When We Were Bullies (2021) Movie Script

as I... remember. (GRUNTS) JAY ROSENBLATT:
You remember doing this? I don't, but I was younger once. JAY: This is my elementary
school in Brooklyn, P.S. 194. -It's a Saturday...
-(LAUGHS) -...and the gates are locked.
- (MUSIC STOPS) -Shit.
Yeah, that's a good idea. -JAY: And this is me.
-(PAPER RIPPING) And this is me in fifth grade. But let's start this story
in the middle. (SUSPENSEFUL MUSIC PLAYS) This is me in 1992,
and I'm living in San Francisco. I'm making a film called
The Smell of Burning Ants, which is about boys
and growing up male. (INAUDIBLE) JAY: The spark for the film came
when I saw this scene from a 1960s educational film. (INAUDIBLE) JAY: But the moment
that really got me was when a third boy
throws a quick punch. (MUSIC FADES) When I saw this collaborator, I saw myself,
and a memory jolted me, a memory that I hadn't thought
about since fifth grade. (GENTLE HARP MUSIC PLAYS) It was just three frames
-A split second. If I would have blinked, I wouldn't be telling you
this story. Fast-forward two years.
I'm still working on that film, and I'm looking for someone
to do voice-over because I really don't like
the sound of my own voice. At the time,
I was teaching a film class. The students were showing
their final films, and I was taken by the voice
in one particular film. RICHARD: This film
is about a cat. The cat fell. JAY: The narrator's name
was Richard. He lived nearby in Berkeley,
so we met at his house. As he looked over my script, he took notice
of the following line. "He was raised on concrete, boxball, stickball,
punchball, slap ball." Richard then turned to me
and asked... "Are you from New York?"
And you said, "Yeah." And we did the New York thing. "Where are you from?"
"Brooklyn." "Where are you from?"
"What part of Brooklyn?" "Sheepshead Bay." "Really? Wow." Uh... "Where'd you go
to school?" You said, uh... something. But then I said, "Where did you
go to elementary school?" Which was an odd question
in many ways. But you said P.S. 194, and I just could feel
the electricity, like, because I went there. And... (INHALES) ...then I said,
"How old are you?" And you told me.
And we were the same age. And I just said, "Whoa." Wait, what's your name again?"
(LAUGHS) And you said, "Jay Rosenblatt."
And I'm... (INHALES) "Who was
your fifth grade teacher?" And you said, "Mrs. Bromberg,"
and it was, like, stunning. Because we had the same class.
I remembered you. And I was trembling. And then you--
I don't know what-- Your reaction
was pretty similar. We were both kinda like that.
And then you said something... You said, "Turn the page."
(CHUCKLES) And I turned the page
of the script, and the first line was
"In fifth grade..." - (SUSPENSEFUL MUSIC PLAYS)
-And it was like we had-- What? And it was like
this whole flood of memory of things that I hadn't even
thought about for decades. -Decades were there on the page.
-JAY: Mm-hmm. And then what--
It was just... stunning to think that somebody else
was writing something about something
that I was part of in 1965, 3,000 miles away. And here we are and...
feet apart from each other. JAY: Richard then honed in
on that exact same moment that triggered the idea
for the film. (PAPER RUSTLES) That time we bullied
this other Richard. -Richard (BLEEP).
-(MUFFLED INDISTINCT CHATTER) I mean, he could have written
the words he was reading. (CHILDREN CHEER, CLAMOR) JAY: For me,
the memory was vague. All I knew for sure
is that it happened. And I participated. Oh, yeah, one last thing. We got caught. -(GLASS SHATTERING)
-(CHILDREN CHEERING) JAY: Richard remembered details
I had completely forgotten, or maybe I just blocked. Like how Mrs. Bromberg
would insist that we were totally silent and sit at attention
with our hands clasped before she would let us go home. But on this particular day,
it was different. Mrs. Bromberg ran a tight ship. And she wasn't gonna put up
with nonsense. And I-- You know,
so when she says, "No one's leaving.
I want it absolutely silent. And I will decide
when you leave." (CHUCKLES) And we all just kinda go,
"Mm." And it's taking a long time. You know, usually it lasts
about a minute. You know, as a teacher myself,
I know, you just... you wanna make a minute,
and then you go. It's going on and on and on. And finally she says,
"You can go. You would've left earlier,
but Richard was talking." And I was outraged.
I wasn't talking. And then, I realized
people thought it was me and I was gonna get shit for it. I didn't want people
being mad at me. So, we pack up our stuff,
and it occurs to me that... it must have been
the other Richard in the class, who we called Dick. Uh... that was his name
that he was assigned in fourth grade,
when there were four Richards in the same class,
in Mrs. Weidman's class. There was Richard, I was Richie,
there was a Rich, and then this other guy
got Dick. And, you know, in the hierarchy
of fourth and fifth grade, that's not a good thing. Yeah. So, as we're packing up
our stuff, I started-- I passed along
to Michael Sorrel, who was right in front of me, -I said, "It was Dick."
Pass it down." -And it started getting
passed down.
-(CHILDREN WHISPERING) All the way down the line
as we were walking down. And everybody heard it. And as we get out
of the building, we s-- he s--
He must've heard it as well, because he starts running. But we all, as a mass,
kept on running down the stairs and surrounded him
and jumped on him. I jumped on him, and Michael Sorrel
jumped on him, that's what I remember the most. Girls were jumping on him.
It was, like, out of control. But we were all angry at him. JAY: Now, let's pick up
where we left off. At the locked gate of P.S. 194. -God.
- (WHIMSICAL MUSIC PLAYS) -I don't like this, Richard.
-(RICHARD CHUCKLES) I don't know where
to put my foot. RICHARD: Uh, if you can get
that foot down... and then just your other foot
over. Then if you can move your hands
to the fence at some point. -(JAY GRUNTS)
-RICHARD: Don't come down fast. (JAY GRUNTS) -(BREATHES HEAVILY)
- (MUSIC CONCLUDES) It's almost as if
you can almost see the spot. You know, it just
feels like it was right here. There's-- There's something
right here. -And this is where
we surrounded him.
-(CHILDREN CLAMORING) And some kids spit on him. Everybody's taunting him with, uh, whatever everybody
wanted to do, it seemed. It seemed like everybody
had free will to, uh... to do whatever it felt
like he deserved. And this where I remember,
at this point, being a bit of an instigator. And I remember being
on my knees, somehow, and then seeing, looking back-- We're here, so perhaps
I was punching him, perhaps just spitting on him,
just perhaps yelling, I don't remember the specifics
of what I did. But I do know Michael Sorrel,
another student, was next to me because everybody stops,
and we look up, and we see coming down
the stairs... Mrs. Bromberg
and Dr. Pinkus, the principal. Everybody gets up as one
and starts running and running. And then I remember
the next day, coming in,
and Mrs. Bromberg sent... Dick out for an errand, and then just turned
to the class and just said,
"You are animals," and really gave us a going-to, yeah. -JAY: Wow.
-So, it's just-- So, you know,
from my perspective, it was like...
I was trying to keep... me from getting the wrath
of the class, and pinned it on him. (CHILDREN CLAMORING) JAY: This experience
had clearly affected us both. And the more I delve into it, the more upset I am
that I was involved. (CHILD GIGGLES) JAY: And as I was soon to learn, we were not alone
in this memory. (SOFT MUSIC PLAYS) So I finally finish my film, and it seems to hit a nerve. A local newspaper wants to do
a cover story on me and my work. At some point,
I end up telling the writer about that weird coincidence -with my narrator, Richard.
-(PROJECTOR WHIRRING) He is clearly taken
by this story. -(CHILDREN CLAMOR)
-So much so that it becomes
a big part of his article. A couple of decades later, while making this film, -I asked him why.
- (MUSIC ENDS) I mean, I'll be honest.
I mean, I was-- I was a kid who... was bullied. I was the fat kid
in grade school. Um... You know, the idea of being
that sort of... fourth kid called Dick
who was the target of regular abuse, humiliation,
you know, it's-- When you're that kid,
it's sort of like it's death by a thousand cuts,
you know? It's not just one incident,
it's sort of just... being in that state.
And you're not sure, when you're that age
and when you're that kid, when you're gonna get out of it. JAY: He even researches
the incident. I found a website
devoted entirely to P.S. 194. JAY: And there were
class photos -for every year.
-(CAMERA SHUTTER CLICKS) -But for some reason...
-(CAMERA SHUTTER CLICKS) -...my fifth grade photo...
-(KEYBOARD CLACKING) ...I get this e-mail
from a woman named Wendy. She had gone
to elementary school with me. In fact, we grew up
in the same apartment building. I remember when
we were five years old, we played "you show me yours
and I'll show you mine" in her bedroom closet. Anyway, she had heard
through the website that I made a film
that involved P.S. 194, -and that I was looking
for our fifth grade class photo.
- (MUSIC FADES) And I had that photo,
so I sent it to you. JAY: And then, she asked... If this had anything to do with that bullying incident
that happened with Richard (BLEEP)
on the schoolyard. JAY: What was it
about this event that we all zeroed in on? He sat sort of diagonally
in front of me. And he used to sort of sit
in an awkward position. He would always
reach his hand out and put it on my desk. And I didn't like it
that he did that. He did it repetitively. Um, it must've been
repetitively because one day,
I brought a little pin to class. (CHUCKLES) He put his hand on my desk,
and I just gave him a little, just a little,
tiny little prick. (CHUCKLES) And I still remember the look
on his face. He was just-- He didn't know
that I had done anything. He was just in shock,
and he pulled his hand away. But I'm kind of feeling guilty
to this day that I did something like that. (SOMBER MUSIC PLAYS) JAY: Two years later,
I get the e-mail that in the back of my mind
I always feared I might get. It is from Dick. -He writes...
-(KEYBOARD CLACKING) "I heard you've made
a film about me." I write back that it wasn't
exactly about him, but that, yes, there was a story
in it that he was a part of. I assure him
that I changed his name. He writes back that he'd like
to see the film. I tell him that I would hate
to bring up any painful memories that he may have buried. He says he's been
a television producer for the past 20 years
and has been quite successful. In other words,
he can handle it. I send him a DVD, and I never hear back. (MUSIC CONTINUES) Sixteen years go by, when out of nowhere, I get an invitation
to a 50th anniversary reunion of P.S. 194. Is the universe trying
to tell me something? And at that moment, it hit me. I have to speak
to my other classmates about what happened that Friday
in fifth grade. I decide to track down
-Richard and I are here to... go to the 50th reunion of P.S. 194, which, I think you agree
is strange, -that there's a...
-Right. ...a reunion for grade school. -Yes, it is strange.
-I don't know-- It's morphed into a little more
than that, but it is strange. I know, but I never heard of it. -That people do this.
-Right. So I'm wondering
if this is unique, -or we're just out of it.
-We're out-- -It just--
-I think it's unique. -Yeah. Okay.
-I can't imagine. (MUSIC CONCLUDES) (LOUD, INDISTINCT CHATTER) JAY: Although I couldn't film
at the reunion, I do meet a schoolmate
who flew up from Florida. -(AIRPLANE ENGINE RUMBLES)
-(TIRES SCREECH) She tells me
that a few years ago, Mrs. Bromberg came
into the ophthalmologist's
office where she works. She then tells me that Mrs. Bromberg moved back
to New York and is still alive. And she offers to help me
find her. But first, I wanted to speak
to my classmates, to see what they remembered. (TELEPHONE RINGS) (TELEPHONE RINGS) (SUSPENSEFUL MUSIC PLAYS) CLASSMATE 1:
I'm searching deep in the bowels of my memory... (CHUCKLES) ...for this to jump out at me
or come to me, but I gotta tell ya,
I got nothing. CLASSMATE 2: No, 'cause
I don't think I was there. And I got the idea
it was something that happened in the schoolyard. CLASSMATE 3: Yeah,
I don't recall anything specifically after school, but I do--
I certainly remember Richard. CLASSMATE 4: He always struck me
as someone who was on the outside. CLASSMATE 5:
I remember him being awkward. -Not comfortable
in his own skin.
it was in the schoolyard. I remember sort of a circle -around him. Um...
-(CHILDREN CLAMORING) CLASSMATE 6: And the chanting. And I remember him
breaking away and pushing out of the circle
and running home. You know, I don't think anybody
was friends with him. Kind of the worst thing
you could do is shunning, which I've learned
over the years, being in education. Shunning somebody cuts them off
from all social ties. And in many ways,
that's what we did with Richard. -We shunned him, so that...
- (SUSPENSEFUL MUSIC PLAYS) ...if you befriended him, you were then shunned as well. CLASSMATE 7: I remember
what an annoying... (CLICKS TONGUE) That I--
He brought me to a point where I had to punch him
in the face in the schoolyard... to get him away from me,
to just leave me alone. CLASSMATE 8: I mean,
he definitely marched
to a different drummer, but I don't think
we were nice to him. CLASSMATE 9: I just remember
he would just explode, and then burst out crying
at the drop of a hat. CLASSMATE 10: Well, at least
I think in our case, we picked on him
just because he seemed... he seemed vulnerable. CLASSMATE 11: We were
actually kinda friends. I had been to his house,
he had been to mine. I remember working
on projects together with him. CLASSMATE 12:
You know what I remember? I remember the saddest thing
of all... -JAY: Hmm.
-...which was your brother. -JAY: Yeah.
That's what I remember, and... and just what a difficult... childhood that must have
made for you. (CHUCKLES) CLASSMATE 13: I remember him
being very intelligent. When he spoke, he did not speak like a child.
He almost spoke like an adult. CLASSMATE 14: Beyond his years
in one aspect, and yet very immature in others. I remember him never using
the word "bathroom." "Lavoratory." CLASSMATE 15:
I remember him throwing his notebook
and pencil at the teacher. And I remember
being really shocked by that kind of behavior. You know, like,
"Whoa, who does that?" CLASSMATE 16: I remember
you were unfortunate enough to lose your brother
at a very young age. CLASSMATE 17:
I just remember him as being an off-key kid. But I was off-key myself. I remember having
the whole class -being punished for something.
I probably was not brave enough back then to say,
"That's not fair." And I remember
that her response was,
"That's tough." Mrs. Bromberg could be
a bully... um, or she could've been
just a very strict teacher. CLASSMATE 18:
I just felt drawn to you because I felt what I thought
was your sadness. And I don't even remember if your brother was older
or younger. JAY: He was younger. -Two years younger.
-CLASSMATE 18: Okay. CLASSMATE 1: I recall
that I was an obnoxious kid. So I would have had no problem taunting somebody else,
you know? Naturally also being that you,
in fifth grade, you know,
when you're in fifth grade, you're very insecure
about yourself. -JAY: Mm-hmm.
-CLASSMATE 1: You know, whenever you're insecure
about yourself, you always try
and make yourself better by putting other people down. CLASSMATE 19:
I know there were times
where I would just, like, you know, sneakily give him a... kind of a-- some kind of
emotional jab or something. And now, being a bully
to me is, like, one of the most disgusting things
anyone could be, so... It just bothers me,
'cause he... he was nervous, and, um, I contributed more
to his nervousness, and that really bugs me. CLASSMATE 18: So as a class,
like, we all witnessed this, or some of us remember,
some of us don't, and Richard has his own story
that he lived too. And I would be so interested
in that. Like, he might be just fine. CLASSMATE 7:
It was a different time,
a different era. Um-- I'd have-- I'd apologize, and I have a lot more
compassion to him, because by the grace of God, he could've been one
of my kids or grandchildren. -JAY: Hmm.
But at that time, I think poor Richard was left, uh... you know, left out on an island. (MUSIC FADES) And God knows, you know,
how painful it must have been being inside his head. JAY: Okay. Aside from Dick, I interviewed everyone
I could find. Sadly, three of my classmates
have passed away. Eddie, my best friend
throughout grade school, died at age 50
from throat cancer. And I still miss him. And Marilyn died at age 60
from ovarian cancer. And Jerry died a few months
after I interviewed him, at age 64, from a heart attack. JERRY: Say hi to anybody
you do speak to, Jay. Uh... Tell 'em we--
You just say we spoke and, uh, send my regards. JAY: Here's what
I've learned so far. (SOMBER MUSIC PLAYS) One, in a way,
I still feel guilty. And I have to ask myself, "Am I trying to atone
by making this film?" Two, I never realized how much Mrs. Bromberg
calling us animals affected me, and I now remember
the shame I felt. Three, I'm starting to wonder if we are hard-wired
to pick up vulnerability. Four, although I thought
I had hidden it from everyone, my classmates remembered I had a brother who died
when I was in fourth grade and that I was shut down
and unapproachable. Five, I really need
Please leave me a message. (VOICEMAIL BEEPS) Yeah, hello, Mrs. Bromberg,
this is Jay Rosenblatt, a former student of yours,
way back in 1965 and 1966. And I would love
to speak with you. Um... I will give you a call back
in a little while, and hopefully we can connect. I hope you are well,
and I will speak to you soon. Thanks. Bye. BOBBE: (OVER VOICEMAIL)
Please leave me a message. (VOICEMAIL BEEPS) BOBBE: (OVER VOICEMAIL)
Please leave me a message. (VOICEMAIL BEEPS) BOBBE: (OVER VOICEMAIL)
Please leave me a message. (VOICEMAIL BEEPS) (TELEPHONE RINGS) BOBBE: (OVER PHONE) Hi, Mrs. Bromberg. -This is--
-BOBBE: This is Jay Rosenblatt. BOBBE: Is this a good time? BOBBE: Okay, perfect. Um... How are you? BOBBE: Wow, that's great. That's great. BOBBE: I'm really-- I'm really glad
-Hi, Mrs. Bromberg. BOBBE: (CHUCKLES) Hi. -Oh! Oh.
-We have our-- Hi, Bobby. Nice to see you. So, tell me,
what brings you here? -JAY: There's you.
-BOBBE: Yeah, I was blonde. -JAY: You were.
-(BOBBE CHUCKLES) BOBBE: Before that, I was brown. I don't think
I recognize anybody. JAY: Do you remember, um,
any bullying episodes? -Any what?
-JAY: Bullying. -Bullying.
-Bullying? JAY: Yeah. Not really. No. Do you? JAY: Yeah, I'm gonna tell you
about it, that's-- -I'm gonna get to that.
-Girls tend to be catty, even at an early age. With boys, if you can throw a ball
and catch one, that's all you need. JAY: And what if you were a boy
that couldn't throw a ball? (SIGHS) Depends on the age.
Could be a big problem. -JAY: Yeah.
-Were you able to throw a ball? JAY: I threw a ball well... -(CHUCKLES)
-...but I knew boys that... couldn't do that
or didn't do that well. -And, uh, they had big problems.
-Yeah. -JAY: Yeah.
-Because boys are... who they are, what they are.
Girls are catty all the time. JAY: Well, boys can be
pretty cruel too. (CHUCKLES) -That's different.
-JAY: Uh-huh. That's different
than being catty. -JAY: Uh-huh.
-You're talking bullying. -(CHILDREN CLAMORING)
-JAY: I'm just curious.
Why do you think kids pick on weaker kids? Kids are tuned into that
in the oddest way. The kids'll pick up something
that the adults can't see. -Sixth sense or something.
-JAY: Uh-huh. That happens all the time. -JAY: Right.
-It happened to my daughter. JAY: She got picked on? BOBBE: But... I didn't. -JAY: I'm sorry you lost her.
-Hey. JAY: Yeah. JAY: I recount
the entire bullying episode to see if it jogs her memory. JAY: Does-- Does any of it
sound familiar to you? Not at all? There were so many things
like this? That's right. -JAY: Right.
-Through the years. It happened to you. -That's why you remember.
-JAY: Uh-huh. So, what do you think of this
story I told you, in general? -I mean, did-- I know it did--
-About? JAY: About this whole
bullying incident and this film I'm making.
Any thoughts? Or any questions?
Do you have any questions? No, I know what goes on. My daughter was bullied.
I know what happens. Uh... (SUSPENSEFUL MUSIC PLAYS) And the film, I'm not sure
people want to see it. I'm really not. JAY: So you think people
won't want to see my film? I don't think so. -That's just my opinion.
-JAY: Mm-hmm. Well, you might be right.
(LAUGHS) It depends on how
it's presented, also. -JAY: Right. Yeah.
-And, uh... I don't know. It... - (MUSIC FADES)
-It could be tedious. -JAY: Mm-hmm.
-It could be possibly very tedious to watch. JAY: Mrs. Bromberg was right. I remember this
because I participated. Why didn't I say, "Stop"? If you could... say something
to the other Richard... Mm-hmm. -If you had that opportunity...
-Right. -What would it be?
-(INHALES) Well, first, I'd have to say,
"Do you remember me?" and "Do you remember us
being together in fourth grade
and fifth grade?" I'd be curious at what
his memory is, because... the concern I'd have is that
it's not a big deal to him. It was just---
It was part and parcel of his experience growing up. It's like one more thing,
you know? And that I would make
this big deal of... whether it's an apology
or a recognition, uh, that doesn't need to be made. (GENTLE MUSIC PLAYS) JAY: So now,
it's the part of the film where one would expect
to meet Dick, the other Richard. I mean, it makes sense. In fact,
that was my original plan. The big climax at the end.
We all get to hear from Dick, and hopefully see for ourselves
that he turned out okay, see how resilient humans can be. maybe not feel so guilty
or ashamed. After all, we were just kids. These things happen
all the time. Who knows? Maybe he doesn't even remember
the schoolyard incident. Anyway, there will be
no Dick ending this film. Instead, I've decided
to write him a letter. "Dear Richard." I've made a film about the time
we bullied you in the P.S. 194 schoolyard. I've interviewed everyone
I could track down "from our fifth grade class
to see what they remember." (CHILDREN CLAMOR) "What I didn't expect
was that most people" only had a vague memory
of the actual incident, "but everyone
clearly remembered you." (MUSIC FADES) "My intention was
to hopefully end the film" with a face-to-face interview
with you, but the further
into the project I got, "the less sure I was
to bring the adult you into it." (LOW RUMBLING) "As I was
interviewing everyone..." (CHILDREN CLAMOR) ...I started to feel like
we were reenacting "the bullying incident
from 50 years ago." (SOMBER MUSIC PLAYS) "It might be hard
to believe this," but when I began
making this film, I didn't consider
how it might make you feel. I guess I'm not
as sensitive as I thought. Anyway, on the off chance you might one day
contact me again saying, 'I heard you made
a film about me,' please know that the film
is not really about you, but about us. What's become clear to me
is that everyone carries pain. If you think about it... so much of life seems to involve
hiding our vulnerabilities. In my case, it was losing my brother
when I was in fourth grade, and the intense survivor guilt
that I carried and tried to hide. Yet through that pain,
I can now see yours, "and therein lies
our connection." (MUSIC CONTINUES) "In closing, Richard,
what I can tell you" is that everyone I spoke to
wished you well and felt bad for the way
you were treated. And finally,
I simply want to say... "I'm sorry." (MUSIC CONCLUDES) (GENTLE MUSIC PLAYS) (MUSIC CONCLUDES)