Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Responsible Filmmaking - sketching the blurry line between the creative and the careful

When I decided to shoot a short film about the day a 14 year-old girl decides to give up her virginity called "My Last Day On Earth", I was not at all thinking about the various practical and ethical issues that it might engender. I was just thinking about the film from a creative/thematic/story-telling perspective that is necessarily divorced - at least initially - from the actual process of realizing this idea as a film.

But once the mechanics of making any particular film are set in motion, the reality of what you are putting people through to fully realize your film starts to come into play - and that's when things get thorny, if not downright hairy....and sometimes tragic.

While at dinner one night over at my good friend and creative collaborator Sean Hood's house, I discussed the film off-handedly with him and talented D.P. Fortunato Procopio. The script included some simulated pot-smoking and , at the time, a couple of shots of simulated sex. I told them I wanted to cast a true 14 year-old to maintain a sense of autheticity and they made it clear that this was not a good plan. They informed me it was not only irresponsible, it was illegal. I was a little surprised by their reaction and (mis)read some moral indignation in their tone. So, of course, I decided to needle them by pretending I didn't care and suggested that America's cock-eyed puritanism was not going to influence my creative judgement.

What emerged was a fascinating, contentious (and perhaps irritating for them) debate about the conflict between personal responsibility and creative ambition. I'm the first guy to criticize filmmakers for not demanding more from their films and doing all that is necessary to create a truly unique and arresting film - filled with authenticity, complexity and power. But on the other hand, I have seen and heard about filmmakers so blinded by their own obsessive "vision" that they have put actors and other crew members in harm's way both physically and emotionally.

In my case, I was going to ask a young girl to simulate a very sensitive and profound adult experience that she may, in her own life, be nowhere near comprehending - let alone experiencing - the fact of which, my friends argued, may cause irreparable harm to her psyche. Although they acknowledged there are many girls who may actually be sexually experienced at 14 years old, there is no way of me knowing that nor the circumstances surrounding those experiences. I argued that this was a rather tame simulation and that there are films where girls of similar age are doing much more shocking and egregious acts. I made the point that each girl is different and this, then, becomes a personal decision - one that should be made jointly by the girl and her parents.

Carson Goodwin and Daisy O'Bryan (laying down)
rehearsing for "My Last Day On Earth".

Of course, they countered with the point that there are many desperate stage parents whose judgement is clouded by the ambition they harbor for their child and will let them do just about anything. As for the films that had children engaging in more graphic behavior, there's no way to know the psychological toll such "acting" took on their lives.

Good points. I would never want to be responsible for willfully causing any kind of permanent harm - physical, emotional, mental, spiritual or otherwise - to any cast or crew member no matter how "important" realizing the film in a specific way might be to me. Even accidents, such as the ones that killed Brandon Lee and Vic Morrow would haunt me forever and make it perhaps impossible to ever make another film.

Of course, a death is an extreme example. But there are many other things short of that which can happen that would thoroughly suck - mental breakdowns being a rather common occurrence on shoots that test the limits of a cast member (or entire cast/crew's) endurance. And I certainly would not want to be even partially responsible for transforming a sweet, innocent 14 year-old girl into a potentially promiscuous, drug-using, shop-lifting, therapy-needing basket case of an adult.

But I recently saw a beautiful, but gut-wrenching short film from Iceland at the Los Angeles Film Festival called "2 Birds". It was gut-wrenching for one particular scene that **SPOILER ALERT** graphically depicted the rape of an unconscious teen-age girl. This was not an 18 year-0ld playing a 14 year-old. This was truly a 14 year-old, which was obvious from her body type since she was nude in the scene. This gave the film a sense of authenticity and power that was absolutely horrifying. As a cautionary tale, it was even more profoundly disturbing for having this veracity. As a work of creative ambition, this choice made the film's final moments even more deeply affecting.

However, given what I had gone through trying to cast my film, I couldn't help but wonder what parent would let their child do this and how this scene might have affected the actual young actress playing the victim. Shot in Iceland, I simply assumed they may not have the same laws protecting minors that we do here in the States. But beyond the legalities, what were the ramifications? And was the end result that was achieved worth those ramifications or even the risk of adverse ramifications even if there were none? I personally could not answer that because I was so bowled over by the film.

In my thinking, most films that take obvious creative risks and/or convey an authentic and palpable sense of the character's experience are going to rise head and shoulders above all other films. And the bigger the risks, the bigger the potential payoffs...and potential failures - on screen and off. So when are we taking it too far? When is the true life experience of making the film too dangerously secondary to the art we are attempting to create? And is the lasting cultural/social impact of that art ever more important than the lasting personal impact of its creation?

I really don't know the answer since the lines blur for me at a certain point. And I really don't think there is a single answer that an be applied to all filmmaking situations. But I think the answers are less important than the questions. Legalities aside, if you aren't even asking yourself these questions, then you are perhaps dangerously self-absorbed.

With my film, it simply boiled down to a practical/legal matter. If I wanted to show simulated sex, I would have to get an actress over 18. Otherwise, parents would rail in disgust and perhaps torch my home. But also, I could get arrested. The other option was to cast an authentic 14 year-old, but remove the simulated sex and keep everything at the level of suggestion. This second option seemed like the more elegant and poetic choice and, therefore, the choice I made. And I don't regret it. My film didn't need anything more graphic. But some films do demand more if they hope to realize their full power and potential. Tough choices are made. And, perhaps, not without consequence....


  1. Your post raises a lot of thorny issues. How much are we willing to push the limits? And it’s one thing if it’s a Herzog or Bergman or Cassavettes we read about, risking their all and stretching their collaborators to the physical or emotional brink. And it’s another if it’s . . . us – or more specifically, me. What is the right we can claim to dance on the ledge? And what if it simply doesn’t turn out and the turmoil’s for nothing?
    Where is the line between ethics and aesthetics. As you say, no easy answers, but something to chew on.
    Still, one issue you raised sticks with me. You mentioned your collaborators/pals/conspirators immediately warned you of the harm you could inflict on a 14-year-old child.
    I don’t know much about them, but I have drawn a great deal of insight from Sean Hood’s blog, and thank him for letting his readers know about Hilary Hahn’s Bach music.
    But as much as their concern is warranted, a 14 year old girl is not, generally, a child or naïve, or, often, particularly fragile. I speak having had a daughter who was 14, a son who is 14 now and having taught students their age. They face a strikingly cruel and harsh environment. I live in Boulder – so did you, I think? – so it’s far from any economic impoverishment. But the issues my daughter faced among her friends sounds like a horrible variation on “13” – kids who cut, kids who use marijuana, beer, vodka, kids in rehab from alcoholism, kids with STDs. In one year, 13 to 14, a teacher in my daughter’s school committed suicide, another student in her school fought off brain cancer, and a third died in a car crash.
    Adolescents are hardly cloistered (were you? were the people you knew in ninth grade isolated to that point?)
    Again, I know your councilors were only working from the best motivations. But as my children passed through the rigors of middle and high school, they got stronger. They were resilient and met the challenges with the tools we all have – art, defiance, and occasionally, the anesthetics of dope, games, TV.
    I guess my short point is: at 14, they’re not like they were at four, or eight or 10. While it’s wrong to treat them like adults, generally, it’s wrong to believe they are completely children. Historically, teenagers, when placed in positions of responsibility, generally acted with grace and strength, forging a way for their families, starting trades, and even, in Admiral Farragut’s case, leading naval victories. I wonder if sometimes the craziness of teenagers is our unwillingness to entrust them with responsibilities, with our reluctance to challenge them in a careful way. Lately, I think we all lose when we allow ourselves and the forces around us to always lull us into a passive, childlike state, and I’d hate to see that imposed, even on 14 year olds.
    On the other hand, I did have a drama teacher in high school who had to talk a student of his down from a bridge – she’d identified with her Chekhov character to the point where she despaired of life and was ready to die. And this particular teacher was probably one of the most careful and kind men I’ve known.
    Anyway, congratulations on making your film; I hope I see it soon.
    And thank you for your blog, which continues to be a source of ideas and inspiration.

  2. Your movie does not bring up thorny issues at all. Nor any practical or ethical issues. It is cut and dry - you don't use a 14 year old for a sex scene - even if it is just simulated. For one thing it is illegal (unless by practical you mean find a way to do it illegally). For another you have your head so far up that can't see reality. You want to get a 14 year old sexually involved (even simulated) so that you can gratify your creative vision that I am sure you think is the greatest movie ever but which in reality nobody will probably ever watch anyway. For another - it is why real film makers find ACTORS. You find an adult who you use for your movie. Would you advocate really shooting someone in your move so that it looks realistic? No, you ACT it out.
    And Timothy - pedophiles use your reasoning as well - well a 14 year old is not like they are 4??? Wow.

  3. I don't know anything about Timothy and I can see where his point of view can be challenged, but nowhere does he or I advocate children under 18 participating in sexual activity on camera. The discussion was launched by the issue of how much they can be exposed to even by suggestion (I already acknowledged the legal boundaries of anything beyond that). And you totally miss the larger issue of the truly thorny issue of how much difficult stuff we expose children AND adults to in service of creative work. You rail against sexual simulations (perhaps appropriately, however different countries have different points of view about this as witnessed by the short film I discussed), but you say nothing about exposing children to simulations of violence which are ubiquitous.

    Life as it is, can be complicated and difficult - but I much prefer it to the "cut and dry" version you seem to be living in. Too bad you can't make your point without reactionary, judgemental, counter-intellectual moralizing.

  4. @Anonymous. I agree with you. Directors should use actors.

    I am not advocating that people under 18 participate in sexual acts in front of cameras. It is surprising how quickly the term pedophilia gets tossed around in discussing young people, a bit like the Hitler gambit when talking about politics. It allows us to stop thinking.

    My main point, perhaps expressed badly, is that 14 year olds are, while not complete people, often mature, capable and not necessarily children in the way that a 10 year old is. Or a four year old. Seriously. Do I need to argue that? That someone's different at 14 than at four?

    This does not make them adults, either, not by law and not in practice, for good reasons.

    But, by offering them a chance to participate in meaningful art, we can offer them a chance to grow, and perhaps offer them some perspectives and experiences that are absent, or not available in, say, the Twilight series or the mass media.

    To Jacques' point, it is surprising what we allow and don't allow minors: you could see, for example, a man getting a pencil rammed into is eye ball for comic effect in The Dark Prince -- a PG-13 movie. Apparently this is less traumatic and obscene than a pair of naked buttocks. Or a passionate kiss.

    We allow 16 year olds to drive -- one of the most physically dangerous activities anyone can undertake, with more than 36,000 people killed each year in car crashes. But looking at a breast, a vagina or a penis is apparently even more dangerous and risky than that.

    There's a strange dichotomy in the experiences we allow and are willing to discuss with teenagers, and those we are not. Yet, those are often -- not universally, but commonly -- experiences they are facing in real life. The cant and hypocrisy surrounding adolescents' lives continues to surprise me, or perhaps my experience is completely atypical. I'm not saying it's right or good that middle schoolers have to deal with suicide, drugs, or sex. But they often must.

    I haven't seen Jacques's film or read his script, but in principle, if it was well written, aesthetically ambitious, tried to tell the truth as he saw it, then I don't see why -- with the consent of responsible adults outside the process -- a 14 year old actor shouldn't participate in its making.

    To emphasize again, though, I imagine that it was strengthened by choosing to suggest the act rather than show it.

    Since I didn't get this point across, I'll try again:
    It is cruel and despicable to use people, and most especially children. But, within a shared context, with the proper and responsible participation of caring adults, it isn't automatically a violation of a 14-year-old's psyche to ask him or her to act in a serious piece of work, either, even one that touches on sexual themes.

    It could be positive - finding a way through making art to come to terms with the complex lives they have to live.

  5. Given the complexities of laws passed a few years ago to protect children I would suggest that you consult with legal council before taping.