Shooting Script

Hollywood’s screenwriters take a meeting and wring their hands over movie violence.

“You have to be true to yourself as a writer, but I don’t think you have a responsibility beyond that,” said Brian Helgeland, the opening speaker at “Guns Don’t Kill People … Writers Do,” a panel discussion sponsored by the Writers Guild of America earlier this month. “Hopefully that’s enough, if you take yourself seriously.” Enough for what or for whom? Helgeland didn’t specify. The writer-director of the ultraviolent Mel Gibson movie Payback squirmed uncomfortably in his chair on a dais in a Santa Monica hotel ballroom a few hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean, pondering the question of whether people who make violent movies are morally responsible for inciting real-world violence. Dressed in frayed shorts and sandals, blond hair flowing, Helgeland looked as if he had stashed his surfboard behind the stage and couldn’t wait to escape into the waves crashing outside.

On the opposite end of the stage was Motion Picture Association of America Chairman Jack Valenti, suited and tied, camera-ready, and eager to pontificate. Other panelists included scripters of major screen mayhem: Steven De Souza (Die Hard); Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise); Miguel Tejada-Flores (Fright Night Part II); William Mastrosimone (Extremities); Sy Gomberg (When Willie Comes Marching Home); moderator Dan Petrie Jr. (Beverly Hills Cop); and producer Sean Daniel (The Mummy). The audience was packed with worried industry insiders still reeling from President Clinton’s just-announced call for a Justice Department/FTC investigation to determine if Hollywood markets violent product to children. (For this we need a federal investigation? Does anyone think it was over-17s who bought $162 million worth of tickets to The Matrix?) The town was awash in rumors of imminent subpoenas, and talk of Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut’s threats of criminal prosecution and censorship.

Adopting the “cigarettes don’t cause cancer” posture, studio heads have declined credit for encouraging children to commit murder. Apparently they were counting on Clinton–whose coffers are stuffed with Hollywood cash–to go easy on them. On Valenti’s recommendation, they snubbed Clinton’s invitation to a White House conference on violence in the media, letting slip their best chance to get out in front of the issue. Now, Clinton appeared to be punishing them for their hubris. “You turn down the president of the United States at your own peril,” says one movie producer. “Valenti should know that. He worked for Lyndon Johnson.”

While the Hollywood suits block feelings of guilt with reiterations of their commitment to shareholders, the Writers Guild talk revealed a creative community roiled by emotions ranging from angry defiance to extreme remorse to abject terror. Sparring over their role in instigating high-school gun battles, they fell into lock step on one point: God save us from regulation by Bob Barr and Tom DeLay. If the First Amendment has lost luster elsewhere, it is ever the rallying cry in Hollywood, where free speech can be relied upon to protect profitable dreck. At the same time, this overwhelmingly liberal community, happy to jettison the Second Amendment, is steamed that Washington has gone soft on the gun lobby.

“I feel that the viewpoint I just heard is a very dangerous ivory towerism,” said Mastrosimone, the prickliest conscience in the group, countering Helgeland’s “be true to yourself as a writer” remarks. “The people who say it’s all our fault are extremists, and I think the people who say we have no responsibilities are also extremists. If we’re really looking for the truth, we’ll find it somewhere in between. It is unquestionable there is a cause-and-effect between what goes up onscreen and behavior–there are thousands of scientific studies since the ‘60s that people choose to ignore because it’s really not lucrative to obey them. And we have become very spoiled because we enjoy this freedom, and we don’t want anybody on the outside telling us what to do.”

De Souza was up next, a flinty showman who played the scene aggressively. “This is the first time I’ve ever volunteered to come and be a scapegoat,” he said. De Souza disputed the link between screen violence and real-world violence but also ranted against gun proliferation, arguing that Japanese and British kids watch violent movies but don’t go out and kill each other. Like a fifth-grader at show-and-tell, De Souza held up the Nazi propaganda magazine Signal and pointed out sanitized images of Hitler youth groups. “Here you had the most wholesome, upstanding media you can imagine, and meanwhile offstage is the most mechanized bloodbath in history,” he said. He spread the moral responsibility around, noting that legally the studio is the author of a movie. “I tell you, every picture I have done has come out more violent than what I wrote. I have sat at the screening of one of my movies and been stunned at the level of mayhem that somebody put onscreen. So now do I feel guilty?” He didn’t answer his own question.

Khouri, a native of Paducah, Ky., site of a major school shooting, cited the familiar litany of parental neglect, breakdown of education and community, and the Internet as causes of teen violence. Yet she was ambivalent about blaming Hollywood. “There’s no one person that can be held responsible for this,” she said. “But for us to sit here and say ‘feed ‘em a steady diet of whatever they want,’ and then when they act out it’s your fault … it doesn’t add up. We’re trying to make sense out of something that will never make sense. People read The Catcher in the Rye and shoot John Lennon. There’s always going to be somebody who is going to misinterpret something.” Khouri added that she was stunned at Thelma and Louise’s first screening when the audience cheered the heroine for shooting a male attacker. “I had hoped for a completely different reaction from the audience, a realization that this character had just sealed her fate in a horrible way. I was terrified. And I realized that I can’t control how my work is perceived.” After Thelma and Louise, Khouri challenged herself to write a movie with no guns in it. “It’s harder,” she says.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

“Do we want the world to be as frightened as so many of us are, and so many children are?” asked Gomberg, who organized the Committee to End Violence after the Jonesboro, Ark., killings. “Do we have the right to impose this gun culture on the world? They all want to be like us! I don’t think we do.” Gomberg advocated the elimination of “excessive or gratuitous or unpunished” violence in movies and television. De Souza, rankled, barked, “When you say unpunished violence it reminds me of the old green code.” Undeterred, Gomberg continued, “We have to aim our sights higher. … I hate to use the term ‘aim sights’ … but the easiest thing in the world to write is a villain you get the audience so involved in hating that you scream inside for the hero to demolish him. Creatively we can find ways to get the same kind of tensions and passions going.”

“By that definition Richardthe Third is a terrible, evil play,” responded De Souza, knowing that no discussion of violence in art is complete without an invocation of the Bard. “It spends all of its time making us hate, hate that villain. And there’s a gory, bloody end and a lot of bodies. Let’s not even go to Titus Andronicus!” That got a big laugh, which encouraged Helgeland to drop the other bit of Shakespearean boilerplate: “What if a teen-ager who was hopelessly in love saw Romeo and Juliet and decided to kill himself? Should we not perform Romeo and Juliet any more?”

Patiently awaiting his moment, Valenti erupted in a burst of his usual flowery oratory. “If I’ve learned one thing in the movie business and the world of politics,” he intoned, “it is that the First Amendment–the 45 spare, unadorned words, bleached dry of all ambiguity–is the one clause in the Constitution that guarantees all others. And it’s not easy to be a First Amendment person, because then you have to allow into this marketplace that which you believe to be soiling and meretricious and tawdry and unwholesome and sometimes vile. And then sometimes people get so vexed, they want to call their congressman and say, ‘pass a law to stop all this stuff.’ But I always say to this person, be wary and be cautious. Before you make that call, remember that when a tyrant first appears he always comes as your protector.” Hoots of approval rose up from the crowd.

Billed as a session of self-scrutiny, the discussion was turning into a call to arms against enemies of the First Amendment. Daniel, wrapping up the session, soberly reminded his colleagues that those who have abused their absolute freedoms by making movies that are soiling and unwholesome have only themselves to blame if Hollywood’s era of unregulated bliss is over. “All of us have to understand that we are citizens whether we like it or not,” he warned. “Both Steve and Jack have rendered articulate and righteous defenses of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. But none of us should leave the room without an understanding that for parents all over the country, the fear is real, the problems of raising kids are real.”

The ballroom emptied, leaving the day’s topic frustratingly unprobed. No one had bothered to press Valenti on whether the government should properly give more weight to the safety of its citizens than to free speech. Neither had there been any mention of the roots of Hollywood’s love affair with violence. As writer-actor Harry Shearer (who spoke later on a panel on comedy) pointed out, “The thing that is rarely mentioned is that because this is a puritanical society and you can’t show sex, we eroticize violence. It started with The Wild Bunch: We sexualized violence, we made it beautiful.”

Was Littleton a watershed? Under pressure from President Clinton, the leading theater trade association says it will now bar the under-17 crowd from R-rated movies; rumors have it that the MPAA will be stricter about slapping R ratings onto violent movies; Disney plans to stop featuring guns in its marketing materials; and studios have canceled the development of some teen horror movies.

Are these serious measures by moviemakers and politicians? With so much money and so many votes at stake, both Hollywood and Washington are driven by fear and committed to appearances. If there were a little bit less finger pointing and a little more assumption of responsibility for a problem whose causes are many, it would be easier to have faith.