The Newport Film Festival is over! And the highlight happened an hour before it even began. (For me, anyway)
Here’s the story:
Before the first red carpet, I killed some time at Flemming’s happy hour where I chanced upon Dawn Bierschwal, the lead producer of “Better Start Running,” one of the bigger features this year, mainly due to the cast including Jeremy Irons and Maria Bello.
“So what’s your favorite story,” I asked. (Making a movie always means you have stories to tell.)
“Oh, definitely the fight over the fuck,” she said.
I recognized immediately that she cut her movie for a PG rating, and that meant some compromises. Let me explain (in case you’re not following):
Movies are more marketable when you produce them with a PG-13 rating (or lower) because the market is bigger. It isn’t “restricted” by an arbitrary age requirement that leaves the bulk of your potential audience outside the door.
And if the word “fuck” is spoken more than once in your film, it gets an R rating.
Bottom line: You get only one fuck. If you use the word “fuck” twice, you’re screwed.
You can get away with just about anything else (and get away with it more than once). You can disembowel a pregnant woman, torture a child, decapitate a nun on the steps of the Sistine Chapel (all in the same sequence), but say the word “fuck” twice within ninety minutes, and you will permanently damage the mind of anyone under the age of seventeen.
That is Hollywood’s great wisdom concerning the word “fuck” and its potential impact on the collective psyche of our youth. Hearing it once doesn’t seem to hurt them. But twice? Permanent mental damage! (The MPAA needs a bit of coaching on the word “bullshit.”)
The upshot is that actors fight for the fuck. And how do you keep a guy like Jeremy Irons from storming off the set when he doesn’t get the fuck because you decided to give it to the B-list, kid-actor? (He is, after all, the main character!)
Certainly gives a producer a story to tell. But it’s bad for the process, bad for everyone involved, including the audience, and especially bad for the writer. How do you decide where to put your fuck? And do you really want to limit your fucks? (That just sounds bad on principle if you ask me.)
Part of the process of creating dialogue is listening to people. You gotta have an ear. And it’s something you’re born with. It’s part of the natural talent required for screenwriting.
A script with teenage characters needs a writer who listens to teenagers so he creates believable dialogue that engages the target audience. The writer desperately needs more than one fuck.
It’s a conundrum. Hollywood is obsessed with youth. Youth is the market. The market is the money. Money in Hollywood is God. Youth is, therefore, the predominant, driving force in all Hollywood decision making.
The people who control the business are understandably obsessed with youth. They surgically alter their bodies and faces to look younger. They dye, shave, sculpt and remove hair. They add fake hair, take drugs to grow new hair, then they dye, shape, sculpt and remove the new hair.
They glue on finger nails, implant foreign objects, move nipples around, break and re-break noses and facial bones — all in the pursuit of the image of youth.
Youth is king. And our youth employs the word “fuck” ad nausea! Kids today punctuate their sentences with “fuck” like it’s a comma between independent clauses.
So why, then, does an industry like Hollywood, run by people who will do anything to horde youth, disdain the word “fuck?” I’ll tell you why. It’s what psychologists call denial.
What are they denying? Their own hypocrisy.
Profane language is part of popular culture. But it’s not very articulate. It’s not good for America. It’s cacology. Do we want to promote it, encourage it, condone it, and become part of the problem?
Of course not!
And the conclusion from that logic is: we don’t mind condoning disembowelment, torture, killing sprees with automatic weapons, torture, and mass murder. As long as the psychopathic, blood thirsty, driven-over-the-line-ex-navy-seal-gone-berserk-with-automatic-weapons-and-a-pound-of-Semtex doesn’t say the word “fuck” more than once while butchering hundreds of God-fearing Americans.
So how do you, as a writer, reconcile the Motion Picture Association of America’s inconceivably contradictory, ignorant, ass-backwards and just plain stupid sense of “morality” with your desire to write an honest, true-to-life story with genuine, real, human characters?
Here’s what I do:
Write your script. If the word “fuck” is coming from the characters, leave it in. Write the way your instinct and intuition tell you to write. Let the characters take on a life and a speech rhythm all their own.
Then let the producers, those young folks getting the money to make your movie, decide where they want to put their one and only fuck. If they think your script is strong enough to survive the R-rating, then they’ll leave your writing with all its “fucks” intact. And when that happens, you’ve done your job as a writer.
It’s always the same bottom line for the writer in this business: Make your script so good that even an industry as monumentally dysfunctional as Hollywood can’t keep it off the screen, so good that they don’t fuck with it. Make it so good that they leave your script and all its fucks the fuck alone.
Joe Becker is screenwriter and an OCSWA board member. Visit him at: http://joebeckerfilms.com/