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Strike plucks a political nerve

Special to The Times

The personal is political, as they say, and at times of labor unrest, the professional becomes even more so. In this roiling tempest of competing interests that is the 6-week-old writers strike, the combatants have increasingly taken on the surgical rhetoric and hardball strategies of rival political campaigns.

“For them, this is not a writers strike. It’s about changing society,” one unnamed executive griped about the striking Hollywood film and TV writers in Variety last Sunday. “We are so frustrated. We’re dealing with people who don’t care about this community. They care about making social change in America.”

Leaving aside the nonsensical logic that the Writers Guild of America’s efforts to “change society” would somehow exclude its own creative community, this declamation does call attention to a theory that’s been floating around parts of town. In interviews over the last month or so, producers, writers and managers have been musing that the debilitating battle between the writers and their corporate employers mirrors the liberal citizenry’s frustration with what they perceive as the condescending paternalism of the Bush administration.

In this model, what the writers object to is a business and political culture that increasingly seeks to disenfranchise them from having a say in huge decisions about their industry’s future, and thus a measure of control over their own professional identities and livelihoods. “Trust us,” the companies seem to be saying in a dismissive echo of Bush policy, “we know what’s best for you.”

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As such, the strike’s potency may be gaining a boost from a kind of displaced revolutionary zeal. While it’s not the motivation for their protest, subconsciously at least, a lot of picketing writers may be energized by the opportunity to fight back in a public way that, unlike with government protests of the last four years, has an immediate, noticeable effect. Of course, this implies a sizable overlap between Bush critics and the Hollywood writers, which, anecdotally anyway, seems a fair assumption.

Dana Fox (“The Wedding Date”) admits that when she found herself on the picket line the first day, she experienced a sense of shame that she had never picked up a sign to protest the Iraq war. She notes that when her father accompanied her to the Hollywood solidarity march a few weeks ago, he marveled that he hadn’t done anything like this since protesting the Vietnam War in the late 1960s.

“Up until now I’ve never had a sense that I can actually do anything about any of this,” said Fox, alluding to the feelings of helplessness attached to her displeasure with the Bush administration. “This [strike] has really invigorated me. To that end, it is consciousness-raising. And it does make me feel like it’s about something bigger than just this strike. It’s about all of the injustices. It’s about the little guy against a bigger machine.”

And it may not be just the writers playing out this dynamic -- their corporate opposition is playing into its role too.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if on [the studios’] end there’s a certain amount of paranoia, feeling that they got really fat on the Bush years,” said Oscar-nominated screenwriter Jose Rivera (“The Motorcycle Diaries”). “This administration has obviously been so pro-business, pro-corporation that [the studios] may be feeling like, ‘Oh, my God, they’re storming the barricades!’ And that this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

As one producer with a studio deal joked, Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn famously treated the writers like bothersome children too, but at least they were children from the same family. These days, vertical integration has forced a mercenary corporate culture down through the very human ranks of studios and networks that used to be filled with actual movie and TV lovers. Now it’s as if the top executive ranks are a different race -- brutal bean counters, not simpatico cinema dreamers -- who don’t even know how to speak to their creative personnel, let alone make decisions based on their sense of fairness.

And the political parallels suddenly became literal in early December when the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the studios’ and networks’ negotiating lobby, hired three public relations wizards to manage the press war against the guild. Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane, who worked for Bill Clinton and Al Gore, and Steve Schmidt, who worked for the Bush White House on Supreme Court confirmation hearings, have now joined the fray.

But not everyone sees a connection. “When you feel in a powerless situation, there is something to being able to make yourself heard and seen,” said Oscar-nominated writer Josh Olson (“A History of Violence”). "[But] I wouldn’t say that that relates specifically to current events. I think that’s pretty common.”

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Jon Lucas (“Four Christmases”) worked in Washington, D.C., briefly before moving to L.A. and marched in Hollywood against the Iraq war in 2003. He says those experiences made him question the value of public protest. Yet he notes that the picketing WGA, unlike the occasional left-wing political crowd, has no lunatic fringe element that confuses the message with ludicrous conspiracy theories.

“There are no nut jobs here,” as Lucas put it on the line last week, while acknowledging that the new studio PR brigade will now likely paint them as just those types of radicals. But then, maybe that’s not a bad thing.

“Every time I go out, my 15-year-old son says, ‘Dad, are you gonna go stick it to the Man today?’ ” Rivera said with a laugh. “So it’s like, ‘All right, I guess I am sticking it to the Man.’ ”

He’s got an eye for the invisible

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“In the big city, the story of the taxi driver is a more interesting story than the passengers,” says screenwriter Steven Knight. “But it never gets told.”

Knight is quietly building an enviable career out of rectifying that oversight with his taut, excavating screenplays. In “Dirty Pretty Things,” which earned him a 2003 original screenplay Oscar nomination, Knight built his grim mystery around London’s immigrant service subculture -- a Nigerian hotel porter, a Turkish chambermaid, a Russian doorman.

For the bruising “Eastern Promises,” Knight’s creative eye remained attuned to the foreign, the exploited, the invisible. He spent time in New York City with the FBI’s organized crime division as well as with the Russian desk of Scotland Yard (“a very underfunded group of people,” he says dryly) to help nail the details of the London crime family depicted in “Promises,” including Nikolai, the ruthless Russian driver inhabited by Viggo Mortensen.

But Knight’s most fascinating and random discovery became the inspiration for Semyon, the sinister patriarch played by Armin Mueller-Stahl with such sugary menace. One evening, Knight was enjoying a cigar in a London restaurant when the Russian, cigar-chomping owner wandered over and started up a conversation. Knight was quickly struck by the man’s discomforting contradictions -- he was clearly connected to shady dealings but took time to read Pushkin to institutionalized countrymen.

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“He was this really hospitable, intelligent, well-read person who was also involved in this business . . . ,” says Knight. “As a writer, when you come across that, I think that gives you permission to then create a world around him. Because if reality is that bizarre, then you can start working with it.”

Indeed, writing the scene when the naif Anna, played by Naomi Watts, first enters Sem- yon’s restaurant was the exhilarating moment when the script’s story clicked into place for him. From that spark, Knight began wondering who this man’s family might be, so he kept returning to that world to chat and smoke with the owner, quietly filing away details, like the peculiar rhythms of the owner’s speech.

“That’s exactly the point, which hopefully was the same in ‘Dirty Pretty Things,’ ” Knight says. “In a hotel, if you walk through a door marked ‘Staff Only,’ you enter a whole different world. It’s like Narnia. With ‘Eastern Promises,’ the idea is that when you walk into that restaurant the rules have changed. When Anna wanders in, the story begins.”

Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. Please e-mail any tips or comments to fernandez_jay@hotmail.com.

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