On March 7, 1988, the Writers Guild of America went on strike. It lasted 155 days and is the longest work stoppage in Guild history. Having only joined the Guild one year previous, the experience was an eye-opener for me.
Am I referring to how studios and networks treat writers shabbily? The long and storied history of the Guild? Appropriate picket line etiquette?
Sure, all that. But what I remember most from the experience is this: Writers just bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch.
Or perhaps more appropriately: Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch, kvetch, kvetch.
Whether it was picketing studios or meetings at the Hollywood Palladium, you never heard such a whining group of people in your life. It seemed like every single writer with whom I spoke had one or more sob stories. Even at the general meetings with like 1,000 members in attendance, where the WGA board was sitting up on stage, and there were two microphones for the membership to voice their concerns about the strike, more often than not what emerged from the lips of writers and boomed across the P.A. system was not some erudite assessment of labor negotiating points, but rather some long-winded saga about how the writer had been screwed by a studio / network / director / producer / agent, take your pick.
Seriously, that is my main memory of those 155 days. Tramping along in a picket line next to all these slump-shouldered, slack-jawed, squinty-eyed writers pissing and moaning about this deal that had gotten screwed up… or that script which had been rewritten… their movie that had been butchered.
It was a weekly dose of chilled white whine.
Then after the picketing was over, these same writers would shuffle off to their BMW’s, Jaguars, or Mercedes-Benz coupes, motoring off to their homes in Beverly Hills, Brentwood, or Pacific Palisades.
[That is supposed to be ironic.]
Why do I bring up this bit of arcane history? Because when you sell a script and move to L.A. to work in the film or TV business, you will rub shoulders with lots of writers. And as sure as there will be stop-and-go traffic on the 405 every day, those writers will whine.
Then check this out: If you have a long enough career, all sorts of professional evils will befall you that will make you whine.
It comes with the territory: Writer = Whiner.
You need to understand there are times when you can safely whine… and times when you really should keep your damn mouth shut. Here are some basic guidelines.
Persons, entities, or objects with whom you can whine at any time: Spouse, pet (dog or cat, although I find dogs to be better listeners), your car, tennis pro, hair stylist, psychiatrist, masseuse, rabbi, minister, yoga instructor, next door neighbor (although that depends upon if they work in the entertainment business or not), clouds, bottle of Scotch, Hector the yard guy, and most of all other writers. Writers are the only group you have a free pass to whine at any time about any subject related to the business. We are an equal bitching opportunity community.
Persons to whom you can whine often but not always: Your agent, manager, lawyer. The commission you pay to them buys you the right to complain… occasionally. However you must be cognizant of their eyes when you get caught up in your whine-fest. If they start to glaze over, wrap it up and bounce. [Kvetching to them over the phone is a total waste of time because you can be assured they are not paying you any attention, instead tracking the CNBC stock market scroll on their TV]. If you whine too much or too frequently to an agent, manager or lawyer, you will get the reputation of being… well… a whiner… and that can lead to your phone not ringing.
Persons to whom you can rarely whine: Producers. Technically this ought not be the case as the producer on a project is supposed to be involved in much weightier matters than listening to you drone on and on about yet another senseless rewrite the studio wants you to do, but producers are used to dealing with so much shit on a daily basis, you can go whine-o on them occasionally without any fear of retribution.
Persons to whom you should never whine: Studio executives, director, actors. As far as all these people are concerned, the writer’s primary function is to solve problems. The script has issues? The writer takes care of them. If you whine to them about the injustice of your fate, that is equivalent to jamming a car into reverse without using the clutch. You are not supposed to whine. You are supposed to listen to them whine.
Here is a short glossary of phrases you can interject into your whining:
“I mean who are they kidding?”
“How many trees have I killed writing treatments for these bozos.”
“Uh, yeah, I’m serious.”
“And of course, that would change the entire plot!”
“They told me I had that assignment.”
“I hate this city.”
“And they like literally had not even read the coverage.”
“Those were his exact words.”
“Give him a dead wife. That’s what they want.”
“Sometimes I… I… … …”
Armed with this vital information, you should be set up for years and years of meaningless whining.
The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.
[Originally posted September 22, 2011]