I missed my daily report due to pure physical exhaustion. I was in bed by 8:15 last night. And the report really begins with Day Nine-point-five, in which I eat dinner.
We have a weekly babysitter on Tuesday nights, which allows my much-better-half and me to eat dinner without constant requests from a polite but cheese-obsessed toddler. Since I’ve been on the early shift this week my schedule’s been off, and I was hungry at 5:30. Which is when Osteria Mozza happens to open its doors. The confluence of these two events explains why I happened to be at a restaurant that has a month-solid reservation list, eating at the counter when I noticed Peter Roth at a nearby table.
Peter Roth is president of Warner Bros. Television, the studio which makes many of the biggest television shows: ER, Pushing Daisies, Without A Trace, even Josh’s new Terminator series. Every few years, I have a meeting with him, in which I’m encouraged to do television. I respectfully pass. But I’ve had nothing but good experiences with him.
When you see someone you kind-of-know at a restaurant, it’s always a process to figure out whether or not to say hi. In your head, you play through the possible conversation, and if the likelihood of Happy Outcomes exceeds a certain threshold, you do it.
But the strike makes that decision process much more complicated. What do I have to talk about with Peter Roth other than the strike? Here’s the conversation I imagined myself having:
- Hey Peter. John August.
- PETER ROTH
- John. John August! How are you? This strike, huh? Crazy. I can’t wait for this to be over.
- Then tell your side to come back to the table with an internet residual plan that isn’t horseshit, and you could be shooting pilots by February. Because I’ve been on the picket line for seven days, and every writer wants to come back to work. But not a single one of them would take that shitty deal. Because everyone knows what’s at stake, and everyone knows the CEO’s are talking out of two sides of their mouths.
I didn’t envision myself being able to communicate this last part effectively, so I stayed put and ate my pasta.1 I felt it was crossing the line to intrude upon his dinner to have a non-productive conversation in front of his three guests. I was unlikely to get a hug.
The whole Peter Roth non-conversation got me thinking a lot about lines: the lines we draw, the lines we walk, the lines we repeat even though we’re not sure of the motivation.2
This morning’s trip to the picket line started at 4:30 a.m., an hour that’s equally bleak no matter which way you approach it. On day nine, a crew started picketing early at 5 a.m. in order to reach more Teamsters, so I volunteered to do it today.
Unfortunately, my zeal was misplaced, because it turned out that the 5 a.m. call time was a one-time experiment, a detail which didn’t trickle through to my inbox or the few other picketers who showed up early. We got to unload the studio van and help set up, so it wasn’t all for naught. I also learned details about the “Neutral Gates,” which are deemed picket-free. Only certain vendors are allowed to use them. I don’t pretend to really understand it, but I’m happy to find new layers of subtlety in a process that mostly involves holding a sign while walking.
I’ve taken to introducing myself by my full name, because I’ve realized that several people I’ve been walking next to have written great movies that I want to discuss with them. For instance, “Michael” is actually Michael Tolkin, whose film The Player almost convinced me I wasn’t cut out for the film industry, while “Barbara” is in fact Barbara Turner, writer of Georgia. I was also joined by a blog reader, whose name got lost in the fog of under-caffeination. Sorry.
Two guys walking with us today didn’t need many introductions: Damon Lindelof and J.J. Abrams.
I first met Damon on the Paramount lot, years ago when he and a friend were both assistants at a small production company. We ate many lunches at Koo Koo Roo — yes, the infamous one — talking about our hopes and ambitions for writing careers. We both did well. He and J.J. Abrams created Lost, which Damon’s run with Carlton Cuse to great success.3
Damon is producing the new Star Trek movie, which J.J. is directing. Which is shooting on the Paramount lot. Which we are currently picketing.
This combination of facts led me to email Damon yesterday, which led to a phone call, which led to us walking in circles at the Van Ness gate along with J.J., talking about the strike, its absurdities and impossible choices. Star Trek is the biggest movie shooting at Paramount. It’s directed and produced by WGA members, who are following the spirit and letter of the Guild’s rules. They’re walking the line while being forced to cross it.
“Forced” isn’t quite right, because there’s an alternative: J.J., Damon, and the other WGA producers could refuse to cross the picket line. They’d get fired, sued, and replaced by a less-conflicted director and producing team — all probably within a week’s time. What’s tougher to figure out is whether it would make a damn bit of difference.
Believe me, there are writers who would encourage (nay, demand) that they walk away, much the way the television showrunners walked away from their series. There’s the belief that the best way to end the strike is through big gestures — and that would be a very big gesture. (Basically, anything short of lighting oneself on fire is a betrayal of the cause.)
So when it got around the picket lines that Star Trek would be coming to the lot on Wednesday, I could foresee a situation that got awkward or worse. If you’ve been reading my daily updates, you’ll know that I’m the guy who is always concerned about avoiding stupid car accidents. This felt like a stupid car accident waiting to happen, so I suggested that Damon and J.J. spend some time walking, talking, and engaging with the picket line.
What I couldn’t have anticipated is that it would be so, well, engaging.
There are a few basic things that should get cleared up first.
Neither J.J. nor Damon are writers on the movie. But they are writers, and WGA members. During a WGA strike, you’re not allowed to write on movies or television shows, period. So they can’t change a word of the script, nor can anyone else. The script they had at 11:59 p.m. November 5th is the script they have to shoot.
To a screenwriter, that might seem kind of awesome. For once, the director can’t change things. But when its your own movie, it’s maddening. J.J. was describing a scene he was shooting the day before. Midway through it, he got a great idea for a new line. Which he couldn’t write. Couldn’t shoot. Couldn’t be in his movie.
Damon described it like having one of your superpowers taken away.
You can absolutely make a movie without changing the script. Big Fish and Charlie were shot just like they were written. But to not even have the option of changing something is a bizarre restriction, like making a Dogme 95 film with a $100 million budget. As feature writers, we’re constantly asking to be included in production, on the call sheet, on the set. Suddenly, we’re completely removing ourselves from the process.
Damon’s been outspoken in his support for the strike, with an editorial in the New York Times and many hours logged on the picket lines at ABC/Disney. He’s one of the showrunners who not only put down his pen, but took off his producer’s hat. So I wasn’t surprised that he had a lot of insights and opinions about the strike, the industry and the endgame, all of which I’ll let him decide whether he wants to share.
I didn’t know J.J. at all, except as a geeky fan. He has a terrific reputation from those who’ve worked with him. In meeting him, I found he was smart, friendly and conflicted about what he should do.
I have the luxury of being fairly “clean” in terms of the strike — my producing deal at Fox is for a spec that I’m not writing until the mess is over. Yet J.J., Damon and I have the same basic encumbrances: contracts that put us in partnerships with the corporations we’re fighting. I suggested J.J. use his neglected superpower to write about the situation. As a high-profile player, his ink can underline the costly choices the studios are making by not coming back to the bargaining table.
Also, he can embed subliminal messages in studio dailies. (I just thought of that now.)
For a change of scenery, I joined John Gatins’ crew at Universal, where I got to catch up with old acquaintances like Scott Frank, Aline Brosh McKenna, Deb Kaplan, Harry Elfont and Breckin Meyer. Justine Bateman brought tacos. Compared with Paramount’s Van Ness gate, it was like a weekend in the country.
We were at the gate next to the massive NBC Universal tower, which provided glorious shade until 12:34 p.m. It’s a very wide intersection with a short timer on the crosswalk — you can only make it across once, and barely. I described it as being two islands you occasionally swim between. That left a lot of time for chatting. Some of my fellow conversationalists included two Jeopardy! writers, two location managers (go Teamsters!) and an editor working on the lot.
I’ll be back tomorrow at Paramount, 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. Readers are always welcome. I’ll also be doing a Saturday shift at WGA Headquarters. Check the wga.org website for info about helping out there.
- Which was delicious. I also taught chef-owner Nancy Silverton how to say “lonely” in Spanish. In context, I suggested “desconsolado de estar solo” (it was referring jokingly to a man who was missing his co-worker). “Sentirse solo” would probably be the simpler choice. The emotional distinction between “lonely” and “alone” doesn’t really match up in Spanish, or many other languages. My hunch is that our two words came out of the one of the later influxes into English, like how we ended up with both “regal” and “royal” (the latter, a French version of the Latin “rÄ“gÄ?lis”). End of digression. ↩
- Yes, that does sound like a voice-over from Desperate Housewives. ↩
- Carlton Cuse is on the WGA Negotiating Committee. No, Damon didn’t offer up any insider information about either that or what was up with the flash-forward at the end of last season. ↩