Thursday, April 5, 2007

A scriptwriter's struggle with virtue, impact, and the admonition to "think on these things"

Okay, here's one of those classic morality-laden verses from the Bible that we teach little kids in a real Mr. Rogers way:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.-- Philippians 4:8

I am committed to making scripts of virtue and impact. Not just virtue, and not just impact, but both. That's a tough balancing act to achieve, but one worth striving for. I think most Christian scriptwriters default to writing scripts that are "merely" virtuous. And because they fear straying from virtue, fail to also arrive at a place of impact with their oh-so-virtuous scripts.

My current script has six different characters (none of whom are Christian characters) who use profanity (as it stands now, this script would get a tame PG-13). One of my best friends read the script this past weekend and she said she totally loved it ... but ... she wants me to pull out the profanity. I have no desire to do so. She said "You can't compromise. You need to separate yourself from the world." But I don't want to pull out the profanity because it's REAL profanity in the context of REAL dialogue, and makes my characters REAL. One of my "cursing characters" is the main protagonist--not a Christian man. One is a college student (how many college students DON'T use profanity?) Three are a pack of partying teenagers. And one is a mafia boss.

If you want me to break down and start COUNTING the "bad words" (which some Christians do, especially some Christian film reviewers) I believe there are between 12 and 17 utterances of the offensive expletives, two of which are the dreaded "f-word," and the rest are "sh-t" and "damn" and "ass -hole" and "hell" and "son of a b-tch." (As for the "f-word" I have been schooled in the knowledge that you can get away with two "f-cks" in a PG-13 before they promote you--or demote you--to an "R" rating, and even then the usage of the word "f-ck" cannot be in the context of sex/rape, just an off-handed growling. And if you're wondering why I'm censoring myself with creative spelling here in this post, it's because I have Christian friends who come to my blog, and they employ profanity filters that would block my blog from them.)

No, I will NOT remove my profanity from this script. These are legitimate examples of contemporary dialogue. The LACK of profanity would be a detraction. One scene has my main protagonist trying to save an old lady from a trailer fire. Another is the mafia boss ordering his men to kill an intruder. Another is four teenagers having a party out in the desert around a campfire, and they're upset over a smelly pile of manure nearby ruining the atmosphere.

Focusing just on the mafia boss, I crafted his character as a beautifully charming and refined gentleman with a soft, kind manner of speech, utterly devoid of profanity all through the script ... up until the end. He strikes you at the beginning as a man who would NEVER utter a SINGLE word of profanity in his life. Then at the end when an intruder boldly comes and sits down with him, the mafia boss looks up from his phone call, stunned that this man--whoever he is--had the nerve to enter and sit with him. He says to the telephone "I'm sorry--could I please call you back? .... Thank you." Then he politely hangs up, looks at the intruder, musters a kind and soft-spoken tone and says: "Pardon me, but who the f-ck are you?" There's meant to be shock value in his uncustomary usage of profanity in that otherwise politely phrased and totally fair question. And then, when the intruder (who is really an evil angel) politely smiles back and informs the mafia boss that he's come to kill him, the mafia boss suddenly morphs into Marcellus Wallace and tells his henchmen: "Waste him! I don't care about the goddamned upholstery! Pop him right now!" Again, this is meant to be shock value derived from his unexpected change of demeanor. And I think it's effective shock value. No, I will NOT remove this profanity. I think it's darned good script writing. And I can't see a mafia boss REFRAINING from profanity in a situation like this.

Some might say "Shock value is cheap." But I argue that there are GOOD shocks and BAD shocks. I think these from my script represent the good ones. Not clumsy, desperate shocks, but well-crafted shocks that are character-revealing and true to reality.

I don't think I am betraying virtue by also being real. I want to have impact. So the profanity stays. And I think the overall MESSAGE of my script is one of virtue.


jasdye said...

hey, thanks for the add to your blogroll.

i want to get around to reading your excerpts from your screenplay (congratulations, btw) and your thoughts on film / writing / culture / God-human-intersect and hopefully will get a chance to soon. i gotta run now, or my wife'll kill me.


Sheila West said...

Thanks, jasdye. Look forward to it. :)