Alumni Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe have listened to many stories about eviction, pregnancy and addiction.
“There’s a human impulse that makes it difficult to stand there with a camera and continue to be an outsider. We end our days depressed,” Pepe, a 1997 film alumnus, said.
Fulton, a 1995 film alumnus, and Pepe faced many emotional challenges while filming “The Bad Kids,” a documentary following three at-risk teens studying at an alternative school. The documentary was recently accepted into Sundance Film Festival.
The filmmakers spent more than two years on “The Bad Kids,” which is “kind of short for a documentary,” Pepe said. The alumni wanted to make a film that was purely observational, portraying their subjects in a “dramatic and intimate way, so the audience would be exposed to the social issue in a purely emotional fashion,” Pepe added.
“Educational films tend to be full of statistics,” Fulton said. “We wanted to make it purely character-driven. It plays like a fiction film, which is huge.”
Fulton and Pepe said at-risk youth are often stereotyped, which influenced the film’s title. The alumni wanted the audience to see the experience of the individuals featured “through their own eyes,” Pepe said.
“The Bad Kids” is set at Black Rock Continuation High School in the Mojave Desert. The desert quickly became a strong visual metaphor for the filmmakers.
“The desert is a harsh and unforgiving environment, a very blatant mirror for the harsh circumstances that these young kids face,” Pepe said. “It captures an environment that doesn’t care about anything or anyone, alienation and isolation. When you spend time in the desert, you also see a subtle beauty. This is also a metaphor for these young people, as there’s an incredible amount of life in the desert.”
Both Pepe and Fulton began their careers in the MFA program in the School of Film and Media Arts in 1990.
“Who we are as filmmakers 20-something years later is very much a result of our years at Temple,” Pepe said.
Pepe credits his and Fulton’s occupations to the university, saying their careers started when filmmaker Terry Gilliam came to Philadelphia to film “12 Monkeys.” Gilliam’s assistant director asked one of the alumni’s professors, Warren Bass, if he had any students available to shoot a promotional piece to document the making of “12 Monkeys.”
Bass immediately thought of Pepe and Felton.
“Keith and Lou were the two stars of the MFA program, and they produced absolutely amazing work in every class I had with them,” said Bass, who still teaches at Temple. “I recommended Lou and Keith, and when they showed Gilliam their film work, he hired them immediately.”
“Keith and I always say we owe our careers to Warren Bass,” Pepe said.
The pair later passed down the favor while making “The Bad Kids,” hiring Bill Hilferty, a 2013 film alumnus, as their assistant editor.
Pepe had taught Hilferty during the film department’s study away program in Los Angeles, later hiring him as a general office assistant.
“I just started to edit footage,” Hilferty said. “I guess they liked what I did because they brought me on for longer.”
Hilferty narrowed 250 hours of footage down into 50 hours, picking the scenes he thought were worthy.
“You’re writing the movie while you’re editing,” he said. “Choosing what to show, which scenes show the development of the characters best.”
Pepe said the odds of getting a film into the Sundance Film Festival are “more difficult than getting into Harvard.”
Bass was the only one unsurprised when “The Bad Kids” was chosen for Sundance.
“I honestly expected them to get into Sundance, because that’s the quality work that they do,” Bass said. “They are brilliant.”
For Pepe, the pair is simply following its curiosity and not asking for permission to be creative.
“Do things that matter to you, make films that matter to you,” Fulton said.
Tsipora Hacker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.