There are so many traits that as screenwriters we can assign to our characters. Quirks, eccentricities and habits - good and bad. Do we have a moral, social or ethical responsibility to bear in mind that some viewers might watch this character and want to emulate him or her? This doesn't necessarily mean the viewer is a blank slate or idiot - I quit smoking a few weeks back. And I tell you, when I see a character smoking in a movie - I want to affix my face to the screen and suck that smoke straight into my lungs. It's tough.
People Magazine used to have a policy of photoshopping out the cigarettes usually clutched in the hands of so many celebrities. But they have begun to show the cigarettes anyway. The public deserves to see the whole picture, they figure. So celebrities do it - and the public sees it - so how can a writer be in any way compared to that? We aren't writing about real people, we are writing about pretend people. To me, it's about avoiding glamorizing or making smoking look cool.
In BLADE RUNNER, smokers abound. But it's part of the broke-down, dark, dystopian vision of the story. I mean, look at that world. Shoot, I'd buy my smokes by the truckload. I just recently read an interview with Shia LaBeouf, and the interviewer included that LaBeouf lit up a smoke before answering the next question.
Should that detail have been included? If the interviewer had not mentioned the smoking, nobody would ever have known that LaBeouf is a smoker. So why did he or she include it? Journalistic veracity? Or was it irresponsible. Until we saw his picture in People and noticed a small, blurry white stick in one hand. Should the interviewer have skipped over this detail? Maybe LaBeouf should have waited on that cigarette in case the writer made a note of it? Which? Neither? Where is the line between social responsibility and doing our jobs as story-tellers? I am currently ghost-writing a mystery novel with a Texan client who depicted his main character drinking - a lot. I mean - a lot. Maybe it's a Texas thing.
But I advised him that we really are going to need to cut down the number of Dewar's and waters we show this guy put down. Why? Because we want our readers to like this guy, not raise their eyebrows everytime he slams back another one. I mean, I'm working on this material and I don't know how the guy stands up and solves anything.
It would be different if the material were LEAVING LAS VEGAS, right? Or would it? Do writers get carte blanche or do we have to bear in mind that this thing we do is bread and circus? We are selling our stories, right? To buyers. Who turn around and sell the story to the public. Who will have judgments and reactions to our material. It's a complex issue and a slippery slope. Maybe the writer who wrote BUT I'M JUST A CHEERLEADER (wonderful movie by the way) should not have written it.
It did feature homosexuality, after all. That's not a bad habit though - that's the way you're born. Right.
But not to a conservative it isn't. It's a bad lifestyle choice. Which really shouldn't be depicted. That's an argument that I cannot get behind. For my money, writers create art which is inspired by life.
Messy, heartbreaking, funny, imperfect life. In in real life, people have bad habits and flaws. That's what makes us human. Recently, the MPAA decided to warn audiences about movies with a great deal of smoking, particularly smoking that is not contextualized historically. This decision seems strange when movies likE CAPTIVITY, depicting women getting tortured and killed are splashed across huge billboards across major US cities for us all to see and be horrified by.
Now that's offensive. Values are skewed when smoking is a worse offense than torture and mayhem. Don't get me wrong - smoking is bad. I'm glad I quit; it's a terrible habit.
But surely we have bigger fish to fry as a viewing public. And as we inch toward a 1984-esque scenario, with the MPAA (i.e.the 5 major corporations that own the movie studios) deciding for us what we can and cannot see, it is crucial that writers be honest about what they depict rather than succumb to pressure to whitewash. We owe it to our readers and viewers to tell the truth about what we see.
Copyright (c) 2007 Julie Gray.
Julie Gray is a screenwriter and story analyst living in Los Angeles. http://www.thescriptwhisperer.com