Creative Tensions: The WGA-DGA Divide

Michael Cieply, a Los Angeles journalist, has written about the entertainment industry since 1984

At a cozy, show-business dinner a while ago, an A-list writer, excusing herself early, said: “I’ve got to work on my movie tomorrow.” “No,” corrected her host, an A-list director. “You’ve got to work on your script. It’s only a movie when I get involved.”

Writer and director, ever at odds, will soon get their chance to go at it again.

Not later than Oct. 1, institutional representatives of those who write and those who turn writers’ words into pictures are expected to meet--along with studio executives and everyone else with a vested interest in weighty issues touching on the authorship of film--in an industry-wide forum on movie and TV credits. Some wags are already referring to this Hollywood version of a constitutional convention as the Tower of Babel. Directors, writers, producers, executives and, presumably, representatives of other film constituencies will clearly come into the session speaking different languages; and, given Hollywood history, most will probably leave exactly the same way.

The great credits forum of 2001--which still has no official title, dates, format or list of participants--is one of several gimmicks patched together in May in an 11th-hour push to keep the Writers Guild of America contract talks from cracking up over so-called “creative issues.” With money matters finally sewed up, the studios and writers began the even-more-delicate negotiations over credits, which is where the Director’s Guild came into the picture. Any time a writer wants more credit for a film, there’s a director somewhere who thinks he or she is getting less. Still, it grates on writers that directors often get so-called possessory credits, like “Film By.” They’re annoyed at not having at-will access to sets and cast readings. In short, they are on the warpath for respect. Directors, not surprisingly, are reluctant to cede ground.


In the end, rather than buy what they saw as an inadequate package, the writers cobbled together a face-saving counter-proposal to leave the issue unresolved. But not permanently. In the months following the contract’s signing, they would hold the credits forum, meet with the DGA in joint creative rights committees, and even engage in a downright silly program of public nice-making. Each guild agreed to publish annually in its house magazine one cover story devoted to “successful collaborations” between writers and directors in television, and another about writers and directors who manage not to rip each other’s throats out while making a feature film.

Thus was peace--and the prospect of some less than compelling reading--achieved. Or was it? Nearly three months into the new era of creative dialogue, writers and directors are still circling each other like, well, writers and directors.

(An Alliance of Motion Pictures and Television Producers spokesman, meanwhile, declared the whole area “too sensitive” to discuss. The companies, one suspects, have been only too happy to stand back and let directors play the heavy in resisting writers’ demands.)

Before the contractual ink dried, the Writers Guild began telling members in a series of perhaps hyperbolic communications that it had won a historic set of “industry standards” governing writers’ rights. “It will now be standard practice that the writer attend the first cast reading and visit the set” of each film and TV production, the WGA West declared in its recently released annual report. This, of course, raised eyebrows at the Directors Guild, where insiders double-checked their copies of the new contract. In fact, the document makes such access only a “preferred practice” and rings it with the sort of admonitions usually reserved for ill-mannered children. Sure, a writer might attend a cast reading for a movie. But he or she must share any opinions only with the director, in private, and should realize that “because this reading is a delicate moment for both director and performers, the director must be able to exercise the discretion to include or exclude the writer.”


Another clause--inserted at the DGA’s insistence--gives either guild the right to cancel its participation in joint creative meetings, if, for instance, its counterpart were to heat up public rhetoric again. To scratch the fragile detente apparently wouldn’t take more than a few barbs in the WGA’s “Written By” magazine, which annoyed DGA types last spring with a story titled “The Pathological Hero’s Conscience,” claiming that director John Ford had been miserly in granting recognition to Frank S. Nugent, with whom he worked on “The Quiet Man” and “The Searchers”.

On other fronts, the guilds remain noticeably off-register. According to DGA national executive director Jay Roth, for example, no steps have been taken to set the first creative meeting, although he anticipates that the meetings will occur. Wells, by contrast, says the WGA has approached the DGA about the sessions, and the first meeting should occur shortly. As for the credits forum, Wells has high hopes for the meeting, which he imagines will take place in multiple sessions over five or six months. “This is a way we can all get in one place and talk reasonably,” he says. But Gilbert Cates, the DGA secretary-treasurer who helped shape the creative affairs settlement, remains skeptical. “If the WGA wants to join the DGA to improve the filmmaking culture and increase the respect given to both writers and directors, we’re all for it,” he says. “But if they’re seeking venues to continue their historical pattern of attacking both the filmmaking process and directors, because that’s how they think they’ll gain power for themselves, then ultimately none of this will work.”

And so it goes, much as it went in the 1950s, when the fight was about copyright (studios vetoed writers’ demands to own it); or the 1960s, when the possessory credits spat led to legal war (directors prevailed in film, while writers captured the credit in TV); or the 1970s, when the battle turned on script changes permitted to directors and producers (studios blocked the writers again); or the 1980s, with its fight over a proposed interim contract by the striking WGA that would have given writers the right to hire and fire the director (nobody of substance signed).

The simple truth is that writers and directors see things differently and always have. One group deals in images, the other in words. As it happens, rough justice has made the writer dominant in episodic TV, with its premium on continuity of story, while giving the director supremacy in the feature world, where the ability to enforce a creative vision means all. True collaborations, where they work--whether between “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”'s Ang Lee and James Schamus or “The West Wing”'s Aaron Sorkin and Thomas Schlamme--are matters of deep personal respect, often built on some idiosyncratic mesh of towering strengths and hidden weaknesses best understood by the players themselves. That kind of synchronicity yields Oscars and Emmys. But it can’t be codified, mandated nor even taught in the series of eight annual seminars, four for TV, four for feature film, to be cosponsored by the DGA and WGA under Section 2(b) of the new agreement.

Maybe, in fact, the tension between writer and director is essential. One rubs against the other, building friction and, thus, creative heat. From Paul Viertel’s jaundiced observations (in “White Hunter, Black Heart”) of John Huston’s posturing on “The African Queen,” to Steven Spielberg’s retooling (as Tom Hanks embarrassingly told press junketeers) of “every word” of Robert Rodat’s script for “Saving Private Ryan,” the push and pull somehow produced great work. And not even a long-winded industry forum or a bunch of soothing cover stories on the art of getting along is likely to mess that up.