Hollywood Writers' Strike: 78 Notes from the Sidewalk
Fade in. Ext. Paramount Pictures - Day.
Like any memorable Act Three plot twist, we never saw it coming. As Hollywood writing partners who have collaborated on nine scripts together over the past five years, we're forced to spend a lot of time together. Like hostages without a bank robbery. As a result, we can talk about anything for hours. And we mean anything. Not just movie ideas. We once had a full five-minute debate about how burned a piece of toast would have to be before neither one of us would eat it. We've weathered the ups and downs of show business, but after nearly two months on the WGA picket line and sixty-plus hours of walking in a circle together, the unthinkable happened: we ran out of conversation. We trudged silently, unsure where to go from here.
Long ago, on Day One of the strike, we chose Paramount as our picketing location. (Nothing personal, Paramount. You're a closer commute. And you have free parking.) Sure, we were worried about being unemployed and broke, but we support our union and as comedy writers, we'd "find the funny" in picketing. When life hands you a lemon, peel off a twist, plop it into your martini, and look at the upside (the martini helps here). We'd absorb some fresh air and Vitamin D instead of sitting behind a computer all day. We'd meet single men (the WGA is 70-something% male, after all). We'd rub elbows with A-list writers, dazzling Aaron Sorkin with off-the-cuff improvised rants like "We won't stop screamin' til you pay us for streamin'!" and soothing our aching feet at post-picket pedicures with Susannah Grant.
Or, at the very least, get a wacky Christmas card picture out of it.
We must confess something. We dressed up for our first 10-2 PM shift. No jeans or oversized red WGA XXL T-shirts for us. If we hoped to romantically tangle picket signs in a meet-cute with the single male creator of a hit syndicated TV show (insert title card: "Love on the Line"), then makeup and an attractive ensemble were in order. One of us even wore boots.
This plan got a major rewrite ten minutes after we signed in.
First off, it was one of those ninety-five degree, Indian summer November days where the California sun blazes like a Quizno's grill. This sort of heat is ideal for many things. Firing pottery in a kiln, for example. Not a four-hour picketing shift. And not when you're a fair complexioned redhead. Our feet screamed, our makeup ran like Niagara Falls, and we only felt like flirting with the free sunscreen at the check-in desk. Turns out, style is irrelevant on the line. It's hard to be charming when marching in a tight circle on a sidewalk, over and over, like a lemming with a short term memory problem. In fact, on a picket line, you can't do much but...picket. Sure, during the first twenty minutes, you cocktail party banter with the person next to you. The usual bartering of "Where are you from?" and "What do you write?" You glean that you write feature films and he writes for TV and more often than not it's a show you can't stand or worse, have never seen. Then, the conversation slowly dies off like our shrinking residuals and you shuffle along in an awkward silence. It's like making the mistake of chatting with your seatmate on a plane, pre-takeoff. At least on the plane, you can end the social discomfort by pretending to take a nap. There are no naps in picketing.
We also quickly discovered that if studio pickets are a high school cafeteria, then Paramount is the nerdy transfer student with whom nobody wants to eat lunch. It's where the oddball writers picket. We have a theory why. You can choose your picket location and everyone probably chose like we did: shortest commute. Since Paramount is seated in the heart of Hollywood, you get your scruffy, Eastside types. (Plus that guy wearing just red undies and a necktie.) The big names we hoped to rub shoulders with? They live in Santa Monica and Brentwood, i.e. near Fox and Sony, the "hip kids" picket locales.
Turns out, once the hilarious Christmas card picture is taken, picketing is not "all that". We thought we were buying a ticket to a comedy. Instead, it was one of those slow, non-narrative, foreign language dramas. And then, unexpectedly, picketing started to rewrite itself. The shifts were reduced to (only!) three hours and we started frequenting the 5:30-8:30 AM timeslot. We could fulfill our duty and have the rest of the day free to speed dial Bank of America's automated system to see if our accounts were zeroed-out. The Early Bird picket is dark and sometimes downright cold, but it beats a third-degree sunburn. And it's sparsely attended, which would seem like a drawback but actually, is a boon. The five or six of us huddle together, sipping coffee and commiserating, like we're on the last chopper out of 'Nam. We take pride in the tactile misery of walking the line instead of lying in our nice, warm beds. Real conversation is to be had pre-sunrise, when you're so wrapped up in hats and scarves that you can't even see if the other person is male or female, hideous or attractive, much less worry about what they write. Instead we have conversations about travel and food and politics and family and sex and love lives. The good stuff. The honest stuff. The stuff that good stories are made of.
And we noticed another change: weight loss. Twelve hours of walking in a circle has not produced a new contract, but it has resulted in a new pants size. In a heartfelt attempt to bolster its image, Paramount's been hosting "theme" pickets, like Singles Day and Star Trek Day. But us diehard Paramounties don't need bribes or cajoling. We now embrace that we're misunderstood but ultimately way more cool because of it. We're like Nirvana in its heyday. Fighters, rebels, the bookworms who make their own prom dress out of the hand-me-downs.
The WGA is on a two-week picketing hiatus for the holidays. Liz in Seattle visiting family; Hilary is house-sitting in Beverly Hills. But as we caught up on the phone this evening, we admitted...we kind of miss picketing. And not just because it's an excuse to not write. Maybe it's Stockholm Syndrome, but picketing has grown on us. And as for our lost conversation? Eh, most good scripts need a dialogue polish anyway.