Bully High | Bill McAdams Jr. Interview

Bullying has a devastating effect on children and families that increases anxiety and depression. Coming off last month’s National Bullying Prevention Month, Bill McAdam Jr.’s Bully High is a high school drama reflecting a young foreign exchange student’s experience as a victim of bullying in America.

The cast includes Aneesha Madhok, Cedric Begley, Caroline Stella, Joseph Baena, Monet Weir, and Abla Sofy. Bill McAdams Jr. wrote and directed the film.

Bully High centers around a Pakistani exchange student, Maryam Ali (Aneesha Madhok), who proudly wears her hijab to her new high school, triggering bigotry and harassment from school officials and other students, particularly the class bully Scarlett Smith (Taylor Jabara) and the school’s government teacher Bob Walker (McAdams, Jr.), whose traumatic pasts are the basis for their personal resentment toward Maryam. Bob’s son and star of the school basketball team Zack Walker (Cedric Begley), fall for Maryam, causing conflict between him and his Christian father. Meanwhile, Maryam’s new friend, a Christian lesbian named Nicole White (Carolina Stella), also fights to strip away stereotypes and stand up for her right to live peacefully.

The film is currently streaming on Tubi.

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LRM Online’s Gig Patta interviewed McAdams via e-mail for the release of this film.

Read the interview below and let us know what you think of it.

Gig Patta: Tell us about the origination of Bully High.

Bill McAdams Jr.: I dated a Muslim girl and had a wonderfully simple year at the beach in Carlsbad, California. We built a butterfly garden and watched them arrive. It was a time in my life I’ll always cherish. Unfortunately, dating someone that wasn’t Christian for the first time proved to be more of a challenge for the people around us. Years later, I met an Iranian Christian who told me he was racially profiled as a terrorist because of his religion and skin color. Soon after, I was inspired to write the first draft of Bully High. This coming-of-age drama tackles today’s more controversial issues, including religious prejudice, sexual orientation, and bullying.

The film centers around a Muslim exchange who proudly wears her hijab to school, triggering bigotry and harassment from school officials and other students, particularly the class bully and the school’s Government teacher, whose traumatic pasts are the basis for their resentment. Meanwhile, another student, a Christian lesbian, fights to strip away stereotypes and stand up for her right to live peacefully.

The word “Bully” was put directly into the title to remind people that this continues to exist in schools all around the country. We must reach out to the victims and perpetrators and give them a safe environment to talk to us.

Gig Patta: Bullying is such a relatable topic for young people today. Talk about your approach to this relatable subject.  

Bill McAdams, Jr.: It’s not just relatable today. It’s been around since the first adult had a child. It all starts at home. Nobody is born a bully. They slowly morph into a bully until they aren’t even aware of their hurtful actions. All my films have everlasting issues. Racism. Hate. Non-forgiveness. I make films with on-the-nose messaging and present ways to fix the problem. For example, nobody should ever be afraid to speak. To share. To love. My approach is to identify and highlight the problem or conflict, expose it, and tackle it with a giant blanket of love.

Gig Patta: The hijab incident recently was on the news as a worldwide protest in Iran. Your film was made before those events. Can you discuss how the hijab came across in your film?

Bill McAdams, Jr.: Presenting the hijab as the centerpiece of the film came about a few years ago after I saw a school video of a 16- year-old girl physically assaulting a smaller, younger girl wearing a Hijab. Just thinking of the video makes me shake in fear for both girls. After watching the video several more times, I was pleased and proud to see the younger girl stick up for herself and found myself feeling more pain and sympathy for the bully. Who are her parents, and why does she behave like this?

While researching the prevalent and ongoing problem of Islamophobia, bullying, harassment, and discrimination in U.S. schools, I also learned that Muslim women wear a hijab to maintain modesty and privacy from unrelated males. And what’s more, it’s a choice. A woman’s choice to wear it or not. No man should tell a woman what to do with her own body. It’s hers and hers alone.

So to answer your question… Not understanding something causes fear of misunderstanding. Educate them. In one of the film’s early scenes, the Muslim student is thrown against a locker and has her hijab torn off. This was our inciting incident. Later in the film, she explains the meaning and significance of the hijab to her classmates. Most filmmakers wouldn’t do this because it’s too “On the Nose.” Well, so is getting punched in the face. Maybe if someone had educated the 16-year-old bully about the hijab representing love and respect for oneself, she wouldn’t have acted so aggressively. The payoff is love and understanding. All healed.

God bless all the girls in Iran. Keep standing up to violent control. You are your own!

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Gig Patta: One of the fascinating things about the film is that it shows the perspective of villainous characters and how they did not perceive things as wrong. Why did you want to show both sides of the story?

Bill McAdams Jr.: A villain has a skewed heart, but it still beats. Hold it gently. When you show both sides of the story, you get down to the basis of the problem. The mean girl needs love and affection, nurturing and compassion. Someone to listen to her. Pretty girls kill themselves, too, because when they look in the mirror, they see ugly. We’re all God’s children and beautiful and special in our way.

Gig Patta: 9/11 was a fateful event that divided many people. Yet, it is the same for any tragic event. How did this come across in your film?

Bill McAdams Jr.: I feel for everyone involved. The thought of a husband or wife, brother or sister, son or daughter, leaving for work or a business trip on 9/11, and never returning home is true horror. Like so many of us, I watched the day’s events unfold, heard the phone calls, and just balled. I had a brother killed in a motorcycle accident and knew the pain of getting that phone call that a loved one is gone. What do you mean gone? Not coming back?! So, I felt for those loving souls on 9/11. When you lose a loved one, particularly someone who is flesh and blood, a piece of you is forever gone. However, you can use the pain to heal everyone around you.

It’s true as a filmmaker… If you reach just one person and help them heal, it’s worth all the hard work that goes into making films.

Gig Patta: Talk about the young cast you recruited.

Bill McAdams Jr.: I cast on talent and vibe. When I sit down with a potential actor, I want them to look me in the eye with strength and wonder. Then, I can see if they grasp the story at hand. I can see if they truly want the part or if they’re looking for some new real footage so they can get another vanity credit. Filmmaking is a responsibility. Writers and directors need to stand proud and unafraid to say anything. When an actor gets behind that, it’s gold.

Gig Patta: How did you decide for yourself to play a pivotal character in the film?

Bill McAdams Jr.: I’m easy to direct. No diva here. That’s turning into a bad uncle joke, but it’s true. In independent filmmaking, you must trust everyone on your set, both in front of and behind the lens. There is no time for the “Me, Me, Me’s” of filmmaking. They break the vibe. There is nothing more unattractive than a selfish actor. Respect each other, share the stage, and see the big picture, and you won’t get a bad performance.

You can argue that I play two characters in the film. In addition to playing the part of the school’s Government teacher, my pain from something that happened to me 40 years ago is taken on by the film’s main antagonist. The experience led me down a path of self-sabotage. It wasn’t until after years of drugs and alcohol and a failed marriage that I could finally start a conversation about what happened to me.

I urge people… please talk about a traumatic event right after it happens. It will be a life changer for the better. You and the people around you will be saved from years of pain and misunderstandings.

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Gig Patta: Tell us about Hermosa Beach’s location as a backdrop for this production.

Bill McAdams Jr.: I have to commend you on these questions. I’m glad you see the art in film and the beautiful details within them. You are not just throwing me generic questions to get some words on your webpage.

Hermosa Beach is a lead character in the film. Hermosa means beautiful in Spanish, and that’s what this film is about. Love and Beauty. It’s one of my favorite spots in the world. As I type this interview, I’m sitting in my flat in Paris, with the Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre just about a hundred yards away. So that’s saying something.  

I had gone to 2-3 beach towns, gotten some ridiculous quotes (up to 10k a day), and was bummed that a city wouldn’t support our story and lend a helping hand. One day while wandering around Hermosa Beach, I said, “This is my home. Why not make it the movie’s home too.” Soon after, I spoke with someone from City Hall and pitched my story. She loved it, and gave us the student film rate of $109 a day. Thank you, Hermosa Beach! I will forever love you! You made my beach movie dream a reality.

Gig Patta: Lastly, what are your upcoming projects now?

Bill McAdams Jr.: Whatever takes my heart and don’t give it back until the last day of filming.

The film is currently streaming on Tubi.

Source: LRM Online Exclusive

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