Bully High Director Bill McAdams Jr on Creating a Teachable Moment

Bill McAdams Jr is always looking for opportunities to be versatile in Hollywood, whether acting, directing, writing, doubling, or even as a dialog coach. At the same time, he also tries to make projects others won't, especially as a director, whether it's telling former baseball slugger Jose Canseco's story in the documentary The Truth Hurts or trying to bring to light islamophobia in American life in his film Bully High. The film centers on a Pakistani exchange student, Maryam (Aneesha Madhok), who tries to fit into her American high school. However, she ends up harassed and ostracized by a popular student (Taylor Jabara) and a teacher (McAdams). McAdams spoke to Bleeding Cool about how the film's inspiration, casting, and school violence.

Bully High Director Bill McAdams Jr on Creating a Teachable Moment
Aneesha Madhok in Bully High (2022). Image courtesy of Aledo Film Group

How 'Bully High' Brings Islamophobia to Light

Bleeding Cool: Could you give me some background behind Bully High and what the project meant to you?
McAdams: The title came to me after a situation that came out when I dated a Muslim girl from Egypt. My family is Christian, and while it was awkward initially, it lingered and eventually soured the relationship. I wanted to explore the idea of Muslims and Christians with their similarities and differences. I just started to Google search Muslims in America, and 9/11 was a big traumatic event, obviously for us growing up in D.C. and the surrounding politics. I wanted to dive into it, and I found out that in California, where three of the four Muslims get bullied in high school, one out of four [incidents] is from a teacher. It blew my mind how an adult would bully any minor. I don't think anybody [at first thought] would call their movie 'Bully High,' which is kind of a tone-deaf [laughs]. It's like, "What do you do with this?" but it wakes people up. It opened their eyes, and I never thought about what people thought about the diversity in the films. I like to make movies others don't make or they're afraid to make because normally, it's something that we should be talking about, but we're not.

Bully High Director Bill McAdams Jr on Creating a Teachable Moment
Aneesha Madhok, Bill McAdams, and Caroline Stella in Bully High (2022). Image courtesy of Aledo Film Group

What went into casting for the film?
Brent Anderson is my kind of go-to [actor]. When you make an independent film, you want to cast great actors but also people you've either worked with before or referrals because you're in the trenches and move fast. Brent was in my film 'Gallows Road' with Ernie Hudson and Kevin Sorbo. When l cast for Maryam, the Muslim, I had to scramble pretty quickly was invited to this play by a friend and saw Aneesha Madhok, and she blew my mind. I was like, "Wow, this girl is perfect," so I brought her in, and it's more of like a meet-and-greet vibe I go off of.

How long did the film take to make? Were there any complications or roadblocks along the way?
There are many complications, and this film should have never been finished. I started shooting in November 2018, so that should tell you something. COVID hit while shooting my first eight days. COVID hit my dad, who has liver disease, so I almost lost my father, and then I got other movies. COVID also sent Aneesha back to India, where she was stuck for two years, and she was the lead from the beginning. Her story interested me, the Muslim who gets bullied for wearing that hijab. I wanted to stick to my guns on that story, and I rewrote the script two or three times. It's a blessing because now we twist towards the bully [in Taylor's character Scarlett] and why she's mean, which is like a deeper and darker story. It all came together in four years, while most of my films take a year or under.

Bully High Director Bill McAdams Jr on Creating a Teachable Moment
Aledo Film Group

Not Going Too Far

How do you feel the film tackles the subject of school violence, given how prevalent it has been in recent years?
That question is excellent. The first script I had was about a Muslim girl who gets her boyfriend a headscarf, and she becomes a gay Christian. She tries to come out to her father, who's the principal, and he won't let her and tries to shut her back in. In the opening scene, she goes into a gun shop in California and buys an AR-15. Ironically, four years ago, with a seven-day cooldown period, an 18-year-old could buy an AR-15, which blew my mind because you had to be 21 to buy a nine-millimeter [handgun]. With the bump stock AR,-15 is 400 rounds, and then a nine-millimeter is 17 rounds. That was too big for this film, and I had to cut it. She brings an AR-15 to school, and it's too much of a monster for the movie. Back to your question, it's been done when Gus Van Sant made 'Elephant.' That movie's devastating, and I don't think we need any more of those films. We need gun control, but to glorify a gun in a school, we don't need that. It starts with the mentality of being a bully, then escalates to either gun violence or what we have in our movie. It's still the same idea where you're not born into being a bully. You're taught that at a young age, and that's where it starts.

Aledo Film Group's Bully High, which also stars Cedric Begley, Caroline Stella, and Joseph Baena, is available to stream on Tubi.

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Tom ChangAbout Tom Chang

I'm a follower of pop culture from gaming, comics, sci-fi, fantasy, film, and TV for over 30 years. I grew up reading magazines like Starlog, Mad, and Fangoria. As a writer for over 10 years, Star Wars was the first sci-fi franchise I fell in love with. I'm a nerd-of-all-trades.
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