It’s well known that the MPAA’s ratings board has unwritten rules about what qualifies a film for a given rating. A flaccid penis is an R; erect is NC-17. You can say “fuck” in a PG-13 movie (once), as long as it’s in a non-sexual context: “Fuck you,” but not “Let’s fuck.” But like the ratings process itself, most of those rules remain shrouded in secrecy. (The formal guidelines, which allow “a single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words” are here.) Because the MPAA maintains that its ratings are not a form of censorship, they don’t tell filmmakers what they can or can’t include, which means that when a film comes in with a stricter rating than desired, the filmmakers and studios have to guess which material they find particularly objectionable.
Not so in Britain, apparently, where the government censors are forthright and, to judge by this correspondence with The World’s End director Edgar Wright, pretty chipper about the whole process. (Sensitive souls with an objection to the c-word in the Guy Ritchie sense should bow out now.) While he, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost were working on the film’s script, Wright wrote in with a preemptive query:
We are writing a script at the moment where the word “cunt” appears several times with a comedic tone…. I know the word appears only once in both Shaun [of the Dead] and Hot Fuzz, but is it the case that using the world more than once would push it from a 15 to an 18?
BBFC representative Craig Lapper responded, in part:
As you say, we passed a single use in Shaun of the Dead because the use in question was throwaway, unthreatening, and essentially a term of endearment amongst friends (“Can I get any of you cunts a drink?”). In the case of Hot Fuzz we actually permitted two uses, one spoken and one written. First of all, we see the word “cunt” on the list of prohibited terms on the swearbox in the police station and then we hear “What a cunt” when a man tells his friend about a man who sold drugs to kids. In the first case, the use was written (which reduces its impact) and of course lacked any aggression. In the second case, the use was not aggressive and was not personally directed but instead uttered about a person who is not present at the time.
Either Craig Lapper has a photographic memory or the BBFC keeps extensive records indexed by profanity, but in either case it’s an astonishing and surprisingly good-natured exchange. The World’s End, c-words intact, will be out in U.S. theaters on August 23.
Read more: Letters to the censor