The Kirby grip: A talk with director of This Film is Not Yet Rated

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While briefly in San Francisco during an intense media tour promoting his much-buzzed doc This Film is Not Yet Rated, filmmaker Kirby Dick sat down with Jonathan L. Knapp to discuss the process of challenging a powerful institution, John Waters, chasing Jack Valenti, and media conglomeration.

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Guardian: Thank you for taking time to meet with me; you seem to be doing an insane amount of press for this movie.
Kirby Dick: Actually, I find that the press outside of New York and LA do far more interesting interviews, so I’m happy to be here.

G: This film was a continuation of something you did while on the editorial board of Montage, the precursor to Filmmaker magazine. You had someone photograph the secret MPAA raters while they were in the middle of a screening. When you went about making this film, how did you go about getting financing? I would think it would be difficult.
KD: It was difficult. I first came up with the idea of hiring a private investigator to get the names of the raters and then, later, the plan to submit the film to get rated. A number of funding sources liked the idea and wanted to work with me but were too closely associated with the MPAA.

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G: At this point, you had already hired the private investigator, or just planned to?
KD: I hadn’t done it yet, but I knew this was going to work. For several months I was unsure it would get made. Everyone I went to was owned by or associated with an MPAA company. Then I met with IFC, which was really fortunate. If IFC had been owned by an MPAA company, this film never would’ve been made. This is one of the consequences of media consolidation: If they control all the possible outlets, they will ensure that a critique of their companies or, oftentimes, their industry just doesn’t happen.

G: Netflix has partnered with IFC for a series of films.
KD: Yes, one of which is this. That was put together by IFC, so I didn’t approach them directly.

G: The idea of Netflix makes me think of the rise of the DVD and how much of the industry is now fuelled by that. With that it seems that a lot of material that wouldn’t end up in theatres ends up on unrated director’s cuts. So how do you think that changes the power the MPAA has in our culture?
KD: I think the MPAA would prefer that they had no rating system at all.They want to get their films out to the widest possible audience and, in principle, that’s a good thing. But if there’s going to be a rating system, they want to control it. They want to make sure that there’s no limitation to the distribution of their films. Their films are targeted at adolescents and they tend to be more violent, and that’s why you see violent films get less restrictive ratings. There’s not really a moralistic structure built into the rating system; it’s all about the bottom line.
It’s interesting because if you look at their competition – independent films and foreign films – those films tend to deal more with adult sexuality and they get the NC-17 ratings. So what you have here is a structure controlled by the MPAA that benefits the studios financially and hurts their competition.
Moving on to DVDs: Again, the MPAA doesn’t want a rating system on DVDs but they’ve been able to use the system to first sell a film that’s R theatrically and then come back and sell it as Unrated or NC-17 on the DVD market, so it allows them to sell the same product twice. So they’re manipulating the rating system to make money. And because they have control of it, it shouldn’t surprise us. They’re a corporation, interested in the bottom line and they’ll do whatever they can to make money.
The net result in many ways is that it impacts the way that art films are made and shown in this country. A lot of people have complained that American sex scenes all look the same. A large part of this is that the directors are shooting them to fit into this system, to get the R rating. Look at a film like The Dreamers: NC-17, made by a master filmmaker. Bertolucci is making a film with no regard to the American film rating system. As a result, you see a much more inventive presentation of sex on film. I think American audiences, because of the rating system, are losing out on a real range of cinematic exploration of sex. And this has been true for many decades, I think.

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G: What is your film is rated? I’ve seen it listed as both NC-17 and Unrated.
KD: Well, about ¾ of the way through the filmmaking process, we submitted the film and it got an NC-17. The reason we did this is that the rating process is so secretive that the only way we could get inside was to submit our film for a rating and follow my experience through the ratings and appeals process. We’ve elected to go out unrated because it’s less restrictive than NC-17 but there’s kind of a funny story about that: When Joan Graves, the head of the rating system, found out that we changed the film after we submitted it, she called me up and said, “Now, Kirby, I have to tell you that, now that you’ve changed the film, you can no longer use the NC-17 rating.” Well, I was devastated. It was something I had so looked forward to.

G: A badge of honor.
KD: Yeah…well, actually no. It would restrict the distribution, so…it’s such a screwed-up system.

G: How exactly does that work, as far as the distribution of Unrated vs. NC-17?
KD: For NC-17 films, quite a few theatres won’t carry them, some newspapers won’t advertise them. There are television advertising restrictions and some video outlets, like Blockbuster, won’t carry them. The restrictions are similar for unrated but not as expansive, so that’s why you see people opting for unrated. Anything by a studio has to get a rating, even specialty divisions as well. That’s why A Dirty Shame had to go out NC-17.

G: Which I actually haven’t seen…
KD: I really like it. It’s a very exuberant presentation of sexuality, it doesn’t have a typical narrative arc, it’s sort of meandering in a very…I don’t know, I find it a very good film. But it was really impacted because it didn’t get an R rating, which it should’ve had. There’s no real reason; it would’ve been responded to by audiences very much the way Team America was. Which is, here’s a ribald comedy pushing the edges – but I think a lot more people would’ve seen it. So this is an example of what NC-17 does to a movie and John [Waters] was very upset that he got that rating, as you can see in [This Film is not Yet Rated].

G: Along with that, you did have a number of filmmakers who spoke with you about their experiences with the MPAA and I’ve read that there were a number who were hesitant to speak with you. Of those who did, were there any who didn’t even hesitate, who immediately said, “Yes?”
KD: Yeah. There were some. Michael Tucker [of Gunner Palace] jumped in right away. Jamie Babbit [of But I’m a Cheerleader and the current The Quiet]. Some of these filmmakers who did speak, it just took time to get through their handlers. But some of them were concerned. John Waters, who is very supportive of the film and is even doing some interviews for it, still is concerned. He said to me, “You know, I’m not going to come right out and bash the MPAA. I’m writing a film right now that’s going to go to the board again and I’m afraid if I’m critical of them, they’ll rate my film more harshly.” That kind of paranoia, justified or not, should not exist – especially a master filmmaker like John Waters. Such a muddling of criticism – if the very people who are impacted by this rating system are afraid to speak about it, then the MPAA can claim that’s it’s an accepted rating system.

G: Had you ever submitted a film before?
KD: I’d never gotten a rating. All have gone unrated.

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G: I can imagine they would’ve had fun with Sick.
KD: I thought about submitting Sick while in the process just to, you know, fuck with them. But I thought that would be…you know, I had to be careful because I knew I would be perceived as “harassing” these people and my issue is not with the raters themselves; it’s with the system. Most of these people are caught up in the system, just trying to do their jobs without the training, without the standard, without the power even to make the decisions that they’re supposedly empowered to make.

G: Which speaks to something I found particularly interesting in the film: A former rater who was talking to you was explaining the process of tie-breaking…
KD: Oh god, I couldn’t believe that. Yeah, the chair votes twice to break the tie [when the ratings board can’t decide on a rating]. You just take it for granted. It’s not in the film but, on the appeals board, it requires a two-thirds vote to overturn the decision. Now, they got this two-thirds from the model of overturning a presidential veto and everyone said, “Oh, that seems to make sense.” But this is just a one-body system, so the highest body in the system…It should only take a majority to overturn. It’s like out of Alice in Wonderland or something.

G: Something I found interesting about the appeals process is that a lot of people on the Appeals board are studio heads and heads of theater chains.
KD: A lot of people are high level executives on those companies.

G: I was curious about why you didn’t really choose to explore the theater chain aspect of the ratings system in the film.
KD: Because they [the National Association of Theater Owners] are partnered with the MPAA in this rating system…Part of the reason is that the MPAA is sort of the manager of the system. They did found the ratings system together and NATO does play a role. You know, I had multiple threads going on in this film: interviews with filmmakers, interviews with academics, the P.I. thread, and then submitting my own film. There was just only so much I thought I could get into it. We tried, and we pursued it but it was like a balancing act. It’s a legitimate question, though.

G: This isn’t the first time in one of your movies you’ve taken on an institution – particularly with Twist of Faith. But you did that film in a much more minute, personal way, focusing on a specific person’s story and experience. So I was curious, with this being a much broader way of dealing with the subject, was that merely a reflection of the material or was it a type of film you were interested in exploring, rather than following a person or a series of people?
KD: I’ve been interested in the subject matter and in making a film on the subject for more than a decade. In fact, I was sort of stymied because the MPAA is so secretive. I thought that all I would end up with is a clip film, interviewing filmmakers and showing clips from their films. And that’s the kind of film I don’t make. Or I haven’t until now, but who knows, you know? So when I hit upon the P.I. idea, that gave me a dramatic arc and an opportunity to use verite filmmaking, which I come out of, and I could build the film around a character to some degree. And then, shortly after, I came up with the idea of submitting the film to get a rating. I realized I would be following myself, so again I’m kind of in the situation of building the film around a character, so I was struggling with that, I was struggling with how to do what I’ve done in past films successfully and this is the way I came up with it.

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G: Are you interested in exploring yourself as a character again? You only do it up to a point in this – and it was clearly necessary, given the appeals process.
KD: Right, it absolutely was necessary. Well, I don’t know if I’m particularly interested in it. It was very difficult for me to do because I’m so used to operating behind the camera. I mean, obviously, personality comes through in a film anyway, but it’s a technique. You have to look at Roger and Me, Sherman’s March – those films are very groundbreaking in that regard. There may have been precedents even that I’m not remembering, but they have opened up a kind of filmmaking, a tool or an approach. It is a good way, I think, to take on an institution, especially a powerful institution that won’t grant you access. The filmmaker already is hero in some ways, for better or for worse, whether they’re in the film or not. But this allows you to personalize it for audiences which, again, for better or for worse – I don’t think it’s necessarily inherently better, but audiences react to it more strongly.

G: You’ve mentioned the paranoia that certain filmmakers felt about speaking about this subject. Because you were playing such a direct role, did you find yourself feeling this? Because I can imagine being terrified about what would happen.
KD: I was actually very afraid about what would happen with Sick the first time I showed it.

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G: I can imagine…
KD: I remember I was mixing with Dane Davis, who actually won an Academy Award for The Matrix, and he just looked at me at one point and we were wondering how this was going to fuck up my career. We wondered what would happen at Sundance and thought, “Oh, this is going to be a riot,” so maybe I was overprepared. But I was afraid. I was working very closely with an attorney because everything we were doing we were doing on camera. So we had to be very careful to do everything legally, otherwise, we were providing evidence to the MPAA and the legal authorities about a crime. And, yeah, there’s a certain amount of fear, a certain amount of exposure. Even though I don’t think they have a case, that wouldn’t prevent them from suing me and making my life miserable. Well, oftentimes, I think it’s the fear of repercussion rather than the fact that it would actually happen that keeps artists or filmmakers from actually acting. I think you have to be very aware of that fear and push through it in a way; otherwise, you’re censoring yourself. And you’re sort of playing into the end objective of these institutions anyway.

G: One of the things argued in the film is that the MPAA deals with sex a lot more harshly than violence. One of the ways you do this is by showing footage from Columbine. Did you grapple at all with showing footage that was so…
KD: Incendiary in a way?

G: Yeah.
KD: Well, the point I wanted to make is that here you have a board that is obsessed with sexuality, but there’s no evidence in any of the studies that have been done that even the most extreme sex negatively impacts adolescent behavior. There is some evidence that violence in the media and violent imagery does. I mean, I think there’s a big question as to what the extent of it is. Some people will disagree with me and say that it has been established. I don’t agree with that. I’ve read a wide range of literature and I think it’s an open question how extensively [violent imagery] impacts adolescent behavior. And also one has to be very careful about censoring it because violence has been an essential part of storytelling over many many millennia and as soon as you start censoring violence, you start censoring critiques of violence. On the other hand, in Europe, on the ratings boards, there’s much more concern about the impact of violence on behavior as opposed to sex. This is something that a ratings board should take a look at. They should have media experts on the board and child psychologists. But for them to think about that would probably mean that their films would be more restrictively rated and they would lose money. So, it’s a completely bottom-line decision.

G: Do you think it is completely a bottom line decision, or is it in some ways more a reflection of American culture – that we’re more comfortable with violence than sex?
KD: I think that’s true, although I think the MPAA is partly responsible for that by marketing violence without any kind of critique at all. People are seeing their culture reflected back to them in this kind of violent lens, if you will.
The strongest criticism from parents’ groups is that the rating system does not look at violence as strongly as it should. And I think a lot of parents are very critical of the rating system for that reason. So, there’s a puritanical streak to this country, obviously, and people are upset with sex and it’s a violent country – look at Iraq. And I think that the MPAA has made a lot of money off of that violence and I think that they should take responsibility for that. Particularly in this rating system they should.
But they won’t because they’re a corporation and they’re out to make money and this is one of the reasons I made this film: Hollywood has gotten off very easy in terms of the societal critique of its business practices because it’s marketed itself as this golden business, America’s export business.
When I was trying to find academics to speak about this, I found that so much of the writing about Hollywood is about stars, grosses, and director’s visions. It’s not treated in the same way as an industry like the nuclear industry is treated, where everyone knows that these people are out to make a buck and in the process these companies might be doing things that are very harmful to society and a critique should be leveled at them.
So, this film started out as a critique of the ratings system, which it primarily is, but it became much more broad-based as I made the film: examining the MPAA’s complicity with the House Un-American Activities Committee, with the Pentagon in terms of making war movies, and the passage of the DMCA, this whole kind of attack on new technologies, file-sharing and new art forms. And, the MPAA, especially what Jack Valenti has done as a lobbyist, particularly over intellectual property – that’s what will have a very negative impact. We will only be seeing these laws that have been passed 25 years from now when technologies don’t exist and art forms don’t exist.

G: What do you mean by that?
KD: Let’s go back to the whole BetaMax case. Valenti made the argument that the BetaMax was the Boston Strangler of the industry because of the idea that one could make video copies. If the Supreme Court had upheld the MPAA’s position that this was a violation of copyright, this whole video and DVD industry never even would have existed. And that really fuels a lot of independent filmmaking, and it fuels a lot of filmmaking in general actually. It’s even been a great boon to the studios. So, this whole Napster decision in many ways will have a similar impact. File-sharing systems are being used to create new art forms and new technologies. And you have the established corporations who are dominant wanting to hold on to their dominance. And that’s always a bad thing for art and for technological innovation.
They were very pissed off at me in the Appeals room because I had an advantage over other filmmakers in that most go in there to argue about their film, to try to get their rating changed. I knew I was going to get an NC-17 so I didn’t talk about my film. I talked about how screwed up the system was and I got into arguments with the chair and pretty soon people were arguing back at me, which is kind of what I wanted. I didn’t know what else to do. I wanted to piss them off a bit because I was pissed off. One of them yelled out, “Look, you’re obviously a good filmmaker. Why are you using it to attack our anti-piracy campaign?” And I thought, “Oh, good. I got under their skin.” But, by definition at least, they actually pirated my film.

G: I read about that. From what I read, the last they said was, “Oh, yes, it’s safe in our vaults and nothing further is going to happen to it.” Have you heard anything else?
KD: No. My attorney sent a letter asking for the tape back, when it was duplicated, who authorized it…and no response. You know, they’re too big to respond. They’re like the Catholic Church in Twist of Faith in that they just don’t respond. But it raises an interesting question: If it was duplicated outside the MPAA in some sort of post-production facility, that’s often where films get “pirated.” So for all I know it’s already doing quite well in Asia, in China, which I suppose in some ways is good. As long as people see the film, that’s my attitude.

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G: One of the things that most struck me in the film was the footage of Jack Valenti himself. He comes off as this almost televangelist-like figure, but it didn’t seem to me like you explore him that much. You’ll show footage of him without commentary and, oftentimes, it really just didn’t need it. But did you ever consider trying to focus more on him?
KD: We did. Actually, the original title of the film was Chasing Jack Valenti. But once he stepped down from being president of the MPAA and was in the process of stepping down from being the head of the Ratings Board, we felt that that would weaken our film if we focused on him too much.

G: Did you intend to literally chase him around?
KD: Yeah, a little bit. He seemed to be interesting enough to us.

G: Yeah, he seems very interesting. I know he was a lobbyist, but not much else. In your research of him, did you find anything particularly illuminating? Because he seems to have this intense moral streak.
KD: Yeah, there were certain accusations, I guess they’re just rumors. I shouldn’t level them. Actually, they may come out eventually, but they can’t here.

G: Okay, fair enough. As a parent, is there a certain model that you use to determine what is appropriate for your children?
KD: I look at the marketing of a film. My wife is a writer, but she’s also a graphic designer. She does a lot of the one-sheets for major films, so we’re very attuned to marketing. I’m always upset when I go see a film and don’t like it because I misread the marketing. I feel like I’m sophisticated enough that I should be able to judge by the marketing whether it’s a film I’ll like. That’s kind of an aside. So I’ll use that. I think the idea of protecting children from, particularly, sex is really absurd. Certainly, children may not want to see it, but if they walk into a film and there’s too much sex, next time they won’t see that kind of film. And, anyway, as John Waters said, the last thing we really need to worry about is adolescents going to see an art film anyway. If they’re just seeing a mature exploration of sexuality, anyway, that’s probably good.

G: Right. This idea of misreading marketing and then being upset at yourself for doing so…
KD: And reviews as well.

G: Oh, okay, because it seems to me that a lot of films are marketed in a way that really isn’t representative of the movie.
KD: Oh but you can see through that. You can watch a trailer. It’s never really marketed directly at you, but you can tell. It’s always kind of dumbed down, in most cases. Once in a while, like for example Palindromes – I thought that was a very unusual choice. I would’ve seen the film anyway, but I thought, “Okay, fine, that’s pretty sophisticated.” And then I loved the film. I thought it was really great.

G: Are you working on anything else right now?
KD: I am, but given Twist of Faith last year and now this, I’m taking it really slow. I sort of blew up my company on this film. It was a really great company and really tight. We’ve worked together on a number of films. But I think I sort of over-revved the engine on this one. People were ready to move on anyway, which is fine, but it was insane. We were shooting the film two weeks before Sundance, finished the film two days after Sundance started.

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