The cast and crew of the independent film “Bully High” recently spent a few days filming in Hermosa Beach as they wind down shooting the drama expected to be released later this year.
Bullying has created headlines in recent years with a rash of teen suicides and assaults as well as uplifting stories of communities rallying behind a suffering teen.
“It's about acceptance and not judging people,” said director/writer Bill McAdams Jr. of “Bully High.” “My movies end up being diverse, all of them. I'm drawn to these stories that are interesting and sad in a way, just bringing cultures together is interesting for me.”
In “Bully High,” teens Maryam Ali, a Pakistani exchange student, and Nicole White, a Christian Lesbian, face bigotry from school officials, other students and family.
A couple of these characters are loosely based on people close to McAdams, including one of the film's stars Caroline Stella. McAdams' sister in Texas introduced Stella to the filmmaker to help “show her the ropes."
“I had the script half written and the character was just Christian and suicidal and really didn't have a motivation behind it,” McAdams said. “She (Stella) told me that, 'Oh well I'm gay.' I was like wow. 'My parents think I'm a disease, an abomination' … I took her on as my partner. We went through the story, we talked and kind of massaged her character.”
Coming out story
In addition to starring in "Bully High," Stella has taken on many roles: producer, costume wrangling and production assistant.
“I'm usually the first one on set and the last to leave,” she said.
The character Nicole White is “very loosely” based on Stella's experience being raised as an evangelical Christian in Ft. Worth, Texas.
“As a teenager, I knew I was gay when I was 15, but my church has a policy that you can come in that way, but you can't stay that way... it was very clear to me I couldn't come out and that's what Nicole deals with,” Stella said.
Stella said the character Nicole is bolder in dealing with her sexuality.
She is “way more of a tomboy and dresses more masculine than I ever would have dressed,” said Stella, who added the character also just flat out tells her parents she's gay in high school.
“I didn't until very recently,” Stella said. “But I think Nicole is definitely more susceptible to bullying. She does want to fit in really badly and wants to be out, but wants all her worlds to conjoin very well... I also didn't care with fitting in as much. I was just a bitter, bitter being that had a very select group of friends and kind of verbally wrestled with the bullies.”
Filmmaker McAdams lost a brother in a motorcycle accident seven years ago. He took a year off and hung out with his youngest brother and he “found my space.” During this time he started dating an Egyptian woman. They fell in love and started talking marriage. Because his parents were Christian and she was Egyptian, they didn't approve of the marriage because “you're not equally yoked.”
“It didn't make any sense to me because I loved her,” McAdams said.
McAdams' experience inspired the relationship between the characters Maryam and Zack Walker (Cedric Begley), a star baseball player whose father is the coach/teacher (played by McAdams). Because of his Christian beliefs and “his own personal fears,” the coach harasses Maryam.
Aneesha Madhok plays Maryam. It's the first film role for the 2018 theater and screenwriting grad, who grew up in India.
The character Maryam is proud to wear hijab at school, but she faces harassment on a daily basis. Like her character Madhok said she faced bullying while growing up.
“I’m embracing who I am now but at the time, puberty and growing up I was very unsure,” Madhok said. “A film like this will teach the young girls out there to embrace themselves especially the fact that my character wears a hijab and I learned to respect that by playing this character.”
Madhok was planning to move back to India to work in the film industry there, but she was cast as the lead in the play “Infidel” at the Whitefire Theatre in Sherman Oaks. McAdams saw her in that production and convinced her to audition for “Bully High.”
“This character really spoke to me, the gentleness of my character and how she deals with violence with so much peace and calmness,” Madhok said.
Madhok said she “went a little method” with her character.
“I didn't talk to my mom for three weeks during filming because my mom in the movie is dead,” Madhok said. “Also, I had to isolate myself to feel what it's like to be alone to have no friends. Because in real life I'm very social, I love people. I could talk to anybody. I love people so much I could hug everyone. But for my character, she's not social, she's not very outgoing, not very confident, very shy and polite.”
Taylor Stammen plays lead “mean girl,” Scarlet Smith, in “Bully High.” She met McAdams three years ago. Last summer he asked her to get involved in a coming-of-age script.
They workshopped the script and developed a back story. In the script the character Scarlet is molested as a child and has “built up animosity and self loathing.”
“I find that I really like playing this kind of person because it's so unlike me in real life,” said Stammen, who said she normally plays the girl-next-door character. “You kind of find out as an actor you enjoy playing roles that are the most opposite of you... it feels good to do it in someone else's eyes with someone else's soul in it because you realize you're genuinely not that type of person.”
Stammen said she has seen “some mean girls in my day.”
“I was a follower of mean girls, sadly to admit, and was trying to fit in not knowing where my place was, just wanting to be in the cool in crowd,” Stammen said. “I definitely sacrificed some self worth to be a follower. My character Scarlet falls into line and to see that dynamic really puts it in perspective.”
Monet Weir, daughter of Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir, tackles her first acting role as Amber Adams, part of mean girl pack.
“She's under her (Scarlet) influence,” Weir said. “She doesn’t have a sense of identity in the beginning... but she comes into her own and starts defending them.”
Veteran actor Betsy Russell (“Saw” films), who plays Beth White, Nicole's mother, is also a co-producer of “Bully High.” She said the film's message is close to her heart since her sister is gay and she has “been down that path.”
“I hope they (audience) get the understanding that people are people,” Russell said. “We all have the same soul. We all are loving beings and I think it's important to spread understanding.... and doing our best to understand another person's perspective because that’s what caused fights and war is having limited understanding. In families as well, we judge each other.”
Filming in Hermosa Beach
McAdams said they have spent six days shooting in Hermosa Beach. Half of those days were last November on the beach, which is featured in the film's first trailer. They also shot in a convent in Alhambra, calling it Hermosa Beach High.
The director said the city and residents have been welcoming. He was looking for a house to shoot in and knocked on only three doors before he got a yes.
“Everyone in this town has said 'yes,' which to me, that's how you make an independent film,” McAdams said. “That's how you can pull something off like this. It's heaven down here. I love it. To have this as the setting... everything's perfect and have these underlying issues that people don't really want to talk about. The tag is 'Silence is not the answer.' If we just talked we could work our way through anything. We don't have to be on the same page, but at least it's on the table and we're discussing.”
McAdams said at the “end of the day, it's about love and acceptance and no judgment.”
He added, “If we don't talk, nothing will get fixed, it just stays there, deeper, darker, and it ends up not in a good place.”