Ronnie Kroell is best-known for his work as a model and an actor but for his latest project he’s turning film-maker.
Friend Film is an important film exploring bullying and sexuality that Ronnie is making with film-maker Elliot London. Ronnie will also be acting in the movie and Ugly Betty’s Alec Mapa has signed on to the project as a producer. Currently Ronnie and Elliot are running a campaign on IndieGoGo to help fund the film and they need your help and donations to make Friend Film a reality.
We called Ronnie to talk about the project, discuss the issues of bullying and homophobia, and find out why he needs your help.
What is ‘Friend Film’?
Friend Film is an anti-bullying film project feature film that’s going to tell a story of two high school seniors that live in Tennessee in the US and they’re dealing with being bullied. It’s a quest of love and friendship and essentially defining what it means to be a friend and what family looks like.
Where did the inspiration for the film come from?
In preparation for writing this script Elliot London and myself have interviewed actual teens; teenagers aged 16 living in the United States that have actually been bullied in 2012 and have contemplated taking their own lives because they didn’t have anyone to talk to, they felt alone and became very depressed. The great thing is that the people we did interview found reasons to live. They shared those with us and the reasons mainly were because they loved their family and didn’t want to hurt them and decided it was more important to live and keep pushing forward. We admire their strength and two individuals that we interviewed were Joseph and Ali. They have inspired us to write a narrative that is loosely based on their real-life experiences but it will have fictional characters.
What we would like beyond just creating this film, which will hopefully open hearts and change minds, is that it becomes a call to action to our community. Bullying is a global issue and it’s happening in our schools – especially in the United States where 1 in 4 kids is bullied – so rather than just talk about the fact that people are being bullied, we want to equip our community with tools that will continue to educate not only our students on what it means to embrace diversity but also to help our educators and our faculties to overcome fear and break silence. A lot of people don’t know exactly how to handle bullying. The most important thing we can’t do is villanize our bullies. Bullies are more times than not also victims. Just sending a bully to detention for making fun of someone or hurting someone is only providing more fuel for that fire because it gives them more time to think how they are going to get revenge against an innocent victim. 75% of school shootings in the United States have been linked to the victims that have been bullied coming back to school with a concealed weapon – be it a gun or a knife.
What are you hoping to achieve with the film?
Our goal, Elliot and I, with Friend Film is not only to continue the conversation that bullying still exists in our schools but to take Ali and Joseph who inspired us to make this film and we’d like to make sure they are our role models. That we can travel and the county and the globe and show this film to schools and have them do a talkback with the students and the faculty so they can share their real life stories with people who are going through similar circumstances. It’s important that we have role models to look up to that look and sound like us. It’s really wonderful that in the LGBT community we have people like Ellen DeGeneres and Ian McKellen to look up to. For someone who is going through the issues in present day, especially those who are coming out and understanding their sexuality, I think it would be a great deal of help to see someone on stage who looks and sounds just like you knowing that they have overcome the same problems that you’re experiencing; that they were brave enough to push forward in the face of adversity.
How easy is it to get a project like this off the ground?
In today’s economy it’s very difficult to produce queer cinema and it’s not getting the same funding that it had in the past. It’s really sad to us as filmmakers because it’s really important that these stories are shared. We believe that there are people out there that want to make a difference. With our campaign every dollar really does count. Our budget is $250,000. It’s a micro-budget film and where most independent films have a $3 million budget we’re working with a very small budget. We have a very willing able and talented team of people that we know can create a film of quality in a short amount of time. Our goal is to film in Tennessee in February and March of 2013. In doing so, we can edit and have the film ready for film festivals as early as OutFest here in Los Angeles in the spring. Then we can be doing a tour of schools after that. We have a very quick timeline and a very adventurous timeline to work with. We’d really like to see this film happen in 2013.
As you say it’s such an important issue that affects so many people across the world. I myself was bullied as a youngster but thankfully I took no nonsense. A lot of people aren’t like that and don’t have anyone or anything to look up to so potentially this could really changes things for some kids?
I think it would cause a major change. People keep asking us ‘what’s with your film and the work that everyone else is doing?’ and the main difference is that this is a call to action. We’re trying to create a tool for educators to use and for our youth to have to look towards for guidance and support. The Friend Film webpage, once that is created, will also be a tool for our youth and educators because we’re going to have educational links, resource links, counselling links…everything you can think of is going to be housed on the main page. From start to finish this is not only an artistic endeavour but it’s going to inspire people in our community. We’re going to show them and outline the things they can do to be advocates or in our case be friends to the people around them. It’s as simple as that.
We’re trying to promote and foster good feelings reminding people what it’s like to be friend. What does it mean? I think a lot of us have forgotten how to be a great friend to someone. When you’re a friend you support someone. People are ever-changing beings trying to follow their goals and pursue their dreams. It’s important to show them every day that you’re there for them and that you respect them and that you want to help them be the best person they can possibly be.
With Friend Film we are going to share our vision of what our communities can look like if we can become better friends with one another. We’re hoping people will walk away having seen this film with hope and be inspired to do what they can. If everyone did what they could our communities would be a lot safer. I believe that we could hopefully find a way to have our educational institutions be conducive once again to inspire curiosity and learning without fear. Fear is so strong. People are so afraid even educators. If they’re in the heat of a moment in a classroom where someone is being bullied, sometimes those educators are afraid for their own safety. If they stand up to a bully are they going to find their tyres slashed or are they going to be putting themselves in harm’s way. I think what we need to do rather than having detention is realising that bullies should be taken aside and asked ‘what is it you are afraid of? What is it that’s bothering you and causing you to behave in this way? How can I help you?’ rather than ridiculing them in front of an entire class and reprimanding them.
I think all in all Friend is our way of being advocates in the community and trying to do our part to prevent bullying. It’s one of those issues that may never ever go away but hopefully if we can inspire other people to take action it can get better. It’s great that we have campaigns like It Gets Better but it only gets better if we choose to take these actions that are necessary to foster and cultivate the change we are looking to create.
Bullying is something that you’ve experienced in your life isn’t it?
Yeah. It’s really hard to talk about. I was lucky that I had people to go to. I was time and time again in school called a faggot. I was beaten up after school. Some of the kids used to take my shoes off and play monkey in the middle with them. They’d tackle me to the ground and pull my pants down. They would do horrible things. Kids are capable of doing really mean things. I remember how scared, lonely and vulnerable I felt. I couldn’t even imagine not having anyone to turn to. I could always go to my mom and say ‘these kids are being mean to me’ and she was the first person to go to bat for me but a lot of these kids, especially those growing up in places that aren’t necessarily as open-minded and understanding of our diversity, they don’t really have anyone to go to.
Now living in 2012 with technology being what it is cyber-bullying is such a big issue. Imagine when I was bullied as a kid and times that by 1000 or more. Now they can video tape it on smart phone, instantly upload it and the whole world can see someone being beaten up. That leads to ridicule. Tyler Clemente’s unfortunate suicide happened because someone taped him in his dorm room.
It’s very personal to me and out of all the projects I’ve worked on I won’t rest until this is made. I’ve made that commitment to Elliot, I’ve made that commitment to the community and I’ve made that commitment to Ali and Joseph. Ali and Joseph are being brave enough to share their stories and I’m sure they’re getting a lot of great feedback from their community. I’m sure they’re probably getting bullied because of it and there’s people out there making fun of them for sharing their stories. If they can do it, I can do it. I believe in this film because it’s a film for the community and I really hope the community rally around it. Not just in the United States but a global community because bullying is a global issue. The way we handle it needs to be talked about.
To touch upon what you said about the Internet – it’s become a ‘coward’s playground’ hasn’t it? People sit their sending hateful and hurtful messages to people with no consequences and think that’s acceptable.
Yeah there’s no real repercussion. You can do and say what you want online with anonymity. It’s much harder to say those things to someone’s face and do those things when someone’s standing in front of you than when you’re separated by the Internet. These kids have to be so tough today and I think that whenever there’s bad behaviour going on there’s always more going on beneath the surface. My hope is that when we produce Friend Film we not only highlight that there is bullying going on but that we address what’s underneath those layers and what’ behind the bad behaviour. We hope to show a community that comes together and rallies around each other. A community that can be supportive and help figure out how to resolve the everyday problems we face.
Tell us about the IndieGoGo campaign. What’s that all about?
The campaign has 4 days left after today. We have to raise $81,000 of our $250,000 budget through the campaign. The reason why I feel this project more than any project needs to have our attention is the fact that as artists we not only want to share stories and be artistic and creative, we also want to address the underlying issue of bullying and inspire people to action. It’s not just a film that’s going to be made, highlight the things that are going wrong and make people feel bad for a moment. We want them to be inspired to take action with us and we’re going to show them what they can do in their communities.
We’ve got a long-term plan with this film to provide resources for the community that will hopefully make a difference every single day. We want people to walk out of the theatre feeling inspired and knowing they have everything it takes to do their part and if everyone does that our communities can be much safer. This is a film for the community and it has to be powered by the community. Elliot and I were talking about this the other day – we’re just film-makers and we’ve been inspired by Ali and Joseph but this entire film is way bigger than each of us as people. It involves everyone. If we don’t have the support we need to make this film, Ali and Joseph’s stories will go unheard and they are just two of many teens that are experiencing this bullying. In fact 160,000 students every day in the US stay home because they are afraid of being bullied. We need all the help we can get.
What will happen if you get to the end of this campaign and don’t manage to raise the funds you need?
At that point the campaign has ended and we have to go about finding other ways to raise the funds. We’d have to continue to go out into the community and host parties, which we’re going to do any way, and also perhaps look to try and find investors. We were hoping this would be a community funded film rather than have investors. Once this film starts to actually make money we want to use that money to start a scholarship fund for Ali and Joseph, and bullied teens like them, so they can continue to follow their dreams. We’d also like to donate copies of the DVD to school libraries across the country and in other countries.
The biggest thing about having an online crowd-funding campaign is to inspire the community to produce the project. We really are looking to the community for support. It’s not just our project, it’s the communities and we’re hoping to inspire others to see how important it is to be a part of it. It’s a powerful thing to be part of a project like this at the ground level. Everyone who supports us on IndieGoGo, even if they donate $1, is a producer on a film that is going to change people’s minds, touch people’s hearts and at the end of the day they’re going to save people’s lives. Whether they realise it or not that dollar in helping to create the film is going to touch and change people’s lives. They will be a part of that and they can go to bed knowing they made a difference.