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Trying to write a happier ending

November 02, 2002|Stephen Schiff

The Oct. 19 Counterpunch, in which writer J.F. Lawton attacked me and the Writers Guild's credits committee (of which I am the co-chairman), was worrisome. Someone unfamiliar with the issues might not realize that his piece is riddled with false assumptions, misinformation and spurious analogy.

Lawton's argument (for which The Times provided the sadly misleading headline "Writers Guild Policies Ensure It's a Union Divided Against Itself") begins with an undeniable fact: The movie industry hires screenwriters and then, very often, hires other screenwriters to rewrite them. This state of affairs is painful to writers and bad for movies in general, but does it divide our union against itself? No. What divides the union is people who, like Lawton, blame the situation not on the industry, but on other writers -- and, of all things, on a set of credits proposals that haven't even been passed yet. The logic here is very odd. The situation is terrible, Lawton says, so please let's not change anything to make it more equitable.

Lawton argues that our union is already divided: into struggling, inexperienced "first writers" and the established, power-hungry fat cats who rewrite them. You're either one or the other, he claims. But is there any truth in what he says? Well, let's see. My first film was "Lolita," the 1998 version that starred Jeremy Irons. I was paid union scale for it, and the people I was rewriting were Harold Pinter and David Mamet. Now I've become better known, and on my last four projects I have been the first writer. So which group do I belong to? Or is it possible that, in the interests of fomenting a mini-class struggle within what has recently been a superbly united union, Lawton is creating divisions where none actually exist?

In any case, he isn't really making sense. Lawton says that the troubles he talks about are the province of the movie business. He holds up TV as an example of the way things should be. "Imagine, in television," he says, "if David E. Kelley were brought in to rewrite Aaron Sorkin's idea for a new show and then David Chase were brought in to rewrite that." But wait a minute. Sorkin is an experienced, highly paid writer-producer -- hardly analogous to the struggling first writer Lawton claims to champion. No, Kelley's not about to rewrite him. But do Sorkin and others in his position rewrite less experienced, less well-paid writers? Only every day, every week, every month. People who don't know how the system works are likely to think that Lawton's pseudo-reasoning sounds logical, but it has nothing to do with reality.

Let's talk about reality. In reality, all TV shows are budgeted for rewriting, even more than movies are. In reality, more movies are written by a single writer (or team) than aren't. In reality, experienced writers don't alter things in a previous script just to ensure credit, because experienced writers know better. We're all working too hard to get the script right so that we can get our movie made. Would anybody in his right mind change a screenplay for the worse just to fool credit arbiters? Why get yourself fired? And if you do make a substantial contribution to what's on the screen ... well, guess what? I think you should get credit for it.

In fact, the intent of the guild's rational, modest and carefully thought out proposals is simply to give credit where credit is due and to clarify the sometimes murky existing rules. Period. Lawton and his followers have turned these proposals into bogeymen onto which they can project all their frustration over what is admittedly a pretty frustrating system.

But the proposals have nothing to do with that system. Frankly, our credits rules have nothing to do with that system. If they do, all the more reason to reform them, because they're certainly not making the system as it is any better.

But let's get serious. Does anyone in his right mind think that a studio executive who's about to fire one writer and hire another will pause because of an obscure clause in the WGA Credits Manual? Please. It's simply naive to think that we can change studio behavior by sabotaging this honest effort to reform the biases and confusions in our credits rules.

The passion that goes into negative campaigning is often more persuasive than truth. And the paranoia and distortion that have been injected into this debate have harmed our union more than any other single development in years. Lawton and his cronies should be ashamed of themselves.


Stephen Schiff is a screenwriter whose credits include "Lolita," "The Deep End of the Ocean" and "True Crime." He lives in Manhattan.

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