Horror Factoid: In The Orphanage (2007) Laura's necklace, a St. Anthony medallion, makes a clever reference to her plight. In Catholic religion, St. Anthony is a doctor and patron saint of lost items.






« Julie Gray on How Much is Too Much.. »

Sometimes writers wonder how far is too far in a script. Can a killing be too graphic? What about the sex? What about the subject matter; should you pull it back a bit to make it more commercial?

Writers are aware that the difference between a PG-13 rating and an R can be millions of dollars at the box office. It’s no secret that executives are always looking for the Golden Egg: the four-quadrant movie, which roughly translates to a movie which will appeal to both younger and older men and women. A four-quadrant movie is the Holy Grail because it translates into big box office mojo. An R rating narrows your audience and therefore box office potential.

Intense sex or violence will get your movie an R rating – at least. But if this is the story you feel compelled to tell – I say go for it.

What’s the difference between gratuitous violence and acceptable violence in a script? The answer can be found in the overall tone of your script and in your motivation for writing the violence (or sex) in the particular way that you did.

Gratuitous is defined in Webster’s as:
1. Without cause; “a gratuitous insult”.
2. Costing nothing; “complimentary tickets”.
3. Unnecessary and unwarranted; “a strikers’ tent camp…was burned with needless loss of life”.

In the hundreds of scripts I have read, I have found a distinct a commonality among the incidences of gratuitous sex or violence: the rest of the script is choppy, poorly written and ill-conceived but the violence – oh the Technicolor passion of the clumsy violence! It feels as if the writer doesn’t care about the rest of the script and just couldn’t wait to write something absolutely filthy, shocking, gory or stomach-turning – just for the sake of being shocking. It’s a weird form of showboating. Are you a showboater? Here’s a quick litmus test: Let someone read the scene and give you feedback. If they have problems with it, do you explode in defensiveness? Or can you make a case for the scene and take seriously your friend’s concerns about tone?

The truth is that if the writer has set up the characters and the story properly, the violence or sex might shock and it might be stomach-turning, but on a certain level it won’t feel as if it came out of left field.

Say you want to write a script about a pedophile that makes snuff films. Is that too much? Well – you might have a rough time of selling that, yes, because the percentage of execs or managers who will have their interest piqued by hearing that pitch will certainly be relatively small. Why? Two reasons: one, that kind of material would be difficult to handle for anyone and two, the subject matter will simply not bring in big audiences.

Movies are, at the end of the day, the most populist form of entertainment. They are wish fulfillment, they are a relief from our day-to-day and they take us to a world in which things turn out okay and if they don’t, at least we come away feeling awakened to a situation or set of circumstances that we can mull over and make some sense of – even if it’s that man’s brutality to man is an inescapable part of being human.

If you are planning to tackle very difficult subject matter your best bet is to have an over-arching social message or point to it. BOYS DON’T CRY was extremely disturbing but garnered an Academy Award for Hilary Swank and eleven million dollars at the box office. Not huge box office but on a budget of two million dollars, not bad either. But more importantly, this very difficult movie had a social message of tolerance.

Maybe you’re writing a “gornographic” horror movie like SAW or HOSTEL. Good enough. No big social message needed there. Will the violent scenes you write be too much? Probably not if the narrative is tonally in line with gornography.

Ask yourself: why are you writing such an explicit sex scene or such a graphic violent scene? If it is simply to shock the reader, your friends or maybe even yourself, or to prove that you can write the nastiest, grossest moment ever, then rethink it. Because if the scene feels gratuitous, it won’t shock the reader – you’d have to get up  pretty early in the morning to shock us – but it will probably get you a PASS because gratuitous, narratively unsupported, gross-out violence or explicit sex smacks of amateurism.

But if the scene or scenes are in keeping with tone of the script and the quality of the rest of the script supports it, then I say take a chance. Just make sure you can support it in context of the story, the genre and the characters. 


Julie Gray is the founder of The Script Department, Hollywood’s premier script coverage service. She also directs the Silver Screenwriting Competition and authors the popular screenwriting blog, Just Effing Entertain Me. Julie consults privately with a wide variety of writers and teaches classes at Warner Bros., The Great American PitchFest, The Creative Screenwriting Expo and has taught at San Francisco University in Quito, Ecuador, Columbia College in Chicago, West England University in Bristol and The Oxford Union at Oxford University. Julie lives in Los Angeles, California; her book Just Entertain Me is slated for release by Michael Wiese Publishing in April, 2011. 

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