September 14, 2016

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?)

Your Comment

5 Comments

Besides being an almost perfect film in many ways, The Big Lebowski also manages to use the F word around 271 times without it sounding out of place or out of character. it's really amazing.

September 14, 2016 at 10:50PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
547

The whole movie is amazing. :)

September 15, 2016 at 9:00AM

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I personally keep all of my work clean, and family friendly (minus some gun play here and there) but i'm not against purposeful cursing. That being said, it seems half the new filmmaker scripts I read have at least 1 F-bomb, thrown in at the most random time, just because they can! as a language conscious person, that drew me straight out of the story. But I read one script a friend wrote, that dropped some F-bombs at the least expected time, and I couldn't help but laughing at how well it worked! if there are 2 lessons to be learned from that, is 1. Use your words meaningfully, matching the character, and as a tool, never a 'because I can' mentality. 2. I'm no fun at parties...

September 14, 2016 at 11:22PM

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Craig Douglas
Writer/ Director/ Editor/ Videographer
1631

I don't think it needs to be dropped just for the sake of it being dropped on camera. I do want to hear dialogue that is real though. A gritty story about cops etc without the F word is just wrong. :)

September 15, 2016 at 8:59AM

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Dennis Hopper (as Frank Booth) in Blue Velvet, "I'll fuck anything that moves!".

September 15, 2016 at 10:10AM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
808