Rene Rodrigue / Knight Ridder / July 18, 2001

Even by South Florida standards, the murder of Bobby Kent was a stunner. The sheer rage behind the crime seemed inordinate, monstrous. And it posed a troubling, unanswerable question: How could outwardly normal kids descend so far into madness without anyone noticing?

On the night of July 14, 1993, Kent, 20, was bludgeoned and stabbed to death at a secluded Weston rock pit by seven acquaintances - one of them Marty Puccio, 19, his best friend since third grade.

Dallas journalist Jim Schutze told the story in a nonfiction book, Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge, a lurid tale of jealousy, abuse and deadly alienation. Naturally, it caught Hollywood's attention. But the grimness of the story, combined with an alarming rise in teenage violence, made it look like "Bully" would never see the screen.

"At times, it seemed that nobody wanted me to make this film," said Larry Clark, director of Bully, which opens Friday. "We fought and fought and fought. Once I got involved, I took the position of 'Since they don't want me to make this film, now I'm REALLY going to make this film.' And I'm glad I did. We're all proud of the movie. I think we've done something that feels right, that feels a little more real than other stuff out there."

If nothing else, Bully certainly feels real. Shot in a stark, grimy style that's a marked contrast from the glossy, candy-land look of your average Freddie Prinze Jr. vehicle, the movie re-enacts the sad, sordid tale of the friendship between the abusive Kent (played by Nick Stahl) and the cowering Puccio (Brad Renfro); their aimless group of friends, including Lisa Connelly (Rachel Miner), who authorities claimed masterminded the plot to kill Kent after growing tired of his abuse; the boys' perpetual quest for desperate, joyless sex; their excursions into a seedy gay underworld for kicks and money; their estranged relationship with their clueless parents; and the murder that both ended their friendship and scarred the lives of all involved.

By touching on themes of murder between young adults and the suffocating blankness of suburbia, "Bully" recalls classic feel-bad teen dramas like Over the Edge and River's Edge. But "Bully," populated by characters so dissolute and pathetic it often threatens to become an unspeakably dark comedy, is in a league all its own. This is easily one of the bleakest, most pessimistic looks at young adulthood ever made. Bully is also unusual in that it lays the blame for its young protagonists' actions on the murderers themselves.

"Movies about troubled kids always find a way to explain their behavior," said Jon Lewis, author of The Road to Romance & Ruin: Teen Films and Youth Culture. " Rebel Without a Cause blamed the parents - the weak father and the overbearing, social-climbing mother. Over the Edge blamed suburbia for delinquency. In West Side Story, the delinquents sing a song about why they're screwed up. That's the standard.

"It's interesting that a movie would say, 'Well, here are some kids who did some terrible things, and they did them for reasons we can't figure out.' That would be surprising and fairly honest, because kids can do things for reasons we can't understand. Sometimes even they don't understand."

Bully's lack of a pat explanation is part of the reason why Hollywood could never bring itself to make it. In 1995, before Schutze had begun writing his book, his literary agent shopped his book proposal - "Young white suburban kids involved in an inexplicably horrific crime" - to Hollywood studios. A bidding war erupted and the winner, Touchstone Pictures, a division of the Walt Disney Co., assigned a screenwriter to work with Schutze, fashioning a screenplay based on the research the author was gathering.

But as soon as Schutze started sending the studio his notes, he began getting negative feedback like "These kids are too dark! We want to pitch this to Drew Barrymore, so get us something that will lighten this up." The story Schutze was uncovering - one of zonked-out kids flirting with pornography, prostitution and even rape to escape the boredom of their lives - had no heroes, no happy ending, no light at the end of its dark tunnel.

"There's a real problem with making movies based on true stories," Schutze said. "Everything in fiction makes sense and has a reason. Unfortunately in real life, it's not that way. It's like that ugly bumper sticker: Shit happens. I don't think the parents of these kids did anything wrong. I asked one of the studio people, 'Why can't you just portray these kids as willfully choosing to do evil, and then you depict how this decision manifests itself in their lives?' There was a long silence, and then the guy said 'No.' These were people who knew their business, and what I had didn't match what they felt they needed."

Once Touchstone passed, Bully floated to "half a dozen different studios," Schutze said. But the same problem remained, even after the book was published in 1997 to good reviews. "This is just not a Hollywood story," Schutze said. "They liked the surface of it, but they hated the inner workings of it. There's this insistence on projecting evil away from your own tribe, and when it comes to middle-class white kids, people cannot accept fundamental evil as the problem."

One person didn't have that problem. Don Murphy, producer of such dark-themed films as Natural Born Killers, Permanent Midnight and Apt Pupil, read Bully in paperback format in 1999 and immediately saw a movie in his head. The love-hate relationship between the volatile, steroid-popping Bobby and the quieter, denser Marty was too interesting to pass up. After optioning the book from Schutze for what the author calls "the price of two good dinners," Murphy took the property to executives at Columbia Pictures, where he had a production deal.

"Movies about young kids were making money at that point, stuff like Can't Hardly Wait and things like that," Murphy said. "I gave it to them and said 'It may not be exactly what you guys want to do, but it's got young kids in it, so take a look.'" Director Joel Schumacher expressed interest early on, but before a deal could be nailed down, "Columbine happened," Murphy said. "And then no one was going to make it. No one in the world was going to touch this film."

When Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris embarked on their deadly rampage on April 20, 1999, killing 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School before taking their own lives, Hollywood took part of the blame, accused of marketing violent R-rated entertainments like The Matrix and The Basketball Diaries to teenaged audiences too young to see them. Ensuing Congressional hearings made the major studios wary of films that could be interpreted as dangerous. And "Bully," which Murphy himself describes as being a movie about "kids (having sex with) kids and kids killing kids," certainly fit under that category.

"The whole thing is ironic, because here's a film that would point out how Columbine happened, and in a weird way, show you how to avoid it," Murphy said. "But you have to understand the studio mentality. It is much easier for them to put out a movie like "Finding Forrester," even if it has nothing to do with reality, because Sean Connery will star in it and Gus Van Sant will direct it. Well, I don't know what world that movie was set in. I would rather make a film that is brutally honest."

Realizing that he would never get Bully made by a studio, Murphy went the independent route. He hired David McKenna (American History X, Blow, Get Carter) to adapt the book into script form and secured the film's $2.2 million budget from the French financing company Canal Plus. For a director, Murphy approached Clark, whose sensibilities proved a perfect match for the material.

From the beginning of his career as a photographer in the late 1960s to his more recent career shift to filmmaking (Kids, Another Day in Paradise), Clark's work has always fixated on the destructive side of adolescence. His recurring subject - the mythical, disenfranchised youth - is captured through a lens that combines the erotic with the lurid, the innocent with the jaded, the tender with the violent. Widely admired in some circles, dismissed as perverted in others, Clark's work is the textbook definition of controversial.

Clark, 57, who has two teenaged kids, says he is fascinated by adolescence because "it seems endless what you can do with it, and it's always been something I can draw from to make work. When I made Kids, I was trying to find out what was going on with contemporary youth today. Bully is another example of that. Kids today have so much time on their hands. They're able to sit around and smoke pot and not work and have their parents worry about if they're happy or not.

"These kids came from middle-class families, and they were at home, and the parents knew they were in their rooms. But what was going on inside those rooms? It's like the parents didn't want to know. They just wanted everything to be nice. As long as they know the kids are in the house, everything is OK. It's a very American story, and it says a lot about our culture and our value system."

Although Clark was fascinated by the premise of Bully, he wasn't quite as enamored of the script written by McKenna and Roger Pullis. Clark says that draft, which he compares to "an afterschool special," omitted all references to Kent and Puccio's forays into gay nightclubs, where they posed as a couple and hustled men into making pornographic videotapes they later tried to sell. The script, Clark says, also simplified the relationship between the two men, making "Bobby all bad and Marty all good." Although McKenna complied and wrote a second draft, Clark still wasn't satisfied and decided to shoot the film directly from Schutze's book.

The filming of Bully took place on a grueling 23-day shooting schedule throughout Broward County in August and September of last year. Intent on remaining true to the real events, the filmmakers used actual locations whenever possible, including North Beach in Hollywood, Fla., and the Embassy Lakes Shopping Mall, where Marty and Bobby often hung out. Broward Sheriff's Office detective Frank Ilarraza, who investigated the actual case, and Judge Charles Greene, who presided over the trial, play themselves in the film. One area where the movie differs from book is its elimination of Kent and Puccio's steroid use. Clark said it was a decision made partly for casting (the wiry Stahl has a much slighter build than the beefier, muscular Kent) and partly for the story.

"If you put in the steroids, then the audience can cop out and say 'Oh, it was a steroid rage thing,' " Clark said. "But there was so much more to it than that. It's just so big. What throws everybody is that these kids weren't thinking about the ramifications of their actions. It's like they were in this isolated, fantasy teenage world, which was very real to them."

Bully, like Clark's two previous movies, contains enough sex and nudity to have earned it an NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (the film is being released unrated by distributor Lions Gate Films). Graphic sexual content is something Clark's films are often criticized for, but the filmmaker felt it was particularly important to this story.

"This story deals so much with sex and drugs that to make it realistic, I thought there had to be quite a bit of nudity," Clark said. "If that's what the film is about, you have to show some of it. I think we did it and it's really well done. There's a scene with Lisa and Marty after the murder, where they're talking about what happened and whether or not they're going to get caught, and then the camera pulls back and you see what they're doing. It's an amazing little scene."

Critical reaction to Bully, which opened Friday in New York and Los Angeles, has been sharply divided. Newsweek called it "ferocious and creepily funny a raunchy suburban Crime and Punishment, " and the Hollywood Reporter dubbed it "tautly made, extremely well acted, and ghastly enough to inspire morbid curiosity." Variety, meanwhile, slammed the film as "unrate-able teensploitation," while The Village Voice dismissed it as "voyeuristic," "lurid" and "prurient."

Schutze, who won't make any money from Bully's box-office take, was impressed by how faithful the movie remained to his book. "I thought it was ruthless. I wonder if people won't get up in the middle of the movie and say 'Excuse me, I'm going to go out to the lobby and shoot myself,' because it is a really tough movie. But I thought it was brilliant, because it does exactly what everyone else refused to do, which is to nail the story morally, without preaching."

After seeing a rough cut of the film in January, screenwriter McKenna sent a scathing letter to Clark and Murphy, informing them he was taking his name off the movie (replaced by the pseudonym Zachary Long). He also called the movie "revolting, offensive and childish," criticized some of the performances and casting choices, and dismissed the film's graphic sexual content as "a $2.2 million exercise in perversion." For Clark, McKenna's decision was a case of good riddance.

"McKenna didn't take his name off Get Carter, but he took his name off this movie because he's scared," the director said. "When you deal with these Hollywood hacks, it's all about pandering to the audience, and that's not the way I'm going to make a film." Some aren't even bothering to see "Bully" before criticizing it. Maureen Connelly, mother of Lisa Connelly, says she has no plans to see the movie, particularly since it is based on Schutze's book, which she says inaccurately reconstructed events and conversations in her family's lives.

"I'm sure the movie isn't going to be anything like how it happened in real life," she said. "A lot of the book is untrue. How the hell would he know what I ever said to my daughter in private? He has no idea." Others who worked on the film and shared a personal connection to the story it tells have a more hopeful outlook. Andrew Nathanson, production coordinator on Bully, was also a personal friend of the late Martin Puccio Sr. Puccio, who died in Nov. 1999, was vice-president of sales at North Miami's Continental Film Laboratories, where the film stock for Bully was processed.

"Working on this movie hit real close to home for me, because Marty Sr. was a great, happy-go-lucky kind of guy, and he was somebody a lot of us in the industry knew," Nathanson said. "I certainly hope that this movie, however it's received by the critics, will make people think. If it makes one teenager think before they go out of control - if just one person takes a different, positive path as a result of it - then all the crap everybody went through on this shoot will have been worth it."