Gabe shoots a few questions off to the producer of This Film Is Not Yet Rated...
Welcome to amateur hour at DVDActive.com, I am you host Gabe Powers, and tonight my special guest, via E-Mail, is the producer of the recent documentary feature This Film is Not Yet Rated, Eddie Schmidt. As regular readers may know, I'm not particularly good at this whole interviewing thing, and this line of questions was particularly rushed. I wish I would've had the time to watch the film with the audio commentary, where Ain't It Cool News' Drew McWeeny asks all these questions and more, but alas there just wasn't time. These aren't excuses, this is what we call contextualizing.
Like everything I write I have a habit of talking about myself, so here I have approached the film from a personal point of view, which has led to some of my more aggressive sounding questions. I didn't mean for them to sound aggressive, but upon a second reading I realized my tone may have been lacking. Budding film writers, don't be aggressive with your interview subjects, this isn't a expose cracking open the misdeeds of a corrupt politician, this is a Q and A with someone who has better things to do, and they might not all be as nice as Eddie. Without further adieu:
DVDActive: It appears that in the last few weeks the MPAA has made some changes. Your film has been directly attributed to some of these changes by the organization itself. What does that feel like?
Eddie Schmidt:Well, pretty damn good, even if they haven't done much except deflect the bad PR. But it's my feeling that if they can move an inch, they can eventually move a mile if the pressure stays on. Before the film, no one knew how the MPAA/ratings board operated - and that was their source of strength. Now that the film has (hopefully) opened people's minds up, they can ask the questions that have been begging to be asked for years.
Of course, if you ask the MPAA they'll say that these changes were in the works prior to the film. Sure - and all those salads now on the McDonalds menu have nothing to do with Super Size Me. Even the tiny modifications the MPAA announced follow in direct line to revelations in the movie (many of the raters had children 18 and over; filmmakers couldn't cite precedent, meaning other movies, in a rating appeal; etc). Hopefully, more substantial changes will come if people keep pushing them - things that really change the fundamental way the system works.
DVDActive: The Academy Awards nominations were announced the day your DVD came out. I half expected a nomination as some kind of good faith PR move, but This Film is Not Yet Rated wasn't among the nominees.
Eddie Schmidt:It didn't surprise me terribly. I referred to it as the "F-you" vote. If the documentary branch wanted to send the movie industry something of an "F-you" note, we might have been nominated. If they were perhaps wary of being perceived as giving an "F-you" vote, they probably wouldn't. But it's hard to speculate on why certain films get nominated and others don't. I was pleased they nominated us for our last film, Twist Of Faith. But you tend to see a thing like an Oscar nomination as a once in a lifetime moment, so that may have been it for me!
DVDActive: I'm sure that the irony of the DVD's box art being 'altered' hasn't been lost on anyone involved with the film.
Eddie Schmidt:No, it hasn't. But since our opening credit sequence uses black boxes as a reminder of unknown forces deciding what you can't see, it kind of fits the theme. And of course it means 13 year olds can walk by the box in Target and not go through puberty right there in the store. (interviewer note: I laughed out loud when I first read that)
DVDActive: What was the inspiration behind the film?
Eddie Schmidt:A few years ago, Kirby and I developed the film together after mutual disbelief over the amount of criticism leveled at the MPAA from filmmakers, critics and educators over several decades. And it was criticism that they all but completely avoided, other than, say, Jack Valenti calling Matt Stone a "hairball." We just couldn't believe that this cultural system that everybody used was shrouded in such secrecy and fear. It had to be unveiled, you know? Like "The Wizard of Oz." So when we would encounter people in Hollywood who were afraid to talk to us on camera, that only increased the desire to tell the story. I have to hand it to IFC for backing us all the way on this. A lot of companies liked the idea; none wanted to take on the MPAA. IFC had the guts.
DVDActive: Though someone at the SXSW Filmfest Q and A asked this, as I'm sure others have, I'd still like to reiterate-has the popular acceptance of unrated DVD releases made the ratings moot? Or possibly the popularity of online rental agencies that don't limit NC-17 and unrated releases?
Eddie Schmidt:Not at all. The rating is a stamp of approval, and "unrated" versions only work once that stamp has been given. Hollywood knows this, and uses it to create two distinct products (and earn double the cash), despite the apparent hypocrisy of authorizing a "super nasty" version five months after chopping up the theatrical version in the name of protecting the children. It's now a big game, and if anything, makes the usefulness and public good of the current system even more dubious than before.
DVDActive: I think that most people don't understand that the MPAA is part of the major studios, not a separate or objective organization. The film isn't only going up against a faceless censor machine here, but a major part of the American business infrastructure. How scared were the people involved? Did you ever find yourself asking someone else to start your car for you?
Eddie Schmidt:Yeah, I probably had the opening moments of Casino in my head a few times. I kept telling myself that this was important and that I couldn't be afraid of negative harm to my career. Or my car. It's scary [to] go up against "big business" but if that halts critical voices in a democracy we have a problem.
DVDActive: What were the legal ramifications of photographing the raters and releasing their information? You obviously got all of their consent at some point, right?
Eddie Schmidt:The raters were photographed in public places and the investigatory work was done squarely within the parameters of California law. We were very careful of this because we knew the raters would not consent to us using their images/names in the film. Additionally, the raters perform a service for the public, that all of the American public uses, and the American public has a right to know who they are.
DVDActive: There is no escaping the politics of the 'censorship' situation, and Kirby touched on the connections between violence in entertainment and a Capitalist mentality during the SXSW Q and A. Some have drawn correlations of the acceptance of sex and nudity over violence switching hands during conservative and liberal administrations and eras in the US. Do you think this is true?
Eddie Schmidt:Somewhat, yes, I do. But I think there will always be factions in American culture that are more comfortable with violence (yay sports) and uncomfortable with sex (yay Puritans). And those people tend to mobilize their support well, although they are more empowered in conservative eras.
DVDActive: Do you think the censorship reflects or influence modern culture? Both? Neither?
Eddie Schmidt:I think it ends up influencing more than it reflects, because the reflection comes back twice as strong. What's the phrase - "kiss me like they do in the movies"? We get so much conscious and unconscious information/ideas from our popular culture, and if it is regressive (and I think the ratings system is) rather than progressive, then we stunt the growth of the culture (artistically and behaviorally).
The MPAA's VP of Publicity, Kori Bernards, in responding to the film's charges about bias against homosexuality, said, "We don't try to set the standards, we just try to reflect them." That's a tacit admission of a homophobic bias - which of course filters its way back into the movies and scripts and therefore influences people’s attitudes when they see this material on the screen.
DVDActive: On the DVD's commentary, director Kirby Dick mentions that this implies that if racism or anti-Semitism were commonplace, the MPAA raters would reflect those prejudices as well.
Being an independent production and all, did you ever worry you were preaching to the choir, and that the people that needed to see the film would simply not even know it existed?
Eddie Schmidt:No, because I think most parents and educators are savvier and less out-of-touch than we might think. If given the chance to know about this secretive system they use every day with their kids and students, they will seek out that information. Many people I would least expect to watch it tell me the film is in their Netflix queue.
DVDActive: Will there be some 'conservative' (and I use the term hesitantly, as the words 'conservative' and 'liberal' are often mis and overused) viewers that come away from the film seeing the MPAA as their guardian angles from 'liberal' Hollywood?
Eddie Schmidt:Maybe, but the system should be transparent, whatever your viewpoints are. If the MPAA simply told you point by point what content was in a film and didn't put it in a box (or suggest it be altered to fit in that box), I can't see how anyone would have a problem with that.
DVDActive: I've had a personal interest in film censorship, as I came to be a film fan as a horror geek. When I was younger Fangoria, Film Threat, and an array of smaller publications were filled with angry editorials about the censorship of violence in horror films, down to a listing of specific censored shots. The film takes a reasonably obvious stance on violence being more detrimental than sex. Though I agree with you on principle, I feel that the stigma of the NC-17 hurts plenty of good small studio, independent, and foreign horror films (a good example is the recently neutered US releases of High Tension). Is this something you agree with, or are you of the mind that violence is inherently bad in all cases?
Eddie Schmidt:No, not at all. We're just saying that if you're going to set up a system to advise parents, it's probably wise to understand (or at least gather the information on) the potential effects of violent imagery and themes upon kids. We've all been in a theatre showing a movie like Se7en or Menace II Society and heard a little kid's voice and thought, "What the hell are they doing in here? Isn't that kind of messed up?" But can you really tell me that kids watching puppets with no genitals pretend to fuck in Team America will harm them more than a boatload of disturbing and gory violence? I don't have a problem with a movie like Hostel but it is strange to see that it gets an R and, say, A Dirty Shame goes out NC-17. And the difference between the R and NC-17 in perception and the marketplace is vast, as you know.
DVDActive: I thought Richard Heffner's comments on the effects of media violence on children were similar to the random fact and figure-spouting Valenti is guilty of. The medical community seems to be rather undecided on the effects of media violence on a child without previous mental or physical detriments or overtly violent dispositions. Is this a case of one group of people who is offended by one subject (violence), but not offended by another subject (sex), and simply trading one form of parenting by corporation for another? If the situation were flipped, as it is in Europe, would this film have even been made?
Eddie Schmidt:I don't think it's trading one offense with another, no. If you look at the studies, there is some evidence that exposure to a lot of violence on the screen may have negative effects on kids. If you're going to classify films for children's viewing, then take into account expert research and opinion. That's all. Don't censor - just advise and give out info with some sensitivity and accuracy to the content. "Some horror violence" is not helpful to a parent. "37 people stabbed in the face graphically throughout" is.
As far as making the film, the MPAA's is still a system overseen by business interests and maintained in secret to protect them (in the name of "protecting the children"), and that's an inherently important topic in a media-conglomerated world no matter what.
Another interviewer's note: I wanted to repeal this comment after rewatching the film with the commentary, as Dick makes a specific note that violence is art. I also think I misunderstood Heffner's comments, stance, and sources. Too little too late, but I'm happy Schmidt was able to answer the questions I should've asked instead.
DVDActive: Darren Aronofsky's comment about realistic, ugly, and graphic violence being better for the influential minds of children than the bloodless, PG-13 violence they're allowed to view really struck me. I personally would've liked to hear more on the subject. Was there talk of hiring few child psychologists for the film, or is that not the film you set out to make?
Eddie Schmidt:I think we felt we had so much to cram in this film that it was hard to get it all in. There were 1 or 2 more interviews done with people in that realm, but for overall pace and balance, we felt that the section you see in the final film drove that point home enough.
DVDActive: Did you concern yourselves with the film censorship issues of other countries when making the film? We've got a lot of UK readers, and I have a personal fascination with the Video Nasties scare of the '80s across the pond, where horror movie collectors were actually having their houses raided and their persons jailed.
Eddie Schmidt:Again, it's another movie. We couldn't go everywhere we wanted or were interested in, it was just impossible. Not that there isn't compelling stuff there.
DVDActive.com: Something that seemed to be lost in the many ideas the film houses is the fact that studio films are often given a break over independent films. Powerful filmmakers like Steven Spielberg seem to be able to name their rating these days. What would happen if an independent as powerful as George Lucas (I can't think of one more powerful) decided to make a film that skated the NC-17 boundaries? Would the MPAA give him an R without hassle?
Eddie Schmidt:Well, a powerful filmmaker would have to be distributing his film through a non-MPAA signatory to eschew the rating completely. And most powerful filmmakers work with powerful companies (studios) that can get their films wide releases and marketing muscle. The advantage name filmmakers have in working the system is the same as the studios - they have the money to keep editing and resubmitting the film, and they have the relationships (usually through studio intermediaries, like production and post executives) to negotiate behind the scenes with the MPAA. Independents have neither in their favor.
DVDActive: There are far too many ideas here for one film. The ideas of the MPAA's blatant homophobia, six organizations running 90% of American media and entertainment, the recent obsession with piracy, and Valenti's personal story are all worthy of more attention. Are there any plans for continuations or sequels?
Eddie Schmidt:We wanted people to think, and we didn't want to be repetitive. We're building a case and peeling away layers like an onion. But with the announcement of the MPAA's supposed reforms, Valenti calling the film "childish", etc - well, maybe there is room for This Sequel Is Not Yet Rated.
DVDActive: Two of the deleted scenes really surprised me. It seems that the MPAA illegally making copies of the film would be too juicy to pass up; did it happen too late in production to include it?
I also understand that L.I.E. director Michael Cuesta has been very outspoken about his film's MPAA treatment. Why were his scenes cut?
Eddie Schmidt:That call from the MPAA (regarding their unauthorized copy) came in January '06 as the film was being onlined for Sundance. The dramatic arc of the film had already been worked out through the rating appeal, so putting this in would have undone the arc (or given us two endings), and provided technical aggravation. We thought about it, but ultimately liked the idea of it being a mini-sequel you could savor later.
As far as Michael Cuesta, he was great, and it was hard to lose him, but again, we were juggling so much material that we simply couldn't have everything. As it is, some critics said the film was too long at 97 minutes. I disagree, but since I believe in DVD supplements, so I was happy to give the fans more meat on the disc.
DVDActive: The stories told by directors concerning the specifics of their experiences with the ratings were all fascinating in a sort of supermarket tabloid way. Would some of the filmmakers who declined on camera interviews perhaps be interested in being quoted in a book?
Eddie Schmidt:I don't know - why, are you writing one? I wanted to write it first!
DVDActive: Oh no, not me, I'm hoping you or Kirby are.
I have to say I thought it was a little unfair to include a shot from Straw Dogs at the end of the 'violence against women' montage. That film and scene were censored for years, and I believe R rated cuts of the film still feature a few missing frames from the rape scene.
Eddie Schmidt:It was there not to condemn the film but simply to show that images of violence against women have been used so much in movies that we are desensitized to them. Strung together in a montage it is shocking to watch and makes you think.
DVDActive: Fair enough. Can I burn a couple copies of the DVD for my friends, in the spirit of sticking it to the MPAA?
Eddie Schmidt:Well, as you see, the MPAA admitted that they could copy it, so I guess you'd have to ask them if they'll extend the same privilege. IFC would probably prefer you don't, however.
Editorial by Gabriel Powers
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