I really enjoyed writer-director Anthony Joseph Giunta’s first film, “Contest,” a smart, funny, thoughtful story about high school bullying — and a televised cooking competition. It was a pleasure to talk to him about making the film.
Basically it was the end of 2010 and I had read a string of articles during a 1-week period about different kids throughout the country committing suicide as a result of teen bullying. By the third day when I had read about the third different kid this had happened to it really got to me. I was a bullied kid back in grade school and high school but that was before the Internet and that was before texting and I had the luxury of being able to come home at the end of the day and close the door and not have to deal with it until I got back to school the next day. What got me was how pervasive it had grown so there are many kids who just cannot get out from under it. They have to deal with it 24/7 between social network sites, texting and all of that. So that is where I felt like I had to do something and that is what I decided to do. I was in a totally different career. I was an HR executive with a cultural institution in Manhattan and I basically spent every hour that I was not working for a month doing the first draft of this script and it was like a passion lit a fire in me. I could not stop and about half way through I just said, “What am I going to do with this? This is not something I just want to sell to a producer or a studio. This is a movie I want to make,” and I just kept going. To make a long story short within a couple of months I gave 6 months’ notice to my job as leaving to go make a movie. I didn’t know how yet but I was going to get this movie made.
What would you say is the biggest misunderstanding about bullies?
I think what people don’t get is that a lot of times the kid who is doing the bullying has some kind of pressure on them themselves that also resembles bullying from somewhere whether it is a family member or some authority figure. There is something going on that is compelling them to target other people. And when they do target the people they are bullying, it is not only about that person. It is to send a message like a social status message to everyone else around like “look I have some power here and if you cross me. see what I’m doing to him, that could be you.” It is kind of the unspoken thing but it really stems from a place of feeling a lack of control somewhere and you know a lot of times when you look back kids who are the bullies are being bullied somewhere along the line.
As someone who is experienced with HR do you see that this kind of thing plays out in the workplace as well as in schools?
Absolutely. When I got out of school and went into the working world I thought “okay that part of my life is behind me.” Not so much. It definitely plays out into the working world and I actually I touch on it in one scene where the assistant principal is kind of stuck in the middle of a good old boys network between the principal and the head of the swim team and basically all the pressure is shifted to her but there is an already expected outcome. That was kind of my nod to the way it can continue into the adult working world.
What should parents and school administrators do to help and manage to prevent bullying? Do you feel the anti-bullying efforts that you are portraying in this school are effective in any way?
There are different schools that have different programs and I think there are probably some that are more effective than others. I am pleased that one school system is going to use the film in their anti-bullying curriculum starting in the fall of 2014 and we are actually going to be working with them. It will be used in schools throughout New Jersey and hopefully will continue into schools throughout the whole country. I’m going to get some of the kids who worked on our film and some of their peers from TV, Broadway, movies etc. to help us out on this initiative and I think when kids see other kids that they hold up as role models it can be very helpful and effective on the kid level but the biggest thing you need to get with any program if you need to get the buy in and participation from not only school administration but from parents too. It is really totally a collaborative thing.
It is interesting to me that the two main characters in the movie don’t have parents in their lives. What was your thought about that?
For these particular guys there is that actual physical absence and for audience members who see it there may be qualities that are absent in some of the parent/child relationships that they see in front of them. That helps me to draw on that without feeling like it is a specific one or two things about this particular parent with this particular child and that is really where that came from.
Why was it important to focus on changes in both the boys? A lot of bullying material only focuses on the source of the bullying and not the victim.
I was a bullied kid but my journey was pretty much emotionally like what Tommy’s was. My biggest goal was to live as self-sufficiently as I could without having to bring in other people. That stuff does not always serve you well and I just thought if the story is going to be or come forth in a way that it really resonates with everyone you are going to have to show the humanity of everybody as opposed to demonizing one side and sanctifying another so it felt like a more natural type of thing. When people read the script and gravitated towards that and loved that and said, “Oh my God it made it just so accessible and so relatable.” then I knew I had made the right choice.
What are some of the challenges working with the teenagers in the cast?
People said to me “It is going to be so difficult,” “It is going to be so hard,” and I was expecting exactly that and I had exactly the opposite. It was one of the most wonderful experiences ever. These are very, very professional kids, many of whom have been working for a very long time since they were little and every day was just more and more joyous. I think one of the reasons it worked so well is my style is very much that we will talk things through. We will talk through the motivation, the back story, all of those things and I love when one person’s idea sparks another person’s idea and that is what I got. These are all really, really smart kids, and we talked about their characters, we talked about where they came from, what motivated them to do certain things etc. It was just a completely joyous experience.