My wife often tells me that I need to direct a kid’s movie. Something with an anthropomorphized-anything that has a few requisite “believe in yourself” and “I love you the way you are” lines thrown in for posterity. She’s right - we’d make a shit-ton of money and I’d be free to make the movies that I really want to make. Every time she brings it up I stroke my chin thinking about what story I would tell and my wife sees that look on my face. She sighs.
"No," she says, pointing a finger. "You can’t kill anybody in your movie."
And with that, the brilliant idea dies a glorious death. Back to the drawing board. Why can’t I make a tragic kid’s movie? For fuck’s sake Bambi’s mom got shot - gunned down. Old Yeller gets put down. Disney movies are littered with orphans and widows. The original Grimm fairy tales are overflowing with tales of cannibalism, rape and pestilence. These are the stories we were told growing up. “Ring around the rosies,” besides being a playground staple sung by children, also happens to be about the hundreds of thousands of people who succumbed to the plague, the victims of Black Death.
Ring around the rosies - a rash that outbreaks on the skin - pocket full of posies - flowers used to ward off the smell of rotting flesh - ashes, ashes - the skin turning black from necrotic decomposition - we all fall down - everyone kicks the bucket. If memory serves me correct, on the final line, all the kids dancing in a circle collapse and play dead. Good times.
Bring in the plague doctors.
But I think it’s quite beautiful, really. I’ve always had a leaning towards all things dark, and it’s something I know that really bothered my parents and grandparents, and to some extent still bothers them. When I finished the Lilith script my mom asked me why I keep returning to these dark themes, why I can’t just make a lighthearted romantic comedy or an inspirational story of triumph. Before I could answer she corrected herself, looking at the table. “I know, I know - it’s just who you are.”
It makes me question myself, sometimes. Why can’t I simply see the light in things? Why must everything go to the dark side? Even on my TV pilot, which on paper was a very sexy dissection of female desire, onscreen shows signs of my darkness. Female sexuality is a lot about embracing one’s true self, and in my interpretation that journey is one of tackling fear - fear of judgement, fear of failure, fear of embracing one’s true self in the face of mainstream expectation. I filmed a scene that was initially supposed to be flirty as something a lot darker - questioning herself and facing fears in the mirror, and then embracing her wicked naughtiness and going forward with her desires. To me that journey is a lot sexier. Secrets are sexy. Darkness is sexy. Deviance is sexy. Breaking the rules is extremely sexy.
I get a lot of resistance to that, and it’s a difficult thing to try and explain. I’ve always felt that tragedy and darkness resonates far stronger emotionally than a sanitized portrayal of happiness and triumph. It’s the reason why we don’t care that Rocky Balboa lost the fight at the end of Rocky, because ultimately he won the battle - he found love after years of self-punishment and loathing. That, to me, is stunningly beautiful. Today’s storytelling environment would prefer to have Rocky win, because for whatever reason we have this idea that people go to the movies to see winners, because studio executives make the blanket assumption that everyone going to the movies are losers in real life and they don’t want to be reminded of that.
Fuck the executives. Yeah I said it. Fuck ‘em. It’s that same lowest-hanging-fruit mindset that has made for a summer of dreck like The Lone Ranger and The Mortal Instruments. It’s the counter mindset which has made current television so gripping. TV embraces our darkness, our deviance, our attraction to odd behavior and unconventional choices. That used to be the realm of movies, because once upon a time in movies there was no subject too taboo, in large part because of the ratings system and because we had to buy a ticket. Today on television there is also a rating system, and cable television had broken the boundaries of what can and cannot be shown. An episode of Californication would’ve probably gotten an X-rating in the 60s. How times have changed.
This doesn’t mean that I eschew all things light and beautiful. In fact I love movies like Babe and Up, movies that pretty much drive me to tears because they’re so sweet. But those movies are also rooted in real human emotions, and not some saccharine cover-up of how we really feel. Babe the Pig faces extermination (he’s almost chosen for Christmas dinner) and that’s a very real consequence. Up begins with one of the most gut wrenching portrayals of love lost and death. It is the precursor to grief, and is very, very real despite the preposterous nature of the rest of the film. These beautiful, Oscar nominated, super-sweet kid’s movies embrace life in its full spectrum, and don’t gloss over important things like loss and mortality. We cannot love something if we know it’ll be there forever. We want to hang on because deep in our hearts we know at some point it’ll be taken away from us. Our time is important.
Which is why no other convention pulls at my heart more than loss. To lose something dear - something which I experienced all too much this year - is to engage your love on the most intense and molecular level. It is intense and often disturbing to us because at those moments we feel we have no control, that we are losing everything. And at the bottom of the pit, we look up and see that faint light in the dark - a little star, my Zara - and it reminds us why it’s important we love in the first place. That cavalcade of emotions is beautiful and poetic beyond words. It is the foundation of the stories I choose to tell, because I want my audiences to feel that. Because I think that is important. Because I feel that is my contribution to make.
You give me any story and I’ll likely process it though this filter, because that - for better or worse - is the world view I hold. Give me The Avengers and I’ll likely focus on the amount of death wracked upon the city by the battles of superheroes. Collateral damage and its undermining the responsibility of the hero. Give me The Smurfs and I’ll turn it into a tale of persecution and prejudice - much like Babe - and I’ll put real consequences into it. Doesn’t mean I’ll turn it into Smurfpocalypse Now, but I’ll want to infuse real-life consequences into it, reinforce the love for community and brotherhood, and yeah, maybe it’s time for Papa Smurf to suffer a heart attack. That fucker’s old, and he probably eats way too many Smurfberries, or whatever the fuck it is that they eat.
I think I can do a kids movie, and I think a lot of people would watch my kids movie. And if I ever made that kid’s movie I’ll probably get a lot of resistance from parents who will scold me for ruining their kids’ day. I’ll tell them that Harry Potter was the story of a kid whose parents were murdered, and who is being hunted by a murderer himself. Total family fare. But Harry Potter is authentic to that fear, and that is why it resonates with kids. What kid doesn’t fear losing their family, their comfort, their joy? And what kid doesn’t celebrate that Harry pieced his life back together with the help of dear friends and dedicated teachers?
And in response to that I’ll be told that Harry Potter is witchcraft. Some battles you just can’t win, and those battles are not worth engaging. I was a goth kid and while I dropped the black nail polish and black trenchcoat a long time ago, that kid still lives in my soul, because that’s who I really am. Call me a downer, call me a dark soul, call me disturbed and you’ll just be helping my cause. I know all of that, and I’ll love you even more for it, and maybe you’ll see the beauty that I do when we all are on our deathbeds. Because like it or not, we’re all going to be there.