my films to be making these films. They would know better than me, but I’m trying to make films where they look at them and say, ‘Well, that’s not total bullshit, that’s pretty close to reality.’

MM: Wasn’t Harmony Korine pretty close to that age when he wrote Kids?

LC: Yeah, he was from that world. Kids was my story, and he wrote the screenplay.

MM: And now you’re in the process of editing Ken Park, which you just directed from another of Harmony’s scripts.

LC: Harmony wrote the screenplay and, once again, I gave him a list of my five characters and what happened to them, and I told him to weave them into one story. He did a brilliant job. Harmony wrote it in ’94, when we were waiting to get money to do Kids. All the characters in Ken Park come from my work as a visual artist—and they’re all people I’ve known. I’ve always been a storyteller, and this is just another part of my work. MM