The problem starts with the first word a director utters on a set. He shouts “action.” He doesn’t shout “dialogue.” There is an expectation of movement, not words. The boundaries of that movement have long been subject to controversy. Specifically, the issue of violence.
Experienced filmmakers tend to feel the same way about violence on film as they do about sex: Less is more. One violent act, or the suggestion of one, can have a far greater impact on an audience than a prolonged succession.
I have personally been involved in arguments — some heated — with filmmakers about this issue, as a studio executive and as a producer. I won some of the arguments and lost others.
No one enjoys creative conflicts, but, in retrospect, I’m glad they happened; indeed, I believe there are instances today where studio executives are too intimidated by filmmakers to challenge them on issues of sex and violence. What’s been forgotten is that, while filmmakers of “the new Hollywood” gained their creative muscle in the ’70s, they were also confronted by a new generation of studio executives who fought them tooth and nail on creative calls. While old rules were being challenged, there were cases in which the studio insisted, “You’ve gone too far.” And when a filmmaker said, “I’ve got final cut,” the studios would respond, “Then your release date is in February in one theater in New Jersey.”
The most impactful use of violence on film occurred in a scene in John Schlesinger’s “Marathon Man.” It involved Dustin Hoffman in a dental crisis. And nothing happened. Schlesinger belonged to the less is more school.
At the opposite end of the scale was Sam Peckinpah, a director I highly respected but ardently disagreed with. Peckinpah had an almost mystical belief in screen violence as a metaphor for the human condition.
Peckinpah’s signature scenes were the violent rape in “Straw Dogs” and the gratuitous murder of a woman in “The Wild Bunch.” One of the epic Peckinpah studio battles took place on a 1970s MGM movie called “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.” The actors were paddling along a river when a man sunning himself on the shore suddenly picked up a rifle and started shooting at them.
The MGM executives thought the scene was gratuitous and wanted it cut. Peckinpah felt the violent scene had existential significance and insisted it be kept in. The studio secretly hired another editor and dictated its own cut. It all ended in a lawsuit which, as usual, the studio won. On a personal level I was very fond of Peckinpah and was pleased when he came to my office one day to present his case for directing “The Godfather.” He made a persuasive case, but his version of “The Godfather,” not surprisingly entailed scenes of extreme Mafia violence. The job ultimately went to Francis Coppola, who disliked violence so strongly that he even resisted the famed tollbooth scene (a scene we at the studio strongly favored).
Even those filmmakers who favored violent confrontations in movies would blanch, however, at the mayhem on today’s videogames such as “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” or “Medal of Honor Warfighter.” These games not only embrace violent scenes but even include product placement opportunities for weapon manufacturers, including them as marketing partners. Links on the “Medal of Honor” site allow customers to click through to weapons catalogs.
The cause-and-effect issue took on new clarity last year when the Norwegian assassin of 77 boasted that he honed his skills by playing and re-playing “Call of Duty.”
No filmmaker would ever want that responsibility.
As for Schlesinger on “Marathon Man,” he took great pains to prepare the scene in which Dustin Hoffman submitted to the dental ministrations of Laurence Olivier. There were long discussions about what instruments would be displayed. In one early test screening in San Francisco many members of the audience streamed from the theater when a scene, from Hoffman’s point of view, showed Olivier approaching with a drill and Hoffman starts screaming. The cut was later modified.
In essence, nothing was really shown. The audience still cringed.