"I saw confusion, and I saw a front that said, in his eyes, 'don't mess with me, I've been tampered with enough.' I can't call the kid innocent ... but I can tell you the boy got a bit more than he bargained for."
That's Brad Renfro describing his reaction to a mug shot of Marty Puccio, whom he portrays in "Bully," a new film directed by Larry Clark that opens Friday in Los Angeles. In 1993, Puccio, then 16, stabbed and killed his best friend, Bobby Kent. Puccio is serving a life sentence.
Puccio didn't kill by himself. In all, seven Fort Lauderdale, Fla., teenagers lured Kent, 20, the neighborhood bully, to a deserted Everglades clearing. There, they bludgeoned and stabbed Kent, then dragged his body into the swamp.
Says Clark: "The crux of the story was, these kids couldn't figure out what to do with this bully so they killed him."
Clark, who made his directorial debut in 1995 with "Kids," an equally disturbing slice of debauched teen life, elaborates. "I mean we all wanted to kill the bully when we were kids. But it's not that simple. The relationship between Marty and Bobby was very complicated and difficult to figure out."
Complicated indeed. The college-bound Kent beat Puccio on a regular basis, yet the pair had grown up together and remained close until just a few days before the murder. Also difficult to figure out: Three of the teen killers had never even met Kent before the night of the murder. None has expressed remorse.
Director, Actor Talk About the Murder
Recently reunited at a West Hollywood cafe for the first time since making the film last September, Clark, 57, and Renfro, 18, provide their take on the true crime tale.
"It's a very strange place down there," says Clark, describing the South Florida locale where the murder occurred. "If you get a few blocks away from the beach, everything is brand-new. There's no culture, there's no history; everything's strip malls, houses that look alike."
"Frank Lloyd Wright would blow his brains out," Renfro interjects.
"It's stifling hot, there's nothing to do, it's flat as a pancake," Clark continues. "You get down there for a couple of days and you kind of understand how this could happen."
Says Renfro: "You do. All the way around down there. The judicial system, society, it's a very desolate place."
Amid Fort Lauderdale's Anywhere USA suburban setting, Puccio and his friends plotted Kent's demise at the local Pizza Hut. But there was more to the story. Puccio and Kent flirted with a violent subculture centered around teenage gay prostitution.
Says Clark: "There's almost like a tradition in South Florida where there's a lot of young teenage hustlers. There's actually a road down there where the gays would come to pick up young teenagers, and there's all these clubs that have amateur teen nights, just like in the movie. We went to this club, the Copa, on amateur teen night and saw these kids come up [and strip for money]. They're like young toughs. If you call them gay, they'd beat the [expletive] out of you, even though primarily they have gay sex and they do it for money.
"So there's this thing going on down there which was part of the relationship between Bobby and Marty. Bobby was almost pimping Marty and they were getting money that way, and who knows what [else] they actually did? We don't know. But I felt this was an interesting part of the story that I insisted be in the screenplay."
Clark says the screenplay by David McKenna ("American History X") downplayed the gay prostitution elements, so he relied directly on Jim Schutze's 1998 book "Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge" as the basis for his shooting script. McKenna has had his name removed from the credits for "Bully." He declined to comment for this story.
"Nobody wanted us to make this picture," says Clark, reciting a litany of production and budget obstacles. Two days before shooting began in the Fort Lauderdale area, producers lopped a week off "Bully's" production schedule. Clark had 23 days and $900,000 to make his movie. Renfro says, "Nobody was whining; we broke laws, shot 16-hour days. We had to make this film, it got done, and I am so proud of my little self." He laughs. "I usually hate everything that I do as far as films go, but I even enjoyed myself in this picture. Larry just let me open up [as an actor] and bleed, but I also knew I had somebody I could trust, as an actor, so if he did come with a little tweak, I wasn't not afraid to go there 'cause we had established a relationship as friends. It was like fighting a war. We were on a mission."
Casting "Bully" took seven months before Clark found unmannered performers who could lend the film an almost documentary feel. Nick Stahl ("The Man Without a Face") plays the title role. Former "Guiding Light" actress Rachel Miner plays the group's ringleader, with Bijou Phillips as a former teen prostitute and "Kids" alum Leo Fitzpatrick portraying the tough-talking Mafia poseur nicknamed "Hitman." Newcomers Michael Pitt, Kelli Garner and Daniel Franzese round out the ensemble.
Picking Renfro to play a troubled teenager may appear to be a case of real-life type-casting, given the Knoxville actor's own run-ins with the law over the last couple of years. In 1994, 12-year-old Renfro, who had no previous dramatic training, starred in "The Client." Since then, Renfro proudly points out, he's made 13 movies in seven years. But the career has come with a cost. A high school dropout, Renfro was arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana in 1998. He's now serving probation for trying to steal a yacht last August shortly before production began on "Bully."
Renfro bursts with fidgety adolescent energy, tempered by Southern manners. He greets the waitress as "ma'am," bows his head in a quick prayer before beginning his tortilla soup and bolts midway through lunch to grab a cigarette.
Gesturing as if tiny firecrackers were exploding on the tips of his fingers, Renfro addresses the issue of taming his wild streak. "There's really nothing I can say that won't just sound cliche as hell, but you know what? ... [I] don't mean to throw religion down anybody's face, but I definitely know it's by the grace of God I got to meet Larry and I'm sucking air and I get to make motion pictures ... and that I'm not, or haven't recently, been screwing up."
But, Where Were the Parents?
"Bully" raises the question that crops up each time a schoolyard shooter goes on a rampage: Where were the parents while all this was going on? The answer, says Clark: in the living room, watching TV.
Bobby Kent's killers planned their crime in the driveway of a ranch house; they decided on baseball bats as the weapon of choice in one teenager's house while his father played pool in the rec room.
After the crime, one teenager asked her mother if there were an 800 number for reporting murders, barely eliciting so much as a raised eyebrow.
Says Clark: "All the kids [in 'Bully'] live at home; they had parents. The kids would come out of their bedroom, go into the kitchen and make a sandwich, grunt, then go back into their bedrooms. Who knew what's going on in there, but [the parents figure] it's OK because the kids are in there. There's something very American about the story. Kids get very indulged in this country."
Clark, the father of two teenagers, sympathizes, to an extent. "I'm worried about them being happy all the time. I don't want them to be sad, I want them to be happy. You buy 'em stuff, you give 'em stuff. 'Do you have enough money, here's some money?"'
Each of the killers in the Bobby Kent case had problems, exacerbated by peer pressure and unfettered drug use. Still, Clark points to bad parenting as a primary villain in the "Bully" saga. "The parents didn't want any confrontation, so if they said anything that would upset the kids, they would back off. The parents are there, but they're really not in charge. They're saying, 'Let's not deal with the problems, let's cover 'em up. hHave fun, here's some money, do what you want to do, we'll just stay out of the way."'
"Sweep it under the rug," adds Renfro.
"And so the kids are living in some fantasy world which has very little to do with the real world," Clark concludes, "and that's very common in America."