Six days before her husband’s new star-studded drama, “Flight,” closes the 48th Annual Chicago International Film Festival, Leslie Zemeckis will be attending a screening of her fascinating new documentary, “Bound by Flesh.” Through an assemblage of interviews, photos and stunning archival footage, the film explores the lives of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who were treated like money-making commodities from the earliest age. They were a hit with audiences and ended up landing roles in Tod Browning’s landmark 1932 horror film, “Freaks.” Yet after they finally were emancipated from their ruthlessly exploitative manager, they realized that their sheltered lives had left them utterly unprepared for entering the real world.
Indie Outlook spoke with Zemeckis about her interest in these two extraordinary women and how “freak shows” are still prevalent in American culture.
Q: What initially attracted you to exploring this historical period on film?
A: It was just the subject matter. My first documentary, “Behind the Burly Q,” was about burlesque, and it was a subject that I felt compelled [to tackle]. When I found the Hilton sisters, I became obsessed with them, and they were in my first film as well. There was no plan [to enter filmmaking], it just kind of happened. [laughs] I’m also writing a book based on “Behind the Burly Q” that provides more in-depth stories on the history of burlesque.
Q: What intrigued you about burlesque?
A: Nobody had really explored what it was, and I didn’t really know what it was. I was doing a burlesque-inspired show [“Staar”], and I just started researching it. I love these old forms of entertainment that we don’t have anymore, such as burlesques and circuses and sideshows. It’s just fascinating to me.
Q: What made you want to probe further into Daisy and Violet’s story?
A: They were so hugely successful, and very, very few people know who they are today. I just wanted to shine a light back on their lives.
Q: Some viewers can’t bear watching “Freaks” because of its exploitative nature, while others praise Browning for depicting the performers as people.
A: It’s the same thing with sideshows. You can say that they were being exploited and being looked at, but according to the people I talked to in the film, it was a way for them to have a life, at least in those times. It’s no different from Reality TV today, except that we’re doing it from the privacy of our own home.
Q: Do you see a show like TLC’s “Abby & Brittany” as an extension of this tradition in our culture?
A: Yeah, that’s how it’s morphed and changed. All of these Reality TV stars, including the Kardashians, are freaks in a certain way. We are gawking at them, and we enjoy doing it.
Q: How did you go about acquiring the film’s archival footage?
A: I went to archival places and looked through carts that weren’t marked. The Hilton Sisters’ name wasn’t on them, but I knew what to look for. If I’d had another year, I would’ve found even more because they were photographed a lot. I searched online, I went to stock houses, I went to newsreel places. It was endless, but I like that part of the process.
Q: For me, the saddest aspect of Daisy and Violet’s story was how they had no idea how to function in the real world after their emancipation.
A: They didn’t know how to take care of themselves, they had no money, they didn’t know how to do anything. It was really their downfall.
Q: Your film includes a fascinating interview with “Shocked and Amazed” writer James Taylor, who says that many of the ex-“freaks” he spoke to said that they would go back to their old lives in a heartbeat.
A: He shared the perspective of sideshow promoter Ward Hall, who we also interviewed for the film, which is that the freak shows gave these people an opportunity to be stars. They didn’t feel exploited and they were being taken care of. They loved it and would absolutely do it again. I thought that was interesting. Most of the former [freak show] stars said that they were treated really well. The Hilton Sisters were a different story because they were so young, but the adults who were “freaks” in the sideshow did okay.
Q: Do you feel that the Hilton’s performances enhanced their lives in any positive way?
A: There was so much that was negative about it, but I think they absolutely loved performing. They really wanted to perform. It gave them a sense of being special when they were huge in vaudeville. It was a good time for them even though they were still struggling with their guardians and they didn’t really have freedom and weren’t being treated normally. They always talked about that time in their life. It really stayed with them.
Q: What made you decide to include voiceovers from actors such as Nancy Allen and Lea Thompson?
A: “Burly Q” tells its story though interviews rather than narration, and I wanted to do the same thing here. The actors are saying words that Violet and Daisy had actually written. It is their words, just not their voice. I wanted them to tell their own story.
Q: I could see this film broadcast on a channel like Turner Classic Movies.
A: That’s the hope. “Burly Q” is still on Showtime through December. It’s had a good long run on there, and I definitely see this film having more of a life.
“Bound by Flesh” screens at the Chicago International Film Festival at 5pm on October 19th. Zemeckis is scheduled to attend. For tickets, click here.