Politics isn’t in my purview here, though there are times when that doesn’t really matter, because the real world and the reel world collide so often these days that there’s no avoiding it. That’s never really been more true than this particular moment, two weeks after Parkland, a couple days after Dalton, and what is undoubtedly a matter of time before the next formerly unimaginable tragedy.
When I say this moment, I mean right now, literally. Today marks the release of director Eli Roth’s remake of DEATH WISH, and just two days ago, the fledgling Paramount Network announced that it was temporarily putting its TV remake of HEATHERS on ice, ostensibly because the show’s darker subject matter might hit too close to home for its intended audience in the wake of Parkland. There are two issues at play here, one of them much larger and more societal, the other more colloquial and specialized, so let’s examine them in order of importance.
The larger issue is the use of guns in entertainment, when it seems like there’s never a “good” time to release a movie or television show that heavily features them. This is not to attack Death Wish. On the contrary, I saw the movie last weekend and enjoyed it. It’s a throwback, a ’70s-style revenge flick that goes much further than the Charles Bronson-led original did in examining the internal conflict behind that revenge. There may be a running subplot involving the AR-15, but Death Wish is no worse than any other violent film that deals directly with guns. In fact, it’s almost restrained as far as Roth’s work goes. That’s not the problem.
The problem is Hollywood’s reliance on guns, not just as entertainment, but as a shorthand for toughness. There are countless studies that remind us over and over again that Hollywood-manufactured violence — the kind we see in movies, television, video games, and so on — does not lead to actual violence in the real world. This has not prevented people trying to pin such things on Hollywood for decades, however, including the memorable lawsuit filed against Warner Bros. and its Natural Born Killers director Oliver Stone. Despite that disconnect, though, the truth is that people still react with extreme prejudice to these movies in the wake of real-life tragedies. So the issue is not with cause, but with effect, in that the release of films like Death Wish in the wake of a gun-related tragedy isn’t seen as the reason why the event happened, but rather that the subject matter of the film itself, combined with the timing, is insensitive to the survivors.
If that weren’t the case, then Death Wish would have been released in December, when it was originally scheduled to hit theaters. Instead, it was shifted to March after the Las Vegas attack last October. No changes were made to the movie, no reshoots undertaken, no structural alterations to soften it. The move was entirely about timing, but to shift the film’s release again in the wake of Parkland would have been financially catastrophic, so MGM bit the bullet and finally put Death Wish in theaters, where it should have a solid, if unspectacular opening weekend for a $30 million Bruce Willis movie.
But this also forces us to ask questions about Hollywood’s use of and reliance on guns, as whether it will continue in the years to come. Will studios think twice about featuring guns on movie posters and in promotional materials? Will socially-conscious stars begin to eschew the use of firearms in their movies? If so, what does that do to storytelling in movies involving cops, soldiers, even battles of good vs. evil when the use of guns is at least warranted, if not pivotal? And how does this effect the cartoonish action films like John Wick, as opposed to the much more grounded Death Wish?
If these questions are not already being asked by actors, filmmakers and executives, I assure you they will be soon, and honestly, I don’t know what the answer is. Personally, I’ve always been of the opinion that we need to spit in the eye of fear and the things that terrify us, which is why I think it’s okay to make counterterrorism movies despite the constant threat of global terror, and why I don’t have a problem with people shooting guns in action movies even though we have an epidemic in this country.
That line of thinking works well in a vacuum, obviously, but less so when put into real world context, because things in the real world are rarely so simple. What I think it comes down to is that, moving forward, creators and the studios who green light their projects are going to have to take into account a myriad of factors they never previously had to consider. Then, they’ll either alter their storytelling accordingly, or deal with the fallout should yet another catastrophe occur as the project is about to see the light of day. Anything else is sort of naive, and invites both criticism and controversy, unless of course you’re dealing with that same John Wick situation, which is meant to be absurd and plays into that idea.
In that case, it’s like the Road Runner vignettes, in that the guns are the Acme products that ultimately lead to Wile E. Coyote’s demise — simple tools that, in this particular reality, pose no danger other than to the simple fools who exist in this animated world and are stupid enough to find themselves staring down the wrong end of a barrel. That would seem to be the exception that reinforces the rule, with the understanding that if you’re telling a story with real world complications, you’re going to have to justify your cinematic decisions.
Which brings us to Heathers, and what appears to be something of a callow reaction by the Paramount Network in its decision to delay the show’s airing. The idea to use guns and school shootings as storylines in the show certainly comes from the original movie, but there are two mitigating factors that should be taken into account. The first is that the movie came out 30 years ago, when the concept of someone shooting up a school — or, in the case of Christian Slater’s J.D., blowing it up — was not something to be taken seriously. The second is, when the new version’s creators were busy working out whether or not they could portray such violence in their show, it’s unclear if anyone ever stopped and actually asked if they should. Judging by the ultimate decision they made to include such a storyline, I tend to doubt it.
The separate issue at work here, and the lesser of the two mentioned above, is the Paramount Network itself, and how it has handled this whole Heathers thing. According to THR’s TV critic Dan Fienberg, Paramount made the show’s pilot available to critics online after the Parkland shooting two weeks ago. Early reviews were not kind, to say the least (Fienberg, for one, essentially called it a waste of time), and some critics were downright offended by it. So two days ago, when Paramount made the announcement about delaying the premiere, it raised more than a few eyebrows.
I don’t love resorting to cynicism in these matters, but it’s hard not to do just that when you consider the chain of events and wonder if Paramount used this tragedy as a PR tactic. As my editor pointed out when we discussed this column, it’s unlikely that the various outlets will re-run their lousy reviews whenever the show does premiere, and few if any readers will remember them. Which would certainly work to the network’s advantage, and which is, if you think about it, an entirely different level of cynicism. After all, maybe network executives simply had a change of heart?
Meanwhile, Paramount’s recent Waco miniseries starring Taylor Kitsch and Michael Shannon didn’t draw much buzz, and though the network cut a fabulous trailer for its upcoming modern western Yellowstone, which stars Kevin Costner and hails from Oscar-nominated screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, that show won’t hit the air for almost four months. That’s a long wait for a network that needed to make a splash right out of the gate. On the other hand, if it can score even a small public relations win while also deflecting some awful Heathers reviews, then that might do the trick in the short term.
I’m not accusing Paramount of exploiting a national tragedy, but they are certainly trying very hard to look like the “good guys” for delaying a show that may have been conceived in bad taste, and which drew corresponding reviews. Viacom’s newest network will have to look within and take a moral inventory as it prepares to make a pretty big decision about how to proceed with Heathers. The world may not wind up watching the show, but it will definitely be watching how Paramount deals with the current crisis afflicting the entertainment industry, and how the rest of the industry deals with it, too.
Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent close to two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @neilturitz. He’ll more than likely respond.