Caffeinated Clint : Child’s Play


Had an interesting email this week from a reader who seemed understandably concerned about some of the scenes child actors are subjected to when making feature films – using, rather aptly, John Hillcoat’s “The Road” as an example.

Here’s said email :

Hi Clint
I was thinking about something I read the other day, not that I usually agree with anything the morons at [a local newspaper] have to say, but this one has managed to get under my skin as a parent. One of the many (far too many) columnists had just watched “The Road” and raised a question about the scenes that child actors are subjected to and how it may affect them, she used the scene in The Road where the father is teaching the son how to kill himself, and a couple of others.
All this got me thinking about the child actors because we put MA and R ratings on movies like this, because we don’t want to let our children see them, yet we have children acting in some pretty frightening or harrowing situations.
Anyway I thought as a movie man and father this may be something for you to think about too, and maybe use in an interview to raise as an issue that perhaps the movie industry needs to address. Its like the columnist said, we have rules for when and how long the children can work on movie shoots, but what are the rules for the content of the movie and scenes the child is subjected to?
– Melanie

Now from a producing perspective, I’ve yet to work with children so I’m not sure about the rules and regulations when it comes to employing ankle biters. But I know a bunch of people who have… and a bunch of people who were (employed ankle biters working on films)… so I’ve been on the blower trying to get an answer for Melanie.

“The issue goes way back…. Jackie Coogan, Jackie Cooper, Linda Blair in The Exorcist. I’ve directed more than my fair share of child actors, some in scenes with fairly intense dramatic content, wherein they had to become very emotional. It’s my experience, depending on how old they are, that so long as they understand what their character’s supposed to be thinking and feeling, and more importantly why-so, that there isn’t any undue psychological stress”, writer/director David Mickey Evans, whose credits include ”Radio Flyer”, ”The Sandlot Kids” and “The Final Season” says. “Having said that, it of course depends on the material. And harder-edged material, with perhaps, thematic elements to it that would be inappropriate to expose a young actor to, is sometimes dealt with a little movie-magic — in other words in a practical sense one can separate them out in the production of the scene, so that when edited it “seems” as though they are actually there in the time and place acting with the adult actors, but they are in fact not.”

Brad Fuller, the producer of the upcoming remake of ”A Nightmare on Elm Street”, can verify Evans’ comment that children aren’t necessarily around for the shooting of the harder-edged sequences.

“We adhere to all the guild rules”, Fuller, who also produced the remakes of ”Friday the 13th” and ”The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, explains “beyond that we minimize the grisly content from children on our sets by shooting the children first- and shooting potentially offensive content when the child isn’t there.”

James Gunn, writer of the ”Scooby Doo” films and director of ”Dawn of the Dead” and “Slither”, says it all comes down to the parents.

“The parents have say over what kind of movies their children act in, just as they have say over what kind of movies they watch in regular life”.

“Whether there are actual laws or guidelines for what is and is not appropriate material for a young actor to be in involved in, I do not know”, adds Evans. “It’s mostly a matter of parental approval, with oversight by the social-worker/on set teacher. Myself, I use common-sense, a rare commodity sometimes on movie sets. I think if one asks the question “can the young actor handle this or not?” and has a open lie of communication with the parent and has gotten to know the young actor well enough in rehearsals, then appropriate decisions can be made regarding their level of involvement 9both psychologically and physically) in any scene that involves “edgey” material.

“Having said that, there are certainly plenty of examples of scenes from movies involving young actors, with material that I wouldn’t let my own kids be exposed to, let alone participate in as an actor. Ultimately it’s all a judgement call.”

Former child star Keith Coogan, whose credits include “Adventures in Babysitting” and “Toy Soldiers”, recalls his parents barring him from acting in one film, fearing it may be too disturbing for the youngster.

“My own parents wouldn’t let me do The Shining because they felt it was too intense, and that I couldn’t handle it”, he said. “so it’s a sliding scale… there is a set teacher, social worker, parents, plus the director, producer and all of the crew present… and I presume they are human, too… no one is going to let a child get hurt on set…and I’ve never seen anyone be purposefully put in harm’s way, child or adult. It’s only a movie, they come out every Friday”.

David Moscow, best known for playing young Josh Baskin in ”Big”, told me that it should be left up to the child’s parents.

“I personally think having a child act in a McDonalds commercial is far more hazardous to their long term health than the obviously fake reality of the road. Besides kids play pretend games about death all the time. Cowboys and Indians and such are just ways kids start to handle the idea of mortality. For kids sets are in essence a very safe place to play these types of games with adult supervision.”

Coogan, acting since he was knee-high to a grasshopper, says “The children do have parents, I presume? Plus, there are tons of union guidelines from SAG for what is safe, and what is physically dangerous. What you are really talking about is psychological… and most kids in the industry are years beyond their age, and can handle most of that stuff”.

So there’s your answer, Mel – or rather, a few comments that might reassure you. And here’s a link to the Screen Actor’s Guild’s page on Young Performers.