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Interview: Leslie Zemeckis resurrects the Hilton sisters in 'Bound by Flesh'

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With her documentaryBound by Flesh,” Leslie Zemeckis has reopened a part of history that many have either forgotten about or never knew about. It focuses on Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined twins who became stars in sideshows and who were generally viewed as freaks of nature. Throughout their lives they were subjected to abuse by their handlers and kept out of public view in fear of losing their monetary value. But when they finally got their freedom, life became even worse for them as they didn’t know how to deal with the ways of show business, and they eventually lost everything and eventually entered a life of poverty.

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What’s great about Zemeckis’ documentary is how it forces you to look at the Hilton sisters as human beings as opposed to oddities that people just gawked at. I got to talk with Zemeckis over the phone about “Bound by Flesh,” and we talked about how she first became aware of Daisy and Violet and of the research she did.

This is a fascinating documentary. I didn’t know about the Hilton sisters at all, and they suffered through quite a miserable existence. “Bound by Flesh” deals with them as “freaks,” but it also deals with them as human beings which I really liked. What they go through is not unusual for people who don’t know the ways of show business.

Leslie Zemeckis: Good, I like that.

How did you first find out about the Hilton sisters?

Leslie Zemeckis: When I was doing my first documentary, “Behind the Burly Q” about burlesque I had read someplace that they were in burlesque briefly, so that kind of intrigued me and I put a little bit about them in the first film. Then I read Dean Jensen’s biography about them (“The Lives and Loves of Daisy and Violet Hilton: A True Story of Conjoined Twins”), and just over time, while I was editing my other film, I kind of became obsessed by their story.

But also taking into context of the time they lived and what the carnival was and what circus life and sideshows were, we don’t have that today. There’s really almost no animals even left in the circus, so we’re kind of bringing to light and exploring what that world was that they lived in.

In regards to the historical footage that you were able to include in this documentary, how did you go about researching this subject?

Leslie Zemeckis: Every which way I could. I did the research myself so that I’m familiar with the names and dates, and I knew that they were, in their day, photographed a lot. They were interviewed and they had done a lot of newsreels, so I actually went to a news real company in New York and I sorted through their files, and because I knew the names that they were involved with, I found some footage that hasn’t been seen since the 30’s. It probably never would’ve (been discovered) because it doesn’t have their names on that little 3 x 5 index card. I found that within 10 minutes of searching.

On the surface and outside the fact that they were conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet really looked like normal people and very innocent in a sense.

Leslie Zemeckis: Well they were. It was a double-edged sword by them being so protected and kept away from other people that they were innocent. But then when they were out on their own they didn’t have the skills to deal with people or their career or money really, and that’s why they were taken so badly advantage of.

You find yourself rooting for the twins to get freedom from their handlers, but once they do get their freedom they are thrust into a world they don’t have any control over. They are not prepared for it at all.

Leslie Zemeckis: Yeah, it was a little bit of a curse maybe to get their freedom.

I got a big kick out of the logos because they look like they came out of a schlocky B-movie from the 50’s. Who designed the logos?

Leslie Zemeckis: Well it was my idea because they were in B-movies like “Chained for Life” and their story, when you talk about it, is so headline; kept in chains and held captive and all that. So I wanted to add an element of that for fun, but there really is a deep story behind it and my editor Evan Finn designed all that because he’s brilliant.

Regarding the sound clips, were they created for this documentary or was it a combination of archival footage and actors redoing them?

Leslie Zemeckis: It was actors redoing them, but that was their (the twins’) words. In both “Behind the Burly Q” and then this, I wanted the sisters to tell the story. I want people to tell their story instead of me imposing on it for the audience, so I used their words. I didn’t write those words. Those were what the sisters said.

It definitely felt like their words. Who were the most fun or most informative to talk to when it comes to your interview subjects?

Leslie Zemeckis: Well I just thought it was a little amusing that I had James Taylor and Phillip Morris (laughs). We would just laugh about it. I mean where else are you going to find “characters” like this? But they were all very charismatic, knew their history and I loved and loved talking to them and they loved it too. They loved that era, they loved the sideshow and they love the circus.

Was there anything that you wanted to include in this documentary that you were not able to for one reason or another?

Leslie Zemeckis: No. I would’ve liked to of had more footage of them, but I am super happy with what I found. I wanted people to see their movement. I don’t believe there’s any footage of them performing live in vaudeville, but I was really pleased with what I did find.

The Hilton sisters did appear in “Freaks” which is now considered a classic, but when it first came out it was treated as very controversial and off-putting. It’s interesting to see how people initially reacted to the movie when it was first released.

Leslie Zemeckis: It’s a disturbing movie, but what’s funny is that the twins actually aren’t in it as much as you would think. But the film has value; it’s in the National Archives. It’s just a world that is no longer.

Are there still any sideshows still performing today?

Leslie Zemeckis: Not really. There’s so little “born freaks,” but to me I equate it, and it’s not PC of course to go stare at people, with watching reality TV. Everybody sits in their home and it’s okay to watch the Kardashians comment on their physicality, and I think we still have a form of the sideshow. It’s just changed to reality TV. All forms of entertainment just change. They stay but they change. We just now do it from our home.

There’s something to be said for the twins living as long as they did because the lifespan of conjoined twins is not good.

Leslie Zemeckis: Right and they were generally very healthy throughout their lives.

The choice of music was interesting because some of it goes outside of the times the Hilton sisters went through. How did you go about choosing the music, or did you just leave that to your composer (Oliver Schnee)?

Leslie Zemeckis: No, I don’t leave anything to anybody (laughs). It’s too much of my baby. I certainly didn’t compose it. He (Oliver Schnee) was brilliant, but I didn’t want it to feel like you’re just watching this period piece that has nothing to do with today. It’s still hip, they were hip, and I wanted the music to reflect that.

Going back to the voice cues, those were done by Lea Thompson and Nancy Allen. How did you manage to get them involved in this documentary?

Leslie Zemeckis: Well I knew them so I was familiar with their voices, and they both have a similar quality with each other which I felt would work with the sisters. They also have a very light, optimistic voice. I was so lucky to get them. They were similar enough that I thought they sounded like sisters.

A big thank you to Leslie for taking the time to talk with me about “Bound by Flesh” which opens us up to a part of history that has been forgotten for far too long.

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