I am blessed to have great friends over the years who have helped me continue to bring this website to you. One such friend from High School, Ken, is a film critic with his own blog called 1 More Film Blog. Ken and I share a passion for movies (in fact we may have skipped school once to catch Return of the Jedi).
Ken helped me reach out to DJ Caruso, a well known film director, who has just released in wide release a wonderful film about bullying and the ramifications of it called Standing Up. DJ has directed movies like Disturbia, The Salton Sea, Taking Lives, and Eagle Eye. But, for him, making Standing Up was a dream come true. The movie is based on the book called The Goats and for DJ, it’s been 11 years in the making. I had a chance to talk to DJ recently about the film and how the bullying theme affected his decisions to make the film and what it meant to him.
Bullyinglte: It’s an honor to get to talk to you about the movie you made, Standing Up, and that you are helping with the same causes that I’m focused on. I really appreciate that. I saw Standing Up on Netflix and read that it took about 11 years to get the movie together.
DJ: It was one of those situations where I read the novel (The Goats) way back when I was a PA and a reader when the novel first came out. It was one of those stories that stayed with me and was more like the movies that were being made in the 80’s. The type of young adult movies that I loved. John Hughes movies that had a soul and a heart that I feel today’s movies are lacking.
Every once in a while you’ll get a gem, but it’s really all about spectacle, so the novel stayed with me. I fell in love with the character Howie and if I could get a chance we could make it, I would. We shot it in 18 days and it was a labor of love, but at the same time, it was written 30 years ago and now with bullying and the cyber world, it’s even gotten worse. It just felt like the timing was right and having a few kids now who have had experiences, I felt it was time to step away from the Hollywood of it all to do something that I really wanted to do.
Bullyinglte: There seem be just a few movies that have a good message at the end for kids and the importance of that the way John Hughes did?
DJ: Yes. When you think about Ferris Bueller’s Day off and what Ferris did for his friend, the real theme is that Ferris is giving his friend an amazing gift. As entertaining as it is, it’s an incredibly smart movie that is laced with messages. And I’d rather watch those movies than the options that they have nowadays.
Bullyinglte: What I noted in standing up about Howie and Grace, like Ferris and his friend, is that there are kids that know how to handle conflict situations and diffuse them, and then there are kids and even adults that don’t have that capability. Did you recognize that theme as you were making the movie and where Howie’s strength came from with his ability to cope with more difficult situations?
DJ: I think that was definitely the intent. Howie was used to being that outsider and he had that experience of being that person. He has learned to live on fringe and learned to adapt and make things work and when the horrible things happen; he is already ahead of the plan and knowing what the bullies are thinking. So he has this intuitive skill. And the audience can feel from him that he has an incredible imagination and can find these new roads to take.
And Grace is not used to that, so she learns by the end to celebrate who you are and accept who you are. If you do that, then no matter what these people say or do, they won’t crush you. And on this journey, she learns that. She learns how to adapt. It’s funny to me how at the beginning of the movie she’s not well liked. You don’t necessarily like her. She’s had something horrible happen to her, but she’s not open and she’s not ready. She wants to go home and is complaining. And the gift she gets by the end of the movie then is the ability Howie gives to her.
Bullyinglte: The original book this is based on is called “The Goats” and there’s significance to that in that it’s what the bullies call the victims at the camp. What was the significance for you to change the title to Standing Up?
DJ: I didn’t want to change it, but unfortunately there are two other movies called “The Goats” and we weren’t allowed to use that title. Once we started to change it, we had to figure out a way to convey the spirit of the movie and other titles didn’t work out. It made them sound like the victims. They were downers, so Standing Up just felt like it was the right kind of message to get out.
We want families to want to watch this movie. Some of the letters I’ve gotten are so glowing. And when you deal with the subject of bullying, it’s so hard. I went and saw the “Bully” documentary, and it’s just so hard and I wanted mine to be a movie that people could talk about after. I have received numerous letters from parents that talk about how after watching the film, the entire family engaged in conversations about the bullying in their everyday lives. I wanted to make a movie like standing up that would leave a more positive message for families to watch together. For me the most important thing is that I felt this incredible kinship and my heart breaks all the time for victims.
So if you can make a movie about victims, but actually spend that private time with them to see what really shines and makes these kids special…and I think that’s what happens. The bullies never get to see that side, because of what’s going on in the school or the camp. For me it was to celebrate the spiritual and loving person these kids are and why you would want to damage these kids. It doesn’t make any sense..
It’s important that part of the preventative things that can be done are explored. If you are the person that does fit in, but isn’t a bully, that you can step in. I think it’s the bystanders that can help and not just say thank g-d it’s not just me. I used to go home when I was a kid and feel so bad for the victims. I think we need to find ways to understand.
Bullyinglte: There’s a lesson that teachers use called the crumpled piece of paper, where you write your name on a piece of paper than crumple it up and try to straighten it out. But you can’t ever get it back to straight. It’s an allegory on bullying. How does that tie in to your characters in Standing Up?
DJ: What I particularly felt with these characters is that you can have the damage, but also it can make you stronger on many fronts. Particularly what I wanted for the audience and the character of Grace in this dynamic of the movie is that…for Howie, he doesn’t have people to save them…but for Grace, it’s more about the journey and confidence she found.
I always felt that Grace, because of this, was going to be a more confident person and that she found herself along the way. It’s that you are able to be bullied and it’s not your fault but that you might not be so outwardly strong that people can prey on you. I would say 95% of the time, the people who are preying on others are making up for some inadequacy they feel about themselves, so they can make themselves feel good. So I felt like with Grace, there was some sort of growth of strength and hope from the immediate effects of the journey.
For Howie, there’s a bit more melancholy, a bit more sadness. I always felt it’s a little more realistic that Howie won’t be OK. So Grace found her confidence on this journey and might be less vulnerable. For Howie, the initial feeling might be ‘how do I move on? I’ll always be able to adapt. I’ll never be accepted or have a family.’ In a weird way, Howie is a great storyteller and great observer and that’s a kinship I feel with Howie. I was always observing and that’s how I felt as well.
Bullyinglte: I thought it very significant in the movie opening and closing scene, Grace is looking out the car window and you don’t really see the result. What was the significance of that opening and closing for you as the filmmaker?
DJ: It establishes her leaving the camp, and Grace reflecting back at a time in her life that, as horrible the situation was, what a gift Howie gave her. I wanted to be in Grace’s mind, because it was really about her growth. Howie didn’t have a huge amount of growth, but it’s really Grace who has the hope and growth and I tried to leave the idea of what the plan g-d might have for you and how certain things work.
I wanted to leave the message that sometimes these things happen and g-d has a way to take care of things and making things work. If you can learn from these things, then you can become a stronger person. And Howie gives Grace an amazing gift and I think that was very important.
In fact over the years, when we talked to other studios about the movie, they wanted The Goats to get revenge on the kids at the camp at the end and I told them that this is definitely not the movie where that happens. I always thought, my gosh, what screenplay did they just read that they want that to happen and what’s the message in that. You want to get beyond that. Bullying can become an endless cycle and that I thought it funny that the studios thought that.
Bullyinglte: How do you feel that, as a moviemaker, you are helping to resolve the issue of bullying?
DJ: Part of the responsibility is that people don’t like to have messages thrown in their face. People, in many cases embrace the outsiders in movies. People gravitate to these characters more than they do the good-looking star. So I think a lot of it is supporting those characters that are not necessarily the good-looking movie star type character. Making them interesting and making them compelling and have certain elements of what we find attractive. It’s their intelligence; they’re not in the norm.
The idea you want to spend time with people who don’t necessarily fit in. ..I think I wanted people to feel this. Those are the kinds of stories that I think we felt as kids. It all comes down to compassion and learning it’s OK to feel compassion.
There’s a boy who at first didn’t go to my son’s high school with a bunch of athletes. The boy didn’t get in right away. He was a little more of a theater guy and different and didn’t get in as a Freshman. But got in as a Sophomore. So on his first day, he wasn’t very uncomfortable and my son, the jock, athlete, baseball player just went up and gave him a big hug in the middle of all these kids. And his mother told me that her son told her that he did that and that it made him feel so good.
So he was nervous, because he didn’t feel like he fit in. But if people have the compassion to do this, because it was his very first day, his first minutes on the campus, he’s getting a hug from Mr. Baseball player, Mr. Popular…if you can teach your kids compassion it goes a long way.
Bullyinglte: I do believe that one person can make all the difference.
DJ: Yes, definitely. It really does take one person to make all the difference. I always hope that we can get back to the John Hughes type movies. There’s some good ones like Easy A or Perks of a Wallflower, and they just don’t get the attention they deserve.
Bullyinglte: How can people see the movie now?
DJ: Walmart embraced the movie at first and had exclusive rights, so it wasn’t in wide release. But now it’s available on iTunes, Amazon…it’s streaming all over the place. You can watch it on Netflix, you can watch it on Amazon and it’s available at the stores. You can now get Standing Up anywhere.
Bullyinglte: Well thank you for your time. I’m sure we could talk about bullying issues and John Hughes movie, but I thank you so much for your time. And thank you for making Standing Up, an important movie about bullying.
DJ: Thank you.
It was truly an honor to get to talk to DJ Caruso about his movie Standing Up and his candid sharing of his feelings on how bullying affects us. As a filmmaker, there is so much that can be done to help tell stories in a light that helps to show and resolve the bullying issue. I appreciate that DJ took the time to tell this story in Standing Up and hope you will take an opportunity to watch it and see the perspective he shared with me in our interview.