I recently had the opportunity to chat with Steve Anderson, writer and director of ‘Fuck’. A documentary that examines everyones favourite expletive and its role in our culture. We talked about his process of putting together an impressive number of high profile interview subjects such as Hunter S. Thompson and Kevin Smith, discuss modern day purveyors of free speech, and the difference between shooting documentary and dramatic films.
The Documentary Blog: ‘Fuck’ gives us a pretty good back story of everyone’s favourite curse word, but more importantly it examines the boundaries of censorship and freedom of speech. However, this couldn’t be done without pushing those boundaries yourself. Do you think that a film such as this would ever have seen the light of day 20 years ago?
SA: I think it’s pretty obvious that barriers are progressively being worn down. I don’t think that 20 or 30 years ago a movie called ‘Fuck’ would be released in the United States or around the world. However, I will say that freedom of speech, the first amendment and issues like that are something that needs to be constantly debated. In the past six or seven years while George W. Bush has been in office, there’s been a conservative government and organizations like the Parents Television Council had a little bit of a field day. They’ve been able to go in and start to take advantage of both the conservatives being in office and the FCC, and they’ve started to kind of, in one sense, hi-jack the system. I didn’t set out to make a political film but it’s certainly ended up in that fashion. I think it’s a response to the way we start seeing some restrictions in the United States. Even though it’s better then it was 20 or 30 years ago, free speech is something that needs to be constantly debated and talked about because you can lose rights as easily as you can gain them.
TDB: Did you run into any censorship issues?
SA: I can’t say that I ever felt that we were censored in any way. We were able to make the film we wanted because we worked with some great producers and friends of mine who helped finance the film. The only time there was ever any kind of hint of censorship, and I even hesitate to use the word, was when we decided to call the movie Fuck. We had a long conversation about that, whether that was the smart and prudent thing to do. We finally came to the decision that yes, it was. We were going to have some problems with marketing the film, but it really is what it’s about. To call it anything else just seemed unfair. But it did really present a marketing challenge. For example, when we got reviewed by the New York Times or big newspapers like that, they couldn’t print the title of the film or what the film was about. They had to usually write in a humorous kind of double speak. I’m reluctant to call it censorship, because we knew going in that that was going to be the case, but it was very interesting to chart along the way who would say it and who would not.
TDB: What major figureheads in the fight for freedom of speech would you thank for the ability to make a film like Fuck?
SA: I think the obvious one is Lenny Bruce. He really was a forerunner in all of this. Back in the sixties he was one of the first comedians that stood up and talked about things that were real, like language or religion. He was fairly successful as a comedian, but a lot of his stuff was just breaking down barriers. That’s really what comedians do. They allow us to go into a comedy club and they speak things that we’re not usually able to talk about in society. We go to feel entertained because they’re saying things that we’re thinking. I think the obvious next chapter there is George Carlin. He came out with the seven words you can’t say on television, which was really a big inspiration for me. When I was ten or eleven years old, my Mother mistakenly gave me the record not knowing what was on it and suddenly I saw the power of words. Then they took the record away from me and all of the parents in the neighbourhood were calling my parents saying ‘what are you playing for our children?’. Looking back on it, it’s kind of funny, but it really taught me the power of language. I think lately, Howard Stern is another free speech martyr. Whether you like him or not, he’s pushing boundaries on the radio and people are pushing back. The government and the FCC decided to fine him so he said ‘fuck you, I’m gonna go to Sirius where I can say what I want and do what I want.’ I think that’s appropriate. It’s the same way with cable. I’m not advocating that we should be able to say fuck every night on television, but there needs to be outlets like HBO and Showtime for people who like that kind of entertainment. I like that kind of entertainment, and I’ll pay a little extra to hear it, but there’s people in our society who want to put restrictions on that now as well. This film is a response to that.
TDB: Do you think that stand up comedians are still on the cutting edge in regards to pushing free speech boundaries, or do you think that job has fallen into the hands of a different medium?
SA: I think stand up comedy will always be one of the first parts of our popular culture to take steps forward, but it can also backfire. Just look at Michael Richards. Even in comedy clubs people can rebel and say ‘no, you’ve gone to far’. In the past couple of years there was The Aristocrats which was made up of comics telling a nasty joke that, prior to the film, they had mostly told to themselves. Then there’s Sarah Silverman, who breaks down a lot of barriers and talks about things that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to see a beautiful, young woman talk about. It’s funny because of that.
TDB: Who are some important, contemporary purveyors of free speech in the entertainment industry?
SA: Well seeing as this is The Documentary Blog, I think it’s safe to say that in the past few years there’s been an up rise of documentary films, and there seems to be a thirst out there to dig deeper and find out more. We live in a world where we have the internet, newspapers, magazines and TV…our lives get so compartmentalized. We get our information in little blips and blops. Whereas you can also sit down and watch a documentary that has a point of view. Michael Moore can obviously be credited for stepping up and showing that you could make a polemic film. He wants to get across his point of view, but it can also be entertaining and thoughtful. I think, in a lot of respects, movies like Fuck owe filmmakers like Michael Moore or Barbera Kopple a big debt of gratitude because they opened the door for anyone who has a serious point of view or issue that they want to talk about. Just this year there was ‘This Film Is Not Yet Rated’, the Tommy Chong film, ‘Shut Up and Sing’…there was a number of films that were allowed to get out there, and audiences saw them and respected them. So I think there has been some filmmakers in the past number of years that have really opened doors for documentaries. They’ve created a business model that studios and distributors will release them, and the public responded.
TDB: ‘Fuck’ features an impressive list of interview subjects, from Sam Donaldson to Hunter S. Thompson. What was your process for arranging the interviews and deciding on who you wanted to feature in the film?
SA: At the beginning we decided that the film would be more entertaining if we made sure that we had a conservative and a liberal perspective in there. Fuck is a word that in a way kind of divides people. There’s people that think swear words and naughty words like that are kind of a sign that society is going down the tubes. Then there’s those people who think it’s the opposite. They think that more freedom is opening up and people can express themselves the way that want. So we drew up a list of the usual suspects that we were thinking about interviewing. I kind of wanted to include some interviews that you might not have seen before. For example, I don’t think there are many films where you have Ron Jeremy and Miss Manners in the same movie, or Hunter S. Thompson and Pat Boone. There are some really great juxtapositions of opinions and personalities in this film and it keeps the movie kind of going along. I think we shot a total of 35 interviews, so we kept the segments short. I made a promise to everyone who appears in the movie that whatever their point of view was, it would come across in the film. So that was a challenge. Even though we interviewed some people a number of times, they may only end up with a total of 20 or 30 seconds screen time. The film definitely takes a point of view. It certainly tilts to the left because that’s my view on the subject. But I like to think that Pat Boone fans that go in to watch the film will say ‘I agree with Pat Boone.’, and that we didn’t go out of our way to make fun of him or to ridicule him.
TDB: The film features alot of archival clips of the word ‘Fuck’ being used throughout history. Could you tell us about the process of gathering all of the stock footage?
SA: When we started up the film we knew that we were going to have material from a lot of different sources. There was going to be film clips and TV clips and archive clips, so at the beginning it was just a lot of kind of standard research. Most of it, quite frankly, on the internet. You would kind of search through archives, talk to different people and ask them if they know of any footage. I really wanted to see what was out there. We received lists of various clips from CNN, ABC, and NBC and we would kind of give them keywords. Obviously fuck was THE keyword, but we would ask them for things about censorship or free speech issues. For example we have audio of them saying fuck on the moon. One of our Producers Bruce Leiserowitz had to file a freedom of information act to have NASA search for the word fuck through all of their archives to find it. It was pretty exhaustive and took a long time but it was kind of fun because there was always a little bit of a buried treasure that you might find.
TDB: Did the stock footage play a big role in the structure of the film?
SA: Well it was mostly in the beginning where there was ‘x’ amount of footage that pertained to the film. Also if there was something that we knew about, like when Tipper Gore was testifying before congress, you know, things that definitely had to do with censorship or free speech issues, we’d request those. I wanted to see what was out there before we started doing too many of the interviews. That would sort of help us shape the film and some of the interviews and who we got to talk about what.
TDB: What were some of the differences between shooting a documentary and a fiction film?
SA: They’re in some ways very similar, and in some ways obviously quite different. I think the differences are most obvious in that with a dramatic feature you’re starting with a script. The script is written first, the financers come in because of the script, the actors sign on because of the script. Everyone has this blueprint of what you’re going to be working from. Whereas with documentaries, you have an outline of a story you hope to tell, but you’re very dependent on both the clips and the footage that you find, and more importantly, what you’re interviewees might tell you. You might go to someone and hope they’re going to tell you one thing, but they end up telling you another thing. So you’re really at the mercy of the material that you gather during the shoot. They’re similar in that you tell a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end and you want to entertain people. The motivation of Fuck was to keep it entertaining and a little bit light hearted along the way, even though it was talking about a fairly obscene word. We didn’t want to make a heavy, depressing film about the word fuck.
TDB: Do you think there’s more or less freedom when shooting a documentary?
SA: I don’t think there’s inherently more freedom in the filmmaking itself because at the end of the process you want to end up with an entertaining film that tells a story. So both dramatic films and documentaries have those inherent challenges in them. If you’re talking on a financial structure and you’re making a 20 or 30 million dollar Hollywood film, you have a lot of eyes looking at you. You have studio executives, all sorts of people. Even with independent films. If you’re spending a million or two million, that’s quite a lot of money. So you’re going to have to answer to quite a lot of people to keep the investors happy and keep everyone that you’re working with happy. Our film was low budget but we still had those problems. I think the key is if you’re spending someone else’s money. If you’re spending your own money, you can kind of take your time and see where the story takes you. But if you’re on a schedule and a budget and someone else is writing the checks, you have to be professional about it. I guess maybe in a sense, freedom is an odd word. With a documentary I think you might be a little bit more surprised about things you’ll find along the way. Whereas with a dramatic film you’re kind of looking at that script with the people who invested in it, and that’s what they expect in the end. You can’t come out with a different story.
TDB: Tell us about the DVD release of FUCK.
SA: Fuck is being released by THINKFilm on February 13th, which is just in time for Valentines Day, so you can fuck with someone you love as I like to say. I’m very excited about it. We had a good theatrical run and a great run at festivals. I think we were screened at over 40 plus festivals, and audiences really like this film. It’s definitely a fun movie, it’s entertaining, and you can walk away and think about what the ramifications of a word like fuck are in your lives. Of course we’ll have a commentary track, some extended interviews and a few other extra features on there that will give some added insight.
TDB: What are your upcoming projects?
SA: I’m working on a couple of projects right now. They’re both dramatic films, both that I’ve written scripts for. One is called ‘Bob the Impaler’, which is kind of a comic vampire tale. And then a sort of nasty film noir called ‘Pink Butterfly’. I hope to kind of, in my career if I’m lucky enough to have one, sort of bounce back and forth between dramatic films and documentaries.
Visit the Official ‘Fuck’ Website for more information on the film. Also, swing by Steve Anderson’s personal blog, The Mudflap Cafe. Fuck will be available on DVD through THINKFilm on Tuesday, February 13th.