Strikers' dilemma: to write or not

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."

For "Burn After Reading," another original that they just finished filming, they created characters specifically for George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Frances McDormand (Joel's wife), John Malkovich and Richard Jenkins. "We wanted to throw these specific actors together in a fun story, and it all kind of derived from that exercise," says Ethan.

(Internet claims to the contrary, their story has nothing to do with the Adm. Stansfield Turner memoir, "Burn Before Reading: Presidents, CIA Directors, and Secret Intelligence," though both involve the spy agency and derive their titles from the most severe of secret classifications.)

So is it a comedy then?

"Mmm, sort of," says Ethan.

"It's, um . . . it's . . . " Joel trails off.

"Uhh . . . " adds Ethan.

Finally, Joel offers, "It's not a comedy like -- "

" 'Evan Almighty,' " chimes in Ethan helpfully.

"Or 'Anchorman,' " says Joel, laughing. "In a way, I wish we could do 'Anchorman.' How much did that movie gross? And I love Will Ferrell. He's really . . . funny."

"We tried doing that once," says Ethan. "We saw that 'Meet the Parents' had made $168 million. So our exercise was to make a movie that's going to [gross that]. How hard can it be?"

"What you realize is . . . it's really hard," Joel says.

"It's harder than you would think," Ethan agrees, laughing with his brother.

Joel pops another candy.

"It's really not in our capabilities," he says.

Ex-security guard now has security

"And then what?"

These were the words Preston Whitmore II's mother threw at him when he informed her 20 years ago that he had dropped out of law school to become a writer. Whitmore's response -- "And then what nothin'. This is it" -- was a bold claim for a guy driving to his Century City security guard job in a yellow VW bug.

Sitting on the outdoor patio at the Standard Hotel on a warm afternoon last week, the goateed 45-year-old picked at an artfully arranged late breakfast. He was trying to grease away a hangover from the previous night's premiere and afterparty of his third writing-directing effort, "This Christmas," which comes out today.

Clearly, Whitmore had backed up his early claim.

A poor Detroit native, Whitmore was a high school dropout who spent three years in Guam as a Marine before getting a GED, college degree and two years of law school. He had originally wanted to be a rapper and even released an album with the Boyz From Detroit (his nom de rap was Square Luv), but a friend who was a Motown songwriter pushed him toward movies by saying of his lyrics: "These stories are too big for a three-minute song."

Whitmore was a security guard at a condo complex and part-time law clerk when Gersh agent Richard Arlook found him. At the time, Whitmore was writing on a Radio Shack word processor with a tiny window and little memory on which he had to type half the script, print it and then erase it before he could write the second half.

He's since completed nearly 70 feature screenplays ("The Walking Dead," "Fled" and "Crossover" among those produced), a full third of them originals.

"I never start a script I don't finish," he says of the discipline he picked up in the Marines.

A large part of Whitmore's determination to succeed stems from his relationship with his late father, a custodian who never got to see any of his son's produced work.

When Whitmore was first trying to make it as a screenwriter, he kept a Hollywood journal in the form of dispirited, imaginary letters written to his father.

A few positive developments finally led to a hopeful journal entry, so Whitmore decided to send it to his dad.

Four months later, when his father's neighbors discovered him dead of a heart attack in his Detroit home, they only knew he had a son in L.A. to notify for one reason: the blood-speckled, crumpled letter they found in his back pocket.

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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