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How To Be A Socially Responsible Screenwriter: Top 4 Do's And Dont's From Conor Walsh

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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

Cultural appropriation is a frequent critique in the art world, both in cinema and music. Why is Tom Cruise The Last Samurai? Why is Scarlett Johansson an anime superhero? While it’s important to avoid blatant insensitivities, Walsh thinks cultural barriers aren’t a good enough reason to restrict the locales of his writing. “I understand when people get upset at outsiders talking about their issues and presenting sides they disagree with, but I feel it doesn’t matter where I’m from. If I have an opinion on American issues, I’ll present it.” He continues, citing the McDonagh’s writing in “Seven Psychopaths”.

“Fuck listening to people who keep telling me to ‘write British’ because that’s who I am. I’ll write what I want. Of course, that’s not to say I ignore the art of storytelling throughout history. I learn the rules to better know how to break them. I think the McDonagh’s are an example of that.”

Do: Travel

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

When presenting a complex issue, falling into the good vs. evil narrative can be a tempting escape. But this is where artists frequently run into trouble. To Walsh, it feels lazy and irresponsible. For him, it’s important to recognize that, while cultures may differ, human nature is universal. Heroes are flawed and villains have empathy. “The way I feel subjects need to be dealt with is balance. I see myself as a balanced individual. Not left, not right, just balanced. With that balance comes the ability to understand.”

The archetype of a flawed hero is being more frequently used these days, whether it be Walter White or dark comic superheroes like Frank Castle in the Punisher Max series.

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.”

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