Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe on The Bad Kids, Achieving Documentary Shot/Reverse Shot with One Camera and Balancing Advocacy and Aesthetics
Placed deep in the secluded landscape of the Mojave Desert, Black Rock High School isn’t your typical institution for American teenagers. A continuation school designed specifically for trouble students for whom Black Rock is their last chance at academic redemption, the men and women frequenting these halls face a daily struggle of balancing their studies with often toxic home lives (and fearing that the destructive family cycle could repeat itself over the next generation). As society appears ready to deem them unworthy of fitting in, the title characters in the documentary The Bad Kids work increasingly hard to fight against their stereotypical image. As the film opened in select cities throughout the country (with a public broadcast scheduled for spring 2017), I spoke with directors Lou Pepe and Keith Fulton about how they built trust with their young subjects, classic (and claustrophobic) ways to shoot a dialogue scene between two people, and how attention to a film’s social issues can exist alongside a documentary’s artistic integrity.
Filmmaker: There’s a line in your film about not being able to control what’s done to you in life but being able to choose not to be reduced by it. In many ways, that statement greatly represents the message of your film. Before embarking on The Bad Kids, were you looking to make a film about troubled youth?
Pepe: We hadn’t really been looking for that. We had been doing a series of short documentaries for foundations about public education in Southern California and became really moved by how much work public education teachers put into their jobs. We were especially interested in schools that had been labeled by the system as failing schools. The more we visited schools branded as such, the more we realized it was based on a measurement system that expects teachers and public schools to solve problems of poverty. We were more interested in looking at situations where public educations were working with very limited means and yet having success in battling these larger systemic problems. That lead us to Black Rock High School.
Filmmaker: Even before the opening title card, we’re introduced to Joey, a struggling 17-year old who loves music but deals with issues of drug abuse and a destructive home life. I think he’s given the most screen time in the film. What drew you to him and what was it about his story that was an ideal way to bring us into the narrative?
Fulton: Joey was actually one of the students that Black Rock’s principal, Vonda Viland, had initially recommended to us. One of the reasons we were attracted to him was because he was a talented musician. He was obviously struggling with a lot. When you’re looking for a character who really carries a lot of conflict with him, Joey was a clear choice. He’s somebody who, under other circumstances with a supportive family and supportive adult figures in his life, would do perfectly well. Joey seemed really damaged and you could tell by the way he carried himself. He didn’t have any confidence and had a very grouchy demeanor. He could be charming some times and then completely the opposite a lot of the times. He was carrying the kind of conflict that a documentary filmmaker is naturally attracted to, I think.
Filmmaker: Was that opening scene, with the probation officer coming over to meet with Joey, something you wrestled with regarding kicking off the film?
Pepe: I think it was pretty early on that we felt that was a really good opening scene. The drive to Joey’s house lets you know that you’re “not in Kansas anymore,” so to speak, that you’re out in the middle of this lunar landscape. We were really moved by the interaction between the probation officer and Joey. Even the officer is a kind of patient, caring adult in this situation, and he asks Joey this provocative question of “What do you want out of life?” Joey doesn’t have an answer. The whole film looks at the teachers of this high school and their commitment to listening to kids, to asking them these bigger questions, and helping them to take agency for whatever it is they might want to do with their lives.
Filmmaker: Your exterior shots, outside of the school, emphasize the vastness and openness of the Mojave Desert, giving off the impression that these students find a moment of solace at Black Rock before being recast out into a society that may be foreign and unreceptive to them. What were you hoping to achieve with those specific moments of location outside of the high school walls?
Fulton: Lou and I used to spend a lot of time out in the desert area as tourists just to get outside of Los Angeles. We loved that environment. Part of what was interesting to us in embarking on this film was that we had never really had, as most tourists don’t, deep connections with the people who live there. There was a big divide between the New York/Los Angeles tourists who go out there because it’s a cool place and the very impoverished population who lives there that doesn’t really benefit from the tourism.
Regarding the landscape, you couldn’t find a better metaphor for what these kids, and what kids like them all over the country, go through in terms of alienation and isolation. We knew that the landscape was going to be a significant character in our film and we tried to use it that way. The rhythms of the landscape and the desert are very subtle, and we talked about wanting to use seasonal rhythms to nearer the drama and conflicts of the students. That was a fun part of making the film for us.
Filmmaker: There’s an early sequence featuring a montage of students expressing emotional hardships via a very cinematic device: internal monologues and voiceover. It’s a collage of quietly expressed grief (with their voices at times overlapping with one another), a shared reflection of pain. That moment really stands out early on in helping us understand these students.
Pepe: We had this bulletin board with bright yellow index cards in the editing room and one of them read “mosaic.” We were aware that the conventional film about young people or the conventional high school film picks three students and follows their heroes’ journeys. We did not want to make that film. We wanted something where the individuals in the film were part of a larger whole. We needed a way to remind the audience that for every story of every kid that they heard that there’s an entire population of other kids out there who have similar stories. That sequence was the means by which we established that early on.
Filmmaker: The film provides almost equal amounts of attention between the students and the staff, and there are moments of intense intimacy for both. What are the differences and different methods involved in getting younger people and adults comfortable in front of your camera?
Fulton: The most important thing is that you build a relationship with trust. You can only do that by spending a significant amount of time without the camera running and trying your best to become part of the fabric of the school. It’s just like you do in interpersonal relationships — expressing honest interest in other people, talking with the teachers at the school and spending time with them at lunch. We spent hours and hours interviewing 50 or 60 kids without camera or audio recorders before we actually started following them around. They knew who we were and what we were doing and to some degree what we were after. That helps a lot.
We do have a certain level of practice where we will stay in a room only long enough to wear out our welcome, so to speak. If we feel like a situation is getting too intense or too emotional or if our presence is preventing people from really expressing themselves the way they want to, I think we’re pretty good at sensing that and leaving the room. We don’t necessarily wait until we get what we need. We just leave the room when we think it’s appropriate, when the relationship may be at stake if we don’t.
Pepe: I just read an interview with Vonda Viland where someone had asked her “What was it that made you trust these guys?” She told a story that I had forgotten. On the very first day we filmed at the school (we had visited a number of times before but without our camera) a really violent fight broke out in the bathroom between two girls. All of the students were looking at us like “Aren’t you going to go get that? Aren’t you going to get that?” We put the camera down and took a break. The kids asked us why we didn’t want to film [the fight]. We said “That’s not what we’re here to capture and that’s not what drew us to this place.” Principal Viland heard about that and was super apologetic, telling us that they hadn’t had a fight at the school in five years. We told her not to worry about it. That’s not why we were there. I think your subjects notice what you don’t shoot as much as they notice what you do shoot. It lets people know what you’re interested in.
Filmmaker: And when you were shooting, did you come back and forth or attend on a daily/weekly basis?
Pepe: For the first few months we filmed for anywhere from three to five days every three weeks. By the end of the first school year that we were there, we went for six solid weeks every single day. That was our most immersed in the school. We then continued into a second school year, filming a couple of days a week, as we could fit it in. We were there for a total of two full school years.
Filmmaker: A number of heartwrenching moments take place in Vonda Viland’s office, and you often use shot/reverse shot during the many pivotal conversations. How many cameras did you have stationed in the office and how much of a “fly on the wall” did you have to be in order to let those moments play out?
Fulton: We only have one camera when we’re shooting. I know some documentary filmmakers use two or more cameras sometimes, but then you’re really in the middle of a scientific experiment where there are too many people in the room and they may outnumber the number of people in the room who are your subjects! Shot/reverse shot sequences are a little bit of a lost art form in documentary filmmaking because they’re really, really hard to do. It’s probably the easiest thing to do in fiction filmmaking and the hardest thing to do in documentary filmmaking well. When you only have one camera, what’s your guarantee that you have a reverse shot? What’s your guarantee that you have a reaction shot? What’s your guarantee that the camera is pointed in the right place at the right time? It’s difficult. Lou and I have a particular system of communication. I do the sound and am looking around the room to see everything going on. I can communicate quietly with Lou to let him know if now is the time to turn around and Lou has a really good instinct about how to follow the drama and the conversation, the back-and-forth. I’m glad you ask about that because it is the ultimate art of this kind of documentary filmmaking.
Pepe: There’s a mystery to this to me. As a cameraperson, I’ve always wanted to blend into the surroundings and become invisible. But Vonda’s office was so small — there would be a student and her and me with a camera and Keith with a boom — that there was no way they didn’t know we were there. We were three feet away from them, at the most. I think somehow, over the time we spent in the school, there was a level of trust there. They felt that we were less outsiders observing than part of the fabric of the school. We were there to protect them and we had a tremendous amount of respect for them. I don’t know how we arrived at that, but I can only image that that was the thing that allowed people to be at ease when we got so close to them.
Filmmaker: There’s a scene between Lee and Ms. Viland that follows Lee lashing out on the mother of his child, declaring that he has to do everything in life on his own from now on. It’s a raw moment and one that seems almost impossible to be in the room filming without some kind of personal intrusion, and yet there it is in front of us. Could you talk about filming that scene?
Pepe: This is one of those mysteries. When Lee watched the film and he saw that scene, he said “Oh my God. You guys are showing me crying!” In the moment though, we were there…
Fulton: That’s actually an interesting scene and makes me think back to the way it was edited. We knew that this was a scene very much about Lee, his conflict, his worst moment of crisis and shame, to some degree. We had to figure out how to get Layla [another student in the film and the mother of Lee’s child] out of the room. In reality, Layla was in the room a lot longer than she is in that scene. We constructed the scene to have the classic dramatic moment where you take a three-character situation and you pair it down to two. She did leave the room at a certain point but not where she leaves the room in the scene that was cut, if you follow me. We got her out of the room at the moment, dramatically, where we needed to get her out of the room. You make the same kind of decisions you would make in screenwriting as in the edit room.
Pepe: But Keith, you’re talking about the editing process. We didn’t get her out of the room during the shooting process!
Fulton: No, no. [laughs]
Pepe: At a certain point in that meeting, Vonda said to Layla, “Please leave because Lee is really upset and he doesn’t mean what he’s saying.” It’s a weird thing. We knew Lee really well by that point and I think part of the reason we were allowed in so many of those rooms was because the kids knew that our interest in them was a genuine care. This is what I think I meant by saying that we became part of the fabric of the school. The documentary team became two more caring adults who actually looked at these kids, saw what was going on with their lives, and expressed interest in it.
Fulton: You can guarantee that after almost every single one of those highly emotional scenes that you see in the film, Lou and I were sitting down with one the students later in the day talking about what had gone on. It’s not like we would get the scene and go.
Filmmaker: In using some of those scenes to create moments of characterization, I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about Vonda. As the principal of the school, she lends herself to being a main character in the piece, but there are also expository scenes of her at home, waking up, exercising, and going through a daily routine before the sun even rises.
Fulton: That’s probably the trickiest thing in terms of balancing the portrayal of the character in the film. We were very conscious of the fact that people want to see a character like Vonda beyond the “superhero.” Some people have compared her to famous educators from fictions films like Stand and Deliver. I don’t know if we succeeded with this, but to some degree we wanted to withhold information about who she is. What audiences want a lot of times is backstory that justifies everything. They want to go “Ah, that’s how she does what she does. That’s why she’s a special person.” We kind of withheld that but chose certain things that we really wanted you to know. This is the kind of woman who gets up at the crack of dawn, exercises like crazy, goes to work really early, and goes for long hikes after work. This is how she copes. We wanted to share little details with you to let you know that she had ways of letting off steam. Other than that, we withhold almost all information about her. It frustrates some viewers, but for us, we give the right amount. There’s a point in the film where she tells a student who she’s in the process of expelling, “I was you when I was a teenager.” That, for us, is a climatic moment for Vonda’s character. She’s finally revealing to someone else “Yes, I know exactly what you’ve been through. I was there.” But when you get into the psychology of that too much, I think you know what effect that has. People suddenly start saying “Oh, I get how she does that and those are the only kind of people who can do that,” you know?
Filmmaker: Not that this is necessarily your goal, but a work like this could inspire social change, if not through a country-wide education restructuring then by the increased funding of continuation schools in the future. How involved are you both in further amplifying these issues laid out, for example, through Viland’s power-point presentation seen throughout the film?
Pepe: We have an outreach campaign and our film is going to be broadcast on PBS and they’re doing a community outreach campaign with the movie as well. On the festival circuit for the past year, we’ve been really supportive of any screening that people want to do for high school students (not just at-risk high schools but all high school students) and for teachers. I think the big lesson to learn from Black Rock High School is that so many people talk about the solution to publication education and the type of standards and curriculum it needs to have. Personally I think a lot of it is beating around the bush and doesn’t address the true core. The teachers at Black Rock deal with students as human beings. At so many high schools a teacher might say “This is school and we talk about your school problems here. We talk about algebra and we talk about English and everything else you leave at home.” For the 51% of American public education students who live in poverty, those are not problems that you can so easily leave at home. I don’t think teachers can solve those problems, but the entire public education system can help alleviate them by acknowledging that they exist. [It helps] to acknowledge that a student who’s hungry or a student who’s worried about an abuser in their home or an addicted parent is probably going to have trouble focusing on academics. Until our system acknowledges that, we’re never going to be able to address the larger issues that are holding some large population of public education students back.
Fulton: And to answer one other part of your question, these days one of the nice things about making a film like this is that you don’t have to put the advocacy within the film. We very specifically wanted to make a film about at-risk kids that wasn’t a talky film, wasn’t full of facts and figures with a call-to-action at the end of it. These days all of those things can exist outside of your film. We’ve been very much committed to an outreach campaign, as Lou said, and not just through ITVS but we’re also starting our own campaign to get the film to all of the continuation schools in California. We’ll have discussion guides that can be useful for at-risk populations and teacher-training modules that can be useful for teachers who work with these kinds of kids. It’s an ongoing effort and we have all different ways that we’re using the film for outreach and advocacy.
Filmmaker: Do you know when the film will air on PBS?
Pepe: End of March on Independent Lens and then Netflix in April. Between now and then, we also have an educational distributor who is helping us get the film to schools across the country. We’ve been very fortunate. A lot of filmmakers have to try to make their money off of their educational distribution, and we’ve been able to offer the film at a greatly discounted rate to schools just so we can get it seen by teachers and by students.