ComingSoon recently had the opportunity to speak with director Bill McAdams about his powerful new movie, tall thugwhich premieres at the Catalina Film Festival, September 21-25.
“tall thug centers on a Pakistani exchange student, Maryam Ali (Aneesha Madhok), who proudly wears her hijab at her new high school, sparking intolerance and bullying from school officials and other students, particularly the school stalker. Scarlett Smith (Taylor Jabara) class and the school government. teacher Bob Walker (McAdams, Jr.), whose traumatic past is the basis of his personal resentment toward Maryam,” the synopsis reads. “Bob’s son and star of the school baseball team, Zack Walker (Cedric Begley), falls in love with 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 break stereotypes and defend her right to live in peace.
Coming soon: Talk about Bully High. What brought you to the project and how did the film come about?
Bill Mac Adams: This is the most difficult film I have ever worked on in terms of patience and perseverance.
After a breakup with an Egyptian Muslim girl, I moved into a spare room at my little brother Matt’s (he actually appears as the baseball coach in the movie) house in Encinitas. One day he took me to the horse races in Del Mar, California, and afterward we had a drink at a fancy restaurant nearby. I spoke with a man named Patrick who was an Iranian Christian. We talked about racial discrimination 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, DC, and growing up in Northern Virginia, I never saw colors, just friends, classmates, and teammates. He was interested in my anti-racial profiling ideas that I had already put in writing. I started writing script pages, researching. I had the summer off and was in creative mode living on the beach. No work. I was wondering what my next adventure was going to be.
I wrote the first draft and soon after I got a call from my sister asking if I could babysit a family friend, Caroline Stella, who had just graduated and moved to California from Texas. I said sure. I brought Caroline to Bully High as my producing partner and incorporated her personal story into the character of Nicole, who she was going 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 several times for that with the straight Christian community. That didn’t make any sense, since God doesn’t make mistakes. Is being gay a mistake? Is loving and being loved a mistake?
Caroline and I started with a little money. We shot the first eight days in mid-November 2018. Then came COVID. Shortly after, I saw my father hit rock bottom in a hospital due to his liver disease. Fortunately he pulled through. My lead actress, Aneesha Madhok, had returned to India and we filmed around her for two years sticking to our story with her as the main character in her.
People tell you it’s “just a movie” and it wasn’t. It was a part of me and over time I realized that it would be a vehicle for my own personal trauma from the past.
What was the most challenging aspect of Bully High and how did you overcome it?
First of all, I would like to thank Therese Moncrief, my long-time producing partner, for seeing my film and coming together to help. Everything is a challenge when making an independent film on a very low budget. COVID-19. locations. availability of actors. All the different personalities that come with making a movie. You become this stern father or protective older brother, and you care about everyone and want them to shine. High school movies can be more difficult than most because you can have anywhere from 2 to 8 characters in a scene at the same time. Not to mention the extras, location and schedule of schools to work with. Having all the money in the bank and shooting 16-20 days straight is a blessing. When that happens it’s nice. The 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 that they stay. In this case… years later. In the end, it will be good for everyone.
My close friends and family told me more than once, “Maybe this movie isn’t finished for a reason and you should move on.” My response: “What about these kids? They poured their hearts and souls into this movie. The gang? I love my crew. I can’t give them up.”
COVID was hard on everyone and it still is. A life adjustment that was out of our control. I am proud to have surpassed him with our achievement. He wanted to get people out of their homes and onto the playing field of life. Isolation is terrifying. Unhealthy. People need people.
You are working with several talented actors on this project. How did you come to choose each of them for their respective roles?
Casting is an art. I choose talent first. I take this very seriously. Would you trust this person at an intimate dinner she is hosting to behave and be respectful to everyone around her? Compromise not only with her character, but also with the other actors and their needs. Will you help promote after the movie is released? You’re not just choosing the actor. You are choosing the person. I don’t do “me, me, me.” This is a collaboration and the film comes first over any individual. I don’t make these movies on my own. An army of love and respect is needed. A handful of movie buff warriors. Share the stage and respect everyone.
My favorite actors are Brent Anderson, Taylor Jabara and myself. LOL. Because I am easy to lead.
I also like to give actors who are just starting out a chance. If I can see the passion… the drive… I can shape it.
I had seen Cedric Begley’s work on The Kominsky Method and met him randomly on the street near my home in Sherman Oaks. Such a dedicated talent. Even though we don’t look alike, I made it work. He even wrote a music track in the movie that lives up to the movie’s theme “True Romance.”
Our leading lady, Maryam, fell off the table a week before filming and I found USC alumnus Aneesha Madhok to play our Muslim teenager who is bullied for wearing her hijab. She was wonderful and bold in a play called “Unfaithful” directed by Christopher Vened and produced by my friend Rebecca Robertson, who invited me. I immediately saw talent and confidence in Aneesha.
This movie is not badly acted. In my humble opinion. Honestly, it’s weird to single out a cast member. They are my family. I love you all.
The film tackles some important social issues: how do you design a story around these issues or is it the other way around?
The forms based on personal experiences and the experiences of the people around you. All my films start from a past experience that moved me in a special way to the point where it becomes an obsession, and then that passion drives the story.
I dated a Muslim girl from Egypt. My family told me that she is not a Christian and that she is not equally “united.” She didn’t drink which I didn’t mind. We had a good year together, but eventually, the stress of religion (or lack thereof) caused insecurities that killed us. I eventually researched Muslims in California and stories emerged. Muslim teenager commits suicide after being bullied. 4 out of 5 Muslim students are bullied in schools. 1 in 5 bullies are teachers. No way. He couldn’t believe that an adult could bully a child. It is true. this hurt me I know 9/11 was terrible… I saw the second plane crash live on TV while on the phone with my friend. It was devastating. I know a person who lost a brother. I lost a brother in a motorcycle accident. It is a pain so inexplicable that it makes you numb. It literally breaks your heart. Years to repair. Time heals in a way, but they take a limb from you. A void remains.
In that sense, how difficult is it to produce a film like this? How is the set? How do the actors respond to the material?
All up to you. The good, the bad and the ugly. You are the leader. My sets are fast and efficient. I hope that the actors come prepared as we have little money and time, which means there are few windows to complete the scenes. It’s managing moving parts and keeping people in check so there’s a big picture. A plan. And it will be great. Some see it and give a perfect 100 and others just go through the motions. You must be strong and do your homework. 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 people don’t like, but in the long run you hope they understand.
I hope my films speak for themselves. I’m not bragging. I’m not in this for “director credit.” I have no choice. I love telling stories and cinema is my platform. I honestly don’t know what else I would do. I love baseball. You hope that the actors can support the message and not just show up. My job is to make them understand the role 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 fight with my producing partner. He was pushing her as an actress because she is wonderful, strong and fearless. Unfortunately, sometimes I pushed her too hard because she wanted me to reach her full potential. Tough love was taken the wrong way and she shut down. We have overcome it. I also play the character of Bob in this movie. We have a scene in the movie together that I adore. I cry thinking about it.
It shows that 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 beginning. Unfortunately, this is never the case. I’m sorry guys. Even with the big ones. Rewrites happen on the fly. It is an organic process. Always evolving. I think I’ve done my last high school movie. Unless of course Apple TV calls and wants to do tall thug in a series.
What message do you hope your film conveys to audiences around the world?
Love yourself first. Have confidence in yourself. I know you are worthy of love. Love your neighbor. Understand and accept. Let the people be. Being critical is harmful and ignorant. Share love. It has taken me more than 40 years to speak. Talk about my personal traumas. Say something when it happens. It will change your life in a good way.