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.