Among the themes of the Ben Affleck-starring film The Way Back are both the competitive process of basketball and the grounded struggles of alcoholism. Traditionally, you could handle a drama like this with a PG-13 rating, making it be seen as more marketable and accessible to a wider audience. And yet, when the film was revealed to be R-rated, there was a pretty good reason for that classification sticking: language.
During his recent appearance on the ReelBlend podcast, co-writer/director Gavin O’Connor talked about how his co-writer Brad Inglesby originated The Way Back’s path to a rated R release, thanks to the specific quality of the language used in the film’s script. More specifically, O’Connor laid out how that particular factor effected the entire production of the film, as follows:
It was the language in the script that Brad had written. I will admit that I ran with that. What happened was when Ben and I decided to make the movie, and we took it to Toby Emmerich at Warner Bros., we just said ‘I know you guys don’t make these kind of movies. But it’s something we really want to make. Would you finance the film for us?’ And he read the script that we gave him, he ran numbers with whoever runs numbers at the studio, and he said ‘If you can do it for this number, go make the movie and I’ll see you at the premiere.’
Looking at the official description for The Way Back’s official R-rating from the MPAA, it’s basically a case of a film doing what it says on the tin. Attaining its rating for “language throughout including some sexual references,” nothing could be further from the truth. But the swearing is actually a crucial part to the transformation we see taking place on screen.
The usage of foul language in The Way Back is actually a factor that’s important to how the story plays out. Without any spoilers, there’s a running thread where Ben Affleck’s Jack Cunningham is cited by a co-worker for his usage of colorful language while on the basketball court.
Not only does this running gag help color how Jack’s change throughout The Way Back’s narrative is going, it’s also a source of some of the film’s humorous notes. Throw that in with a team of high school athletes who speak like actual students, rather than the PG-13 ideal of their sort of characters, and you have the key to how The Way Back wears its humanity on its sleeve.
Gavin O’Connor understands this as well as anyone, and he further reinforced this with his continued explanation of how integral the reality of these characters is to the overall film:
I just wanted to be honest and authentic. That’s how Jack was. There was a language, and that just felt real to me. And the kids use language that feels real to me. We got an R-rating. And it’s not because we have sex. There’s no violence, there’s no blood. It’s all language. So it could have been easy but it just didn’t smell authentic. Maybe it’ll affect us at the box office, but we weren’t thinking that way. We were just trying to honor the authenticity of the character and the story.
There are worse reasons to obtain an R-rating for a film like The Way Back, but from the way that Gavin O’Connor describes the process above, it feels like a badge of honor. The man set out to make an intriguing character study over a stock sports movie, and with a dedication to reality, he achieved that goal. Feel free to listen to ReelBlend's full interview with O'Connor below.