ComingSoon recently had the opportunity to speak with director Bill McAdams about his powerful new film, Bully High, which premieres at the Catalina Film Festival, September 21-25.
“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,” says the synopsis. “Bob’s son and star of the school baseball team Zack Walker (Cedric Begley) falls for Maryam, causing conflict between him and his Christian father. Meanwhile, Maryam’s new friend, a Christian lesbian named Nicole White (Caroline Stella), also fights to strip away stereotypes and stand up for her right to live in peace.”
ComingSoon: Talk about Bully High. What led you to the project and how did the film come together?
Bill McAdams: This is the hardest film I’ve ever worked on in terms of patience and perseverance.
After a breakup with a Muslim Egyptian girl, I moved down to a spare room in my little brother Matt’s house (he’s actually featured as the baseball coach in the film) in Encinitas. One day, he took me to the horse races in Del Mar, California and we had a drink afterward at some fancy track restaurant nearby. I chatted up a man named Patrick who was an Iranian Christian. We talked about racial profiling and how he was bullied after moving to the United States. I never understood how someone could judge based on skin color. Born in Washington, D.C., and growing up in Northern Virginia, I never saw color – only friends, classmates, and teammates. He was interested in my anti-racial profiling ideas I had already put to paper. I started turning out script pages, researching. I had the summer off and was in creative mode living at the beach. No work. Wondering what my next adventure was to be.
I wrote the first draft and soon after got a call from my sister asking if I could look after a family friend, Caroline Stella, who had just graduated and moved to California from Texas. I said sure. I brought Caroline in on Bully High as my producing partner and incorporated her personal story into the character Nicole, who she was to play. Caroline’s story, and the stories of so many others like her, broke my heart. A Christian who was told to choose between God and Gay. Biblically, homosexuality is an abomination. To be clear – the act of homosexuality, not the person. I’ve been reprimanded a few times on that with the heterosexual Christian community. That didn’t make any sense, as God doesn’t make mistakes. To be gay is a mistake? To love and be loved is a mistake?
Caroline and I started with a little money. We shot the first eight days in mid-November 2018. Then COVID hit. Soon after, I watched my father bottom out in a hospital due to his liver disease. He thankfully pulled through. My lead actress, Aneesha Madhok, had gone back to India and we shot around her for two years sticking to our storyline with her as the lead character.
People tell you it’s “just a film” and it was not. It was a piece of me and over time I realized it would be a vehicle for my own personal past trauma.
What was the most challenging aspect of Bully High and how did you overcome it?
First off, I would like to thank my long-time producing partner Therese Moncrief for seeing my film and coming on board to help. Everything is a challenge when making an indie film on a super low budget. COVID. Locations. Actor availability. All the different personalities that come with making a film. You become this stern father or older protective brother, and you care for everyone and want them to shine. High school movies can be tougher than most because you can have 2-8 characters in a scene at the same time. Not to mention extras, location, and the schools’ calendar to work with. To have all the money in the bank and shooting 16-20 days in a row is a blessing. When that happens it’s nice. Actors move on to their next projects. I can’t blame them. You just have to convince them that this will be worth it and to stick around. In this case… years later. In the end, it will be good for all.
I was told by my close friends and family more than once, “Maybe this film isn’t finished for a reason and you should move on.” My answer – “What about these kids? They poured their hearts and souls into this film. The crew? I love my crew. I can’t give up on them”.
COVID was tough on the entire world and still is. A life adjustment that was out of our control. I’m proud we got through it with our accomplishment. I wanted to get people out of their house and onto life’s playing field. Isolation is terrifying. Unhealthy. People need people.
You’re working with a number of talented actors on this project. How did you come to cast each of them for their respective roles?
Casting is an art. I cast on talent first. I take it very seriously. Would you trust this person at an intimate dinner party that you are hosting to behave and be respectful to all around? Engage on not just their character, but the other actors and their needs. Will they help promote after the film is released. You aren’t just casting the actor. You are casting the person. I don’t do “me, me, me.” This is a collaboration and the film comes first above any individual. I don’t make these movies on my own. It takes an army of love and respect. A bunch of film loving warriors. Share the stage and respect everyone.
My go-to actors are Brent Anderson, Taylor Jabara and myself. Hahaha. Because I’m easy to direct.
I also like to give actors a shot who are just starting out. If I can see the passion… the drive… I can mold it.
I had seen Cedric Begley’s work on The Kominsky Method and met him randomly on the street near my house in Sherman Oaks. Such a dedicated talent. Even though we don’t look alike I made it work. He even wrote a music cue in the film that is up there with the film “true romance” theme.
Our lead Maryam fell off the table a week before shooting and I found USC alum Aneesha Madhok to play our Muslim teen who is bullied for wearing her Hijab. She was wonderful and bold in a play called “Infidel” directed by Christopher Vened and produced by my friend Rebecca Robertson who invited me. I immediately saw talent and confidence in Aneesha.
This film doesn’t have a bad performance. In my humble opinion. Honestly – It’s weird to single out one cast member. They are my family. I love them all.
The film tackles some important social issues — How do you design a story around these topics, or is it the other way around?
You form them based on personal experiences and the experiences of the people around you. All my films come from a past experience that moved me in a special way to where it becomes an obsession, and then that passion drives the story.
I dated a Muslim girl from Egypt. My family told me she isn’t a Christian and not equally “yoked.” She didn’t drink which I didn’t mind. We shared a good year together, but eventually, the stress of religion (or lack of) caused insecurities which ended us. I eventually researched Muslims in California and stories popped up. Muslim teenage boy takes life from being bullied. 4 out of 5 Muslim students are bullied in schools. 1 out of 5 of the bullies are teachers. No way. I couldn’t believe an adult could bully a child. It’s true. This hurt me. I know 9/11 was terrible … I watched the second plane hit live on TV while on the phone with my friend. It was devastating. I know one person who lost a brother. I lost a brother in a motorcycle accident. It’s pain that is so unexplainable that it numbs you. Literally breaks your heart. Years to mend. Time does heal in some sense, but a limb is taken from you. A void is left.
On that note, how difficult is a film like this to produce? What is the set like? How do the actors respond to the material?
It’s all on you. The good, the bad, and the ugly. You are the leader. My sets are fast and efficient. I expect the actors to come over prepared since we have little money and time, which means small windows to complete scenes. It’s managing moving parts and keeping people in check that there is a big picture. A plan. And it will be great. Some see it and give 100 perfect and some just go through the motions. You must be strong and do your prep. Have all the answers and if you fall short be humble enough to listen. You have to make decisions in less than a minute that some don’t like, but in the long run you hope they will understand.
My films hopefully speak for themselves. I don’t boast. I’m not in this for the “director credit.” I don’t have a choice. I love telling stories and film is my platform. I honestly don’t know what else I would do. I love baseball. You hope the actors can get behind the message and not just show up. My job is to make them understand the part they play and how it affects the other characters.
Do you have any interesting behind-the-scenes stories about the making of Bully High that you can share?
My actor friend didn’t show up to play Scarlet’s Neighbor. Sound mixer Brian Wittle had the right sweater on. I handed him a page of dialogue and said, “You’re in the movie.”
Another story… this one is more serious… I had a falling out with my producing partner. I was pushing her as an actress because she is wonderful and strong and bold. Unfortunately, I pushed her too far at times, because I wanted her to reach her full potential. The tough love was taken the wrong way and she shut down. We have moved past it. I also play the character Bob in this film. We have a scene in the film together I adore. I tear up thinking about it.
It goes to show you can learn something new, always, from anyone… young or old.
Were there things you learned from working on Bully High that you’re excited to apply to future projects?
I would say have a perfect script from the start. Unfortunately, it’s never the case. Sorry guys. Even with the big boys. Re-writes happen as you go. It’s an organic process. Always evolving. I think I have made my last high school movie. Unless, of course, Apple TV calls and wants to make Bully High into a series.
What message do you hope your film conveys to audiences around the world?
Love yourself first. Be confident in you. Know you are worthy of love. Love your neighbor. Understand and accept. Let people be. Being judgmental is harmful and ignorant. Share love. It has taken me over 40 years to speak up. Talk about my personal traumas. Say something when it happens. It will change your life in a good way.