A few months ago, I received the kind of email that makes me drop whatever I’m doing and call Michael C. The email was from Michael E. Douroux, who spent 25 years as “a literary agent representing writers, directors, producers and cinematographers in motion pictures and network prime-time television”. Since Michael C and I have been trying to break into the industry as screenwriters for the last few years, that got our attention.
Normally, I’d immediately email Douroux and ask for a meeting, except his email included a copy of an article he wrote for Business Insider. Titled “Hollywood Violence Tax”, Douroux proposes a value added tax for violent films.
Unfortunately, every screenplay we’ve ever written is incredibly, incredibly violent. And I mean violent:
- The script we just finished now includes at least two dozen people who get shot, blown up, strangled or...wait for it...lobotomized by an ax--it happens to at least two characters. (We’re incredibly proud of this script.)
- Our first script is about torture...so yeah, it’s really violent...’cause it’s about torture. (We also really love this script.)
- Even our spec script for an animated comedy is about a special ops team...and special ops teams kill people. In our script, they kill a lot of people. (This is also the best script for a half-hour animated comedy about a special forces team ever written.)
A dilemma: how do we contact an industry professional who, apparently, abhors violence? (I’m guessing Mr. Douroux won’t be representing us.)
Since Newtown, politicians and pundits on both side of the aisle have been trying to solve America’s gun violence problem. As I see it, five solutions have been proposed: gun control (endorsed by liberals), expanding gun ownership (proposed by conservatives), placing armed guards at school (the NRA), tracking the mentally ill better (both sides), and the issue that piqued the interest of On Violence’s resident art critic, solving Hollywood’s “violence problem”.
Hollywood does have a “violence problem”, but the problem isn’t violence; it’s morality. Like the screenplays that Michael C and I wrote, Hollywood films tend to be violent. Unlike our screenplays, they lack a moral point of view. They fail to the show the cost of violence and its complexity. Violence itself isn’t the problem, but how Hollywood portrays that violence. As Ebert’s dictum goes, it's not what a movie says, but how it says it.
Michael C and I grew up on action movies. All of Arnold’s films (especially the Terminator films and Predator), Rambo, Die Hard, Aliens, and so on. “Guns, guns, guns,” as Clarence Boddiker quips in Robocop. Explosions. Bullets. One liners about killing people. We love ‘em.
And yet, when we grew up, Michael C joined the military and I marched in peace protests. More importantly, we started writing. This summer, we decided to finally write an action film. The conversation went like this:
“Eric, why haven’t we written an action film?”
“I don’t know.”
“We love action movies.”
“Then let’s write an action movie.”
I wrote the first draft in two weeks, but it wasn’t an action film. If you go with The New York Times definition, it has all of the ingredients: a lone wolf hero, an obsession with guns (and axes), and a few explosions. By definition, a shoot-’em-up action film. But it also has something most action films don’t: cost.
Cost. I’ll say it again, cost. If we want to solve Hollywood’s violence problem, Hollywood needs to show the audience the problems with violence: the guilt that comes from killing and the lingering effects of PTSD.
Not to mention the complexity of violence. Hollywood needs to show the difficulty of violence: killing the wrong people and the unintended consequences of killing those wrong people. Or even the unforeseen consequences of killing the right people.
Our action movie? The hero kills a lot of people and it nearly destroys his soul. The torture film? Well, it’s anti-torture, if anything. The comedy? It’s a parody. We like to think that we take the cost of violence into account in every word we write.
In short, Hollywood should stop glorifying violence. Stop presenting heroes who can kill dozens without guilt. Show violence as it actually is: complicated, hard and ugly. Present violence the way it actually is, and we may want to be less violent. (But to show the cost of violence, films will still be violent.)
Back to the original proposal, we shouldn’t try to stop violence through taxation. Not all violence is portrayed equally. When it’s done right, it teaches and evolves society. If we want to solve Hollywood’s violence problem, we can’t just get rid of violence. We just have to portray it the way it actually is.