Screenwriters defend their violent scripts

Thursday, October 28, 1999

LOS ANGELES — Few things frustrate screenwriter Callie Khouri more than when news reporters label any two women caught shoplifting or committing other crimes together as “Thelma and Louise.”

“It horrifies me that something I have done is somehow going to be related to someone else’s irresponsible act,” said Khouri, who won an Academy Award for writing the 1991 road-movie hit. “I was writing an outlaw picture. I was trying to provide a vicarious experience, not one for people to go out and imitate.”

But she says she realizes that there will always be “a couple of idiots that will totally miss the point. They’re not going to be sophisticated enough to determine when someone is making a comment about something or telling them this is inappropriate behavior.”

And now, with members of Congress and citizens’ groups shuffling the blame for violent acts onto Hollywood, Khouri says she is considering a disclaimer on her next film that reads: “This is a work of fiction not meant to be instructional in any way. Please spend your time looking for the irony and do not take notes on the execution of violent acts. Thank you for your cooperation.”

Khouri’s comments came during a panel discussion last weekend at the 13th Annual Los Angeles International Film Festival. Called “The Effect of Violent Scripts on Society,” the panel featured several leading screenwriters discussing whether Hollywood bears any responsibility for violent acts in America.

The discussion came in the wake of numerous efforts in Washington, D.C., to study the effects of media violence on American society. In addition to mandating several studies, senators such as Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., have offered legislation that, if passed, would create both a universal rating system for the entertainment industry and a culture task force.

“That really scares me … when you have Congress sitting around figuring out what kind of movies they’re going to tell us it’s OK to make,” Khouri said. “I start to get my back up because I don’t want to live in a world where every artistic notion has to be the most innocuous and the most unable-to-be-misinterpreted-by-an-insane person as a directive.”

David McKenna, who wrote the screenplay for “American History X,” defended that movie, saying the violence was necessary to show how the main character denounces his neo-Nazi past, choosing to reject the violence he once embraced.

But McKenna said he feared the future because of violence.

“I think it’s time that everybody take responsibility,” he said. “Slowly but surely, it’s turning into the Wild West.”

Although she agrees that violence can advance a movie plot, Laurie Trotta, executive director of the nonprofit group Mediascope, says many movies go too far.

“Where we are concerned is when violence becomes very glamorized and when it is becoming a sort of a character in the story itself that takes on a life of its own,” said Trotta, whose group studies entertainment issues ranging from diversity in film roles to media violence.

Trotta said that more than 40 years of research shows that violence can desensitize viewers, frighten them and even cause some, who already possess violent tendencies, to commit a violent act.

“Certain styles of behavior can be learned by those people [from] what they see on the screen,” she said. “But [for] people who aren’t leaning toward violence … a violent movie is not going to make them go out and commit violence.”

John Milius, who wrote “Apocalypse Now” and “Jeremiah Johnson,” said violence in entertainment existed as far back as the Greek tragedies and Shakespeare’s plays. But Milius said he’s disturbed by the portrayal of violence today, because it seldom shows the consequences of such acts.

“That doesn’t mean that we should do away with violence, because any kind of repression is going to cause an opposite reaction,” he said. “After all, nothing is more exhilarating than a cavalry charge. Does that mean we shouldn’t have cavalry charges because somebody might go out and ride their horse too fast?”

Jim Uhls, who wrote the screenplay for the violence-laden “Fight Club,” said filmmakers must not be afraid to tackle difficult subject matter in films. Uhls said that while “Fight Club” has violent hand-to-hand fighting, it has almost no gunplay and doesn’t glorify violence.

But Trotta questioned if the presence of screen icons Brad Pitt and Edward Norton glamorized the violence in “Fight Club,” even though Uhls meant the portrayal to be horrifying.

“Those people are role models,” she said. “When they take a part in that kind of relationship — and it is made to look sexy — because of who they are, that has an effect on kids.”

Most of the panelists agreed that filmmakers need to show the consequences of violence. Milius said they also could take a lesson from the Greeks and leave the violence offscreen.

But Khouri said the onscreen violence would continue as long as people keep going to see such movies.

“Every time you go to see a movie that’s violent, you’re voting for that movie. Your $8.50 is a vote that means more movies like this will be made,” she said. “Believe me, if people stopped going, you couldn’t get a movie made like that to save your life.”