Leslie Zemeckis – Bound by Flesh

July 12, 2014 by  
Filed under Interviews

In the second documentary of her career, “Bound by Flesh,” filmmaker Leslie Zemeckis (“Behind the Burly Q”), wife of Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump”), tells the story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who made a living during the early 19th century as performers in the sideshow and vaudeville circuit.

During an interview last week, Zemeckis and I talked about what made her so interested in the Hilton sisters’ story and why she feels sideshows are still around today with the popularity of reality TV.

I know the twins came up in conversation during your last documentary “Behind the Burly Q,” but is that the first time you had ever heard about them?

Yeah, in “Burly Q” a couple of people talked about these Siamese twins who had done burlesque for a while. Then I read Dean Jensen’s wonderful biography on the twins [“The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins”] and they just stayed with me for a year. I thought, “Is this going to be my next documentary?” I wondered if anybody would really care. But, yeah, [the Hilton sisters] are really important. Nobody had ever explored there life beyond Dean. I really wanted to bring their story to life.

Specifically, what attracted you to their story?

What I saw was a very deep love story between two sisters. They were bound to each other not just by flesh, but by this inner bond. They wanted to go through life together. At one point, they had a choice whether or not they wanted to be separated, but they didn’t want that. This is who they were. That’s all they knew. It’s just a different type of bond than we can possibly know.

As a documentary filmmaker doing research on these women, where did you start from? Where do you find some of the footage and photos you include in the film?

(Laughs) Well, I do about 95 percent of the research myself, so I can keep all the names and dates and events in my head. I went to a news reel house in New York and they did have something on the twins. I said, “There has to be more!” I asked if I could go through their paperwork and I ended up finding footage of them that hadn’t been seen since the 1930s and might’ve never been discovered. It wasn’t archived in any way, shape or form. I’m still researching even though the film is out. The story never ends for me.

If the sisters were alive and you had the opportunity to ask them something, what would that be?

I would’ve been interested in knowing how they viewed their own story. I really think they saw themselves as very normal people. They didn’t understand why they didn’t have love or why it couldn’t work out.

What do you hope audiences learn about the Hilton twins when they see this doc?

I want people to really see them as human, which they hadn’t been thought of before. People would just think, “Oh, there are the Siamese twins or freaks.” Their lives were very much a headline. As tough as things were for them, I think there is something very optimistic about their story. They never gave up. They moved forward. They were very good people and have a positive outlook on life. Here were two girls who had a heavier cross to bear than anybody and look at what they radiate – this joy and happiness.

You’re married to a great storyteller. When you’re working on a film like this, do you like to pick Robert’s brain about what you’re working on, or do you like to go at it alone with your projects?

He always chimes in on the final edit. It’s always great to have fresh eyes to make sure all the dots are connecting. He’s very helpful during the final part of the filmmaking process to make sure everything is clear.

Of course, in the entertainment world today there are no more sideshows or “freakshows,” but we do have reality TV shows like where audiences can gawk at a number of different groups of people and communities. Do you feel reality shows have become the modern day sideshow?

Absolutely. We’ve become so hypocritical as a society. We say, “Oh, we would never go to a sideshow and see people with disabilities” or whatever you want to call it, but we have no problem sitting on the couch in the dark watching “freaks” or strange lives. It’s exactly the same thing. I’m very interested in early American entertainment. It changes, but it stays the same. We still have burlesque, vaudeville, and sideshows, but they’re just in a different form.

Bound by Flesh

July 10, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Nancy Allen, Lea Thompson, Timothy Stack
Directed by: Leslie Zemeckis (“Behind the Burly Q”)
Written by: Leslie Zemeckis (“Behind the Burly Q”)

While watching “Bound by Flesh,” a well constructed albeit overly talky documentary on the lives of early 20th century sideshow stars and conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, it’s impossible not to think how their unusual and ultimately tragic tale would make for an even more fascinating narrative feature helmed by a director like Terry Gilliam or Tim Burton. All the pieces are there for an incredibly strange biopic: exploitative childhoods, fruitful careers as entertainers, the pursuit of love and happiness, a devastating downfall into obscurity and a futile attempt at a comeback. Call it the “E! True Vaudevillian Story.”

Still, as an all-encompassing documentary and without any of the bells and whistles of a Hollywood production, director/writer Leslie Zemeckis (wife of Academy Award-winning “Forrest Gump” director Robert Zemeckis) paints an intriguing portrait of a pair of ambitious women who never let their physical limitations stop them from dreaming on an incredible scale. It may not have the high production value of most documentaries these days (neither did “Tim’s Vermeer” last year, which also had a major connection to San Antonio), but like “Vermeer” it makes up for it with solid storytelling.

Born in England in 1908 and literally attached at the hip, the Hilton Sisters (far more accomplished than Paris and Nicky although not nearly as “freakish”), travelled around the world as a sideshow act and eventually made it to San Antonio, Texas in the 1920s where they were billed as “San Antonio’s Siamese Twins.” Later, they would move to New York City and then make a home in Charlotte, North Carolina. During their career as a variety act, the Hiltons were featured on the same stage as stars like Bob Hope and Charlie Chaplin and eventually tried acting. They can be seen in the controversial 1932 film “Freaks” playing Siamese twins and in the 1952 exploitation crime drama “Chained for Life.”

Through amazing archival footage, photos, autobiographical writings and insightful interviews with people who know the story of the sisters, including local Witte Museum curator of collections Amy Fulkerson, Zemeckis is able make Daisy and Violet empathetic characters and not the anomalies they were made to feel like during their performances. While Zemeckis, whose other documentary “Behind the Burly Q” covers the Golden Age of burlesque, handles the twins’ terrible childhood experiences with kid gloves (the first 20-30 minutes are fairly weak), she manages to find her footing as the story advances. “Bound by Flesh” hits its high notes when Zemeckis explores many of the relationships the Hiltons create during their heyday and the reveals the struggles they faced, especially when the curtain closes on them before they are ready to bid farewell.

This film review first ran online at sacurrent.com.