A breakthrough investigation into Hollywood’s best-kept secret: the MPAA film ratings system and its profound impact on American culture, The Film is Not Yet Rated, offers audiences a rare glimpse into a world unfamiliar to the masses. Director Kirby Dick is one of America’s foremost documentarians, and this film is causing quite the controversy. He talked exclusively to Paul Fischer.
Question: Was one of the reasons why you made this film what you saw as a backlash against what was going on with the independent film movement in terms of the rating system?
Dick: Yeah, I would say that. I mean I’ve been wanting to make a film on the rating system for more than ten years, and in large part because of the way the independent films have been rated unfairly, over the last twenty years or so. I didn’t feel that I could because they were so secretive that there was really no way to get any information out about the system, but then when I hit upon the idea of hiring a private investigator to find out who the people were on the ratings board I realized that would give me two things – one it would give me a very nice narrative arc, to be able to use sort of a Verite approach since I come out of that kind of filmmaking, and also that it would sort of be a kind of a strike at tat this secrecy to out the very people that they’ve been trying to keep secret for more than thirty years. But you’re absolutely right. I feel that I’m an independent filmmaker and I think there is, in many ways something oppressive about, the studios’ control of 95% of the film business, and this is just one example of it.
Question: How reluctant were the private investigators that you contacted to be involved in a film in which they would be on camera?
Dick: Surprisingly not.
Dick: I think reality TV and, being around, in the vicinity of Hollywood, I mean they were all actually, pretty enamored by that. And I kind of expected that.
Question: But you didn’t expect the kind of reaction by the studios or by people representing the studios to have absolutely nothing to do with this right.
Dick: Well, studios I guess I reserve judgment on, but there were independent filmmakers who were actually reluctant, and some who chose not to go on film because they were afraid that their next film would be rated more harshly, and… as you said, no one in the studios would speak to us on camera.
Question: Now I find that rather curious because if independent filmmakers are being screwed over anyway by the rating system, what would it hurt for them to talk out about that very system?
Dick: Well that’s what I thought but here’s two reasons – one, they’re concerned about how their films will be rated because it’s such a mysterious process and there’s no sort of recourse at all toward a negative decision that they did not want to be seen as troublemakers and get a harsher rating than they deserved. But also I think people were afraid of going up against the MPAA to some degree because most of the filmmakers I talked to if they’re not working in the studios right now may end up working with the specialty divisions of the studios. People feel very exposed and very vulnerable in the film business and I think just people are being cautious.
Question: Given the fact that this was such an anonymous system and those who do the ratings are defined almost by their anonymity, what does this movie do to their jobs at this point? I mean were you at all concerned that these people would actually be fired for having been visibilised, as it were, in the movie?
Dick: I had some concern about that, but t don’t think it’s affected them at all. I mean I think that as far as we know they’re all there. There’s been no indication at all that, any of these people have been fired because they’re no longer anonymous, which sort of puts the light in one way to the studios’ claim how important anonymity is. But I felt as a journalist, that if a system is for the public it should be public, and I feel that it’s my job as a journalist really to put this information out, if they’re making decisions that are important to the public.
Question: Why do you think Americans are so prudish in terms of sexuality? They have no problem with the most extraordinary degree of violence that occurs on screen.
Dick: Oh, wow. That’s a subject of an entirely another film. I mean what we’re talking about here in these films, the scenes and shots that give them an NC-17 are so tame. mean as John Waters points out, in a split second you can get or kids can get access to much more, horrific images on the internet. I don’t know. I mean… I mean obviously there’s somewhat of a puritan background in this country. I think in some ways violence has been marketed and therefore, has been sort of assumed to be American. Actually I don’t think that’s so true though. From parents’ perspectives, I know many, many parents who are most upset with the rating system because there’s no indication, there’s no real examination and a kind of a proper analysis of what’s violence in film. It’s just the opposite in the European rating system where they’re much more concerned about violence than sex. But of course the reason they don’t is because that’s where they make their money. They make their money on marketing adolescents and so they’re going to make sure that those films get through with less restrictive ratings. Their competition, which is foreign films and independent films, tend to make films about adult sexuality and so they get slapped with a more restrictive rating. It’s a win/win situation for the studios.
Question: What system would you like to have? A censorship system?
Dick: Oh there’s a number of things. Personally I honestly think that you don’t really have to restrict children from going to see films, they will go see the films that they want to see. If a parent wants a child to go see The Cooler when they’re 16 years old, or a Dirty Shame or whatever, I think it’s up to the parent to decide rather than a group of ten anonymous people in Los Angeles. But also I think children will decide themselves. I mean they’ll go see it and they’ll say it’s not for me and that’s how they’ll learn a certain amount of media literacy. Children aren’t going to rush off to see stuff… First of all, as John Waters said, the last thing an adolescent is going to go see is an art film to begin with. So if they do happen to walk into, Boys Don’t Cry it’s probably a good thing. So I personally don’t think there should be any real restrictions on what people see.
Question: But knowing that that’s never going to happen in our lifetime then what would you think would be an ideal practical solution?
Dick: Well I think that in other countries it works better because the NC-17 doesn’t have the stigma associated with it and the studios could change that with their marketing muscle, because right now as soon as a film gets an NC-17 not only is it restricted in terms of its distribution and marketing but it also gets this something attached to it that says it’s sensationalistic and audiences, I think, stay away from it. I think for example, if a Dirty Shame was an R rated film it would have been treated like Team America, something pushing the envelope, a funny comedy, in this case somewhat extreme sexuality but nothing, very graphic – and it would have been fine. So I think either another rating between R and NC-17 that doesn’t have that stigma or change the NC-17 rating so that it doesn’t have a stigma I think would address that issue.
Question: Do you see parents coming on board and lobbying the MPAA? Do you think that life will change?
Dick: I know that within the industry there is behind the scenes kind of, discussions with the MPAA to change things and, I’m hopeful. I’m very hopeful that there will be some changes made, but it is a system that really benefits the studios financially, and that’s why it’s in place. So it’s going to take a lot of pressure I think from a lot of different source
Question: You yourself as a filmmaker, I guess, are currently between a rock and a hard place. I mean your movie is getting a lot of positive reviews and it will probably do well as a documentary feature but the studios are clearly going to be reluctant to want to hire you I would imagine. Is that true?
Dick: Well it depends on how much money the film makes. If the film makes a lot of money I’ll be fine. (Laughter) It’s a bottom line business. These are not moral issues, at all for the studios.
Question: Do you care?
Dick: Do I care? [Pause]. I don’t know. I’m willing to take that risk. a lot of my films have been risky in different ways. I just feel like I’m in a position where as a filmmaker if I start censoring myself and not taking the risk that I need to take, I might as well be in a different business.