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3 Filmmakers Are Fined $500 for 'Bumfights'

June 21, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

EL CAJON — Three young filmmakers were scolded Friday as greedy, selfish and insensitive by a judge who fined them $500 apiece for persuading two homeless alcoholics to perform dangerous stunts in a video titled "Bumfights: Cause for Concern."

But rather than seeming chastised by the lecture from Superior Court Judge Charles Ervin or relieved at being sentenced to probation rather than jail, the three left the courtroom smiling, laughing and vowing to produce an equally outrageous video soon.

Zachary Bubeck, 24, Ryan McPherson, 19, and Daniel Tanner, 21, pleaded guilty in May to a single charge of conspiring to stage an illegal fight. More serious charges had been dismissed by a judge after a preliminary hearing.

Trailed by reporters, the three men declined to answer questions but said they were willing to take business cards and consider giving interviews later.

"I'd like your phone number," McPherson told a female reporter.

His breezy manner had irritated the judge just before the sentencing.

"I hope you don't think there is something funny, sir," Ervin said sharply. "I'm not finished."

The three were sentenced to three years' probation and threatened with a 120-day jail sentence if they violated that probation. Ervin said he will decide later whether to accept a Probation Department recommendation that the three be banned from associating.

The two self-described alcoholics, who were offered liquor in exchange for punching each other and ramming their heads into walls and other stunts, told Ervin of their pain and humiliation. One had the word "Bumfight" tattooed on his forehead.

"I have been battered, bruised and bloodied by performing these stunts more times than I can tell you," said Rufus Hannah, 47. "I once believed the defendants were my friends [but] that was a false belief, clouded by my alcoholism."

Donald Brennan, 53, with "Bumfight" on his forehead, said the experience has "turned me into an object of revulsion to myself and anyone who sees me. I no longer feel like a free person. I feel like a freak."

A Santa Monica law firm has filed a damage suit against the filmmakers on behalf of Brennan and Hannah. Trial is set for November.

A fourth co-defendant in the criminal case, Michael Slyman, 21, of Las Vegas, also pleaded guilty to the same misdemeanor charge. In May, he was sentenced to probation and ordered to perform 200 hours of volunteer work with agencies that help homeless people.

After a preliminary hearing in January, Superior Court Judge Larrie Brainard dismissed a variety of felony charges against the four men, including solicitation to commit battery. They could have faced six years in prison if tried and convicted.

But Brainard said the testimony of the "Bumfights" actors did not support the contention that they were forced or tricked into being part of the video.

During the preliminary hearing, Hannah and Brennan gave conflicting testimony and conceded that their memories, clouded by alcohol, were faulty.

A tattoo artist who inked the word "Bumfight" on Brennan's head said his customer was excited at the possibility of becoming a movie star. Hannah said he was glad to act as a "stunt bum."

The video, sold on the Internet for $20, became a kind of sensation among the younger set that admires edgy, dangerous and outrageous stunts, a subgenre of film known as "ruckus videos." The 56-minute video, which includes images of street fights, "chick" fights, drug addicts and an alleged super model, was championed by shock jock Howard Stern on his nationally syndicated radio show.

Defense attorneys argued that while "Bumfights" may be shocking and tasteless, its filmmakers should enjoy the same 1st Amendment protection as noted Hollywood movie moguls.

Defense attorney Jan Ronis also said that McPherson, for example, could not be held responsible for filming done when he was not present, any more than the late John Huston could be held responsible for scenes added to his movies without his involvement.

"I'm not suggesting for a second that their level of artistic achievement raises to [Huston's] level," Ronis said. "It's a murky area what's art and what's bad art. I'm just a lawyer."

Outside court Friday, Deputy Dist. Atty. Curtis Ross said he will be waiting to see the new video and whether it includes scenes in which transients or others engage in violent or abusive behavior. If so, Ross said, he will consider criminal charges.

Ross said defense arguments about the 1st Amendment "are meant to distract and cloud the issue that their clients are dangerous human beings who don't care about other human beings. I doubt this will deter these kids.... They only care about their own sick sense of humor and their own greed."

Their voices breaking, Hannah and Brennan talked of continuing headaches and nightmares. Brennan broke his leg when "sucker-punched" by Hannah during filming, according to testimony. Hannah has entered an alcohol treatment program; Brennan remains homeless.

Although it became the catalyst of a kind of underground cult, fanned by a Web site, the "Bumfights" venture began as an assignment in a high school film class.

"It started as a project for school and progressed into something very bizarre," Brennan said after the sentencing.

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