This one’s about a kind of evolution. To be more acute, it’s about my own twisting journey. From a puppy writer to who I am today, and some earth-shaking obstacles between. Follow and see if this vibrates your own tuning fork.
But first, the beginning.
I’d submitted a short film script to one of my college professors. His primary criticism was the oldest one in the writer’s handbook. His complaint was that I hadn’t written from a place remotely familiar to me.
“Write what you know,” he opined, repeating that tired old adage.
“I would,” I replied in full snark. “But I’m kinda full up on student films about socially retarded film geeks who can’t get laid.”
This might be explain why so many young movie nerds are infatuated with comic books and otherworldly science fiction. But me? I applied my lack of life experience to some dramatic fantasy on the grittier side. I was and still am fascinated by the world’s cultural underbelly. Good versus real evil. Antiheroes. Thus I consumed the films of the late sixties and seventies with the appetite of a boy who hadn’t lived beyond a suburban front yard and a Boy Scout sleep away camp. If my own truth wasn’t interesting enough to film, I’d write about the dark trials of those who’d already lived.
Years passed. I’d eventually written my way into a marketable position inside the Hollywood candy store. Imagine my geeky glee when I landed a gig writing a studio movie that took place inside the subterranean world of illegal New York City nightclubs. It was supposed to be a Romeo and Juliet story bridging the world of a hardened parole officer from New Jersey and a sexy dancer from Spanish Harlem who lived her life for the beat of salsa music. My goal was to out-grit those pictures that had raised me. I didn’t necessarily want the reader to live in the gutter. But I did want them to get at least of whiff of it.
And nothing was off limits. The darker, the more realistic I reasoned. On a NYPD ride-along through the South Bronx I heard a horrifying story about a recent hostage situation. A cracked-out Dominican fugitive had held off a battalion of SWAT cops for hours by threatening to drop his one-year-old toddler out a tenth story projects window. Sadly, the stand-off ended badly, resulting in the violent deaths of both father and child. Despite the tragedy, the writer in me was jacked at having been entrusted with a first-person account of the event. I even received a private tour of the crime scene. It was a must for me to include a version of the story in my screenplay. Not just for dramatic sake. But for the authenticity I so desired.
The final script got a solid reception, though the studio was always angling for a greater emphasis on the love story. And in the subsequent revisions, my harrowing real life account of that toddler-held-hostage by his drug-infected father was left behind for more romantic tones. Mind you, the script never lost its feel for the street or its sense of direction. I was only asked to excise the most extreme and harrowing moments that the old fart producers found difficult to digest. I wrote off their lack of guts to too many soft years lunching on watercress salads at the Beverly Hills’ Polo Lounge. The pair were just too damned sensitive to brave some actual veracity in our film.
In the end, a couple of directors stepped in and out of the picture. Yet like so many other studio development projects, my script languished and was eventually forgotten.
Fast forward a few more years. It was a Friday date night for the War Department and me. On tap for that particular evening? The usual dinner and a show. Trainspotting was still playing in a few theaters. We picked the last showing, settled into our seats with a large popcorn, sodas, and box of Junior Mints, and relaxed while Danny Boyle and John Hodge’s film unspooled.
Maybe two or three reels into the film, I recall a moment when the toddler who lived in the apartment-slash-heroin den was framed in a doorway. I was instantly struck by the familiar look on the baby’s face. Barely a year and crawling on all fours, she gazed off-camera with a bemused smile that only a child that age could reserve for her mum or dad. I knew this look all too well, being that I was a new father and my own baby boy often gifted me with such a trusting face. I even imagined the camera set-up itself with the mother just out of frame, flirting with her baby daughter in order to help the filmmakers capture the moment.
I know. It would seem I’m making much ado about a single five-second shot in a film. But please follow.
Not long after the aforementioned scene, there was a POV shot where the camera was pushing through the dingy flat and, with every twisting turn, a woman’s wail grew louder.
“Oh, Lord,” I accidentally said aloud. “Don’t let the baby be dead.”
Yet I already knew the result. The writer in me not only saw the horrible moment coming, but would’ve probably scribbled it out in just the same way. Despite that, as the camera wheeled into the bedroom, nearing the crib, ready to tilt down for the dramatic reveal, I lurched to my feet and fled the theater.
Up to that point in my movie-adoring life, I can’t recall ever voluntarily walking out of a film. No matter the content, from the repugnant to the inane, I viewed movie theaters and the works screened therein as sacrosanct. After all, I’d expect nothing less of someone who’d paid to see one of my pictures.
The War Department eventually followed me out of the cinema. She discovered me seated on a bench trying to stuff a sock in my sobbing. I was angry and hurt. I couldn’t grapple with the fact that the filmmakers had, for the sake of their story, sacrificed that beautiful child. Fictional as the death was, it had emotionally walloped me as if real. So much so I had to vacate my seat.
Of course much of my mind frame was informed by having recently become a father. And from that came some obvious and new sensitivity. I never would’ve imagined that I would allow those feelings to bleed into my taste in film. Hell, I was not just an artist, but a pro. Where was the detachment?
It took me a while to crawl out from underneath my emotional stupor. As it turned out, my Trainspotting experience was hardly a one-off. Children in peril became my new hot button. I could stomach pretty much any kind of screen violence. Appreciate it in the correct context. At least until a young child was in imminent danger. My heart would break into a gallop. My palms would leak sweat. And I would be unable to keep my runaway imagination from placing my own children in harm’s way.
The same sentiment could also be applied to my writing. for a time I automatically steered away from writing scenes where kids were in grave danger. Not that it was difficult. Nervous executives are generally averse to anything that might turn off an audience. Nobody was exactly twisting my arm to include that kind of drama in my work.
Then came Hostage. The story busts open with a horrifying situation ripped from so many present-day headlines. A deranged father holds a battalion of cops at bay by threatening to kill his wife and son. For the story to work, the sequence needed to end with the worst possible outcome in order to inform the trauma suffered by the negotiator played by Bruce Willis. Though I found it difficult to work through the scenes, I wrote most of the gut-wrenching action to take place off-screen. I chose to let the drama unfold on the face of the actors.
On the day prior to filming the scene in question, our chief of special effects swung by video village and asked me if I wanted to be there for the “blood test.”
“What blood test?” I asked.
“Of the kid who gets shot,” he said. “Got him all made up and hooked up to a pump that squirts blood out of his jugular until he bleeds out.”
I was aghast. I couldn’t do it and declined the invitation on the spot.
The next morning, I met up with Bruce Willis in his trailer. We discussed the scene. Bruce was wrestling with how much his character should melt down.
“All the way,” I suggested. “I think you should cry.”
“That far?” asked Bruce, concerned it would be too much emotion at the start of the film.
“I cried when I wrote it,” I said. “The scene deserves somebody shedding tears. I wouldn’t have written it otherwise.”
What followed was a lengthy chat about my evolution of feelings when it came to depicting screen violence against children. Bruce, the father of three girls at the time, totally concurred.
“If I’m gonna cry,” he said. “You gotta be there.”
“Oh, I’ll be there,” I assured him. “For having written the damn scene, I deserve all the pain I can withstand.”
I doubt very much that this is where my journey on this particular subject comes to a conclusion. It’s a ride that I haven’t yet stepped off of. Still, evolution as both a writer and a human being is a funny thing. It’s as much about what you select as what selects you. In other words, I choose what I write and how I write it. But some of the emotions that might get unearthed in the process? Whether I like it or not I believe they choose me.
- More Behind the Lines with DR articles by Doug Richardson
- Balls of Steel: Write What You Know... Or Not
- Indievelopment: The Only Screenwriting Rule You'll Ever Need
Tools to Help: