Harvey Weinstein On How 'Bully' Got Its PG-13 Rating

The documentary Bully caught national attention when it received an R rating for harsh language from the Motion Picture Association of America. Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of The Weinstein Company — which distributed the film — discusses the decision to re-edit the film for release with a PG-13 rating.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

After controversial and sometimes loud arguments, the Motion Picture Association of America came to an agreement with the distributors of the documentary "Bully." An edited version has been rerated PG-13. The film is now showing nationwide. The documentary tells the story of five kids taunted, abused, even assaulted by their schoolmates, including Alex Libby.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BULLY")

ALEX LIBBY: They punch me in the jaw, strangle me and knock things out of my hand, take things from me, sit on me. They push me so far that I want to become the bully.

CONAN: We want to hear from parents, kids and teachers who've seen the film. How does your story fit with what we see in "Bully"? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Harvey Weinstein is co-chairman of The Weinstein Company that distributes "Bully," and he joins us by phone from New York. Nice to have you with us today.

HARVEY WEINSTEIN: Nice to be here.

CONAN: Why did you decide to re-edit "Bully" after so long refusing to do so?

WEINSTEIN: Well, the re-edits were so minor. The scene in question was the scene where Alex Libby, the boy you just ran an excerpt from, gets bullied. And there are three uses of the F-word in that scene. Normally, you're only allowed one F for a PG-13. We would not edit that scene at all. There were three other uses of the F-word, and so there were six in total. So there was a compromise. So it was - we took the three out that were unnecessary, and we left the three in. And over the longest period of time, as we discussed this, there was always - they always said to us just take out the F in the bully scene, and we refused to do that.

If you take that - if you edit that scene, you don't have a movie. So my director felt strongly about it. I supported him. You know, I mean, this is a great success for the movie and a great success for the American public. And I think Senator Dodd, you know, negotiate - I don't think, I know Senator Dodd, who's the head of the MPAA, negotiated this. He's had a long history of sponsoring legislation, you know, that have been pro-children and watched out for children's rights. And again, he, you know, got involved in this process. He struck a compromise, you know, changed the rules, basically, for the MPAA, and a quality and qualitative decision was made, and that's what won the day.

CONAN: And former Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut, as you mentioned, now the head of the MPAA. The scene in question, some F-words, as you say, were edited out. But to sanitize...

WEINSTEIN: Not in the scene in question.

CONAN: Yeah. But it's...

WEINSTEIN: The scene in question is intact.

CONAN: And I saying, just to sanitize that particular scene, it is critical to the film.

WEINSTEIN: Critical. I mean, you know, and the words are used onscreen. You can't have the movie without that scene, because it's what the bully says to the kid. I mean, as the boy is being bullied, you need that language. You need that to be clear. You need to see the intent and hear the intent. You edit those words out, you know what I mean, it just - you don't get it.

CONAN: And I want to focus on the film, rather than the controversy.

WEINSTEIN: OK, sure.

CONAN: But one more question. There have been other instances in the past where the MPAA suggested that you took them on on these kinds of issues - whether it was "The King's Speech" or other ones - for the purposes of publicity. And, indeed, "Bully" has gotten a lot of publicity because of this controversy.

WEINSTEIN: Yeah. I think "Bully" has gotten a lot of publicity, but that wasn't the - here's what happened. We got the rating. Alex Libby, the boy who was bullied in the movie, came to appeal the rating from an R to a PG-13. We lost by one vote. Alex really made an impassionate plea as to why he thought it was very important for kids his own age to be allowed to go into the movie theater. So you needed two-thirds majority. It was 8-5, the votes. We had eight for, five against. One vote and - you know, it wasn't the publicity that we generated.

There was a young girl who came out of nowhere - her name was Katy Butler. This is like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." That's how I feel about this girl. She was 17 years old. She was a kid that, when she was 14, you know, came out and said that she was gay. They took her to her locker room. They smashed the locker on her hand and almost broke her fingers.

Her mother is a pediatric emergency specialist at the hospital, who'd seen bullying before.

And after they'd beat her up, you know, she had to move to a different school where she's now doing well, but she has always been in impassion speaker for these rights - on her own. Nothing to do with us. We didn't fund it. We didn't finance it. We didn't do a thing. She started a petition on change - on change.com. And before we know it, there were 200,000 signatures, you know, in our favor. And before we blink, there are 500,000. It would have been a million or millions, you know, at the end of the day. So Katy Butler brought the publicity, not The Weinstein Company.

CONAN: Let's get on to the subject of the film. Why is this particular film - I'm sure all your films are important to you - but why is this one so specially important?

WEINSTEIN: You know, my movies are important on an economic basis, on an artistic basis. This is a soul-searching, redemptive movie. I'm a father of four daughters. I watched this movie and I cried. You know, I'm the tough guy with taste, good friends, you know, describe me that I'm the tough guy, period, the way others do. But, you know, I'll tell you, I'm a complete wuss when it comes to my own kids. You know, I'm the guy who gives in and, you know, which is not helpful sometimes either. But, you know, I love my daughters the way people love their children, and, you know, all their friends, and these stories has to stop. You know, we can't have this in our country.

We can't be as, "civilized" as we are and then allow, you know, where we turn our heads. You know, these kids, you know, take a bus and their frightened every morning. You know, I don't want to belong to a society that does that and then spends billions of dollars on absolute superfluous weaponry.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you, nobody - whoever rode a school bus didn't have to be anywhere near as extreme as what happened to Alex Libby. But nobody who rode - ever rode a school bus did not watch that scene without some twinge of recognition. Did you ride the school bus? Was that you, one side of you?

WEINSTEIN: I didn't ride the school bus, but I can tell you that, you know, we saw scenes with kids bullying each other and we kept quiet because we believe in a culture where we didn't want to rat on somebody. So I was brought up to do the absolute wrong thing in that situation. A, if you tell on somebody, you know, I mean, you're not cool, you know? So thus we'll, by our - by being the ones who didn't speak up, we were endorsing and enabling bullies that exists. I'm not proud of the way I was as a kid, and this is a chance to redeem that.

CONAN: I wanted to play one other clip because it's not just the kids who have to examine what they do, but the adults. This is a clip from a father, and then a response from a school administrator.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BULLY")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Kids will be kids, boys will be boys. They're just cruel at this age, and there was a continuous fight with that.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: The perception that the school is a haven for bullies is just not true. Do we some bully, of course, I'm sure we do, also all school systems do. That is a major overarching concern in our high school levels, it's not.

CONAN: And that is one of the recurring themes of the picture, reports pour in to principals, the assistant principals and to authorities, even to police officials at the school, and nothing is done.

WEINSTEIN: Only that we showed them the film. In other words, we show you these kids getting beat up with hidden cameras, and they said, oh, well, they'll grow out of it. This has to stop. There's a law - I'll tell you it's funny. There's a law that Senator Casey from Pennsylvania has fought for called the School Safeties Act. You would think that in the Congress, you know, United States Senate and Congress, that a law like that would be the easiest thing in the world. Who is against school safety? It seems inconceivable, right? In two years, you know, and this bill has, you know, hit one obstacle after another. So not only, I mean, are these principals and these schools, you know, end up not good about it, but, you know, I mean, but our own United States Senate is turning a blind eye.

WEINSTEIN: This is a movie, you know, that brings a major problem to the attention. And I got to tell you, not a movie that you're going to sit there and, you know, and joke, oh, my God, this is depressing because this is optimistic and you feel like you could make a change when you watch this movie. It's a triumphant feeling to see this movie, so people shouldn't be put off. And when people see the movie, they love the movie. And at the same time, there's great things to be learned by it.

CONAN: Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of The Weinstein Company. We want to know if the stories you saw in "Bully," if you've seen the picture, are your stories. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Let's stat with Sheila, and Sheila is on the line with us from St. Louis.

SHEILA: Hello, Harvey. You're a legend in your own time. I'm telling you, you're my hero. I've watched everything...

WEINSTEIN: Thank you, Sheila.

SHEILA: ...you've produced. Pete Bennett is a friend of mine. He apparently was part of your early career.

WEINSTEIN: That's correct.

SHEILA: And you've supported Michael Moore. Unfortunately, my young son, Adam Mitchell, was bullied because he had red hair his whole life. And he went to film school and the bullying followed him, and his thesis film was about his attempt of suicide. He passed away on October 30, 2010. So I'm doing everything I can, like you, to turn this around. It's we're the bully society. It's like a cancer in our world.

CONAN: I'm so sorry...

SHEILA: And I'm so grateful to you. I can't even begin to tell you of - if it's Harvey Weinstein I go to as fast as I can.

WEINSTEIN: Sheila, thank you. You know, I'm just, you know, for your son and all the sons and daughters in this movie, you know, I did it. I must tell you, Sheila, the irony with me is, you know, the first 10 years of my business life, I had a pretty bad temper, you know. So, in a way - I always say God works in mysterious ways. So getting somebody like me to fight the cause, you know, I think this is almost a calling, you know, and like that's how strongly I feel about it, and I'm so sorry about your boy.

SHEILA: Well, you know, won Academy Awards with Michael Moore, and I want to see you and - more and more, especially for "Bully." It takes so much courage to do what you do. I mean, very few people know how much you have to fight for what you have created and accomplished. So I'm on your team.

WEINSTEIN: Thank you, Sheila. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Sheila.

SHEILA: Bye.

CONAN: We're talking about the film...

SHEILA: (Unintelligible) on...

CONAN: ..."Bully," and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's get Michael on the line. Michael with us from Charlotte.

MICHAEL: Yeah. My daughter Anna(ph) was bullied at one high school - lasted at eight - seventh and eighth grade in one school that she went to. So instead of letting her go to the high school that she's supposed to go to, I transferred her to another school. And it all started because her brother and her got in a big fight in school. He's a seventh grader, she's an eighth grader, and called her gay. So immediately, this - I mean, this firestone erupted where she'd come home crying, saying the kids are spitting on her, mostly other girls, and her boyfriend - she was actually dating a boy at that time, but that didn't matter to anybody. And she's doing much better at the high school she's at now. She's been counseling and stuff.

But I'm also a teacher who sees things - I mean, it's - I'm not making excuses. I'm just saying, sometimes, it's really hard to stop it, but you have to step in. Like in my class, I've stepped in and said - I don't know what's going on because they wait until I turn my back, of course - but you take both parties that were involved and take them to a principal to try to get a straight answer, and that's - or pull them aside and talk to both parties involved.

CONAN: Well, Harvey Weinstein, there's a scene in the film where a kid is approached by a school official and said, you know, asked to shake hands with the guy who's been bullying him - and, Michael, thanks very much for the call - and refuses to do so because he said he's apologizing but he doesn't mean it. And she says, wait a minute. Does he stop this behavior? Yes, but he does other stuff.

WEINSTEIN: Mm-hmm. Well, I mean, I think what Michael's talking about, these incidents, they're just so inbred in our culture, and, you know, we've got to make it uncool, you know, to do this. You know, it's funny. I've asked a number of designers, you know, to design t-shirts, and one of them was Rachel Roy, I mean, who has this fabulous line of clothing. And she, you know, put an emblem on a t-shirt and said, I don't date bullies, you know? And she's, you know, a beautiful woman herself, Rachel, and I love the idea of, you know, there's nothing stronger than a woman protest, in my opinion and, you know, and just, you know, we just have to make this culture a very uncool thing to do. And that's, I believe, is when it will go away.

CONAN: Let's go to Tom. Tom is on the line with us from Iowa City.

TOM: OK. I think it's all ridiculous, to be honest, really, because I think we need bullying. I know I'm going to get a lot of people who'll disagree with what I'm going to say, but I think we need bullying to build character and build a backbone. Taking your kids out of school because somebody spits on them, you teach them to stand up for themselves. Put all this whining about, oh, my kids being - I was bullied as a kid. My daughter was bullied as a kid, but I didn't take her out of school because I believe you teach them to stand up for themselves. You spit on me, well, you fight back. Don't sit there and take them out of school because of crying. Don't sit there and whine because they come to you and then you're going to fix the boo-boo. You teach them to be independent. You teach them to stand up for themselves. You teach them to fight back. Because what happens is, you give the bully the power, OK? And that's really about it. Jut saw this movie (unintelligible)...

CONAN: So it's the victim's fault, Tom?

TOM: No. That's what I'm saying, you don't become the victim. Either you...

CONAN: Tom, you're right. You're going to get a lot of people who disagree with you.

WEINSTEIN: Oh, yeah, and I'll be one of them.

TOM: (Unintelligible).

WEINSTEIN: And, Tom, this Harvey.

CONAN: Tom.

WEINSTEIN: Isn't it a better idea that we don't need to place - we're not talking (unintelligible) one other thing, but what we're really talking about is, you know, let's not even have it in our culture. Why shouldn't it even be part of what we do? Why should it be part of our actions? Why should we need a knee-jerk reaction, that we have no need to bully?

I understand what you're saying about teaching your kids to stand up for what, you know, what's right, but also standing up for what's right means getting rid of the idea that our culture even allows that.

TOM: Well, I think the issue is, too - I mean, it's animal-based instinct. You look at every other species, they do the same thing. We are sanitizing ourselves to a point where you have to apologize for everything. You have to, I'm so sorry that I said something to hurt your feeling. Grow a backbone. Quite whining about it. You know, for example, the woman who lost her son. I am so sorry to hear that. I had a friend who lost their son, as well, to bullying, however, that friend who lost his son, his son, in my opinion, was weak. How are you going to sit there and let someone bullying caused you to kill yourself? It is the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen.

CONAN: Tom, I'm going to have to stop there because we're running out of time, and I'm afraid I might react. Anyway, thank you very much for the call. This, briefly, from John in Valdosta, Georgia: I've not seen the film, but I'm a middle school counselor. This is all real-life to me. Every single day has gotten worse over my 12 years here. Trying to convince adults of the severity of this problem is an ongoing battle.

A film that tries to convince adults of the severity of this problems and kids, too, is called "Bully." It's distributed by Harvey Weinstein's company, The Weinstein Company. Harvey, thank you very much for your time today. Harvey Weinstein joined us on the phone from New York. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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