Page Turner

“Everything here’s amazing, fantastic — I know you’re not supposed to say that, but . . .”

Steven Knight, the screenwriter of Dirty Pretty Things, was discussing his guilty awe for Hollywood during this, his first trip here. The Birmingham, England, native recently stood in the lobby of the Writers Guild of America theater, during a reception that preceded a panel of writers who’d been nominated for WGA awards.

“Everything is always the opposite of what you expect,” he said, explaining his outlook on life. “It’s like this, but it’s like that

The event, a discussion of the screenwriting craft, was well-attended, although there was some private bristling that announced panelists Sofia Coppola and Anthony Minghella were no-shows. But the grumbling was distant and the evening kept its cheery tone.

“This isn’t the night for that,” I was politely told by an aide to Seabiscuit writer-director Gary Ross when I tried to ask about the WGA’s decidedly uncheery upcoming contract talks with producers. This year’s negotiations promise to make nuclear-disarmament talks with North Korea look like a Sunday-morning swap meet. The chief sticking points will be the guild’s insistence on getting higher residuals on DVD sales, along with bigger management payments to health and pension plans and more jurisdiction over both animated projects and reality-TV programming.

Days before, the guild’s strategic position was rudely undermined when the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) agreed to a one-year extension of their current contracts while making economic gains along a range of categories. SAG contracts always expire in June, a few months after the WGA’s pacts end. This sequence reinforces the WGA’s hand by raising the possibility of a two-guild walkout. The removal of this threat isn’t the WGA’s only headache, however.

In January, guild president Vicky Riskin was forced to resign after her challenger in last fall’s election protested that Riskin hadn’t worked enough in the preceding year to qualify to hold office. This has triggered a federal investigation into the guild’s election process. Then, when guild vice president Charles Holland replaced Riskin, questions arose about résumé claims he had made in an interview with the WGA’s magazine, Written By. Following a Los Angeles Times feature disproving some of these claims (which included having received a college football scholarship and having been a member of the Army’s Special Forces), the guild’s board gave him a split vote of confidence. Holland is currently the subject of a recall drive by disgruntled guild members who don’t seem impressed by his defenders’ claims that screenwriters are, after all, “storytellers” — as opposed to liars.

 

Holland appeared only briefly at the guild’s panel, long enough to greet the audience before leaving, he said, to attend his wife’s birthday party. It’s clearly a High Noon scenario for both the WGA and its president; the former has been left to hang in the wind by SAG and AFTRA, while the latter is under attack by dissidents. It’s not an unfamiliar position for either, since screenwriters, rather like Gary Cooper’s sheriff, have traditionally been cornered individualists and low links in Hollywood’s glory chain.

“The guild’s taken on the persona of its members,” screenwriter Trey Ellis told me during a phone interview. “The DGAs [Directors Guild of America] are alpha personalities, but the WGA is a more gentlemanly organization.”

Still, Ellis has complete confidence in its leader.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with Charles Holland’s negotiating record,” he said. “This so-called scandal is beside the point, and the recall is typical of writers shooting themselves in the foot.”

Ellis’ view was echoed by guild member Bob Eisele.

“If a person did tell tales out of school about his past,” Eisele told me by phone, “this shouldn’t affect his ability to negotiate. And Charles Holland is a solid negotiator. I don’t know if he’s right or wrong about his background, but I couldn’t give a damn.”

No date has been announced for the WGA’s talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, but they are a few months — if not weeks — away and will take place against the backdrop of a new intransigence among corporate America, typified by the just-ended supermarket strike and lockout, and 2002’s West Coast port negotiations. In both of those long, debilitating talks, management artfully used the media to portray the union workers as overpaid and out of touch with the rest of the country. This ploy was also used against the WGA in 2001 and must be addressed if the guild is to win over the writers’ toughest audience — the American public.

At the end of the writers’ panel, moderator Robert J. Dowling asked the participants which movie they wished they had written. Mystic River screenwriter Brian Helgeland paused and chose one that might well capture the guild’s existential loneliness.

“I wish,” Helgeland said softly, “I had written Cool Hand Luke

Charles Holland is now under pressures worthy of any thriller. He has little room for concessions but, on the other hand, might benefit from the obvious not being what it seems. As Steven Knight would say, It’s like this, but it’s like that.


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