BEHIND THE LINES WITH DR: Movie Ratings – The Pirate Movie Principle

Doug Richardson’s first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder. Visit Doug’s site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels.

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There’s an old kid’s joke that goes like this: You ask the child, “Hey. Did you hear what the pirate movie is rated?” And then when the kid screws up his face into a question mark, you shut one eye, make a hook with your index finger, and with a throaty voice you growl, “Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!”

Then I stole this joke as a response to those moments when my dear departed mom would ask me what I was working on.

pirate-movie-principle“Writing another pirate movie, mom,” I’d quip.

“A pirate movie?” she’d ask.

“Oh you know me, mom. The only movies I write are rated Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.”

Cue mom. She’d throw me a sideways look of disapproval and shake her head. Ahhh. So proud.

But back to them pirate movies. Or those of the R-rated variety. I do seem to have a knack for scribbling them. This despite having raised two kids. You would think being a parent I would have had some relevant insight into family fare. Lord knows I’ve sat through enough of it, from the excruciating to the sublime.

So picture this. It’s opening night of my movie Hostage. For fun – or a matter of tradition – I gathered up some pals and bar-hopped between movie times, checking for sell-out theaters and, more importantly, gauging audience responses. To my mind, nothing is more informative to a movie’s effectiveness than eavesdropping on conversations as ticket-buying civilians exit from darkness into the lobby lights.

Only this time I couldn’t so much focus on the what people were saying as much as what some of them were doing – which was holding the tiny hands of their extremely young children as they disembarked the theater. An extraordinary number of parents had somehow dragged their children – from eight years old to as young as one – to my two-hour, R-rated suspense thriller that was aimed entirely at an adult audience.

“What the hell?” I said aloud. “Can’t these people afford a Goddamn babysitter?”

A rhetorical question, maybe. My kids were young. I knew the modern cost of a babysitter. It was cheaper to drag the kids to an inappropriate movie than paying ten to fifteen bucks an hour for a sitter. And that didn’t include the standard large Dominos pizza and two liter soda.

“If you can’t afford the bloody sitter,” I continued, “Then wait for the friggin’ DVD.”

I felt a hand on my shoulder, squeezing tightly.

“Breathe,” said my friend, Robert. “You’re not the kids’ parent.”

“Can’t they read the rating?” I pissed. “What the hell is rated R supposed to mean?”

Sure. I wasn’t the parent of the aforementioned abused children. Yes. I said it. Abused. Regardless of whether you cared for my movie or not, I expect most would agree it is not “family” fare. And any parent who willingly subjects their young to sit through such a picture is, in my opinion, an abuser.

That said, if I was so perturbed by the potential result, why the hell did I have to write that kind of movie?

Well, maybe it’s in my DNA. Follow.

The genetic construct of my movie brain was formed in the nineteen seventies. Way back then there were only three channels on the home TV. Neither VHS nor Beta had been invented. If a film did show up on TV it was edited not just for objectionable content, but for time so it could reside neatly into a two-hour scheduling block, sliced and diced to allow for commercials, and reformatted to fit into a tiny, cathode-ray projected screen with lousy, interlaced resolution better suited for cataracts’ patients.

No. If I wanted to see a movie I had to go to a movie theater, drop a few hard-earned singles from painting fences or some such labor on a PG- or G-rated title, then when the usher had his back turned, steal into my pre-targeted R-rated feature. There I would buckle up in a big, dark, sticky-floored room with soda, a bag of popcorn and escape into someone’s beautifully manufactured celluloid dream.

It was my drug. And whenever I could, I would go back for more.

Maybe I was more discerning because I had to earn the money myself to pay for the movie. And because I was buying the ticket with my own sweat, I craved the most experiential bang for my bargain matinee buck. And back then, those movies were usually of the R-rated variety. Gritty, urban dramas directed by guys named Lumet and Friedkin and Coppola.

With age and perspective, I now understand the attraction. I was a geeky kid living a PG-rated rural life of pick-up trucks, Friday night lights, Sunday school, weekend assaults by the local Jehovah’s Witnesses, and more hours dedicated to dirty farm chores than homework. Thus those film dramas that catered to urban adults were my big escape.

Not that I haven’t tried to write more docile stuff. Welcome to Mooseport was PG-13. Then again, if Tom Schulman hadn’t done the actual pen to paper work I might’ve scripted a scene where Gene Hackman – as the former President of the United States – put the hammer down on a stolen muscle car as he car-chased local drug kingpin Ray Romano through the mean streets of Mooseport, Maine.

Hell. I’m so not family friendly I got fired off the one and only PG-13 Die Hard movie. I even had the politically asinine chutzpah to argue with Fox CEO Tom Rothman over the marketing wisdom of whether he should’ve been able to advertise the picture during The Simpsons.

But what the hell did I know? I was just the writer of the moment.

Anyhow, I’m painfully aware that my movies have been restricted to a statistically smaller audience. And until recently, I wouldn’t have allowed my children to see most of ‘em. Which pretty much sucks when my kids have shown that rare interest in my work and my conscience disallowed it. I mean, how many more chances would I have to be a cool dad?

Don’t answer that.

I recall that my son was disconcerted that a bunch of his pals had seen Bad Boys and yet he hadn’t. Still concerned that all the crude references weren’t the right food for his mushy young brain – let alone the capacity to process that his dad had written the aformentioned sex jokes – I was able to convince Columbia Pictures to send me the TV edit of the movie as a lousy, unsatisfying compromise.

Then there’s my daughter. She doesn’t want to see my movies because she fears it’ll be awkward to watch and wonder why that dark, putrid stuff came out of her old man’s warped melon.

Yes. It’s up to the parent. Not the filmmaker. I have my standards. Others have theirs. And kids, like when I was young, will do their darnedest to sneak into the movies their moms and dads will most surely find objectionable.

Finally, this last exchange. I was in line one weekday to buy a ticket for a matinee. It was for an R-rated picture which I already knew was extremely violent and, in my humble opinion, definitely not for kids.

“Hey pal,” said the unshaven fellah at my rear. “You seein’ the twelve-forty-five movie?”

“Yes,” I answered. “Would you mind?” With that, he revealed a pair of nine-year old boys who’d been hiding behind him. “Theater won’t let ‘em in without a grown up?”

“You’re not -?”

“-Got someplace I gotta be,” said the guy. “No skin off you. Boys got their own money.”

“You do know the movie is rated R,” I said. “Not at all for kids.”

“Probably nothin’ they haven’t already seen,” he smirked. “You got kids?”

“Yes.”

“So you get where I’m comin’ from. Help another dad out, will ya?” he begged.

“Sorry, man,” I said. “Because I don’t know where you’re comin’ from. Not on my life would I take my kids –“

“-Whatever,” he said, shoving right past me to the next adult ear he could grind. “Hey man. You mind taking my kids to the movie? They got their own money.”

“Sure,” said the retired guy with bad socks without so much as a second thought.

“And while you’re at it,” I angrily suggested, “Why not buy the boys a case of Budweiser.” That was when I walked away, blowing off the lunch show, uncertain anybody had even heard or cared a tinker’s whit about my moral protest. Friggin’ pirate movies.

By reading this, my bet is that you’ve already figured that I haven’t come to any reasonable conclusion on my pirate movie predicament. I also readily admit that I still prefer my movies with a more adult bias. And I do look back ever-so-fondly on having successfully snuck into to so many “Rrrrrrrr” rated pictures when I was underage, unaccompanied, and desperately seeking two hours of cinematic escape.

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