This one’s about a kind of evolution. To be more acute, it’s about my own twisting journey. From a puppy writer to who I am today and some earth-shaking obstacles between. Follow and see if this vibrates your own tuning fork.

But first, the beginning.

I’d submitted a short film script to one of my college professors. His primary criticism was the oldest one in the writer’s handbook. His complaint was that I hadn’t written from a place remotely familiar to me.

“Write what you know,” he opined, repeating that tired old adage.

“I would,” I replied in full snark. “But I’m kinda full up on student films about socially retarded film geeks who can’t get laid.”

This might be explain why so many young movie nerds are infatuated with comic books and otherworldly science fiction. But me? I applied my lack of life experience to some dramatic fantasy on the grittier side. I was and still am fascinated by the world’s cultural underbelly. Good versus real evil. Antiheroes. Thus I consumed the films of the late sixties and seventies with the appetite of a boy who hadn’t lived beyond a suburban front yard and a Boy Scout sleep away camp. If my own truth wasn’t interesting enough to film, I’d write about the dark trials of those who’d already lived.

Years passed. I’d eventually written my way into a marketable position inside the Hollywood candy store. Imagine my geeky glee when I landed a gig writing a studio movie that took place inside the subterranean world of illegal New York City nightclubs. It was supposed to be a Romeo and Juliet story bridging the world of a hardened parole officer from New Jersey and a sexy dancer from Spanish Harlem who lived her life for the beat of salsa music. My goal was to out-grit those pictures that had raised me. I didn’t necessarily want the reader to live in the gutter. But I did want them to get at least of whiff of it.

And nothing was off limits. The darker, the more realistic I reasoned. On a NYPD ride-along through the South Bronx I heard a horrifying story about a recent hostage situation. A cracked-out Dominican fugitive had held off a battalion of SWAT cops for hours by threatening to drop his one-year-old toddler out a tenth story projects window. Sadly, the stand-off ended badly, resulting in the violent deaths of both father and child. Despite the tragedy, the writer in me was jacked at having been entrusted with a first-person account of the event.  I even received a private tour of the crime scene. It was a must for me to include a version of the story in my screenplay. Not just for dramatic sake. But for the authenticity I so desired.

The final script got a solid reception, though the studio was always angling for a greater emphasis on the love story. And in the subsequent revisions, my harrowing real life account of that toddler-held-hostage by his drug-infected father was left behind for more romantic tones. Mind you, the script never lost its feel for the street or its sense of direction. I was only asked to excise the most extreme and harrowing moments that the old fart producers found difficult to digest. I wrote off their lack of guts to too many soft years lunching on watercress salads at the Beverly Hills’ Polo Lounge. The pair were just too damned sensitive to brave some actual veracity in our film.

In the end, a couple of directors stepped in and out of the picture. Yet like so many other studio development projects, my script languished and was eventually forgotten.

Fast forward a few more years. It was a Friday date night for the War Department and me. On tap for that particular evening? The usual dinner and a show. Trainspotting was still playing in a few theaters. We picked the last showing, settled into our seats with a large popcorn, sodas, and box of Junior Mints, and relaxed while Danny Boyle and John Hodge’s film unspooled.

Maybe two or three reels into the film, I recall a moment when the toddler who lived in the apartment-slash-heroin den was framed in a doorway. I was instantly struck by the familiar look on the baby’s face. Barely a year and crawling on all fours, she gazed off-camera with a bemused smile that only a child that age could reserve for her mum or dad. I knew this look all too well, being that I was a new father and my own baby boy often gifted me with such a trusting face. I even imagined the camera set-up itself with the mother just out of frame, flirting with her baby daughter in order to help the filmmakers capture the moment.

I know. It would seem I’m making much ado about a single five-second shot in a film. But please follow.

Not long after the aforementioned scene, there was a POV shot where the camera was pushing through the dingy flat and, with every twisting turn, a woman’s wail grew louder.

“Oh, Lord,” I accidentally said aloud. “Don’t let the baby be dead.”

Yet I already knew the result. The writer in me not only saw the horrible moment coming, but would’ve probably scribbled it out in just the same way. Despite that, as the camera wheeled into the bedroom, nearing the crib, ready to tilt down for the dramatic reveal, I lurched to my feet and fled the theater.

Up to that point in my movie-adoring life, I can’t recall ever voluntarily walking out of a film. No matter the content, from the repugnant to the inane, I viewed movie theaters and the works screened therein as sacrosanct. After all, I’d expect nothing less of someone who’d paid to see one of my pictures.

The War Department eventually followed me out of the cinema. She discovered me seated on a bench trying to stuff a sock in my sobbing. I was angry and hurt. I couldn’t grapple with the fact that the filmmakers had, for the sake of their story, sacrificed that beautiful child. Fictional as the death was it had emotionally walloped me as if real. So much so I had to vacate my seat.

Of course much of my mind frame was informed by having recently become a father. And from that came some obvious and new sensitivity. I never would’ve imagined that I would allow those feelings to bleed into my taste in film. Hell, I was not just an artist, but a pro. Where was the detachment?

It took me a while to crawl out from underneath my emotional stupor. As it turned out, my Trainspotting experience was hardly a one-off. Children in peril became my new hot button. I could stomach pretty much any kind of screen violence. Appreciate it in the correct context. At least until a young child was in imminent danger. My heart would break into a gallop. My palms would leak sweat. And I would be unable to keep my runaway imagination from placing my own children in harm’s way.

The same sentiment could also be applied to my writing. for a time I automatically steered away from writing scenes where kids were in grave danger. Not that it was difficult. Nervous executives are generally averse to anything that might turn off an audience. Nobody was exactly twisting my arm to include that kind of drama in my work.

Then came Hostage. The story busts open with a horrifying situation ripped from so many present-day headlines. A deranged father holds a battalion of cops at bay by threatening to kill his wife and son. For the story to work, the sequence needed to end with the worst possible outcome in order to inform the trauma suffered by the negotiator played by Bruce Willis. Though I found it difficult to work through the scenes, I wrote most of the gut-wrenching action to take place off-screen. I chose to let the drama unfold on the face of the actors.

On the day prior to filming the scene in question, our chief of special effects swung by video village and asked me if I wanted to be there for the “blood test.”

“What blood test?” I asked.

“Of the kid who gets shot,” he said. “Got him all made up and hooked up to a pump that squirts blood out of his jugular until he bleeds out.”

I was aghast. I couldn’t do it and declined the invitation on the spot.

The next morning, I met up with Bruce Willis in his trailer. We discussed the scene. Bruce was wrestling with how much his character should melt down.

“All the way,” I suggested. “I think you should cry.”

“That far?” asked Bruce, concerned it would be too much emotion at the start of the film.

“I cried when I wrote it,” I said. “The scene deserves somebody shedding tears. I wouldn’t have written it otherwise.”

What followed was a lengthy chat about my evolution of feelings when it came to depicting screen violence against children. Bruce, the father of three girls at the time, totally concurred.

“If I’m gonna cry,” he said. “You gotta be there.”

“Oh, I’ll be there,” I assured him. “For having written the damn scene, I deserve all the pain I can withstand.”

I doubt very much that this is where my journey on this particular subject comes to a conclusion. It’s a ride that I haven’t yet stepped off of. Still, evolution as both a writer and a human being is a funny thing. It’s as much about what you select as what selects you. In other words, I choose what I write and how I write it. But some of the emotions that might get unearthed in the process? Whether I like it or not I believe they choose me.

Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • James Hornsby

    As a writer, I would think that you will have to face those things that you could never figure would sweep you up in emotion and make you feel stronger after going through it. Thanks for reminding me of your humanity.

    Great story.

  • Same here, having kids changed how I view the world and entertainment… completely.

    What is shocking is how Stephen King embraced it, I mean, he was a young father but still he wrote CUJO and PET SEMETARY, both of which deal, in grave specific details, that kinda loss… I don’t know how he did it, facing that kinda thing in a novel. That takes balls.

    Of course, he’s also on record as being a raging alcoholic at the time. But I don’t know that I could do that, even drunk.

  • I don’t think I’ve ever been cool with kids (or pets) getting hurt in any form on screen… love action, horror, violence- bring it on…. but leave the dogs and kids out of it. I get pretty emotional and I’m not even a parent yet.

    I had an extremely bi-polar father who held my little sister hostage back in 2001 (long story). I think for that reason, I’ve skipped the movie Hostage… lol now knowing that you actually asked Bruce Willis to cry, I have to watch it.

    Great post- got all the feelings reading it.

    • Thanks Cara. And don’t feel bad about skipping Hostage. You have plenty of company.

  • Wonder

    I love it. I truly believe that the morel open we are in our lives, to experiences and feelings, the more open we become in our work. It’s something I learned from acting – the artist and art are intertwined.

    This also makes me think of Hitchcock, didn’t he adhere to an adage about always saving the kid, but letting the audience stew in fear until then?

    • Can’t speak for Hitch. Possibly his thing was to save the kid but torture the blonde. Thanks Wonderrrrrrr.

  • paul

    I get the emotional reaction to seeing kids get hurt, Doug. Don’t have my own kids but I coached high school basketball for 15 years. Won championships in some years, came very close in others…, and one of the things that was absurdly hard for me to deal with, strangely I guess, was seeing one group of kids win while another lost. It actually kind of kept me in a continual state of doubt about what I was doing. I saw one kid fall awkwardly, come up with a harshly broken arm and run over to me on the sidelines with a look that was basically pleading for an answer from me about what was going on…, saw another run head first into a wall chasing a loose ball and go into a seizure. Wow, and that was just sports! Ok, I’ll shut up now. Great post.

    • Paul. Don’t shut up. There are plenty of outstanding therapists who’d love to hear your hoop tales. Now that would be a journey.

      • paul

        Except that wouldn’t even be the good stuff. Ha.

  • Mike

    Hi Doug, Great post. I’ve read all your posts, but never commented until this one because I can completely relate. I am also a father and a writer. While working on a novel I came to a point where the villain enters a child’s room with a fireplace poker in hand. I know exactly what the scene needs and why it is necessary for the story, but I haven’t had the courage to go back and complete it!
    Anyway, keep up the great work.

    • Mike. First, thanks for joining the conversation. I hope you come back. Secondly, I think the trick is to face the fear and let it inform you about your own morals and values. I’m right there with you and the fireplace poker. Suggest you finish it. Though nothing says you can’t rewrite or reroute your story. As writers we do need our sleep.

  • Jack

    Terrific Doug; I’ve faced this many times in my own stuff, and feel that because I chicken out, I never quite get to where I could be. Not being a father (yet), my hot button is always for dogs. I can handle watching most anything, but not the brutal killing of man’s best friend. Completely understand where you’re coming fron.

    • You’re not alone in the dog boat. Have four huge mutts of my own. I recall Robert Crais having that argument with me over Hostage. He hadn’t a problem with harming the child in the opening. But when I killed the dog… Thanks, Jack.

  • Jorge Reyes

    Doug,
    such a great post to read before the day’s writing. I’m writing some very personal things now for a short film I’m doing…and for the first time, will be acting in as well. And the central issue–even though in this case it’s about children, it’s also about What Is That Dark Spot We Don’t Want To Reveal Or Go To…the uncomfortable pain of it. I think as artists, we have to be constantly cognizant of it. know why we’re avoiding it, and know that eventually, it may be crucial for our growth to go into it. It’s why we call certain of us “brave.”
    Thank you for sharing this.

  • John Michael Thomas

    Doug,

    One of the things I love about your stories is that I don’t know what to expect. From blisteringly funny exposes of the underbelly of the industry to deep personal experiences. Thanks for always taking the time and energy to tell it as it is.

    The one thing that’s common in all your posts, though, is that I can always feel something from it. Your frustration and/or resignation, your wish that things had turned out differently, or as in this case, your personal convolutions over writing things that are very difficult for you personally to digest.

    And I think that’s the key. I’m not sure that it’s possible to write an emotional scene of any kind well without actually feeling the emotions ourselves. I’ve tried writing scenes imagining what the audience or the characters would feel, and they always suck. They only have any real impact and authenticity when I can put myself in the situation and feel it.

    This makes it particularly hard to write scenes which hit us hard personally. But I think those are also likely to be the most powerful scenes we can write – just like your blog does every time. Uncomfortable as hell, but if that’s the emotion the audience or the characters need to go through, I know I’m going to have to go through it as well.

    Thanks again for putting it all out there for the rest of us to experience vicariously and learn from.

  • Guinea Pig

    Great post as usual Doug.

    I’m not a parent but as the proud aunt of three nieces and one nephew, I can relate to your experience, at least a little bit.

    I find that as I get older, I have less stomach for gut-wrenching, heart-breaking scenes like you describe.

    It sounds mental I know but I actually found myself welling up the other night while watching an episode of American Dad where Steve’s pet roosters get run over by traffic.

    I mean for crying out loud; it’s a cartoon. But it still had an effect on me. (Maybe because we have seven chickens.)

    But if you don’t feel strongly about what you write; if you don’t well up or laugh or cover your eyes at the horrible bits, then you’re sunk as a writer.

    And for the record, I think “write what you know” is the most over-used and least helpful phrase for writers on the planet.

    • The only problem I have about watching emotional content with my kids is, invariably, they’ll start watching me instead of the film to see if I turn on the waterworks.

  • Lisa Vandiver

    Hi, I don’t like seeing violence to children and animals either, however, sometimes in a dramatic or horror movie, those types of things may have to be at least mentioned or a quick clip necessary to make the storyline flow…This movie was hard to watch, but it was a very dramatic, moving movie and that scene was necessary to evoke the type of response wanted. I can think of numerous movies that I cringed, closed my eyes, and even felt a bit queasy after watching, but it was entertaining. And…Isn’t that what going to the movies is all about? Being moved emotionally? As a writer, my favorite response about my stories come in this way: “I can’t believe you did that to that character! I’m so mad at you!” But followed by, “When are you going to do a sequel?” Not all will love your work, be it books or movies, but some will and so I think that as an artist(and writers are artists), you have to stay true to what your muse is writing… Thanks for another great blog, Doug!

  • Tim O’Connell

    Hey Doug – powerful stuff. Great read. I also consider myself pretty hardened to violence in movies, but I remember being very disturbed by Trainspotting, especially the scene you mentioned. When Ewan McGregor’s character was going cold turkey and hallucinating, and that same baby started crawling up the wall and across the ceiling at him, I was losing it.
    That’s a powerful image, you and Bruce Willis discussing the scene and both of you getting emotional. Was it as tough watching him act it out as it was to write it?

    • It wasn’t as rough shooting the seen as I imagined only because it was at the end of a very long three days, we were all exhausted. Bruce had me just off camera and I just wanted to keep it calm for him because I knew it was pretty uncomfortable for him. Anyway, he cried, we rolled film, and wrapped it.

      • Tim O’Connell

        Thanks for sharing that again Doug. I’ve always had a great deal of respect for Bruce Willis, both as an actor and a person. Your descriptions of your interactions with him only confirms that more. Tell him I say Hi 🙂

        -Tim

  • Jeff Turner

    Hey Doug. I greatly appreciate your blogs, but this one touched home. I recently finished writing a book geared toward advice to my daughter as she enters pre-teen status and went through a whirlwind of emotions on the journey. I completely understand how you were feeling. Any film I watch or story I read that involves the death of children or touches on an impending death chokes me up tremendously. Its great to see what touches a writer in various ways. Thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks Jeff. As the father of a pair of teens, I’m with you.

  • Thanks for putting this out there, Doug. Resonates on many levels for me (and clearly for many others as well).

    I started to cross the threshold in terms of my own development as a writer (and person) after diving headfirst into the darkness while working on a spec about a year ago. Mercilessly explored my worst fears until I got to a similar place as you describe above. Typed FADE OUT and then just broke down.

    Also, while I’m not a father, I was hit hard by Sandy Hook (as I’m sure many were). The lack of a deep and widespread analysis of the societal dysfunction that contributed to that tragedy (and countless others, in my opinion) also reinvigorated my drive to do justice to the delicacy of the calling (for lack of a better term).

    Thanks again.

    • Sandy Hook has touched us all. There’s violence. And then there’s violence against children. And the latter is just plain evil.

  • Clive

    The one that always stumps me is nababkov writing lolita- not quite the point you’re making- and as far as s king goes i’d have picked carrie as the toughty. And how would you get your mind inside hannibal lecter ?

    I like my violence stylised, spagetti western style, that way if a kid does cop it then at least you know Clints guns are gonna blaze.

    When i first read physco i could hardly bear it, now i think wow masterpiece.

    • Nabokov and Thomas Harris in the same sort of thought. Man. That could be a college course, Clive.

  • My elderly mom passed away in Dec.

    In looking for ways to deal with the grief I took my current screenplay and poured out an awful, amazing opening scene of death, birth and hope. It made me feel better.

    While you should ‘write what you know,’ there can be some leeway. I write science fiction–but I’ve also read and watched S/F stories my entire life, know most of the lingo and study current popular sciences so my stories can have a more realistic feel. Physics can be fun.

  • This was a tough one for me to read, and it’s taken me all week to muster up a comment.

    I’m working on a story that puts a kid in peril and I’ve gone around in my own head about whether or not I’m okay with it a thousand times. The very reason the story came to me was because of the beyond powerful impact becoming a mother has had in my life.

    It is interesting, the things we do to ourselves as storytellers.

    Thanks for sharing this bit of your personal journey.

    • You make me happy I wrote it. I’ve been knocked out by the response from parents and those thinking about becoming parents. Thanks Jenna.

  • Spork

    I pretty much find it impossible for me to sit through (or read) any kind of violence done to young children. It spoiled Trainspotting and In Bruges for me. Even that “Aaanuld” movie where his family gets killed at the beginning and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

    And yet I’m pretty much okay with the codified violence of action movies (simply turned off rather viscerally turned off by splatter for the sake of splatter).

    The make or break movie for me is The Big Lebowski, in which John Turturro’s character had been jailed for being a pedophile. There, I imagined that he had been wrongly accused and was convicted only because of his poor usage while swearing.

  • I’m leaving a tardy comment here (just catching up on missed episodes), because I walked out on Trainspotting at the exact same moment you did. It was too much for me to bear, and no matter how great the film was, I could never get past it. While I admire you writers for the ability to elicit such visceral reactions within a film, too often it seems to be done on as a cheap shortcut, rather than for a narrative imperative. And even in those rare cases, as a viewer with a choice, I’m voting with my feet and heading for the lobby.

  • Pertinax

    We are to protect. If we can’t protect, it sure ain’t entertaining to stay and watch. Otherwise, my spirit would scream — in agony. I hate those moments, real or not.