Making social commentary through art is a tough balancing act, especially for screenwriters. Is it okay to tell a story about a country or culture that isn’t your own? How should a writer present a politically charged topic? Film audiences are asking these hard questions, and they’re holding content creators accountable for their decisions.
For advice on how to approach these difficult topics, I reached out to Conor Walsh, an acclaimed screenwriter based in London, England. Since working at Bedlam Studios (the group behind 2011’s Oscar quadfecta “The King’s Speech”) and receiving film festival recognition on both sides of the Atlantic, Walsh has acquired a unique perspective on storytelling. He gives us four helpful “do’s” and “dont’s” when it comes to some of screenwriting’s tougher philosophical questions.
Don’t: Be afraid to write about a culture other than your own
Even though Walsh is British, he feels more comfortable depicting American characters because he’s jetted to the States so frequently. “Having spent a lot of time in America, I feel I have a good enough grasp to flesh out American characters. People put too much pressure on that kind of transition but I really don’t see it like a transition at all.”
Any good artist knows that being proximal to their topic of interest is essential. In the information age, it may seem tempting and easy to see everything through a screen. But nothing replaces being somewhere in the flesh.
Don’t: Use black and white moral narratives
Do: Focus on People, Not “Issues”
You don’t have to plug a political issue to make important social commentary. Walsh believes in letting characters speak for themselves. To only present his view of a story would be “propaganda.” It’s his responsibility as a storyteller is to give every character a platform, even if it’s a character we find repugnant and not worth listening to.
“I’m not a particularly political person. I don’t let a lot of these issues into my world. I love to write. That’s my passion.” He continues, “I know people. I know how people react to problems, successes, failures, traumas. I’m an observer after all. That’s all I need to know to create characters.”