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A Killing Time

In 'Bully,' Larry Clark ponders what a Florida murder might say about America today.

July 12, 2001|HUGH HART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"I saw confusion, and I saw a front that said, in his eyes, 'don't mess with me, I've been tampered with enough.' I can't call the kid innocent ... but I can tell you the boy got a bit more than he bargained for."

That's Brad Renfro describing his reaction to a mug shot of Marty Puccio, whom he portrays in "Bully," a new film directed by Larry Clark that opens Friday in Los Angeles. In 1993, Puccio, then 16, stabbed and killed his best friend, Bobby Kent. Puccio is serving a life sentence.

Puccio didn't kill by himself. In all, seven Fort Lauderdale, Fla., teenagers lured Kent, 20, the neighborhood bully, to a deserted Everglades clearing. There, they bludgeoned and stabbed Kent, then dragged his body into the swamp.

Says Clark: "The crux of the story was, these kids couldn't figure out what to do with this bully so they killed him."

Clark, who made his directorial debut in 1995 with "Kids," an equally disturbing slice of debauched teen life, elaborates. "I mean we all wanted to kill the bully when we were kids. But it's not that simple. The relationship between Marty and Bobby was very complicated and difficult to figure out."

Complicated indeed. The college-bound Kent beat Puccio on a regular basis, yet the pair had grown up together and remained close until just a few days before the murder. Also difficult to figure out: Three of the teen killers had never even met Kent before the night of the murder. None has expressed remorse.

Director, Actor Talk About the Murder

Recently reunited at a West Hollywood cafe for the first time since making the film last September, Clark, 57, and Renfro, 18, provide their take on the true crime tale.

"It's a very strange place down there," says Clark, describing the South Florida locale where the murder occurred. "If you get a few blocks away from the beach, everything is brand-new. There's no culture, there's no history; everything's strip malls, houses that look alike."

"Frank Lloyd Wright would blow his brains out," Renfro interjects.

"It's stifling hot, there's nothing to do, it's flat as a pancake," Clark continues. "You get down there for a couple of days and you kind of understand how this could happen."

Says Renfro: "You do. All the way around down there. The judicial system, society, it's a very desolate place."

Amid Fort Lauderdale's Anywhere USA suburban setting, Puccio and his friends plotted Kent's demise at the local Pizza Hut. But there was more to the story. Puccio and Kent flirted with a violent subculture centered around teenage gay prostitution.

Says Clark: "There's almost like a tradition in South Florida where there's a lot of young teenage hustlers. There's actually a road down there where the gays would come to pick up young teenagers, and there's all these clubs that have amateur teen nights, just like in the movie. We went to this club, the Copa, on amateur teen night and saw these kids come up [and strip for money]. They're like young toughs. If you call them gay, they'd beat the [expletive] out of you, even though primarily they have gay sex and they do it for money.

"So there's this thing going on down there which was part of the relationship between Bobby and Marty. Bobby was almost pimping Marty and they were getting money that way, and who knows what [else] they actually did? We don't know. But I felt this was an interesting part of the story that I insisted be in the screenplay."

Clark says the screenplay by David McKenna ("American History X") downplayed the gay prostitution elements, so he relied directly on Jim Schutze's 1998 book "Bully: A True Story of High School Revenge" as the basis for his shooting script. McKenna has had his name removed from the credits for "Bully." He declined to comment for this story.

"Nobody wanted us to make this picture," says Clark, reciting a litany of production and budget obstacles. Two days before shooting began in the Fort Lauderdale area, producers lopped a week off "Bully's" production schedule. Clark had 23 days and $900,000 to make his movie. Renfro says, "Nobody was whining; we broke laws, shot 16-hour days. We had to make this film, it got done, and I am so proud of my little self." He laughs. "I usually hate everything that I do as far as films go, but I even enjoyed myself in this picture. Larry just let me open up [as an actor] and bleed, but I also knew I had somebody I could trust, as an actor, so if he did come with a little tweak, I wasn't not afraid to go there 'cause we had established a relationship as friends. It was like fighting a war. We were on a mission."

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