Do Your Screenplays Ask the Big Questions?

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by Fin Wheeler

The world was rocked this week when America suffered its worst mass shooting in modern history. Worse still was the news that the Orlando shooting was only one of six mass shootings in the US that weekend. In the past 1,000 days, America has had 1,260 mass shootings in which four or more people were killed.

This tragic event has some people arguing about gun control, others are busy debating whether the tragedy was an act of terror, a hate crime, a combination of both, or something else entirely. Other people are arguing about the definition of “mass shooting” — should it be “four or more people shot (fatally or not),” or “four or more people killed”? And there are always those people who loudly blame books, video games, movies, and television for inciting real-world violence.

As well as the increasingly regular domestic mass shootings, there’s also the ever-present threat of terrorism, the troubling global economy, foreign conflicts, climate change, the largest refugee crisis since World War II, the worry about potential nuclear incidents and plant leaks, the fact that a quarter of all female American college students report being sexually assaulted at university, and to top it off, an ex-reality star has decided to run for President.

Artists the world over have turned to their craft to express their profound sorrow, frustration, fear, confusion, feelings of helplessness, and anger.

As early-career writers, it’s tempting to pass the buck: let the seasoned screenwriters grapple with the big, complex, contradictions of contemporary society.  Let them examine the big issues.

Sure, we know that our writing ought to have some deep underlying message, but who has the time to grapple with the deeper questions? Isn’t it more strategic to churn out just another indie crime caper with a small cast, limited locations and some token moral dilemma at its center — something that has a much higher chance of being made?

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When you get a group of film-lovers together, they usually cite Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), Robert Towne’s Chinatown (1974) and Brian Helgeland and Curtis Hanson’s LA Confidential (1997) as three of the best produced screenplays to successfully tackle complex societal problems. I would also add Callie Khouri’s Thelma & Louise (1991) to that list.

As writers, isn’t it our job to be asking the tough questions? More so now, given that professional journalism is disappearing? Google and Facebook take almost all advertising revenue, yet they produce zero content, and their percentage continues to grow. This leaves the legitimate news services, the ones who actually pay professional writers and researchers to investigate and create responsibly sourced content, with fewer resources than ever.

Surely, the screenwriter’s role is more important and more vital than ever.

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So, where is this generation’s Chinatown? Where are the entertaining, timely, thought-provoking pieces that unpick and examine the complexities of this bizarre, extreme, chaotic, and confusing era we live in?

As a screenwriter, do you create at least one writing project a year that tries to make some sense of this current chaos? Do you read deeply and widely, in a serious attempt to understand our times within the context of a greater historical whole? Do you think big and boldly on the concepts you choose to develop?

As a writer, are you using your craft, your skill, your talent, and your words wisely?

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Fin Wheeler is a member of the Australian Writers’ Guild and has a feature in development.

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