Profanity: When to Use It in Your Script

By Leroy James King · August 3, 2010

WARNING: This post contains explicit language (more than normal) that may be offensive to some readers.

So I just turned in a draft of a script I did a rewrite on, and the reception was excellent overall.  I successfully cut the script by around 40 pages and managed to keep the story intact.  I added much needed sensuality where it was conspicuously lacking before.  I made the main character more sympathetic, as opposed to a sniveling little weasel.  Epic success.
All this being said, there was one HUGE note that overshadowed all of the copious praise I was given.  The funny thing was that the producer and director were incredibly zealous about how enthused they were with the draft at the beginning of our meeting, but when we got to their one major note they suddenly turned on me.  They said things like:
"This will NEVER work if you don't scale this back."
"What the fuck were you thinking?"
"Do you really think this is appropriate?!"
"This isn't fucking Mamet, this if fucking bubblegum."
"You're joking, right?"
They were half laughing when they brought up this one note, but after harping on it for about 10 minutes straight, they transformed from my friends giving me constructive criticism, to assholes that thought it better to demean the hell out of me to make their point.  In short, their point was incredibly clear.
What was the note?  Cut down on the profanity.
If you've read my blog with any frequency, you'll notice that I subscribe to profane language, albeit to make a point – "stressers" if you will.  For example, I find it more effective to say something like "fucking awesome" as opposed to "totally awesome" or "very/extremely/amazingly awesome."  Perhaps this is somewhat immature, but in all honesty… I prefer the blunt honesty as opposed to the watered down.
But this is a blog, not a screenplay.  So upon hearing the producer's and director's notes, I delved deep into examining when it's appropriate to drop in the profanity.  I mean, I totally get their point – the script I doctored for them is geared toward the tween market, so it's a little… stupid to have a 14-year-old kid say, "Get the fuck away from me, you fucking fucktard."  Albeit, I recall talking like this as a 14-year-old, and I hear plenty of 14-year-olds talk like this now.  When it comes to screenwriting, you can argue all day that it adds realism… but you've got to identify that line between realism and what your market is.  
What I'm saying is rudimentary, but for someone like myself who's been obsessed with the poeticism of profanity since I heard the phrase "…weave a tapestry of profanity…" in A Christmas Story, it's a little hard to divorce myself from its potential gimmickry, as well as its potential "ruining effect."  
Now, it wasn't hard to replace the profanity in this one particular script with things like "skeez ball," "dingleberry," "skid mark," "butt muncher," or "idiot supremos" (a la E.T.)  But let's say you're writing what's already been established as an R-rated script.  Obviously you have free reign weave whatever tapestry of profanity you want.  Yet, there's a right time and a wrong time, and it's something that I'm struggling to figure out.  Because we're not all writing Pulp Fiction, no matter how badly we want to, and only ever decade or so can you get away with lines like "Fuck you, you fucking fuck ball" (Harvey Keitel in Get Shorty), or "Fuck you, you fucking fuckers" (Clive Owen in Shoot 'Em Up.)  
I'm not pretending that I've even begun to discover where this line is drawn, other than when you're writing for a very particular market (especially a G, PG, or PG-13 market… obviously.)  But when you're given license to write an R-rated film, it becomes all the more tricky.  I'm being redundant.
The only thing I can really think of is extending the market question into the R-rating – i.e. is it an R-rated action film intended for frat dudes?  A mature rom com for females, pretty much rated R because you there's a love scene or a fake orgasm at a restaurant?  A sci-fi adventure for goth enthusiasts that's more heady on the philosophy than the cool factor of how the characters actually talk?
It's a weird thing, the profanity.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and as I mature as a writer (and as an individual, I guess), I find myself wishing I didn't immediately weave that profanity tapestry in my head before I even put my pen to paper.  Perhaps I should just start writing in Iambic Pentameter and make rules for myself – NO CUSSING ALLOWED, LEROY!!
Anyway, I want to hear your thoughts on this.  How do you divorce yourself from the need to use profanity in a script?  Obviously this has a lot to do with your characters and subject matter, but it's just so hard for me to separate myself from the world I live in where my female coworkers wield the C-word like they wield Chapstick.  Give me your thoughts.
To wrap this little "rant" (I guess this is a rant?  Not really?  Eh?), I've gone ahead and listed what I feel to be the 10 best movies to wield profanity in a wholly entertaining, and enriching way.  In no particular order, with a favorite quote included (thank you imdb), here's the list.  Yes, 3 Scorsese films are one here…
The Big Lebowski – "Fuck sympathy! I don't need your fuckin' sympathy, man, I need my fucking johnson!" – The Dude (Jeff Bridges)
Glengarry Glen Ross – "Fuck you, Dave. You know you got a big mouth. You make a close, this whole place stinks with your farts for a week – how much you just ingested. Oh, what a big man you are! "Hey, let me buy you a pack of gum. I'll show you how to chew it." Whoof! You're pal closes, and all that comes out of your mouth is bile. Ooh, how fucked-up you are!" – Richard Roma (Al Pacino)
Pulp Fiction – "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa… stop right there. Eatin' a bitch out, and givin' a bitch a foot massage ain't even the same fuckin' thing." – Jules (Samuel L. Jackson)
Good Will Hunting – "Oh, fuck you and your Irish curse, Chuckie. Like I'd waste my energy spreading my legs for that Tootsie Roll dick? So go home and give it a tug yourself." – Cathy (Colleen McCauley, girl in bar to Ben Affleck)
The Departed – "Blow me, all right? But not literally, though. Unfortunately, there's no promotion involved for you." – Dignam (Mark Wahlberg; no actual profanity, but still great)
Casino – "You took your boots off? You put your feet on the table? You shit-kicking, stinky, horse-manure-smellin' motherfucker you. You fuck me up over there, I'll stick you in a hole in the fuckin' desert." – Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci)
Goodfellas – "You mean, let me understand this cause, ya know maybe it's me, I'm a little fucked up maybe, but I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you? I make you laugh, I'm here to fuckin' amuse you? What do you mean funny, funny how? How am I funny?" – Tommy DeVito (Joe Pesci)
Magnolia – "Respect the cock! And tame the cunt! Tame it! Take it on headfirst with the skills that I will teach you at work and say no! You will not control me! No! You will not take my soul! No! You will not win this game! Because it's a game, guys. You want to think it's not, huh? You want to think it's not? Go back to the schoolyard and you have that crush on big-titted Mary Jane. Respect the cock. You are embedding this thought. I am the one who's in charge. I am the one who says yes! No! Now! Here! Because it's universal, man. It is evolutional. It is anthropological. It is biological. It is animal. We… are… men!" – Frank T.J. Mackey (Tom Cruise)
Bulworth – "All we need is a voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction. Everybody just gotta keep fuckin' everybody 'til they're all the same color." – Jay Bulworth (Warren Beatty)
The Last Detail – "When you're in the Navy, shitbird, and you're in transit, nobody knows where the fuck ya are. Now go tell that MAA to fuck himself; I ain't goin' on no shit detail!" – Mulhall (Otis Young)