When Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe were trying out cuts of their latest film “The Bad Kids,” about the students at Black Rock High School, an alternative public school in the driest part of California’s San Bernadino County, the filmmakers were taken aback by a comment from an early screening.
“Someone gave us a note, “Oh, can you put the names of the kids on the kids that we’re supposed to care about?” recalls Pepe, who is used to generating sympathy for the underdog, having previously co-directed the Terry Gilliam doc “Lost in La Mancha” and the narrative “Brothers of the Head.” “When they said that, I realized people are used to the three-character documentary and then accustomed to going, ‘Well, I care about those three, but nobody else.’ We very much wanted the audience to realize for every kid whose story you hear, there’s a whole bunch more who have a similar story.”
Like the rebellious kids it chronicles, Fulton and Pepe go against nearly every common practice that one might expect in a nonfiction film about at-risk youth in “The Bad Kids,” which is perhaps why it cuts so deeply. With great patience, the film settles into its desert setting and eschews talking head interviews in favor of listening, prone to quietly observing students at Black Rock as they endure the pressures of being a teen with even greater challenges often coming from difficult circumstances back home. The continuation school has become a haven for kids who have had trouble with the law, young women who have gotten pregnant and others who have gotten off track for one reason or another, and yet in giving clarity to their voices which all too often go unheard, “The Bad Kids” brings out the beauty in their struggle to trust their natural abilities and draw strength rather than protective cover from the resolve they’ve gained from having to live so much life before turning 18.
While “The Bad Kids” is careful to give every student who steps in front of the camera the consideration they deserve, the film does come to focus on three students in particular – Joey, a new enrollee at the school who worries about following in the footsteps of his drug-addled stepfather and isn’t helped by his mother, who also suffers from addiction Jennifer, a thoughtful young woman who grapples with depression stemming from a past involving sexual molestation; and Lee, already a father who becomes concerned with keeping up with Layla, the mother of his child, who also attends Black Rock and is on track to graduate before him. It also chronicles the empathetic efforts of Principal Vonda Viland and her staff in going far beyond the call of faculty at most high schools to not only educate students in English and calculus but in how to understand their emotions.
Shortly before “The Bad Kids” starts to roll out to theaters across the country, following a celebrated premiere at Sundance where it won a Special Jury Prize for vérité filmmaking, Fulton and Pepe were joined by Voland, Joey McGee and another of the young students featured in the film, A.J. Wright, to talk about how they were able to get such insight into Black Rock while being unobtrusive, how the filmmakers’ change in production style helped keep them attuned to what was going on, and what life has been like after filming ended.
How did this come about?
Lou Pepe: Keith and I had been doing a lot of documentary work for foundations about public education. We were working mostly around Southern California and we started doing some work out in the Morongo Unified School District [where] Joshua Tree is. We were particularly interested in districts that were considered tough areas or labeled failing schools because it was our firm belief that that was a misnomer. What we found in a lot of these schools were really dedicated teachers who were working with limited resources and our contact out in the district one day said, “I have this school that I want you to see. It’s not anything like the brief that you’ve given me, but it’s a really special school.” She said, “It’s the school where pregnant kids go and the juvenile detention kids go,” and we were like, “Eh, we’re not so sure about that.” Then she took us to Black Rock High School and we were kind of in awe the moment we walked in. Keith and I said, “We should do a whole documentary here.”
Joey McGee: You forgot the social outcasts, too.
Keith Fulton: A.K.A. the cool kids.
Vonda Viland: Honestly, it’s usually the gifted and talented students who don’t want to fit into a square peg. We find that the majority of kids who go to our school are really truly gifted and talented in some area.
So were you immediately open to Lou and Keith filming this?
Vonda Viland: Absolutely not. [laughs] No, I was of course hesitant. I was worried that they would exploit the kids and their stories. They came for a couple of weeks and just hung out for a little while – they didn’t film. I got to know them and their passion for education and for helping students who are in difficult situations, so I got to the level of trusting them.
Joey McGee: I was aware of what was going on, but I wasn’t in the best state of mind at the time. I don’t know. Now that I think about it, it was all a game back then — it wasn’t real. I wish I had [been on] better behavior. It’s so easy to be bad. So easy.
Vonda Viland: You’re never bad.
Joey McGee: It’s a lot harder to be good.
A.J. Wright: I was there the second year, so it was after they started filming and when I first got there, [Vonda] told me about it. I didn’t really think anything of it until I actually saw them running around with cameras. I was just like, “Oh, that’s weird,” but it didn’t trip me out too much.
Vonda Viland: I don’t think any of us realized how big it would be. Honestly, I didn’t even look up their past work until about a year afterward. We were having dinner one night and you’d mentioned something about a film that you had done and I was like, “Oh, I’ll go Google ‘Lost In La Mancha,'” and like, “Oh my gosh!” Then I realized the ramifications of this.
Joey McGee: I thought they were going to film us, get their movie, and leave.
Keith Fulton: But what happened instead?
Joey McGee: I got lifelong friends, mentors and role models.
Let me mention one of my very favorite scenes since it may open up the discussion about how you made this. There’s a moment where you’re passing through a classroom and you can hear the thoughts of all the students aurally…
Keith Fulton: It’s our favorite scene in the movie.
Did you actually talk to all the students before narrowing it down to a few core stories?
Lou Pepe: We had a very simple process. We would ask a kid if we could meet with them, and we’d just sit outside at the picnic table for ten minutes or so and talk with no recording devices or anything like that. We would ask them, “Are you interested in participating in this?” I think we did this with about 50 students and if they said yes, then the next step that we would do an audio interview. No cameras. So we had all of these audio interviews, and we then started following some of those kids. There were maybe about a dozen different students that we would try to spend time with and we have a significant amount of footage with a lot of them. It was really important to us that the film isn’t just about three students. The film is about a lot of students, but the three students are very specific examples of a whole population of young people in our country.
Joey McGee: They really represent a lot of the people who went to the school. If you think about even just Jennifer, you can probably talk to a dozen girls [at the school] whose story is almost identical to [hers].
Keith Fulton: A lot of movies like this have a couple main characters and all you care about in the film is whether those main characters prevail or not. To us, it was really important to represent the collective consciousness of the school — and not just the school, but kids like this all over the country. Statistically, there’s one in five kids in the United States who are living below the poverty line without conventional family structures, with all kinds of extra baggage. That’s millions and millions of kids. When we made the film, we didn’t want to just say you only care about Joey or AJ or Jennifer or Lee — you care about the whole group of kids at the school and by extension, the whole group of kids like these kids in the country.
Vonda Viland: That’s one of the things that I’ve really noticed in going out with the film is the camaraderie I’ve found in other communities saying, “We have a population like that who needs a program like yours.” I get e-mails weekly from people who have seen the film saying, “How can we replicate what’s going on at Black Rock?” It’s much bigger than just our story.
A.J. Wright: It’s just the tip of the iceberg, too. These [are the] ones that would actually let you in. There’s still more that are just so keyed up that they [won’t], so there’s a lot more that people don’t even know about because some don’t trust anybody to tell them what’s going on.
Vonda Viland: That’s what I find every day at our school that I’m very empowered by, is the resiliency of the kids to fight all that life has handed them. These kids have had a really rough go of it, but they still get up. They still try. Everybody’s trying is at a different level, but they just keep trying, and that is really inspiring, and it resonates with a lot of people.
When taking the job as principal at Black Rock, did you know you’d inadvertently become a therapist, at least as far as listening to your students’ issues outside of school all the time?
Vonda Viland: No! [laughs]
A.J. Wright: She’s just like that.
Vonda Viland: I just butt in a lot.
Joey McGee: Honestly, you were patient. You didn’t butt in. You waited until I came to you, or someone that needed your help and they came to you, unless they needed you to intervene.
Lou Pepe: You know what, we took the film to Black Rock High School a couple months ago — at the beginning of October, and the whole school, which is now all new students than the ones in the film, watched it. And Principal Viland had all sorts of students coming into her office that afternoon because they said, “Wait, we can come in and tell you all of our problems?” [laughs]
Vonda Viland: We had 80 new students come in September, and so I hadn’t had an opportunity to get to know all of them. After watching, there were so many kids dealing with issues that I don’t know that they would have talked to anybody about had they not seen the film — at least not for quite a while — and they were issues that needed to be addressed.
Joey McGee: I’ve got countless Facebook messages of kids I don’t even really know [from students] a few years younger than me. They’re just like, “I got a lot [out of the movie]. I was like, “Oh, cool, who are these people? Oh, they go to Black Rock.”
Joey, you let the filmmakers into your life away from school. Was that a big decision?
Joey McGee: It was, and it was really hard for me to let them in my house because there’s a lot that they didn’t even get to catch. It’s complicated — and still is.
Vonda Viland: [Joey’s] very brave in that, and I also think that in a way, you wanted it to be known so that other people could learn from you, opening up your home so that others can see that they’re not alone.
Keith Fulton: I think it’s a testament to Joey’s kindness and generosity that he still likes us after we showed up at his house with a probation officer. [laughs]
Joey McGee: After I sought probation. [laughs] I was a week off probation, and they came and checked up on me.
Keith Fulton: I actually showed up ahead of time before Lou and the probation officer showed up to apologize for what was about to happen.
Lou Pepe: That’s also a slow process. We had gone over to Joey’s house one afternoon just for him playing guitar with his friend, [which] you see in the movie. Keith and I have this attitude, which is you don’t want to force yourself into anybody’s face if they don’t want you there. You always want to behave in a way where they want to invite you back for the next time, so there would be a lot of times in Principal Viland’s office where Keith would tap me on the shoulder and he would say, “We have enough material now for the scene. We can leave.” Part of that is for us to show the people that we’re filming that we do respect them and we respect their privacy and that they can trust us. We’re not going to try and exploit any situation.
Vonda Viland: There are several examples where it would get very emotional with a student in my office and they would duck out. The moment I actually began to trust [the filmmakers] is … in the 15 years I’ve been at the continuation school, we’ve had four fights. Unfortunately, one of the days that they were there, there was a fight between two girls. After we had dealt with the two girls and had counseling with them, my first response was, “Oh my gosh, they’ve got this on film. Is that’s what going to go on here?” I asked my husband, who had been there as a substitute helping the girls, “Where were Lou and Keith during this?” He said, “Soon as it started, they went the other direction.” They weren’t there to exploit the kids in their worst moments. They were there to help the students.
Keith Fulton: There’s always a temptation when you’re making a film to go for the shocking stuff. There’s all kinds of stuff we used to have in the film that was cut out, put back, cut out. But Black Rock High School’s not a shocking environment.
I’ve heard Lou say this was a slightly different filmmaking process in that he’s always shot the films as a cinematographer, but that Keith usually hasn’t been the one recording sound. How did that change the dynamic here?
Lou Pepe: We used to trade off [in shooting the films] because we never had the money to buy a sound mixer, a boom and a good microphone. We did for this project. It’s just part of our shooting style, because Keith is a much better editor and he’s also really good at editing in the field, so we’ll be filming something and he’ll nudge me and whisper, “You don’t have reaction shots,” or “pan over here,” stuff like that.
Keith Fulton: The sound guy gets to see everything that’s going on, whereas [the person filming] is always seeing just this little box. I get to feel out the room all the time.
Lou Pepe: This project also grew out of the two of us just wanting to make something. It had been a long time since we had made a feature, so being just the two of us at the school, working side by side, was really refreshing. It meant that we were only filming something if we really wanted to film it and not because we felt any obligation like, “Oh my god, we have to shoot this.”
There’s another really beautiful scene I had to ask about in which there’s a blonde-haired student who says that she wants high school to last forever because you realize the unknown is even more frightening for her.
Vonda Viland: That’s Savannah.
How did that scene come about?
Keith Fulton: When we first captured the scene, Lou and I went back to Los Angeles and watched that scene and it taught us everything we needed to know about the movie we were making. It’s the key scene for us, because in that scene, the girl is initially fine and they’re talking about the fact that she’s about to graduate soon and the idea of going out into the real world is terrifying to her. She breaks down. And Lou and I were just thinking our experience of life was that we couldn’t wait to get out and go to college. We were tired of being treated like kids. For her and I think a lot of the kids at Black Rock, they’re looking at the example of their parents and thinking, “I don’t want to live that life. That’s too hard. It’s not gone very well and I would like to just stay here and feel protection a bit more.”
Vonda Viland: Yeah, they feel safe, and I have that conversation with 90 percent of the seniors who are graduating. As they get near graduation, they slow down in their credit-earning and all of a sudden they’re like birds that need to be pushed out of the nest. They’re very frightened. Joey, why do kids get fearful when they have to leave Black Rock, when it’s time to leave?
Joey McGee: Life sucks. It’s crazy. I don’t know.
A.J. Wright: A lot of people, especially a lot of people at Sundance, aren’t people who lived life similar to Joey and I, generally, and when they’re a senior in high school, they’re deciding on what college they’re going to go to. For a lot of the kids at Black Rock, we’re [thinking], what job are we going to find that we’re going to live paycheck to paycheck on just like our parents and their parents before them? I had no aspiration at all to go to college. Thankfully I am, but all throughout middle school and high school, college wasn’t a thought in my head. I was just like, “Shit, I got to figure out where I’m going to work.” I thought don’t have money for college, Joey doesn’t, and neither do 99 percent of the other students at Black Rock. We know that you’ve got to go to college to be successful and you’ve got to be successful to go to college, and then that’s it.
Keith Fulton: Catch-22.
A.J. Wright: Yeah, that’s why it’s terrifying. I’m in college and have a job and life’s still terrifying.
Joey McGee: I took the easy route. It’s easy to be bad. That’s the mistake I made. I’m learning. It’s so much better to challenge yourself and go and try and do good things. It’s a lot harder to be good. People make it hard.
Joey, how are you doing these days?
Joey McGee: Honestly, I struggle. I struggle in my addiction and with big boy responsibilities, but I’m doing okay. I’m surviving. I got an apartment with my high school sweetheart. We’re happy together. We’re going on four, four and a half years now on and off. But still it didn’t play out exactly how I wanted it to. I didn’t go back and get my high school diploma, but I plan on it.
Vonda Viland: You will. I’m a firm believer you plant the seeds, they grow. Just what Joey has overcome in the past two years with his addiction, I’m very very proud of him. That’s probably the hardest battle that anyone can conquer.
Joey McGee: Me and my mother. Me and my mom both. She goes to meetings with me.
Vonda Viland: That is fabulous, Joey.
A.J. Wright: Speaking of which, my mom’s clean too. She’s clean and healthy.
Did Joey and A.J. know each other before school?
Joey McGee: We met in the second grade.
A.J. Wright: Then his family took me in when I was going through a rough patch.
Joey McGee: And vice versa. Throughout growing up.
A.J. Wright: I can’t remember a time when I did not know Joey.
Keith Fulton: These guys [wrote] and co-perform the beautiful song that is the end credit song to our movie.
A.J. Wright: It was originally two separate songs that [we were separately] writing in our free time and then we were like, “Oh, dude, these lyrics go together.”
Joey McGee: No, what really happened is we showed each other these two songs we were working on and it just happened that the chord progression that we were playing was exactly the same, so we took the hook from my song and the rapping lyrics from his, and just put it together.
A.J. Wright: Let it be known this is a normal thing. You didn’t really show this in the movie, but Joey and I and my brothers [have been making music] our whole lives. I had a little home studio and we’d constantly be in my bedroom making music, but this is the one that really spoke to us and spoke to a lot of people on SoundCloud.
Keith Fulton: It speaks the theme of the movie.
Vonda Viland: It does. Not only that, but neither of them are formally trained [musicians]. It’s just natural.
“The Bad Kids” opens on December 16th in Los Angeles at the NoHo 7, December 23rd in New York at the Cinema Village and expands into limited release on January 6th. A full list of theaters and dates is here.