Interview: Leslie Zemeckis for "Bound By Flesh"

Photo Credit: Photo by Frederick M. Brown - © 2012 Getty Images - Image courtesy
July 9th, 2014

Leslie Zemeckis is not just famous for being the wife of the great director Robert Zemeckis, but she also has a talent for directing. Leslie just released her new film “Bound By Flesh” that tells the true story of Daisy and Violet Hilton who were Siamese twins that performed in side shows and stages all over the world. Leslie was kind enough to sit down with The Movie Network and tell us all about her new film.

Nick Leyland from The Movie Network: Congratulations on your new film “Bound By Flesh" is now out on iTunes, the VOD, and in some select theaters, right?

Leslie Zemeckis: Yes.

TMN: I saw it and I really enjoyed the film. I thought it was very unique. It was something that I wasn't expecting, and my first question is what would make you want to do a documentary about two Siamese twins from the golden age of Vaudeville?


Leslie Zemeckis: I guess, 'cause nobody else is crazy enough to do it. [laughter] No, really, I like that era and I got fascinated. I discovered them through my first documentary when they got into burlesque. And so, they kind of just brewed around in my head for a while, and I just was fascinated by them, and how could that even be. And we don't really have Siamese twins anymore. There's some, yes, but it's so unique. I mean, who were these people, and I just really wanted to know who they were.

TMN: That era of Vaudeville or that era of the freak show has kind of gone away a little bit, right?

Leslie Zemeckis: Yeah, and that's another thing that people kind of like burlesque again, and Vaudeville, the sideshows, carnival circuses, they're not as they were, and it really was a big part of entertainment. You think about you're in a small town. You've never seen a person of color. You've never seen a tiger. You've never seen an oddity. There's no other way to see it until the circus or the carnival comes to town and brings it to you. And that, to me, is fascinating. I don't think most people even think of a circus like that and how important it was to see things and experience things.

TMN: It may make a comeback at some point, you never know.

Leslie Zemeckis: There are little freak shows out there now. They're mostly not the born freaks. Yeah, I mean, it's a fascinating subculture that is growing, definitely.

TMN: Now, where did you find all of the material about the twins?

Leslie Zemeckis: I started with Dean Jensen, who I interview in my film, he wrote a really fascinating book about them. And then I just started researching and I went to newsreel archive houses and I dug through little three by five cards looking for any clue. And luckily, because I do most of the research myself, 97% of it, I knew the names to look for and it wasn't necessarily the Hilton sisters, but names of people that they had known, and I found some footage that way that hasn't been seen since the '30s. I was really, really lucky.

TMN: And that leads me to my next question because you interviewed a lot of people in the film that knew or knew a lot about the twins. How do you know to take someone's word for what they're saying? I mean, was there conflicting stories?

Leslie Zemeckis: There was some. The only real conflicting stories were, some people believed that they were never abandoned towards the end of their lives by a untrustworthy manager, and yet, I'm standing at the hotel from where they were abandoned, talking to somebody who remembers them and could tell me stories about them. I mean, if you talk to enough people and you do enough research, and you dig, you can find out, for the most part, which are the true stories and which aren't. And yes, they were definitely abandoned. From that, I talked to many other people who said, "Oh yeah, and then, after this, they came here." They knew the story.

TMN: You interviewed Ward Hall, who was this classic American sideshow carnival-type guy. I mean, his voice alone just takes you back to that era. How many great stories fell out of him while doing this?

Leslie Zemeckis: Oh, he's great. I mean, I could've sat there all day. And he's somebody who really knows the history, not just about them, but about the sideshow and the carnivals, and the circus. Yeah, he is fascinating, fascinating history.

TMN: This guy, he wrote the book. [laughter]

Leslie Zemeckis: And in his white suit, right, and like a barker on the midway. Yeah, he's great.


TMN: Now, did you get to travel to any of these places to kind of feel the history of anything? I don't know if anything's still around or any museums or their home.

Leslie Zemeckis: I went everywhere. The home where they died, where they lived in San Antonio, which is only part of like little bit of a wall. I think it's there now. Obviously, Ward Hall and Gibsonton, which is in Florida, which is also big, was the big wintering for the circus, although the carnival still comes down there. But it used to be freak town and that's where the freaks would live. So yeah, I traveled to as many places as I could, where they were, where they worked in a grocery store in their final years. That church where they did the service and to their grave site.

TMN: Wow, what's in freak town now?

Leslie Zemeckis: There's people there. A lot of rotting circus trailers, it's really cool.

TMN: Now, for audiences that are gonna watch the film, what did you have to do to piece it together, because you did have a lot of footage?  I don't remember too many reenactments and things like that, it's mainly footage of them?

Leslie Zemeckis: No, no, no. Oh, yeah yeah, for sure, not reenactments. And I do have it narrated by actors, but it's the words that the sisters wrote about their story. I wanted them to tell their story as much as possible.

TMN: The film has won an award already, right?

Leslie Zemeckis: It's won several, for a couple of best documentaries and best director award. So, yeah, it's doing good.


TMN: Now, through your career, you've done a lot of acting, why did you decide start directing as well?

Leslie Zemeckis: I didn't mean to. It was just stories I wanted to tell. I really wanted to tell the story of burlesque, after I'd met these people who never had told their story and nobody cared about them, and I feel the same way about the twins. I just became so fascinated by them. We are so dismissive as people, to say, "Oh, they were freaks. Oh, they were Siamese twins." And that's how it was for their whole life. Their whole life was kind of headlines, "Oh, did they have sex? Did they marry?" da-da-da-da-da. And there's a story behind that, and I wanted to show who those people were, discover it for myself.

TMN: Kind of a calling, huh?

Leslie Zemeckis: I guess.


Leslie Zemeckis: And I can't get out.


TMN: What about the story do you love, and what makes your heart break?

TMN: They found happiness of a sort, but because they were so abused and taken advantage of for years, it's kind of a double-edged sword; when they were younger, and at their height, they were kept by guardians on a very tight leash; they weren't allowed out; they weren't educated; they didn't go to school; people couldn't see them unless they were paying to see them in the sideshow. And because of that, they had no knowledge of the world. They didn't know about money. They didn't get any money. They didn't know about sex. So, when they gained their freedom, they were completely unprepared for it, so they would have actually been better off not gaining their freedom, and yet, they needed to; they needed to as people, and they deserved to, but it was really their downfall from there because they weren't prepared for the world.

Leslie Zemeckis: And not just as Siamese twins, but that compounds it. But they just didn't ever, growing up, they didn't ever have to deal with anything. They didn't have to create an act and they didn't have to book an act. That was all taken care of for them, and I think, naively, they thought that once they got their freedom, it was gonna be easy and that's how it's gonna be forever and ever.

TMN: It's truly a wonderful love story. A love story between two sisters that love each other so much, but it's also the tragedy of what happened to them in the decline. So, what do you think we're gonna be able to see from you in the future now that this film is out?

Leslie Zemeckis: Well, I'm finishing up a book, and we'll see... I'm kicking around some ideas of what my next documentary might be.

TMN: I'm sure it will be something pretty random, huh?

Leslie Zemeckis: I'm sure that it'll be odd, odd and unusual.

TMN: Well, Leslie, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I really appreciate it, and good luck with the film. I enjoyed it, so I hope audiences check it out.

Leslie Zemeckis: Thank you.