Film-Related & Film Reviews 2006

Rough Sex Education

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Award nominee Josh Olson has A History of Violence.

Let's eliminate three misconceptions about A History of Violence. First, director David Cronenberg did not publicly perform sex scenes with his wife on set in order to instruct his actors, as an internet news item giddily claims. Second, Cronenberg did not inspire the film's vivid lovemaking - indeed, the director initially objected to such visuals. Finally, Cronenberg is innocent: these controversial intercourse scenes did not originate with the famed director - they emerged from the fertile imagination of screenwriter Josh Olson.

What is indisputably, undeniably true is Olson's screenplay A History of Violence. Adapted from the graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke, Olson's story balances the public persona of small-town family man Tom Stall with a guilty secret: he's actually Joey Cusack, ruthless hit man and mob enforcer, hiding out from his murderous clan. When the past erupts violently into the present, the script transforms the lurid, sometimes preposterous comic book fantasy into a grimly realistic existential tragedy.

As Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers declared, 'We live in an age where people often try to be ingratiating, and this was the least ingratiating movie there is...' To Josh Olson, this is the highest praise.

Here, in the writer's own words, is how Olson did it:

'I'd been struggling in the low-budget, straight-to-video world. My agent called me and said New Line owns A History of Violenceand is talking to four or five big-name writers. 'You're not going to get the job,' my agent said, 'but they'll get to know you.' Although I loved the premise [of Violence], it was simply not a story I wanted to spend six months of my life dealing with. Since there's no pressure - I wasn't going to get the job - I treated the [New Line pitch meeting] as an opportunity to tell the story I was more interested in, with psychological aspects, exploring the nature of violence and character. They liked the pitch. Then I'd get calls from my agent: 'They're down to two or three writers, and you're one of them - you won't get the job, but...'

'So when I started writing, I had the full-on outline from my pitch. This became a very personal story. Something grabbed me, and it was one of the fastest first drafts I'd written. The opening [of horrific murders] and the closing scene [the future-shocked family reunited at the dining room table] were always there, from my original pitch to the first draft and right through the final cut. That dining room table and the family with no dialogue - I kept waiting for notes saying you have to clarify this scene, and nothing ever came from the studio. I said the scene's about what you bring to it: what do you think will happen? The idea is to leave you, the audience member, with some questions. Not a popular option nowadays.

'Then New Line went looking for a director, and David [Cronenberg] emerged out of left field. He and I spent about a week going through the script, talking line by line. His only concern was making sure this was the best version of the story it could be. In that first draft, there was a father character [from the book] who had his own history of violence. David felt this character was far too thematic. I don't like consciously writing from theme, and this character felt inorganic. If you're in tune with the story when you're writing, theme comes out naturally. I hate to even talk about that [thematic] stuff.

'I wanted it to be a Cronenberg film. I didn't see any way to come up with biological mutations in this story. There weren't any sex scenes in the original draft. I knew he's good at dark, violent sex. So I told David I want it to feel like a Cronenberg film, and I was going to write a sex scene that would fit his oeuvre. He said, 'I don't want it to be too Cronenbergy.' So I said, 'I'm going home and will come up with a sex scene you can't say no to.'

'He loved the two sex scenes. They work on every level. The first scene shows the couple after 20 years of marriage still having loving sex. It's not perfunctory. It's tender. His wife, Edie [actor Maria Bello], dresses up like a cheerleader and says, 'We never got to be teenagers together.' So you learn they didn't grow up together. He [Viggo Mortensen] asks, 'What have you done with my wife?' So there's the whole question of identity. It also tells you a lot about her character. We're dealing with iconic characters and you're treading perilously close to cliché, so you want to establish she's a very strong, modern woman.

'Next scene, still about identity. He's not Tom anymore - he's Joey. She smacks him. There are various permutations that intimacy can take. She's seriously considering throwing his ass out, but there's still that attraction and now there's the fact he's somebody else. Suddenly, she has license to have sex with a stranger. On a basic level, he's not passive; there's excitement of the danger and real seething rage. And he's been living with a profound loneliness and isolation. And now their marriage is never going to be the same, even if there is going to be one. But the rage in the rough sex - she's furious, he's fuming.

'I was really proud of that scene and the writing. It's not about gratuitous nudity. I don't think there's a 17-year-old alive who can understand what's going on [during the rough sex on the staircase]. In a weird way, it's kind of the most adult scene in the film. During a WGA screening, I arrived and entered the lobby for the post-discussion, and a New Line guy said, 'Hey, it's great! Nobody's walked out yet!' "That's a good sign,' I said, "but really?' Then I heard in the theatre, Smack! And, 'Fuck you, Joey!' I said to the New Line guy, 'Just wait a second...' And a couple of little old ladies staggered out.'
Last edited: 7 August 2006 04:06:31