Cynthia’s Column April 2006
David Putnam was recently honored with a lifetime achievement award from the British Academy of Film (BAFTA), the equivalent of our Oscars. Putnam is a producer whose achievements include Ghandi and Chariots of Fire. He talked about his father who died before David’s first big success, and how he had missed that special look from a proud father and that hug. It made the grief of losing his father more painful, having missed that shared victory and the chance of making his father proud.
Then Putnam told about the experience of seeing the film The Sixth Sense, as a member of the audience. He had nothing to do with that movie. And of the scene near the end when the little boy who “sees dead people” was sitting in a car stuck in traffic with his Mom, trying to tell her about his experiences. She asked if, when she took him to the graveyard, he saw his grandmother. He said, “Yes. She told me to tell you that the answer to your question is ‘Every hour of every day.’” And his mom began to cry. “Mom?” He asked “What was your question?” She said, “Were you ever proud of me?”
And then, in the dark movie theater, David Putnam began to cry. And he felt that he had his own personal message from his father. That his dad had been proud of him every hour of every day. Even for someone who had worked in the motion picture industry for decades, who not only knew how the magic was made, how the strings were pulled including the heartstrings, but had done it himself, moving other audiences to cheers and tears, this scene had a powerful impact.
As writers we need to understand that what we write can have powerful and far reaching impact. It can touch people and change people we will never know about and probably never even imagine.
A few years ago, at a Willamette Writers monthly meeting a woman came up to me and told me that she was an adoptee, and that when she watched Buffalo Girls she felt that Calamity Jane’s letters to her daughter, the baby that she had given away, were written to her from her birth mother and that they’d meant a lot to her. She hugged me and cried and I was glad, but surprised. I had never thought of Buffalo Girls as being about adoption, though of course that was part of the story. I thought of it as being an adventure about women in the old west and a couple of old beaver trappers and Buffalo Bill turning it all into a show as the real Wild West was coming to an end. So there was an example of something I wrote having an impact that I was completely unaware of. Fortunately in this case a positive impact.
Most of the time, we never hear about the impact writers’ work has once it goes out into the world, but sometimes word filters back to us. I wrote a T.V. movie called One Terrific Guy (played by Wayne Rogers) about a gym teacher at Beverly Hills High School who was molesting girls under the pretext of research for a phony doctoral dissertation. When it aired, several girls in America went to their mothers to say, “That happened to me.” And at least one man went to prison as a result.
When the miniseries I Know My First Name Is Steven aired, (which I rewrote from a teleplay by J.P. Miller) it got incredibly high ratings (35 share the first night, 42 the second) and helped to change laws to eliminate the statute of limitations on kidnapping and molesting children.
Sometimes writers have unintended negative impact. Last week bank robbers modeled their crime after the latest Harrison Ford thriller Firewall and stole $87 million from a bank in England, after kidnapping the bank manager’s family. It looks like they will all be apprehended, but yikes! I guess now we have to be careful that our plots seem clever but don’t actually work in the real world. Particularly if we’re writing about crimes or terrorist plots.
Many years ago, on a presidential election night, the only movie on free TV was Deer Hunter. I heard that the next day eleven children were hurt or killed playing Russian roulette with loaded guns, which is dramatized in that movie.
In a frat boy prank movie called XXXXX, as a pledge stunt, drunk football players go out at night and lie down on the white line in the highway, laughing as trucks blow past them at high speed. After seeing the movie, a boy was killed trying this with his friends. I guess this means we can’t underestimate the stupidity of a portion of any audience. When he was around ten, my stepson Jake used to say, “Don’t try this at home. Try it at your friend’s home.” And another one of Jake’s gems, “There’s a time and a place for everything and it’s called college.”
We have to think beyond the commercial to the practical and look beyond “What’s hot? What will sell?” to consider “If they do make this movie or publish this book, what will the impact be? What harm could it do? And what good?” You may not have realized how powerful you are. Get it. You are. You have the power in your pen to kill, and to redeem. As Tom Stoppard put it, (in The Real Thing) if you get the right words in the right order, “you can nudge the world a little. Or make a poem that children will speak for you after you’re dead.”