6 October 2019

Anton Chekhov said that if you bring a gun on stage, you have to use it. Actually, the quotes are a little all over the place. He may have said, One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.” Or it might have been, If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” Either way, you get the idea. Don’t waste the gun. Use it.

In my movie scripts, violence was my default plot point. I never wasted a gun. As the action peaked, we were driving a fast car, setting a bomb, sticking a knife just below somebody’s eye, pulling a gun. All of us aspiring screenwriters learned from Roman Polanski (Nicholson; knife dangerously in nose; Chinatown ). From John Huston. From Tarantino. Violence was a noble expression … of something.

From working in news, and as a screenwriter, I needed a working knowledge of firearms. I learned how to load a shotgun. I know how to brace myself for the recoil and how your shoulder hurts if you aren’t prepared for it. I know how to sight down the barrel of a Glock and why you can’t fire off rounds too quickly. I can tell if a cop is carrying a Sig Sauer verses a Smith & Wesson.

To write realistic scenes of violence, I convinced myself, I had to know these things. Today, this all strikes me as bullshit knowledge taking up room in my brain. It took a while to come to this conclusion. When producing a news story for a network a few years back, I brought the crew to a firing range to film b-roll of men shooting handguns. When the owner found out it was for a story about the medical cost of gun violence, he called me up later and said I’m going to kill you.”

The irony didn’t escape me. It should have been a turning point for me but it wasn’t. I kept writing violent scenes into my scripts. What’s stopped me now is real life.

The NRA has proven effective at blocking gun laws, even sensible, conservative gun laws. As a result, our schools and our streets aren’t safe from a teenager with a high-capacity magazine, and our homes can become killing fields when a firearm is part of a pattern of domestic violence.

I didn’t want to use the powerful engine of fiction to give lessons in how to kill people. But it didn’t stop me from using violence in my documentary work, at least not for a few years. Even in non-fiction, we create stress by putting people in physical jeopardy.

Shouldn’t there be another way?

Can we build drama in our stories because the characters are … dramatic? Because we care what happens to them? Well, sure. But that’s a lot harder for male writers. Yes, I am shining a spotlight on men, and on myself, because we don’t write relationships first, we go for action. And from action it’s an easy slide into somebody pulling a gun. (“How am I gonna get myself out of this scene? Somebody breaks down crying and runs out? Well, um, wouldn’t it be better if they set fire to the place first?”) Violence has become the last resort of the insecure writer who isn’t sure his characters can deliver emotionally.

No, I’m not proposing a dramaturgy of flatline people floating around on anti-depressants. But must so many movie stories reach a climax involving a weapon? Do we have to use the power of story to give lessons to unstable boys with guns so they know what to do after they strap on a weapon and stride into a school?

This is costing us.

(c) Lee Schneider 2023. Take care of each other. Subscribe.