Opening June 27th, Leslie Zemeckis’ entertaining documentary, Bound By Flesh, offers a fascinating look at the life and times of Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, who were born conjoined at the hips in Brighton, England in 1908. Despite tragic circumstances and ruthless exploitation by their unscrupulous managers, they went on to become huge stars in the sideshow and vaudeville circuit. The Hilton Sisters loved to entertain and rose to international stardom at the beginning of the 20th century. Acclaimed for their singing, dancing and clarinet playing, they performed alongside the likes of Sophie Tucker, Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, and comedy duo Burns and Allen.
In an exclusive interview, Zemeckis talked about what inspired her to make a documentary about the Hilton Sisters, what appealed to her about this bygone era and these forms of entertainment, her extensive research, the challenge of locating archival footage of the twins performing, how she found her interview subjects, what she felt was most remarkable about the sisters, the role she hopes her film will play in raising awareness about their place in showbiz history, the contributions of her creative team, her upcoming book about American burlesque striptease artist Lily St. Cyr and plans for a new documentary. Hit the jump to read the interview.
LESLIE ZEMECKIS: Wow! I really wish there was film of them live on the stage. That would be incredible.
How did this project first come together for you and what inspired you to make a documentary about the Hilton Sisters?
ZEMECKIS: When I was doing my first documentary, Behind the Burly Q, on burlesque, I discovered that they were briefly in burlesque. I read a book by Dean Jensen (The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins) that was the biography of their life, and I became more and more fascinated by them. I know if I become obsessed, then I have to do it. I said this is going to be my next documentary.
I enjoyed how your film explored the history and evolution of show business from the carnival sideshows to vaudeville to burlesque. What is it about that era and these forms of entertainment that you find so intriguing?
ZEMECKIS: (Laughs) I’m definitely stuck in that era. When you say circus or you say burlesque or you say the sideshow, I think people have an idea of what it was, but nowadays we don’t really know what it was. So, it was to explore that and to bring that to light. There were things that I knew, but I don’t really think about. You don’t realize that if you were in a small town in the Midwest, obviously you didn’t have TV then. Most didn’t have theaters. But then, you didn’t even have a zoo. They didn’t see exotic animals. They had no means to see anything and that included the quote-unquote freaks. It was an important part of their entertainment. I find that world so interesting because it is no longer, and yet we still have forms of it today.
Can you talk about your research process? What were some of the challenges of delving into this bygone era of showbiz, especially given the fact there aren’t many people still alive who can provide a first-hand account of what that experience was like?
ZEMECKIS: There aren’t, but I love research more than anything, and I don’t give up. I do it all myself, so I’ll make the calls. One person would lead to another. I knew that they were so photographed and so filmed for their time, so what I did is I went to a newsreel house, and they only had one piece. I said, “This just can’t be. Can I look through whatever you have?” They had these little 3 X 5 cards, and I started looking through them. I hit gold right away, but only because I knew the other name involved. It didn’t have “Siamese Twins.” It didn’t have “Twins.” It didn’t have their names at all, but it said “Annulment of Jimmy Moore,” who they were married to, and I was like, “Oh my God, what is this?” That’s all that was on the card to give me a clue. It’s footage that hasn’t been seen since the 30’s. So, I came across that, and I knew there was more out there. I dug as much as I could. It was a treasure hunt. I absolutely loved that part of the process.
Your interview subjects are fascinating — from sideshow legend Ward Hall to Hilton Sisters biographer Dean Jensen to Circus World Museum’s Stephen Freese, sideshow expert James Taylor, and childhood neighbor, actor and playwright John Bramhall. How did you decide which people to focus on?
ZEMECKIS: Well, in comparison to Behind the Burly Q, where we did over 100 hours and dozens and dozens of interviews, this was actually easier. I got who I found, and it’s always in the editing room about how charismatic they are, and I was lucky. Dean Jensen is very charismatic. Ward Hall is wonderful. With these people, I knew I wouldn’t have to cut around them. I knew I had the information that I needed by them, so I was very lucky in that way. But also, because it’s a tighter focus, it was much easier and quicker to do.
Can you talk about the storytelling approach you used to shape the documentary and make it both informative and engaging?
ZEMECKIS: I wanted to start with the dramatic moment, which it does when they can’t get married, and then go back from the beginning of their lives until the end. But putting it in the timeframe, I think you have to show how important sideshow and carnivals were and what that actually was, so we know what the world was that they were living in, and you understand when all their ways of making a living died, how that led them.
How did you go about finding archival footage of the sisters performing live? How did you know what to look for?
ZEMECKIS: I just went online forever. I knew dates. Maybe I can’t remember the birthdates of my children (laughs) — I know it’s terrible — but I can remember when the twins were born and I knew all the names. I knew different ways to search, not just “Daisy and Violet,” but everything around that and the dates that things happened. I just kept digging. And then, I called libraries and I did as much as I could do.
Given the limited amount of archival material available, were you still able to find most of what you were looking for?
ZEMECKIS: I would have liked to have found more only because I think it’s out there. I’d like to hope it’s out there someplace and more of it will come to light. I definitely wanted to show their movement and how they walked, which was so interesting, and to hear their voices.
Is there a reason you didn’t show more footage of the sisters from Todd Browning’s Freaks?
ZEMECKIS: There’s not that much. They really aren’t in it as much as we think. Even though they were headlined, and as you know, that’s their big film, they’re actually not in it that much.
What struck you as most remarkable about Daisy and Violet? What made them so unique?
ZEMECKIS: To me, I always thought of it as a love story between two sisters. I felt that they had such great love for each other. They did not consider themselves freaks. They thought, “Why shouldn’t we have a normal life?” This connection that we can’t understand is what made them unique. They didn’t want to be separated from that. Everybody thinks, “Oh, I’ve got my cross to bear. I’ve got this terrible thing.” But they really had a cross to bear and they made the most out of their lives. By all accounts, they were very optimistic and kind people.
Do you think overall they found their life in show business positive and rewarding despite some of the negative experiences they had?
ZEMECKIS: I do. I think that was absolutely the highlight. They loved to perform. It was tragic when there was no more vaudeville for them to perform. They loved to sing and to dance and to be in front of people in that way, not to be on display, but to actually do something.
Can you talk about your creative team and how you collaborated with DP John Dunham and editor Evan Finn?
ZEMECKIS: Oh my God! I mean, I work with the same people over and over again, like my producers, Sheri Hellard, who’s a very good friend, and Donnalee Austen, but it was the first time that I had worked with my cameraman, John Dunham. He’s low-key, brilliant and meticulous. We were so on the go. I think we did two or three states in one day (laughs), and we didn’t have a crew. It was him and it was me, and you needed that. Also, because of that, you get a real intimacy from who you’re talking to. You don’t have a crew for them to be distracted by. And then, my editor, Evan Finn, I couldn’t do any of these films without him at all. He’s brilliant and he’s fast. I go in and I do the first rough, really ugly editing because I can work the Avid, but he comes in and crafts it and makes it make sense for me.
How did composer Oliver Schnee contribute to the film?
ZEMECKIS: Oh my gosh, yes, he really contributed. I don’t have the language to talk music, but with my music supervisor, Joel Sill, I would say, “I need it to be like, “Du, du, du, du, da. This is too skipping.” I just had visuals, but I didn’t have the language, and they figured it out. I think the music is fantastic.
ZEMECKIS: Nancy and Lea’s voices were perfect. I know them, and when I was thinking who’s going to do this, their voices had that kind of an optimistic, old fashioned tone. I thought they were just perfect.
How does the final film compare to what you originally envisioned? Were there any surprises?
ZEMECKIS: What I found through everybody I talked to — and even some of the people that didn’t know the sisters per se but were customers at the Park ‘n Shop grocery store — is that they felt very protective of them and really had respect for them. So no, there weren’t any surprises, and I loved the way it came out. I loved meeting these people. I seem to always fall in love with my subjects.
Very few people today know who the Hilton Sisters were, and I love how your film brings them to life for a new generation. What role do you hope this film will play in raising awareness about their place in a largely forgotten era of show business?
ZEMECKIS: I hope that when people do learn about the Hilton Sisters, they don’t go, “Oh, those are the freaks. Those were those Siamese Twins.” And that they actually realize that they had an act and they worked for years and contributed.
What was the most personally rewarding aspect of your filmmaking experience?
ZEMECKIS: It was meeting their goddaughter (Camille Rosengren) who’s in the film and doesn’t talk about them. She had real trust in me and she did open up her life. She is one of the only ones that has the connection to their younger lives and saw them. To have her know that I was going to treat this with respect and for me to know that she loves the film was one of the most rewarding things.
What are you working on next that you’re excited for people to know about?
ZEMECKIS: I’m finishing up a book about Lily St. Cyr, who was a famous stripper in the 50s. And then, I’m looking at some subjects that might be my next documentary. I just haven’t decided yet.