Caution Moviemakers: Directing Movies with Sensitive Subject Matter

Michaela Cavazos as Bridget “Bri Da B” Harrison in No Alternative

[This piece was previously published in MovieMaker Magazine]

There was an evolution from the Hays Code established in the 1930s, which lead a filmmaker like Howard Hawks to bury sexually suggestive dialogue into a conversation about horse racing in The Big Sleep, to the Golden Age of Hollywood in the late ’60s and early ’70s, which was, arguably, a result of the anti-censorship countercultural movement of the time. This Golden Age brought us unadulterated sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in the form of Easy Rider and rocked the foundation of religious audiences in the form of The Exorcist. While some believe The Exorcist hasn’t aged well and its boldness fails to compare to modern horror movies, may I remind you that the lead actress, a 12 year-old Linda Blair, simulated masturbation with a crucifix while screaming, “Let Jesus fuck you.”

The Golden Age of Hollywood seemed to usher in a new era of independent film, and with it, independent thinking, in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Movies began to push the limits of their subject matter; provocation became the norm, often delving into shock cinema. Films such as Reservoir DogsCrash (1996), and Kids played in arthouse theaters and generated impassioned conversations among viewers. Their lack of political correctness attracted audiences to them—there was an inherent shock factor. No filmmaker at the time better exemplifies this than Quentin Tarantino.

Pulp Fiction was a trailblazer for independent cinema. It announced to the world that indie film could give studio blockbusters a run for their money. The majors opened up independent divisions and began to siphon money into smaller films for niche audiences that had the potential to break big. It was nominated for seven Oscars, winning for Best Original Screenplay, and gave Quentin Tarantino carte blanche on every movie he directed from that point on. 

However, despite Pulp Fiction’s accolades and groundbreaking prestige, could Quentin Tarantino make this movie today? I’m not so sure he could.

Samuel L. Jackson (L) and John Travolta (R) in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction.

In my latest film, No Alternative, I take audiences back to the early ’90s, when on-the-edge movies—and music—dominated the pop culture scene. This was a period of time when we saw Nirvana play “Rape Me” on Saturday Night Live and The Notorious B.I.G. rise to the top of the mainstream charts. The film is about two teenagers, a brother and sister; he wants his band to become the next Nirvana, but she rejects the grunge trend and becomes a gangsta rapper named Bri Da B. The story is inspired by my own teenage years and Bri Da B is based on my sister, Briana—she suffered from borderline personality disorder and died at the age of 30 in 2014. She was able to use art, in this case, hip-hop, to channel her emotions and deal with her illness. In some respects, her music was a byproduct of her illness. But her raps were not for the faint of heart. She took the persona of a well-endowed black man, and took it unapologetically, as she rapped about the size of her member, among other subjects difficult to describe in this article. She also dropped the N-word rather frequently. 

Were there stereotypes in her music? Yes. Were there people offended by her music? Yes. Was there a point to it, beside the shock factor? I believe so.

My sister was a tortured soul who didn’t fit into the world the way she was supposed to. Rap gave her the chance to be someone else, expressing her emotions creatively through the music she loved. Whenever she performed, people didn’t know whether to be offended, to laugh, to leave, to dance, or what—it was this communication breakdown of emotion she evoked in people that reflected some measure of brilliance. As a mentally ill person in a society that alienates the mentally ill, she found a home in this persona—the persona of someone from another alienated culture.

On the set of No Alternative.

I use the original lyrics to her raps in the screenplay. I made sure to talk to my cast and crew, some of whom were African American, about the subject matter and any sensitivities to it prior to shooting. The best thing I could do was tell my personal storya story that, taken out of context, might alienate potential collaborators. It was easy to tell, since I lived it along with my sister, even though it took its emotional toll. I made sure our casting director, Judy Bowman, relayed my story to actors reading for the roles, and the heads of the departments made sure to relay it to their crew members. But there was a rather significant misstep: my personal story wasn’t conveyed to the extras, and that nearly lead to a riot.

We were shooting the film’s climactic scene at The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, New York, and there were over 200 extras in the audience. The extras were supposed to have received the scene and the context for the scene beforehand, but the extras casting service failed to provide it. As we began filming Bri Da B performing onstage using racially-charged expletives as part of that performance, people freaked out. I went into the audience to check it out between takes, I was approached and threatened by an extra. It was getting out of hand—we were a small indie film with the bare minimum of resources.

I decided to jump on the stage, take the mic and address the crowd. After enduring some yelling and boos, I proceeded to tell my story and I didn’t sugarcoat it. I told the audience how my sister was mentally ill and how she died, of a drug overdose on a Starbucks bathroom floor. I told them how she used rapping as a way to channel her illness, but part of that process included my little white sister going up on stage and rapping from the perspective of a black man. Was this crazy? Perhaps. Is there sometimes a spark of genius in those who are mentally ill? I think so. This is her story; these are her words—if you’re offended, that’s perfectly fine; I want you to act offended in the scene. I encourage that. I want the audience to react naturally, just like the audiences who witnessed my sister performing for real. I apologized for the fact that they did not receive the context for the scene. I promised it wouldn’t happen again. From that point forward, both my first assistant director, Paul Yates, and I made announcements to the extras before the remainder of Bri Da B’s scenes. I told my story again and again, in order to instill a level of comfort with the extras; in order to give them a way out, if they wished to leave.

Context is everything. No matter how hard it may be to share, or in some cases, to listen. As an artist, my sole objective is to be true to my characters and tell the story of my sister as genuinely and dramatically as possible. Comedian Ricky Gervais sums up offensiveness like this: “Offense is never given, it’s taken. If you’re not offended by something, then there was no offense, it’s as simple as that. If you are offended by something, walk away. I’m offended by things all the time but I haven’t got the right not to be offended, and remember this: just because someone is offended it doesn’t mean they’re right.” He then clarifies, and this is important: “I can justify everything I do. You have got to be able to look someone in the eye and tell them why you made that joke.” While some might be offended by Bri Da B’s language in the film, I can justify it. As a writer, we shouldn’t aspire to write characters that audiences like, we should aspire to write characters that are real. 

Conor Proft as Thomas Harrison in No Alternative

If the character’s behavior and language is truthful, and if the filmmaker’s portrayal of them is justified, it’s OK to watch them; we don’t have to like everything they do. If they do something we don’t like, we are still allowed to like other things they do. The audience should be conflicted over what they are seeing. The recent upsurge of political correctness in making and viewing movies risks a swing in the opposite direction: ideological purity. The problem with that path is it assumes everyone’s idea of moral, cultural, and political correctness is the same. This is a recipe for a singular type of art: meaningless art. Art made in boardrooms based on demographics and the maximum amount of audience appeal. The studios have already leaned hard into this direction, but we can’t let independent film go the same way. If filmmakers are afraid to take risks in their films, to say something with some semblance of meaning, then the medium is doomed.

Sofia Coppola’s recent film, The Beguiled, was essentially cut off at the knees after weathering the controversy of having removed the only African American character from the original story. A great deal of the content in reviews of the film related to her choice to remove this character prior to making the film, not how the film worked on its own. I teach filmmakers that theme is the key to directing a film. Coppola’s theme was isolation; the fact that the movie focused solely on these white women, who willingly separated themselves from the reality of the rest of the world in the throes of The Civil War is the point. If we were to take some critics’ reductions to their extremes, then screenplays would require an abundance of different writers to write them: men write the male parts, women write the female parts; and each gender is then further broken down into ethnicity, and so on. Such a prospect is, of course, ridiculous.

Criticism of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled arguably affected the movie’s success.

The more we separate ourselves from each other in the creative process, the worse it is for film. I learned this by having to tell my story, every day, to people I had never met before. After I spoke to that audience of extras for the first time, an audience teeming with anger, they ended up understanding what I was going for. They were appreciative of my honesty and while some still may not have agreed with Bri Da B’s choices, they understood my justification for portraying this character in this way. The director must put his or her own self on the line; otherwise, there is no way your actors or crew will.

The question is, “Will the audience understand what I’m going for without me being there introducing the film for them, giving them the same speech?” This is the biggest problem for every artist—letting the art speak for itself. Once you’ve completed the movie, there’s little more you can do besides letting it out into the world to be judged. The only thing we can do as filmmakers is tell the truth. 

No Alternative is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video: https://amzn.to/2HX7uSV

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