Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Necessary Swearing

This post uses some swear words. This blog does not usually contain such expletives. I thank you.

I am attempting a Romantic Comedy and wonder what (and if) swearing is acceptable in this genre? My main character is very bitter about life initially, and swears a lot. How far can I push the swearing?

In general, a light smattering of cursing is more than acceptable in romantic comedies. However, you don’t want to do anything to upset the genial tone of what’s going on. So, you wouldn’t have a lot of harsh cussing like motherf***er, the dreaded ‘c’ word, or indeed even mild cursing that comes from a cynical or mean spirited point-of-view.

The opening lines of Four Weddings of a Funeral revolve around the repeated use of the work f***. It’s comic and endearing because the stuffy middle-class characters bumble around as they try to get to a wedding on time. And that’s the key to swearing in romcoms, to make it comic and endearing rather than harsh and bitter. Richard Curtis likes to use a lot of swear words in his films but he does so in a disarming fashion: “fuckity-fuck-fuck” etc.

If your main character is very bitter about life and swears a lot, I would imagine you don’t want to make her a disagreeable or loathsome personality. So for example, she could spill some coffee over her shirt and shout: “Shitting shit it!” as this is funny and generates empathy. Of course, it’s perfectly fine for her to be thought disagreeable or loathsome by the other characters in the film but it’s preferable for the audience to see beyond this characterisation so that they can identify her as a human being who’s just trying to get on with her life.

Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good as it Gets (a romcom) has a loathsome and disagreeable personality but we still root for him to get together with Helen Hunt because the writers have successfully established him as a multi-dimensional, emotional character. He swears a lot too, in my recollection. Well, maybe not a lot but he has a lot of cutting remarks to deliver.

And that’s where swearing can be used most effectively. For comedic and dramatic impact. Too many screenplays litter their dialogue with unnecessary cussing and it doesn’t do much for general characterisation or the reader’s enjoyment. It’s about getting the balance and tone right in terms of who the characters are and what kind of story they’re in. If it’s a comedy crime/action/thriller/cop movie, then you’d expect to hear a lot of swearing. But it can still be used wisely and effectively. Tarantino’s swearing plays well alongside the lively and original content of the character’s dialogue, making the expletives funny and relevant to the story.

I was channel surfing the other night and came across the opening sequence of Lethal Weapon 2, and my god, the swearing. Coming into the film ‘cold’, it was like: whoa, too much, stop it! Cussing and swearing has become so normal, throwaway and acceptable, it’s completely desensitised us to how to use the language effectively. If you want to see cursing done at its astonishing best, check out Al Pacino’s devastating speech to Jonathan Pryce during Glengarry Glen Ross. Even my mother was impressed.


James Moran said...

My mum used to get very angry if a film had lots of swearing - "ooh, another fook, aren't I clever, I can swear a lot" (she gets more Northern when she's annoyed) - and when we watched Lethal Weapon on telly one night, I feared the worst, knowing how sweary it is. But she loved it, thought it was hilarious - cause she liked the characters, dialogue, and story...

Anonymous said...

You want swearing? Try Deadwood Al. Serious cussin'

Anonymous said...

Thanks Danny!

That is sooo useful. Especially the stuff about characterisation.

And thank god I asked you. Because my character IS loathsome and disagreeable as well as bitter and cynical to start off so you've pinpointed another area that I need to pay attention to. Aaarrggh!

Off to download As Good As It Gets!

HUGE thanks!


Danny Stack said...

Excellent Debs, good luck.

Lucy V said...

I f***ing love swearing - as long as it's used properly in scripts, like you say. But then that's totally hypocritical 'cos in real life I swear alot. I get away with it though 'cos "I look and sound like Jane Austen personified" according to some American friends. I have no idea what she really looks like though...Well, apart from me, at least.

Dominic Carver said...

If you fucking want to know about fucking swearing in fucking films then you can fucking do no fucking better than fucking SEXY BEAST. There's lots of fucking swearing in that and yet it works, you c@&t!

Schmucks with Underwoods said...

I've been watching 24, Lost and Prison Break recently and being network TV no f's are allowed. Now, you would think with something like Prison Break where prisoners don't swear that it wouldn't work in terms of authenticity, but, I was amazed to see because the drama and dialogue is so well written and (along with Lost, 24) it is so friggin' engaging you don't even notice the lack of swearing. Swearing just for the sake of it is lazy writing, like all those bad Tarantino replicas that came out after Pulp Fiction. As writers there should be a justification for every word we use in the script, does it help shape character? add to the drama, create tension, sub-text etc or is it just a cheap shot because you've failed in creating engaging and rich dialogue. Look at Pinter, not much effing going on there but look at the tension he creates. Those guy in The Dumb Waiter could be f'ing and c'ing like crazy but they're not and it's still works. Choose your f's and c's carefuly, that's what I say :-)