This Blog Contains Adult Content

Posted: May 31, 2011 in Uncategorized

Seriously, it does! So if you’re not comfortable reading about adult subjects…please stop reading now!

You may or may not know, but I’m not black, I’ve never been abused and I don’t know what it feels like to be pregnant. So, the question I find myself asking…myself (?) is…how can I develop characters in my screenplay who are from different cultures, have different mindsets, or who’ve experienced things I haven’t? In fact, how can anyone write about an experience they’ve never had and still make it credible? This was something that always bothered me when I first considered a career in writing. And it still does. I’m betting there are many conflicting opinions about writer’s representation of events, feelings, emotions etc…and I guess that’s why you get critics and audiences with varied responses to them. We can all experience the same event, but all have different experiences of it. Does that make sense? I hope so. What I’m trying to say is – everyone interprets things differently…that’s why controversial films containing controversial issues will always have audiences divided. If there was a fight in the pub, my interpretation of that fight may be very different to that of the person sitting next to me, even though we’ve both experienced the same event.  But what if I hadn’t experienced it? What if I wasn’t even at the pub and heard about the fight through a friend? And what if there was no fight at the pub? Or no pub? I’d be writing about a fictional fight, and pub, and drawing upon my own experiences of fights and pubs to help me write a scene that people could relate to. Before you think I’m someone that fights in pubs, I’m not. I avoid trouble as much as I can. But looking the way I do, and growing up where I did (I thought Surrey was meant to be posh too), trouble and fights are something I’ve experienced over the years. Therefore, I know what it feels like the moment you know in your gut that someone is looking for trouble…I know that feeling when your adrenaline builds as a situation grows more tense…and I know how quickly you have to react in that split second you’re attacked and you have to defend yourself and your friends against someone trying to harm you. Thankfully, because I’ve experienced this, I now know how to avoid a situation that’s getting volatile, or deal with the trouble if it’s unavoidable. In this instance, I think I could write about the emotions, actions and reactions in a fight scene with some authority. But, what if I’d never been in a fight? Would people know? Would they be able to tell even though I’d read books on fights, listened to peoples accounts and watched countless films and documentaries about fights? If you do enough research – can you pull it off?

Now I want to talk about a subject that may be uncomfortable for most…in fact it should be uncomfortable for everyone! But it’s a subject I’ve never fully explored and am a little reluctant to do so. The subject is rape. Rape scenes always throw up a lot of debate and controversy, and rightfully so. As a writer or director, you have to be very careful when dealing with this sort of subject. It’s such a brutal, horrifying and abhorrent act, that it will no doubt conjure some of the most challenging emotions in us all…and I can’t even imagine what feelings such a scene might invoke for someone who has experienced it. I know this is an uncomfortable subject to discuss, but I think it’s a serious one and something all writers should consider. Personally, I don’t feel comfortable when writing scenes that include such troubling subject matter, but I still do it. I don’t think anyone can truly understand what it feels like to be in a certain situation unless you’re put in it yourself, but I think with enough research and by conjuring your darkest thoughts, you can write something credible and invoke feelings in the audience where they have some idea what it might be like to be in that situation. But just because you can make it credible, does it mean it should be done? The most recent scene I can think of that caused quite a stir, was the rape scene in This is England 86.

It was horrific. I genuinely felt uncomfortable watching it, and I remember thinking I needed a Brandy afterwards! I’m still not sure how I feel about Shane Meadows decision to include it – I mean any filmmaker knows you can represent an act without actually showing it, but does it have the same effect? Is it not important we’re made to feel uncomfortable to really understand what that character has gone through? Is it not a writer/filmmaker’s duty to inform and educate, as well as challenge audiences? I’m not 100% sure, but I know that scene really troubled me. Another film that springs to mind when thinking about this subject is Monster (2003). Anyone that’s seen it will know what a powerful film it is, and those who haven’t seen it definitely should! It’s based on the true story of  Aileen Wuornos, a female serial killer from America. After a childhood riddled with abuse and drug use, Aileen turned to prostitution at the age of 13. Between 1989 and 1990, she began killing men that picked her up and murdered 7 in total. 

This example is slightly different because it’s based on a true account, but the writer (Patty Jenkins) still had to convey the mindset of a character without being in that mindset herself. What was challenging about it for me was the fact that even though this woman was a killer, I sympathised with her. Society had turned its back on her, and she ended up murdering 7 men, but I could almost understand why. Aside from this example, I’m sure debates will rumble on about whether subjects like this should be dealt with in film, particularly when they’ve been written by someone that hasn’t experienced them, but I think the key is to do as much research as you can. I think it’s also important to remember not to glamorise such an act in any way. Actually, I think that’s probably one of the most fundamental things a writer should remember – research is key! It’s important to research every element of your screenplay, especially if you’re writing a feature, and certainly if you’re including such delicate content. I can’t emphasise enough how important research is…and it really will enhance your ideas and  help you develop new ones. It can even take you in directions you never expected to go! I think with enough research you can pretty much write about anything (within reason), but it’s got to be integral to the narrative – don’t just add a murder/rape/abortion or anything else for the sake of ‘shock factor’ – make sure it’s key to the story, otherwise scrap it. As for writing about different cultures or characters with different mindsets, it’s always going to be difficult. Personally, as a white British male, I don’t think I could write a feature that was set in China without living there for a period of time…so, I won’t be writing a feature set in China anytime soon. In most instances, you have to trust your own judgement and just be conscientious.  I think this scene from Good Will Hunting (1997) kind of touches on what I’ve been getting at in this blog.

So why have I decided to depress you all with this today? Well, I’m developing an idea for a feature film that involves a protagonist who is taking revenge for a crime committed on his female friend. Originally the crime was rape, but I was advised against using this as the catalyst for his turning point. Could it be a murder that inflicts the same reaction in the protagonist? Well, yes, but not really. My idea is that the protagonist witnesses the deterioration of his friend’s mental state and is driven by this in his rampage of revenge. He’s constantly reminded by the event she’s experienced because she is living and suffering it day in day out. If she was murdered, that event may well live with him forever, but she would no longer be suffering – she’d be dead. That’s my theory anyway.

Well sorry it’s been a bit of a downer guys, but I’m hoping the next post will be a bit more ‘upbeat’. For now it’s back to promos, music vids, planning shoots and finishing/starting scripts. I’ll give you a proper update soon and let you know how things are going with the writing/filmmaking, but for now I’ll leave you with a clip that will hopefully lighten the mood – only because I’m in the process of selling my car and getting a bike. I’m actually getting a pedal one, and not a motor one like in the clip…but whatever.

Until next time – be safe.

Peace x

  1. videojon says:

    This is a great blog, Dom. It really excites me to see a young screenwriter breaking down their craft and role.

    Experience is a double-edged sword. Although you would hope that a writer would have had some experience in the subject they tackle, it can be as damaging to the work if they are deeply entrenched in it, as they usually have lost perspective on it. I think the greatest example of this is a film Jonathan King made upon release from prison. A musical about being a paedophile. You can watch it online (you probably won’t get past the opening – which will leave your jaw on the floor) He made it as a justification of himself. Other people use themselves and their experiences as subject matter in a kind of exploratory way. I disagree with both of these things and how far can you push it? Few filmmakers are murderers, secret agents or talking dogs.

    I think the whole thing boils down to intent and that is something not a lot of writers stop to consider. Before considering HOW to tackle a subject like rape, you should be considering WHY tackle a subject like rape. Why do you want to tell the stories you want to tell? That really should be a writer’s starting point.

    I read a bunch of amateur scripts each week and often they will involve rape, murder and torture and I always end up asking the writers to consider why those things are in it. I think, subconsciously a lot of writers use them because of the reflection of having used them. To wield such big subjects can make you appear intelligent, edgy, daring, reckless, cool…. More often than not, they just make the writer look desperate to appear all of those things. I love reading bad reviews of Guy Ritchie films because here is a man who seems to use film-making to off-set his insecurities about not being ‘one of the lads’.

    I do not think subjects like rape, racism and violence should be shied away from but equally they should only be tackled by people who are doing so with an agenda of educating the audience.

    So, if you’re planning on making a film about revenge, firstly you should strip yourself to the bone to work out why you want to make it. What are you saying to the audience? Why are you the right person to say it? If you can still justify it, then you need to plot out your story and decide whether in tackling these issues you need to actually show the act of rape. Why do you need to? Because you think it’ll make you look like a deft film-maker or because the audience NEEDS to be shocked out of their complacency to take your message home with them? Only when you can justify it fully should you go ahead. And at that point, you don’t need to have had the experience yourself but you need to research the hell out of it and make sure your choice to show it can not be misinterpreted or used as titillation. You need to make it so a person who had suffered it would understand and approve of your motives and manner of presentation.

    It’s the difference between a film like Monster and a piece of shit Michael Winner film like Death Wish.

    • dom beno says:

      Hey Jon – first of all I want to say thanks for taking the time to read my blog 🙂 And secondly I want to say thanks for such a lengthy and insightful response. I totally agree with you! The feature idea I mentioned was the catalyst for this post, but is by no means a developed idea. It just got me thinking – should I or shouldn’t I? I think you’re right, though – there always has to be a reason WHY you want to tackle a subject. I don’t think I’d ever considered that question until writing this blog, and certainly didn’t have the answer. Strangely enough, though, through writing this blog I may well have found that motivation. I think we both agree on the fact that research is imperative, and I have a feeling that with a subject like this, the research will determine the way the subject is tackled…what may start out as an idea for a revenge flick, may end becoming something totally different altogether. Definitely some food for thought!

      Thanks again, Jon – your support is much appreciated!

  2. Andy Phillips says:

    Hey Dom, great blog. To me it comes down to a combination of imagination and empathy, and also having authority. You create a character who’s experienced things you haven’t. That’s your imagination at work. Also you care about these things – that’s the empathy. You can feel other people’s pain; that’s why it’s difficult to watch horrible scenes such as the ones you mention above. You can kind of feel what it would be like if it happened to you. Not fully, of course, or we’d all be walking around, totally traumatised after watching even Pinoccio. I mean, fancy being turned into a donkey-boy, eaten by a whale, and sung to by a little talking cricket! Anyway, empathy’s what writing fictions of any sort is all about; you want to make people feel things for your characters. But here’s the beauty: you’re the author, so you get to decide what it’s like for your character. Do they get consumed by anger and vow eternal revenge? Do they start saving others from a similar fate? Whatever; it’s your call, since you’re the one making up the entire world.

    I guess that’s no help really, since the big question is how do you mediate your world with the real one? How do you make sure you don’t make bonehead mistakes that anyone who’s really been through such a situation would spot, as in “that’s not what the police really do, in that situation, dumb-ass.” So yeah, research.

    Well those are my two-cents worth. Thanks for an interesting and provocative blog, and good luck with it all. The conventional wisdom is: stay away from rape scenes, since half your audience will be very, very uncomfortable with them. But then again, sometimes the story needs it, as in Monster, as you say. No way can we understand Aileen without a good idea what she’s been through.

    • dom beno says:

      Great input, thanks Andy! And of course it’s a help. Personally it was Labyrinth that traumatised me as a child – I’m not sure why? Maybe it was the thought of losing one of my own younger siblings that scared me so much? Anyway, I think ‘empathy’ is the key word I missed – I’m very conscious of films that use scenes for ‘shock’ factor and want to steer clear of that. I also don’t want to create empathy for my character just by having them suffer an abhorrent act…I think it has to go deeper than that. It probably comes back to the issue Jon (above) raises – ‘WHY tackle a subject like rape?’ I guess the answer to that question is what forms the character, and subsequently determines where the empathy comes in.

      Lots to think about! But I guess thinking about it and being aware of such issues is a good starting point. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond – it’s great to get such insightful feedback! Hope all is going well for you 🙂

  3. Simon says:

    Perspective *is* the key. I think it comes back to something Jon mentioned once on the course about the whole “Write what you know” myth. You don’t have to have been raped to be able to create a character who is a rape victim, or indeed to write such a scene. In fact, like has been said, someone who been through such an experience will – for better or worse – doubtless have a decidedly skewed view. I think it all comes down to isolating the universal emotions identifiable with being a victim of any trauma. Anger, betrayal, despairing. These are things I’d anticipate not only you’ve experienced in some form or another, but the majority of your prospective audience too. It’s these emotions you would draw on, and it’s these emotions that your audience would identify with and apply to their own lives when watching. Beyond that, like you’ve already mentioned yourself, research it within an inch of it’s life.

    Keep us up to date with this one mate, I’d be very interested to see how the concept develops as you research and contemplate your approach.

    As usual, a very interesting read!

    • dom beno says:

      Hey Si…some great points! I think you’re right about drawing on emotions we’ve all felt to make the audience identify with feelings a victim might experience. We’re all individuals, and I guess we all respond and react to things in different ways, but we all experience ‘universal’ emotions as you say. I think I’m confident that I can convey such emotion and create the ‘empathy’ discussed, but I feel now my main issue is whether I’m doing it for the right reason. As I’ve said, lots to think about! But all the comments are really helping and I’m very grateful to you for your thoughts.

      Thanks again for reading mate – it’s nice to know people are taking an interest! Must speak soon 🙂

  4. Andy M says:

    Great blog Dom!

    I wrote a screenplay that focused very heavily on the impact of rape on a small community back in my uni days, it wasn’t great, but it was my first effort at a feature. Something that was very important to me was not addressing rape in a flippant manner or for shock factor. I really had to start thinking about what it meant and I completely agree with your instinct to use it as a catalyst.

    I came to the conclusion that in a way, rape is worse than murder – because you have to live with it afterwards. A murder victim has no more trauma to go through, certainly the people around them do, but not the victim. A victim of a crime as severe as rape has experienced that personal invasion of being overpowered and not being able to stop someone and they then have to live with it for the rest of their life – why did it happen to me? What did I do to deserve this? How will people treat me now? All these issues came up and really helped to develop the story.

    Hope some of these thoughts can be of help to you

    Take care


    • dom beno says:

      Hi Andy…thanks for your response! And yes, all very helpful. In fact, it would be great to take a look at the script you wrote if you’d consider sending it? I understand if you’d rather not, but would be great to see how another writer has tackled this issue.

      All the points you make about the different issues surrounding a crime such as rape, as opposed to murder, are exactly what made me think of using it in the first place. It was the idea that the trauma lives on in the victim, which would drive my protagonist to seek revenge again and again. If the protagonist’s friend was murdered, he may seek revenge by killing the murderer – an eye for an eye. But if the protagonist’s friend was raped, he would have to watch her re-live the trauma day in day out and witness the deterioration of her mental state…killing her attacker may not satisfy his hunger for revenge. However, seeing her suffer every day might drive him to seek out more attackers and continue to avenge her crime by killing more and more of them. That was the idea, anyway.

      Watch this space.

      As I’ve said to everyone, thanks so much for reading and replying – it means a lot! Hope to catch up soon 🙂

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