A Bully Market
Texas-based author Jim Schutze knew what he was looking for: a murder story involving affluent white people, the younger the better. The more sex in it, the merrier his contract would be. Shutze's literary agent had said if he found a story with these elements, Hollywood would likely come knocking. The young and the rich plus murder equals box office. So Schutze, suppressing his concern that Tinsel Town was run by a bunch of racist idiots, scanned newspapers on the Internet each day hoping to find the perfect story to sell.
In the summer of 1993, Schutze found it in Broward County: The murder of a steroid-popping suburban youth named Bobby Kent, who was stabbed and bludgeoned by seven of his own supposed friends near the Everglades.
Shooting began in Broward recently on a movie based on Bully, the book that Schutze wrote on the Kent murder. Directing is Larry Clark, a former drug addict whose previous independent films, Kids and Another Day in Paradise, are laced with explicit teen sex and drug use. The script was written by David McKenna, who won fortune with American History X, a movie about militant white supremacists. Add producer Don Murphy, who made Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, and the mass-marketed wild child/ Playboy poser Bijou Phillips, and all the ingredients seem to be in place for a twisted roll of celluloid. The New York Post recently referred to the Bully project as "Clueless meets Deliverance."
The actual crime, however, has never lent itself to such easy definitions. The murder continues to confound Schutze, and it still haunts Broward County.
Schutze, who dug deep into the murder, found no tidy answer or dramatic motive for the killers' actions. Not only were the kids not glamorous, they were repugnant. Seven young people banded together and killed Kent in a most brutal way because he bullied a couple of them, including his best friend, Martin Puccio. Schutze says the only reason he could find for the ugly crime was that the kids were, well, bad.
"The more I looked at this stuff, the more I thought there's no mystery here," Schutze says of his foray into the Kent murder. "These kids are little shitheads, and they have no excuses."
It wasn't an answer that the entertainment industry wanted to hear. Six times, studios bought options on Bully, which secured them the theatrical rights to the book for a set period of time. Each failed to make the picture. Had each attempt not been so time-consuming and frustrating, Schutze might have found some of those false starts rather hilarious. One California- based screenwriter, for instance, was particularly appalled by the fact that the kids at one point in the book eat a frozen pizza. The writer, who'd been commissioned by Touchstone Pictures, called Schutze excitedly and asked him, "Do you know what they put in those things?" Later Schutze found out that the writer posited in his script that it was dangerous food additives that caused the kids to kill. That Jekyll-and-Hyde script was added to the wastebasket.
Another studio tried to work in an abstract argument by the defense (which was basically laughed out of court) that "urban psychosis" led Puccio and his friends to kill. One studio did a twist on that, blaming "suburban psychosis." Suburban psychosis, Schutze says, "was basically that they are yelling at you on that hip-hop station and there are these big intrusive billboards everywhere... so you go and kill somebody." Naturally that harebrained scheme bit the dust.
A different ploy was to blame the parents, a suggestion that led Schutze to write a letter to the studio denouncing the idea because it simply wasn't true. Still others were looking for Freudian explanations. "They would call and say, "Are you sure they weren't all anally raped by escaped prisoners when they were young?'" Schutze jokes.
Schutze recounts a typical conversation between himself and a studio rep:
Studio: "These kids, the way you describe them in the book, seem awful dark."
Schutze: "No shit, they killed their best friend in the Everglades."
Studio: "Why did they do this?"
Schutze: "I don't know. But the best idea I've come up with is they did it because they wanted to. They chose to do evil. And if you want to know why people choose to do evil, I'm not the guy to be talking to."
It wasn't supposed to be that way. Schutze says he initially believed he would find the "secret answer" to why these youngsters killed, and he says he even suggested as much in his book proposal, which was snapped up by Morrow books and bagged Schutze an advance in the midfive figures. But when Schutze came to Fort Lauderdale to research the book, he discovered that, rather than affluent kids, the killers were middle- and working-class. So much for Clueless. And they weren't cool kids but rather drifting, drug-taking dropouts bouncing around Broward County and engaging in all kinds of crimes, from prostitution to drug-dealing to homoerotic hustling.
By all accounts, Kent lived up to Schutze's title. He pushed his best friend Puccio around (as well as anybody else who got in his way, including mentally handicapped people). It was Puccio's girlfriend, Lisa Connelly, who came up with the idea to kill Kent. Connelly, who at the time was two months pregnant with Puccio's baby, blamed Kent for Puccio's own abusiveness toward her. A ragtag gang of youths (a couple of whom barely even knew Kent) wound up joining the plot to kill Kent. When the time came, they took turns stabbing and beating Kent with a baseball bat while the victim screamed out that he was sorry. When Kent yelled for Puccio to help him, Puccio instead plunged a knife into his buddy's gut. After the killing they threw Kent, who was still breathing, into a pond. When they were caught, the killers showed no remorse for what they'd done. All are now in prison.
Schutze's book, which came out in 1997, was met with mostly positive reviews. A New York Times blurb, for instance, called it "a deeply disturbing book, an indictment of suburban values and of an aimless, violent middle-class culture that is depraved because it is morally -- not economically -- deprived." Despite the good notices, the book didn't sell very well. (Hardcover sales reached only 13,000, Schutze reports, while roughly 200,000 paperbacks left the shelves.) And by the time Schutze, who is 54 years old and had been nominated for two Edgar Awards for previous true-crime books, started the ups and downs of dealing with the movie studios, he decided to go back to journalism, where he'd started his career. (He's now a columnist for the Dallas Observer, which is owned by New Times Inc.) "I was sick of doing true-crime books, and I was sick of trying to tailor them to this market, and this story sickened me," he explains. Schutze, who plans to write a history book in the future, says there was also a more practical reason for leaving true crime: Compensation for books in that genre dropped precipitously.
When producer Don Murphy, who is now in Prague shooting a Johnny Depp movie, called Schutze about a year ago to option Bully, Schutze almost declined the offer. He didn't want to go through the headache of yet another failed development deal for the scant price of an option. (The big money comes only if the movie is actually made.) Schutze warned Murphy that the only reason he could see for the killing was that the kids wanted to do it. "That didn't throw him for a loop," Schutze says. "It just seemed that Murphy could transform this into entertainment without corrupting it or trivializing it."
Only time will tell if Schutze's hunch about Murphy was correct. The New York Post reported that the killers would be "trendy," a warning sign that the production might be leaning toward making the kids something they are not. But Andy Schefter, the movie's production manager, says it's going to stick to "true-life happenings" and that Clark -- a lifelong chronicler of the darker elements of life -- is going to stay with the down-and-dirty documentary style of his previous films.
Schutze, who pays little attention to the movie business when he's not being harangued by studios, says he's heard some good things about Clark's movies, though he hasn't seen them. He says he just hopes that Clark will stay true to his book -- and refrain from using any of those harmful Hollywood additives.
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