Exclusive Interview with Leslie Zemeckis about ‘Bound by Flesh’

Leslie Zemeckis headshot

With her documentary “Bound by Flesh,” Leslie Zemeckis has reopened a part of history many have either forgotten about or never knew about. It focuses on Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who became stars in sideshows and were generally viewed as freaks of nature. Throughout their lives they were subjected to abuse by their handlers and kept out of public view in fear of losing their monetary value. But when they finally got their freedom, life became even worse for them as they didn’t know how to deal with the ways of show business, and they eventually lost everything and entered a life of poverty.

What’s great about Zemeckis’ documentary is how it forces you to look at the Hilton sisters as human beings as opposed to oddities to be gawked at. I got to talk with Zemeckis over the phone about “Bound by Flesh,” how she first became aware of Daisy and Violet, and of the research she did.

Bound By Flesh documentary poster

Ben Kenber: This is a fascinating documentary. I didn’t know about the Hilton sisters at all, and they suffered through quite a miserable existence. “Bound by Flesh” deals with them as “freaks,” but it also deals with them as human beings which I really liked. What they go through is not unusual for people who don’t know the ways of show business.

Leslie Zemeckis: Good, I like that.

BK: How did you first find out about the Hilton sisters?

LZ: When I was doing my first documentary, “Behind the Burly Q” about burlesque I had read someplace that they were in burlesque briefly, so that kind of intrigued me and I put a little bit about them in the first film. Then I read Dean Jensen’s biography about them (“The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins”), and just over time, while I was editing my other film, I kind of became obsessed by their story. But also taking into context of the time they lived and what the carnival was and what circus life and sideshows were, we don’t have that today. There’s really almost no animals even left in the circus, so we’re kind of bringing to light and exploring what that world was that they lived in.

BK: In regards to the historical footage that you were able to include in this documentary, how did you go about researching this subject?

LZ: Every which way I could. I did the research myself so that I’m familiar with the names and dates, and I knew that they were, in their day, photographed a lot. They were interviewed and they had done a lot of newsreels, so I actually went to a news real company in New York and I sorted through their files, and because I knew the names that they were involved with, I found some footage that hasn’t been seen since the 30’s. It probably never would’ve (been discovered) because it doesn’t have their names on that little 3 x 5 index card. I found that within 10 minutes of searching.

BK: On the surface and outside the fact that they were conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet really looked like normal people and very innocent in a sense.

LZ: Well they were. It was a double-edged sword by them being so protected and kept away from other people that they were innocent. But then when they were out on their own they didn’t have the skills to deal with people or their career or money really, and that’s why they were taken so badly advantage of.

BK: You find yourself rooting for the twins to get freedom from their handlers, but once they do get their freedom they are thrust into a world they don’t have any control over. They are not prepared for it at all.

LZ: Yeah, it was a little bit of a curse maybe to get their freedom.

BK: I got a big kick out of the logos because they look like they came out of a schlocky B-movie from the 50’s. Who designed the logos?

LZ: Well it was my idea because they were in B-movies like “Chained for Life” and their story, when you talk about it, is so headline; kept in chains and held captive and all that. So I wanted to add an element of that for fun, but there really is a deep story behind it and my editor Evan Finn designed all that because he’s brilliant.

BK: Regarding the sound clips, were they created for this documentary or was it a combination of archival footage and actors redoing them?

LZ: It was actors redoing them, but that was their (the twins’) words. In both “Behind the Burly Q” and then this, I wanted the sisters to tell the story. I want people to tell their story instead of me imposing on it for the audience, so I used their words. I didn’t write those words. Those were what the sisters said.

BK: It definitely felt like their words. Who were the most fun or most informative to talk to when it comes to your interview subjects?

LZ: Well I just thought it was a little amusing that I had James Taylor and Phillip Morris (laughs). We would just laugh about it. I mean where else are you going to find “characters” like this? But they were all very charismatic, knew their history and I loved and loved talking to them and they loved it too. They loved that era, they loved the sideshow and they love the circus.

BK: Was there anything that you wanted to include in this documentary that you were not able to for one reason or another?

LZ: No. I would’ve liked to of had more footage of them, but I am super happy with what I found. I wanted people to see their movement. I don’t believe there’s any footage of them performing live in vaudeville, but I was really pleased with what I did find.

BK: The Hilton sisters did appear in “Freaks” which is now considered a classic, but when it first came out it was treated as very controversial and off-putting. It’s interesting to see how people initially reacted to the movie when it was first released.

LZ: It’s a disturbing movie, but what’s funny is that the twins actually aren’t in it as much as you would think. But the film has value; it’s in the National Archives. It’s just a world that is no longer.

BK: Are there still any sideshows still performing today?

LZ: Not really. There’s so little “born freaks,” but to me I equate it, and it’s not PC of course to go stare at people, with watching reality TV. Everybody sits in their home and it’s okay to watch the Kardashians comment on their physicality, and I think we still have a form of the sideshow. It’s just changed to reality TV. All forms of entertainment just change. They stay but they change. We just now do it from our home.

BK: There’s something to be said for the twins living as long as they did because the lifespan of conjoined twins is not good.

LZ: Right and they were generally very healthy throughout their lives.

BK: The choice of music was interesting because some of it goes outside of the times the Hilton sisters went through. How did you go about choosing the music, or did you just leave that to your composer (Oliver Schnee)?

LZ: No, I don’t leave anything to anybody (laughs). It’s too much of my baby. I certainly didn’t compose it. He (Oliver Schnee) was brilliant, but I didn’t want it to feel like you’re just watching this period piece that has nothing to do with today. It’s still hip, they were hip, and I wanted the music to reflect that.

BK: Going back to the voice cues, those were done by Lea Thompson and Nancy Allen. How did you manage to get them involved in this documentary?

LZ: Well I knew them so I was familiar with their voices, and they both have a similar quality with each other which I felt would work with the sisters. They also have a very light, optimistic voice. I was so lucky to get them. They were similar enough that I thought they sounded like sisters.

 

A big thank you to Leslie for taking the time to talk with me about “Bound by Flesh” which opens us up to a part of history that has been forgotten for far too long. It is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

 

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‘Left Behind’ is as Cinematically Atrocious as Movies Get

Left Behind movie poster

The 2014 version of “Left Behind” received quite the critical smackdown upon its release, and this made me all the more interested in seeing it. How many times do you get the opportunity to say you were one of the handful people who got to see such a god-awful motion picture on the big screen which notoriously flopped at the box office during its incredibly short time in theaters? There were a few people who proudly wore t-shirts signifying they saw “Gigli” while it was in theaters, and some wear it like a badge of honor.

“Left Behind” looks like one of those so bad it’s good movies, but even on that level it is a complete failure. This cinematic version of the best-selling novel by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins is every bit as hideous as its reputation suggests. The acting is amazingly bland and lifeless, the dialogue is unforgivingly bad, and the direction is beyond incompetent. Upon coming out of this movie, one has to wonder if its best sequences were all left behind on the cutting room floor on purpose or by accident.

The movie opens on Chloe Steele (Cassi Thomson) arriving home from college to surprise her father, airline pilot Rayford Steele (Nicolas Cage), for his birthday. Rayford, however, is already set to pilot a flight to London and cannot make it. Also, his marriage to his wife Irene (Lea Thompson) is on the fritz as she has since become a devout Christian, something which drives him and Chloe up the wall. He also has his eye on an infinitely beautiful flight attendant to the point where he doesn’t hesitate to leave his wedding ring in the glove compartment of his car.

Anyway, the family members go their separate ways to do their thing, but then people suddenly vanish into thin air without any explanation, and the world quickly descends into utter chaos. Their clothes and belongings are left behind, but their bodies have apparently disappeared and don’t look to reappear anytime soon. It turns out the end of the world is much nearer than the non-believers ever bothered to realize, and those who believe in Jesus are now under his, or her, protection. As for those back on Earth, they are forced to prepare for the rapture which is certain to kill them off at some point in the not too distant future.

“Left Behind” is actually a remake of the 2000 film that starred Kirk Cameron and which received largely negative reviews upon its release. In a time where every other movie is being remade, this looked like the rare remake which could have easily improved upon the original, but no such luck. For all we know, this remake is even worse than its predecessor, and sitting through it is like pouring salt on an already gaping wound.

Where do we start with a cinematic monstrosity like this? Well, let’s take into account how the story lacks much in the way of drama. Those characters who didn’t go up to heaven are basically condemned to a hellish existence, so where’s the drama? As for what’s going on up in the sky, the characters stuck in the airplane are forced to act stupidly and utter dialogue so silly and inane to where it makes the screenplays of the “Star Wars” prequels sound like they were written by Aaron Sorkin.

The saddest thing about “Left Behind” is watching Nicolas Cage give one of the worst performances of his long career. Granted, Cage has done more bad movies than good ones these past few years, but even he can sometimes elevate a terrible motion picture into something which is, at the very least, entertaining. But here he looks like he is about to fall into a coma like Ben Carson threatens to during his campaign for President as he appears bereft of passion and meaning. What made Cage decide to do this movie anyway? He can underplay a role to great effect in movies like “Joe,” but here he only succeeds in making a terrible movie all the more infinitely pathetic.

The director of this misbegotten disaster is Vic Armstrong who is said to be the world’s most prolific stunt double in movies. He doubled for Harrison Ford in the first three “Indiana Jones” movies, Timothy Dalton in “Flash Gordon” and George Lazenby in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” Whatever lessons he gleaned from the directors he worked with on those projects did not translate to “Left Behind.” He should be forgiven for the lousy special effects he had a budget of only $16 million which, for a movie like this, is not nearly enough to, but my sympathy doesn’t extend much further than that. His direction is so amateurish to where I wondered how he got the directing job at all.

There is only so much time one can waste on a movie like “Left Behind” because there are hundreds upon hundreds of other movies out there so much better than this one. It ends on a note of seeming uncertainty as the apocalypse has only begun, but Cage stares at it so blankly as if to say he won’t be around for the sequel, assuming there will ever be one. It’s depressing to see a number of careers hit rock bottom here, but this is what happens here as movies don’t get much worse than this one. Sitting through a Dinesh D’Souza “documentary” is hard enough, but this one is a real endurance test.

For what it’s worth, it is nice to see Lea Thompson here as she always proves to be a very appealing presence in each movie or television show she appears in. What a shame it is that she disappears from this movie far too soon.

½* out of * * * *