Arts & Entertainment

Writers aren't over the strike

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TY TRULLINGER, 26, had been particularly excited about the end of the writers strike. After working his way up on NBC's "Las Vegas" as a below-the-line assistant, he'd been promised a shot at directing one of the final episodes in the interrupted fifth season. At the end of last month, he was back at work -- but learned that his new job was to dismantle the set.

The network had canceled the show.

"I get a lot of sympathy," he said. "People know how close I came to something pretty big."

The writers strike has been an emotional roller coaster for nearly everyone in the business. And it isn't over yet.

Over the last three months, there was joy in picket-line fellowship, anger at producers and "turncoat" writers, pride in forging a deal and relief at returning to work. But now some, like Trullinger, have also felt frustration at nasty surprises, panic at telescoped deadlines and even sadness at having to give up social camaraderie for the more familiar lonely rooms and blank pages. Others, reeling from financial bankruptcy, don't know where exactly to focus their bitterness.

"While most of us look at the strike as a positive thing, a lot of us have a let's-not-do-that-again-any-time-soon feeling," said Craig Mazin, a screenwriter whose blog, the Artful Writer, kept readers posted on his alternative views during the strike. Bad blood lingers over things said and done. (NBC Entertainment's co-head Ben Silverman, for instance, compared writers to "the nerdiest, ugliest, meanest kids in the high school" for trying to cancel his "prom," the Golden Globes. One picketer scrawled the home address of News Corp. President Peter Chernin on his sign. Fellow writers called Mazin a "turncoat" and a "traitor.")

And adding to the normal anxiety of industry uncertainty, the future is clouded with technological change and financial belt tightening.

The business has changed already, said veteran writer-producer David Milch ("Deadwood"). "The question is whether it will change back or further," he said.

The emotional toll exacted by the strike appears to correspond to a worker's position on Hollywood's food chain. Among the hardest hit were the nonwriting below-the-line workers like Johnathin Schaab, 51, who had a business providing greenery to television sets.

Two months into the strike, he had to file bankruptcy, a traumatic experience in itself but intensified by the speed of the fall. "It will take me the rest of my life to recover, unless I get lucky," he said.

He still loves Hollywood and doesn't blame the writers, but he has an unfocused anger toward television in general and profound guilt over the people he's let down, he said. "I'm seeing a therapist because of this," he said.

Studio executives' worries focused more on pleasing their stockholders, said Lilli Friedland, a Century City psychologist who counseled both writers and executives during the strike. "Though many of them know writers personally, they put aside those feelings," she said. "You don't get rewarded for being empathetic."

Working without work

Many writers, meanwhile, well known for taking their art to heart, felt disoriented without having something to write. "To me, work is the organizing principle of my life," said Milch, who was temporarily dropped by HBO in force majeure cuts.

"Excellence in storytelling derives from a whole-souled commitment to getting the characters and situation right," he said. "To go on strike is as far from the imaginative state required to write as possible. . . . You feel aggrieved and dislocated."

Rather than picketing, Milch said, he gave free talks on writing with suggested exercises to help himself and other writers stay in touch with "the spirit, or however you want to describe the state of being when you're writing." His lectures are still available on the Internet. He is back at work on an HBO series, "Last of the Ninth."

Other writers were pleased to use the time to dust off dream projects that had been postponed while earning paychecks. Without deadlines or studio notes, imaginations flowed. Because the strike ended before many of them were completed, some fear that if those scripts go back into the drawer, they won't ever come out again.

Friedland said most writers she knew did not picket. But those who did found an emotional solidarity and a sense of justice similar to that of a 1960s peace march.

Writers who loved that bonding -- and in some cases, the networking -- on the picket lines just a little too much can't help missing the daily marching. "The little mushrooms come out into the light. You meet all these other people doing the same thing. It gave you the sense that you're not alone," said screenwriter Ken LaZebnik ("Prairie Home Companion"), who has returned to his rented office in Studio City.

Most members of the Writers Guild had little or no experience with union actions. At first, LaZebnik scoffed at rhetoric he heard last fall. But now, he said he thought of and sincerely called his colleagues "brothers and sisters."

Television writer Christine Berardo ("Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman") said that normally writers in the entertainment industry didn't get the feeling of serving a larger purpose. "I wouldn't be surprised if we see a lot of scripts now about labor unions," she said.

But Friedland said she noticed those warm feelings start to chill after 2 1/2 months when individual financial pressures started to intrude. "That kind of reality tempers even a righteous cause," she said.

It was then that tempers flared among writers and resentment deepened against producers and studio executives. Even now, the final deal is widely perceived by writers to be one that could have been cut early on in the strike.

One out-of-work actor said she and several friends had not worked since November, had depleted their savings, could no longer get unemployment, wouldn't qualify for health insurance and were living on credit cards. She said they resented the producers and considered them greedy. "How long people will feel this way depends on how soon and how much work is out there over the next month," she said.

Hollywood goes on

Despite the bad blood and the uncertain future, Mazin suspects Hollywood's capitalist nature will ensure that all is forgiven in the long run. "This business will reward what it wants to reward," he said. "I could go and just defile the graves of the mother of a studio executive. But if I write a good screenplay, they'll probably give me a pass.

"In the end, all the overblown rhetoric will be forgotten and chalked up to fight talk. People will get back to wanting good scripts."

As for Trullinger, he said he's trying not to get down about his misfortune. He's still getting used to the job-to-job nature of the business and has called every producer he knows to tell them he's available. He's also looking for an agent. "I hope to use the fact that I was booked on a show as leverage to get representation," he said.

He's also still young enough to laugh wryly at his fate.

"I know those opportunities won't be there every time I get a new job," he said.

He pointed out that NBC might have pulled the plug on "Las Vegas" at any point in its 110 episodes. "We're all very fortunate to have lasted this long."

lynn.smith@latimes.com

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