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Strikers' dilemma: to write or not

Guild members who abide by the rules may face a competitive disadvantage afterward.

November 21, 2007|Jay A. Fernandez | Special to The Times

There's scabbing and then there's scabbing. For the Writers Guild and its supporters, it would be easy to condemn and/or punish anyone, union or not, who provided script material to a network or studio during a strike. And rumors have already begun to circulate on the picket lines of assistant directors on sets mysteriously receiving faxed, rewritten pages from anonymous sources.

But what about a writer who continues to work on a screenplay assignment in the privacy of his own home office during non-picketing hours, with no intention of filing pages to anyone until a strike is resolved? Well, technically, this is outlawed writing as well. The guild expects that not a single word should be written to further a script owed to a struck company, regardless of whether you keep it to yourself.

For many writers, the thought of dropping creative momentum on a script and trying to return to it months later is terrifying. "I would hate to have been right in the middle of something," admits Oscar-nominated writer Josh Olson ("A History of Violence"), who sold a pitch just before the strike started but had not yet started writing it. "But you shouldn't be writing."

Still, the push and pull between honoring the WGA's methodologies and the desire to be productive is a major dilemma for some of the striking guild members. And since writing -- particularly for feature scribes -- is usually such private work, confirming whether a writer is doing this kind of low-grade scabbing is tricky.

Several agents have asserted that their clients will quietly work away on their open projects but wait until a strike's end to turn them in. A prominent producer admits that she's hoping that her writers are at least "thinking" about the project at hand while pacing the 30 feet of sidewalk outside of Warner Bros. Gate 7.

One writer pointed out that, hypothetically, anyone could finish a script during the strike, then sit on it for a few weeks after the strike's end and claim it was written then. Even the guild's Script Validation Program couldn't police that maneuver.

"I don't know how you get around that," this writer says. "Are you gonna seize the computers?"

Additionally, any writer who truly honored the strike rules would be in a race against those who did sneak some writing during the strike to be among the first to file promised work to the studios and networks and have their projects move forward. In an atmosphere where the companies will be using the opportunity of a prolonged strike to cut loose extraneous talent, this kind of competitive crunch could be crucial.

Long before the strike began, it was assumed that feature writers would take advantage of a break from studio assignment work and turn to all those purely original ideas they never seem to have time to get to (which is the only form of screenwriting not banned by strike rules). A mordant joke at one agency has it that the desperation of a strike will provoke the kind of mind-blowing original scripts that writers only seem to turn out when they are starving.

But a producer who was working in the industry during the 1988 strike recalls her disappointment when the avalanche of innovative specs she and her producing peers expected after that 22-week work stoppage ended never materialized. Maybe that's because deep down most writers are looking for any excuse to dodge the excruciating process of pushing through endless layers of self-doubt that writing anything more complicated than a soup recipe entails.

"I've always said that you're not a writer until you have at least 100 excuses not to write," jokes Olson. "I know people who are reveling in the fact that they are allowed not to write now."

Certain things are just beyond them

A few weeks ago, Joel and Ethan Coen were quarantined in the 12th-floor hospitality suite of their "No Country for Old Men" film junket at the Four Seasons. Joel sat on a couch and sucked on a succession of hard candies, exuding either deep thoughtfulness or severe disinterest. Ethan was more animated, standing and pacing, and throwing out the occasional rueful chuckle.

They both seemed fairly uncomfortable with the junket situation, but perked up when reminiscing about absurd early screenwriting indignities (see, no one's immune). The Oscar-winning writer-directors also took a stab at describing their next two screenplays -- written around the same time as the "No Country" adaptation -- whose characteristically genre-defying nature stumps the creators themselves at times.

"A Serious Man," an original script that they plan to shoot in April, concerns a Midwestern Jewish community caught up in the cultural upheaval of the late 1960s that's colored by the Coens' own fairly observant Minneapolis upbringing (the first 10 minutes are in Yiddish).

"It'll blow your mind," says Ethan.

"It's a real mind-blower," Joel adds in a deadpan drier than the West Texas landscape. "It's '67, when people's minds were being blown. Hopefully people will be able to handle it."

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