SCREENWRITING & MORAL RESPONSIBILITY
(originally published in Creative Screenwriting Magazine, Nov/Dec 2001)
In the final analysis, I am as guilty as anyone.
During the fall of 1992, my husband and I were traveling across country with our three small sons. An odd set of circumstances left us stranded in Minneapolis. The Mall of America had just opened. I interpreted this sequence of events as a message from God and began to lead my family through 2.2 million square feet of conspicuous consumption.
“What a great location for a sequel to DIE HARD,” I exclaimed, overcome with inspiration until my husband pointed out the obvious. “Nobody is going to let you write the sequel to an action blockbuster.” He was right. I was just another television writer who aspired to grab that shiny brass ring of a six-figure spec sale. But there was nothing to stop me from writing an original spec script that was similar to DIE HARD without being DIE HARD. Furthermore, I could create a woman action hero!
Beginning with the obligatory two-word-death-title of DEAD CENTER, I crafted the story of a US Marine whose mother insists on buying her a dress at the Mall of America on the day after Thanksgiving. Terrorists take over the mall and Mom becomes their hostage. Our heroine spends the next 90 pages running and jumping in a short, tight dress, killing terrorists while exchanging romantic heat and witty repartee with the Assistant Director of Mall Security. By page 115, dead bodies are strewn everywhere and the Mall of America has imploded. Our heroine has rescued mom, found love, vanquished the terrorists and saved the world. As my final draft emerged from the printer, I could already smell the popcorn.
A top producer latched onto the script and started using words like “$50 million budget” and “summer release.” He was most impressed by the fact that I had used extensive research to create fresh and exciting ways that terrorists could exploit the element of surprise to manipulate the vulnerabilities of a contained area with uncontrollable crowds. I was sure that I had finally written my way into the A-list writer’s club. But the deal fell through – consensus being that America wasn’t ready for an action heroine – and I was still just another television writer dreaming about the six-figure spec sale.
Next time, I vowed, I would do it right. I would write an action adventure hero – and the terrorists’ target would be far more diabolical than a suburban shopping center.
The Mandate To “Make It Real”
The action/adventure genre has a clear set of requirements. The Hero must confront a Villain whose skills and abilities are equally matched so the Villain’s challenge will be compelling. However, in recent years, the dance of character has taken a back seat to the structure and intensity of plot points.
Producer Joel Silver’s theory of ten minutes and a whopper has become the industry standard for pacing the plot of action movies. Every ten minutes, something big has to happen – with the whopper factor increasing the stakes at each progressive ten-minute interval. Given the mandate that the writer must hook the audience within the first ten pages, the initial whopper establishes the tone and texture of the stunts and/or special effects. Everything after that must be “more” and “bigger.”
Silver also introduced us to another term of art: the money shot. This is the biggest whopper of the movie. Invariably, it will involve an extreme combination of explosions, flames, large amounts of water, free-falling from high places and/or a number of indispensable characters being swallowed up by a huge chasm or some kind of computer generated beast. Millions of dollars can be disproportionately budgeted for the filming of just one or two pages of a script – hence enabling us to see where the money went.
These mandates put the writer in the position of playing can-you-top-this with their own script and with every other movie that has come before it.
Finally, the ultimate mandate hurls the writer into the midst of a moral dilemma. The writer is told to juggle these extreme stunts and special effects and the plot points that weave the whoppers together and make it “real.”
Research And The Incidental Learning Process
It is frighteningly easy to access trade secrets. The Internet enables us to download an endless flow of information while we remain safe in the comfort of our own homes. Indeed, www.wga.org provides exhaustive research links for writers who need to become instant experts on any topic. From technological patents and scientific journals to government reports and satellite images – nothing is beyond the reach of anybody who has a modem and a reasonable IQ.
Therein lies the determining factor. Anybody can access the information but not everybody has the intellect to interpret the information in a meaningful way. As a collective, writers have demonstrated remarkable agility in their ability to analyze complex information and make plausible projections to the worst-case scenario.
Screenwriters have crafted complex plots with meticulous detail in order to demonstrate the skills and policies of every intelligence and security operation in the world. We have seen how the NSA conducts satellite and communication surveillance and “grabs” information to locate fugitives (ENEMY OF THE STATE and A CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER). A swarthy Middle Eastern terrorist with big, brown eyes can sweep a Western gal off her feet and get inside of the investigative units that are trying to bring him to justice (THE SEIGE). Terrorists can hijack the President’s plane by posing as members of the foreign press (AIR FORCE ONE). Or, terrorists can hijack an entire battleship by posing as caterers – as long as they bring a stripper to distract the men (UNDER SEIGE).
This kind of disclosure is not isolated to the age of the Internet. In the 1970’s, Robert Redford was able to evade a foreign assassin and CIA operatives who were trying to kill him because his job description included reading books (THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR). Shortly thereafter, with Dustin Hoffman by his side, Redford also showed us how to get deep within the corridors of power in the White House by matching the employee phone numbers to specific departments (ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN).
In other words, for the price of a movie ticket, anyone who is seeking to disrupt the operations of our country can get a front row seat to a virtual “how to” demonstration.
Does the writer have a moral responsibility when dealing with delicate topics?
Our job description requires that we ground our plots in factual realism. But what price does society pay for our intellectual ability to lay a realistic groundwork for our characters to circumvent the state of the art in law enforcement technology and techniques – all for the sake of entertainment value? How many ideas have we given terrorists by exposing the vulnerabilities of our nation’s security?
We now know that terrorists have lived among us for at least the past five years. It is impossible to imagine they were shielded from our popular culture. Rather, news reports indicate they were completely immersed in it. One terrorist allegedly sought a “Mexican wife” in the personal ads.
If we are horrified by the disclosure that US flight instructors trained the terrorists who hijacked our planes and crashed into The World Trade Center and The Pentagon, shouldn’t we also be horrified by the notion they might have sat transfixed watching the image of aliens destroying The White House from a space ship (INDEPENDENCE DAY)?
How much did terrorists learn from an HBO movie about the 1993 bombing of The World Trade Center that included a point-by-point analysis of where those terrorists went wrong and how the investigators caught them?
In the wake of the attacks, television networks delayed many of their new series because they dealt with counter-terrorism operations (THE AGENCY; 24; ALIAS). Opening episodes of some returning series were also postponed because they were about terrorism (LAW & ORDER; THIRD WATCH).
Clearly, writers have become dependent upon terrorism as a quick fix for dramatic conflict. As archetypal villains, terrorists can be defined in broad strokes. But some stories have gone so far as to present terrorists as witty, likable and attractive – therefore, not inherently dangerous enough to harm us (DIE HARD and all of its variations).
Have we misled our audience to a dangerous complacency by repeatedly allowing unrealistically heroic characters to triumph over unrealistically inept terrorists?
Have we desensitized them to the reality of terrorism by producing a steady stream of entertainment products where terrorist acts are just a plot point?
What are we telling the world about our country and our way of life without taking into consideration the fact that not everybody shares our beliefs or our motives?
All of these questions came into play last September when I sat transfixed to the television for days, watching the same footage over and over. As the twin towers of The World Trade Center crumbled, I couldn’t help but wonder how many other people all throughout the world were having the same shocked response that I was experiencing. When the planes crashed into the towers and burst into flames, it all looked so real. Yet, I have seen so many CGI images of so many explosive whoppers in so many action films that I was not able to willingly suspend my own disbelief that – in reality – the city where I grew up had been attacked by real terrorists.
That, dear colleagues, is the power we hold within our grasp.
The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions
I began collecting news reports and background information on terrorism and intelligence more than a decade ago. My motive was pure and simple – I wanted to create a bigger and more threatening story about a hero who must overcome the insurmountable odds of confronting terrorism. Now, as I inventory those files, I realize that I have accumulated what amounts to a curriculum on how to destroy the world.
I have a set of directions for recruiting terrorists, including a list of the psychological qualities that terrorist cells will use to weed out the candidates they believe will be unsuitable for a successful mission. I have a copy of The Killer’s Handbook, by a CIA operative code named Tacayan – written as an instructional guide for our intelligence “advisors” to train covert operations in South America and the Middle East.
I also have directions for constructing explosive weapons; a detailed blueprint of the room layout inside The White House; a wilderness survival guide published by the US Army; a thick, detailed NASA “press kit” for the space shuttle that includes technical specifications and diagrams.
None of these documents was difficult for a PTA mom to obtain. Can you imagine what terrorists who are set on destroying our country will find when they put their minds to it?
[Editors note: All of these documents were shredded prior to the initial publication of this article.]
It cannot be denied that terrorism and intelligence and government secrets are filled with exciting possibilities for dramatic conflict. Be that as it may, we are being forced to confront the threat of an enemy who can live among us and hide in plain sight. We must begin to question the complicated impact of every story that we present to the world.
Writers are no longer held harmless because we “only” write the words. The price of having the unlimited freedom to create is that we also have a responsibility to be accountable for what we create.