First time film director Paul James (Houghton) stepped into the glare of a public spotlight and onto a big stage this past Sunday as his long-awaited short film finally made its worldwide debut.
James put Seal Beach on the silver screen as his movie “From Under the Bridge,” was shown among other short films at the former Grauman’s Chinese Theater, perhaps Tinsel Town’s most celebrated motion picture venue.
“It was an amazing night,” said James, for whom it was indeed a red-carpet evening.
While the Hollywood lights shone brightly outside the theater, inside the mood was a bit darker as the public got its first look at the local director’s dramatic look at the sad realities of virtual bullying.
“Bullying has become possible from anywhere in the world, with far more anonymity than ever, while the absence of accountability and responsibility soars. We must all recognize this massive problem and ‘be the change,’” said James.
His tragic, yet eye-opening look at cyber bullying received an enthusiastic response from the public and has in just two weeks landed James numerous film festival awards, including being named “Best Short Film” at the “Dances with Films” festival, where his short movie made its world premiere.
“I am utterly overjoyed, and my heart is full,” said James.
“But with the win, we also remember our inspiration, Megan Meier,” he added.
Meier took her own life in 2006, just three weeks prior to her 14th birthday after being pelted by unrelenting cyberbullying attacks.
James, who now lives and works in Seal Beach, grew up north of London in the United Kingdom. He developed a passion for film, theater and writing as a young child, and performed in numerous productions in school.
James said he is educated in Performing Arts and his favorite performance in a production role was as the Artful Dodger in Oliver.
After receiving a writing scholarship from TCI Cable, he focused on creative writing and design in college.
He came to the United States in 1992 and although James is new to directing, he is no stranger to dramatic works, especially scriptwriter.
In fact, James sold his first script (romantic comedy) to a major studio in 2006. James also wrote and produced an award-winning short film called ‘Skill Crane.’
His initial entertainment success (selling a script) produced for him the financial wherewithal to facilitate a career transition from corporate automotive design executive in Michigan to his dream pursuit, the founder of a film studio.
Of course, there were many stops and circumstances along the way, but James said he moved to California and then, four years ago, he was finally able to relocate to Seal Beach. “The first time I saw Seal Beach I loved it,” he said.
Ironically, James now lives on Electric Avenue and his Dreamotion Studios are located nearby.
James said he began to develop the short film “From Under the Bridge: When Bullies Become Trolls” when the pandemic brought everything to a halt in 2020. He said when the lockdown slowed other projects, the respite gave him time to develop an idea he had more than a decade ago after Meier’s tragic death.
“So, I’d heard about the story back in 2006,” said James. After reaching out to Tina Meier, Megan’s mom, “I spent three days with her,” said James.
“We really connected,” he said. Mrs. Meier is now the founder of the Megan Meier Foundation (meganmeierfoundation.org). She agreed to work with James on making the film.
“Okay, we’re going to do this film,” James said to himself. “I’ve got time on my hands, and that’s where it all started,” he said.
Bullying, especially cyber bullying is on the rise, said James, “seriously affecting, damaging and destroying lives.” And, he said, with nearly 5 billion people on the internet, “the stage, platforms, opportunities and techniques for cyber-bullying are dramatically and continuously expanding.”
James’ film weaves together a tragic tale illustrating how easy it is to hide behind a virtual identity to anonymously bully targets. His cast of characters neatly creates a small microcosm of modern society, demonstrating how remarkably easy it is to bully others, and how deadly the consequences can be when we overlook, sometimes knowingly, the need to step in and help.
His film erupts into tragedy when Megan’s bullies use a virtual profile to lure the troubled teen to a park, promising an ideal relationship only to discover two private school bullies, in the flesh, mercilessly shredding her ego.
According to the film’s description, it is about “a lonely high school girl escapes depression and her bullies when she meets the perfect boy online, but is he too good to be true? A shocking and powerful multi-faceted bullying, cyberbullying and suicide awareness story you won’t believe that is based on real events.”
“Sadly,” says James, “cyber-bullying is a powerful relative trend, growing at a frightening pace.” Moreover, said James, “bullying has become possible from anywhere in the world, with far more anonymity than ever.”
One of the film’s most pivotal scenes was shot on a greenbelt bench, and as reported earlier by the Sun, Seal Beach Mayor Joe Kalmick assisted James in obtaining the permits to film locally.
James said he was truly humbled by the support he received from businesses and other supporters in town.
“I wanted to film everything in Seal Beach,” said James, who lives here with his two daughters. Seal Beach residents could easily identify many scenes of their community in the film, as almost every exterior scene has some identifiable link to the city.
Upcoming actress Piper Reese (Modern Family) plays Megan’s character (Clare Taylor), as Luc Clopton (Disney’s Little Mermaid) plays the role of the lead bully (Kyle Badger). Sara Wolkkind (Love All You Have Left) plays the female bully.
In one of the film’s starker scenes, shot in O’Malley’s on Main Street, Chris Cimperman (Novel Love), a bartender, confronts his wayward younger (bully) brother, Kyle, in a dramatic example of tough brotherly love.
James said it alludes to a secondary point about bullying made by the film.
He said the brothers share an abusive father, which according to the director, illustrates that in many cases, those being relentlessly abused and bullied by others to themselves lash out at someone else.
“Bullies are often victims of abuse,” said James.
Sean Byrne, the general manager at O’Malley’s, said in a brief interview that because he supports the purpose behind the film, he was thrilled to allow James’ to film in the Main Street pub. James said many merchants and supporters in the Seal Beach community also pitched in.
To fund the film, James said he put in some of his own money, found some local investors and also ran a Seed&Spark (storytelling crowdfunding site) campaign and quickly reached his goal.
Connie Jo Sechrist, the film’s producer, said she did not know James when she applied for a production role in the film. “He called me later,” she said, and “I felt like I’d known him forever.” Quite literally, said Sechrist, she said, the discussion with James was the “longest conversation I’d had in ten years.”
The Emmy nominated producer and actress said she applied only for a position of COVID regulator (now required on all film sets), but it was James that researched her and offered her the pivotal production role.
“This is an amazing and powerful film,” said Sechrist, “and I hope it touches at least one person and changes many lives.”
Already, other awards are rolling in from various film festivals, including the Los Angeles Film Awards, where James’ was selected as Best Director along with the Best Original Story award. Others in the film also won, including Best Actor (Luc Clopton) and Best Song (I Can’t Hold On).
The film’s hauntingly beautiful music was created by Justin Busch and Heidi Merrill. Merrill’s heartfelt vocal performance of “I Can’t Hold On,” which prepares viewers to the film’s tragic ending, has reportedly been already nominated for Grammy consideration, said James.
James said he later learned that a major studio executive was in the audience at the world premiere, and Dreamotion is already in negotiations to expand the short into a feature length film. “That is very good news,” he said.
James is also working with a major television network developing a new dramatic series and his company has also been green lighted for development of a road race/rage film in England, he said.
While the future is promising, James is most happy that his “Bridge” make bring some awareness to the world about bullying.
“This is such an important message about bullying and protecting children, and to understand that bullying can lead to much worse things like suicide,” said James in accepting the Best Short Film award.
“Bringing awareness is what we really wanted to do so thank you all,” he said.