F-Bombs Away! How Profanity Can Actually Make Your Films More Effective
Why the f*** is there swearing in films?
If you think about it historically, including swear words in movies has been incredibly important to filmmakers. Even before the advent of sound there has been swearing in films. Films like Gone With the Wind and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ignored the authority and intense pressure from the MPAA to nix profane language (among other things) from their final cuts, keeping them from receiving the all too important seal of approval, which meant certain doom in terms of box office sales since most theaters back then wouldn't exhibit films without the MPAA seal.
So, even when peering into the grand possibilities of sound for the first time—even when it could mean financial self-sabotage, countless filmmakers chose to include profanity in their projects—and still do. Why? This video essay by Jack Nugent of Now You See It offers some insight by exploring the use of swearing in films, to find out if all of those f-bombs are all just for laughs, shock value, or for something much deeper and more integral to the narrative.
For the most part, cinema is about the human experience, so it makes sense that profanity is included in the reproduction of that experience. This might seem obvious, but if you think about it within the context of the screenwriting process, along with the current rating system and the economic consequences that could arise from receiving an R, including vulgarity in a film is a much more thoughtful decision that you might think.
Just like with any type of dialog, swearing must be treated as a means of communicating emotions in a powerful, impactful way, as well as a propellant to the story. And it's not necessarily about censorship—it's about being intentional and economical with your script. Since swear words tend to draw attention to themselves, using them can draw attention to a crucial scene, a character, or particularly important information.
Swearing can be used in a lot of ways. In Gone with the Wind, that "damn" was saved for the exact moment when Rhett had officially had enough of Scarlet, which made the moment all the more impactful. Conversely, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut contained almost 400 swear words in its 81-minute runtime, but swearing was used to draw attention to the concept of vulgarity in media and censorship, so it makes sense that Matt Stone and Trey Parker went overboard with it.
So, before you start cutting or adding swear words in your scripts or films, take some time to think about whether or not your project needs them. Maybe they do. Maybe they don't.
For some extra credit, check out this video that provides a brief history of the use of swear words in film, from the first use of the word "damn" in 1929 to Al Pachino's record-breaking use of the word "fuck" in 1983's Scarface.
And now, for my all-time favorite cussing scene of all time. (Also, what's yours?)