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Friday, July 20, 2007

Character Trait: Smoker or Non-Smoker?

From the Hollywood Reporter last May:

Filmmakers now might get an R rating as a thank you for smoking. The MPAA said Thursday that its rating board will consider film depictions of smoking among the criteria for assigning movie ratings. Anti-tobacco activists have been pressing for an automatic R rating for films with smoking scenes, but MPAA chairman and CEO Dan Glickman rejected the proposal for a more nuanced approach...the MPAA ratings board "will now consider smoking as a factor among many other factors, including violence, sexual situations and language, in the rating of films," he said."Clearly, smoking is increasingly an unacceptable behavior in our society," Glickman said. "There is broad awareness of smoking as a unique public health concern due to nicotine's highly addictive nature, and no parent wants their child to take up the habit. The appropriate response of the rating system is to give more information to parents on this issue."Glickman described the move as an extension of the MPAA's practice of factoring underage smoking into the rating of films. The ratings board will ask three questions, he said: 1) Is the smoking pervasive 2) Does the film glamorize smoking 3) Is there a historic or other mitigating context?Also, when a film's rating is affected by the depiction of smoking, the rating will include such phrases as "glamorized smoking" or "pervasive smoking."

So the Wave-inatrix wants to know - how do Rouge Wavers feel about this restriction? Do writers have a social responsibility to cut down on the characters that we might show smoking? How about drinking? Hard drugs? Pot? Would KNOCKED UP be the same if Seth Rogen's buddies smoked a little less weed?

There are so many traits that as writers we can assign to our characters. Quirks, eccentricities and habits - good and bad. Do we have a moral, social or ethical responsibility to bear in mind that some viewers might watch this character and want to emulate him or her? This doesn't necessarily mean the viewer is a blank slate or idiot - the Wave-inatrix quit smoking a few weeks back. And I tell you, when I see a character smoking in a movie - I want to affix my face to the screen and suck that smoke straight into my lungs. It's tough. People Magazine used to have a policy of photoshopping out the cigarettes usually clutched in the hands of so many celebrities. But they have begun to show the cigarettes anyway. The public deserves to see the whole picture, they figure. So celebrities do it - and the public sees it - so how can a writer be in any way compared to that? We aren't writing about real people, we are writing about pretend people. To the Wave-inatrix, it's about avoiding glamorizing or making smoking look cool. In BLADE RUNNER, smokers abound. But it's part of the broke-down, dark, dystopian vision of the story. I mean, look at that world. Shoot, I'd buy my smokes by the truckload.

I just recently read an interview with Shia LaBeouf, and the interviewer included that LaBeouf lit up a smoke before answering the next question. Should that detail have been included? Had the interviewer not included it, we would never have known the kid smokes. Until we saw his picture in People and noticed a small, blurry white stick in one hand. Should the interviewer have skipped over this detail? Should LaBeouf not have lit up, knowing it would probably be noted? Which? Neither?

Where is the line between social responsibility and doing our jobs as story-tellers? The Wave-inatrix is currently ghost-writing a mystery novel with a Texan client who depicted his main character drinking - a lot. I mean - a lot. Maybe it's a Texas thing. But I advised him that we really are going to need to cut down the number of Dewar's and waters we show this guy put down. Why? Because we want our readers to like this guy, not raise their eyebrows everytime he slams back another one. I mean, I'm working on this material and I don't know how the guy stands up and solves anything. It would be different if the material were LEAVING LAS VEGAS, right? Or would it?

Do writers get carte blanche or do we have to bear in mind that this thing we do is bread and circus? We are selling our stories, right? To buyers. Who turn around and sell the story to the public. Who will have judgments and reactions to our material.

It's a complex issue and a slippery slope. Maybe the writer who wrote BUT I'M JUST A CHEERLEADER (wonderful movie by the way) should not have written it. It did feature homosexuality, after all. Oh but wait - that's not a bad habit, that's just the way you're born. But not to a conservative it isn't. It's a bad lifestyle choice. Which really shouldn't be depicted. That's an argument that the Wave-inatrix cannot get behind. But - should we think twice about the drugs, drinking and smoking we show our characters engage in? What is our role?

Food for thought.

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annabel said...

I am a mother of four kids (two of which are teens). I don't want them to smoke, drink, or do drugs. I discuss these topics with them often. I stay plugged into their lives.

I think it is writer's jobs to show the world the way it is. It is the job of parents to teach and monitor their kids.

That's my two cents.

shecanfilmit said...

I agree with Annabel. I think if we try to control stories with the idea that we're doing it for the sake of the children, we're being totally unrealistic and not paying attention to history and human nature.

Dutch parents are very open with children about sex and drugs. Ironically, they have one of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the world and teenagers lose their virginity at a later age than teenagers in other countries. I know it's hard for American parents (and some Hollywood celebrities like Rob Reiner) to wrap their heads around, but making something taboo and secret just increases the likelihood that kiddies are going to go after it.

Showing smoking for what it is - an unhealthy crutch that some people use when they don't deal with anxiety very well - and let people make their own choices.

This country is infantilizing its population very quickly. Pretty soon donuts are going to be on the black market!

screen scribe said...

I agree with Annabel as well. It's the writer's responsibility to depict the world the way it truly is.

As a writer I don't base character traits on the impressions my children may or may not take away from the story, I simply tell it like it is.

As a parent I do my best to teach them right from wrong.

JPS said...

When I was a kid, in nearly all the movies I saw, people smoked, killed each other, slapped their women, punched their friends, said "Look, wiseguy," and winked a lot. Smoking was simply something you did when you became a teenager.

My pediatrician, when I was a wee lad, would light up after my annual examination. Doctors, both in ads and in person, often recommended smoking as a means for relaxation. My father smoked Cuban cigars and my mother puffed away at either Luckies, DuMauriers or Kools. I began smoking unfiltered Camels on my first day of college (which is also when I took up less legal forms of stimulation, not recommended by my doctor), and have now been smoke-free for nearly twenty years.

Do we have a responsibility to set a standard of behavior? Yes and, then again, no. If we're writing a period piece (think "The Godfather"), it would be absurd not to show people smoking in the 40s and 50s. If not, unless it's in context, I'd take a pass, simply because it's no longer part of my life. I don't think I've written a character either in scripts on novels who smokes in some fifteen years or so. I don't miss it, and neither, it seems, do they.

Christian M. Howell said...

I can admit that I am working on a very complex college drama and am confronting that very topic.

How do you separate the personal from the influence?

I guess we, as screenwriters will suffer the conflict forever as ther is no easy answer. We want to appeal to the majority but the majority differs with drama, horror, thriller, etc.

Mulling through the endless possibilities of any cinematic endeavor will surely try the staunchest of conservatives and the most wild liberals as we can't limit ourselves to our limited view of the world but - in order to make a living - we have to realize that our views aren't everyone's.

But then because this is a craft (read:science mixed with mysticism and a sprinkle of theology), different genres do necessitate a slightly different world view.

This is further diluted by the particulars of the story so that maybe screenwriters should just shoot themselves in the head before undertaking such an impossibly daunting task.

Wow, maybe I should just have every one out of five characters just light up.

Or maybe I digress.

Such is the life of a poet.

Raven said...

I confronted this issue in my current script (finished a draft this past week, yay). I'd heard about the decision to include smoking in ratings, and I guess I had that on my mind as I was writing. I have a tough character whom I might ordinarily have depicted as a smoker. She's tough, she's a rebel, she hates her life, she would probably smoke. But instead I turned it around and had her condemn smoking as a crutch. She's tough so she gets by without smoking, was the subtext.

I think part of our job as writers is to write for the market, and if the market (or the folks in control of what gets to the market) likes some things and doesn't like others, we have to take that into account.

Jane Mountain said...

I don't think it's a writer's job to show the world the way it is. I think it's a writer's job to create whatever world their story belongs in.

That's why this smoking ban in the movies scares me.

Smoking is a legal activity. Yes, it's unhealthy, kinda stupid, and smelly. But if you can't show smoking in movies now, what will it be next year? No eating fast food? No sun tanning? No excessive drinking of coffee? What's Homer Simpson without his donuts?

It's a bad idea, not because smoking is truly necessary in movies, but because freedom is truly necessary to fuel creativity.