wga

November 18, 1995

November 18, 1995

Brad Wigor
Brad Wigor

What’s not to love about travelling to research a writing project? For starters, producers must fly writers First Class – something my Midwestern roots won’t allow me to do for myself.  It’s superficial, but it made me feel important. Another benefit, for some – free alcohol.  All I know is, the diet Coke they serve in first class tastes the same as it does in economy.

Kathleen onboard

In the early days, I fantasized jetting to Paris for a true-life story but apparently very few Parisian lives are MOW material, (link to Movie of the Week). The stories I got hired to write unspooled in tiny Texas or Louisiana towns where the top hotel stood side by side with the local slaughterhouse.  This is not to knock small towns or southern states; I’m from rural Iowa myself (Graettinger and Estherville, anyone?)  However, as quaint and charming as Kickapoo, Kansas, might be, no one will ever mistake it for Paris.

With my cousins at the tiny Spencer Iowa Airport
With my cousins at the tiny Spencer Iowa Airport

I liked everyone I interviewed except the cold-blooded killer in the high-security Texas prison. Getting to know the people made the job fun. What made it hard was their desire for their stories to be told truthfully, like they happened in reality. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them that regardless of how dramatic and compelling their tale might be, inevitably “a true story” dilutes to “inspired by a true story” or, worst case scenario, “inspired by a concept based on an idea related to a possibly true story.”

A real life business trip - Brad Wigor was one of the producers on this movie.
A real life business trip – Brad Wigor was one of the producers on this movie.

This particular tale of young love in the bayou was not produced, which was disappointing but not surprising. In those days, maybe half the scripts a network developed got produced (which is still a significantly higher ratio than feature projects in development).  What did surprise me was my sympathies shifted from the love-struck kids to the Mom.  A tad troubling, since I built my career on angsty teens, not their uptight parents living lives of quiet desperation. Was it possible my struggle with my rebellious teen son was turning me into one of “them”?

Yeah, I think so. About time, too.

October 27, 1994

October 27, 1994

 Writer’s Guild arbitrations are similar to lawsuits, in a way. Sometimes you’re forced into them against your will. All competing writers have an opportunity to present their case in a statement and there’s money at stake –  credited writers split future residuals (uncredited writers get nothing) and usually a bonus is tied to whether or not a writer receives credit. In addition, a produced credit ups your asking price on your next job. (Usually. At least it used to.) In other words, there are stakes in this game worth fighting for.

Once a Princess always a Princess

Just like lawsuits that go to trial, the outcome is never certain. Three anonymous WGA members read all the material submitted by participating writers and independently reach a decision about who deserves credit and why. Majority rules. If there’s no agreement between the three, the Guild gets them all on a conference call until consensus is reached.

Majority Rules

I’ve participated in several arbitrations, all of them stressful. The suspense ends relatively quickly – most arbitrations start and finish in two weeks or less. I’m a nervous wreck until the phone call from the Guild, informing me of the determination. So far I’ve prevailed in all of them probably because I walk away if I feel my claim for credit is less than rock solid.

Princess KathleenI worried obsessively about the lawsuit referenced above, probably because – not being directly involved – I had no control over the outcome. As it turned out, J was right – my apprehension was unwarranted, nothing catastrophic happened. Our insurance companies settled things long before it went to trial. If we were served with a similar lawsuit tomorrow, though, I’d freak out again with fear we’d lose everything.

Don't roll the dice

I would have made a terrible lawyer because I deal so poorly with uncertainty and ambiguity, the state in which all the trial lawyers I know live.  “Doesn’t it feel good to roll the dice?” J asked me during one of my arbitrations.

No! I don't want to role the dice!No, it’s excruciating. It’s why I don’t gamble, either.  I have to settle for J telling me it will be okay.

October 19, 1994

October 19, 1994

A. Martinez and Perry King on left; Felice Gordon and myself on right. A mystery, beyond that.
A. Martinez and Perry King on left; Felice Gordon and myself on right. A mystery, beyond that.

 This was the first and only time I traveled to the set of one of the MOW’s I wrote (other than shows that shot in LA, in which case I might drive ten miles – to Occidental, for instance, where they shot “She Cried No”). I’m not complaining – it’s boring on set unless you’ve got a job (and maybe even then, just saying). I was excited about a trip to Minnesota, especially with Joe Maurer, Brad Wigor and Felice Gordon, three producers who became friends. The fact they issued the invitation to me at all speaks volumes about how well they treated their writers.

A. Martinez, Me, Connie Selleca, Felice Gordon
A. Martinez, Me, Connie Selleca, Felice Gordon

In Minnesota, I sat through a table reading of the script – an extremely high-tension exercise for me. It’s mortifying when a line I wrote – especially a line intended to be funny – dies in front of the full cast and crew. There’s no ambivalence; it’s not a judgment call. Lines work or not and the thud is deafening when they don’t. I say nothing, draw a skull beside the clunker in the script, and slink down further in my folding chair.  If I don’t die of humiliation, I’m expected to fix what I failed to get right the first time – fast.  This close to production, every wasteful delay bleeds money.

Someone failed to focus this shot of me and Joe Maurer.
Someone failed to focus this shot of me and Joe Maurer.

After the reading, I accompanied Joe, Brad and the director – Bill Corcoran – on a location scout. By sheer coincidence (or cosmic design, you decide), we drove past Bethesda Lutheran, the hospital where I was born. In honor of this karmic connection, Corcoran insisted I leap out of the van and pose for a historic photograph (see below).

Me in front of the hospital where I was born.
Me in front of the hospital where I was born.

I sat by Felice on the return trip to LA and – along with other fascinating facts – discovered Felice was Jean Shrimpton’s manager when Jean was the ultimate supermodel girls like me longed to look like.

Me with Felice Gordon
Me with Felice Gordon

As if this wasn’t enough excitement, my youngest hit double-digits and turned ten.  Too much was happening, too fast. And I loved every minute of it.

A very happy birthday to Alex!

 

Birthday boy with his grandparents.
Birthday boy with his grandparents.
Alex with his cousins.
Alex with his cousins.

September 10, 1996

September 10, 1996

This was an exciting, productive time in my writing career. Maybe a few lucky screen and television writers enjoy steady careers uninterrupted by unemployment; I suspect the majority, like myself, are either overbooked or out of work and terrified their career is over. My specialty, which kept me employed – mostly by NBC – during this period was my speed. I could deliver a Movie of the Week (MOW) ready for production in two weeks. It might not win any Emmys or Humanitas awards, but no one needed to use a pseudonym or hang their heads in shame.

8/7 PM Saturdays on NBC.
8/7 PM Saturdays on NBC.

I felt the pressure but didn’t mind it; I thrived on the crazy deadlines. I enjoyed and respected the creative people I worked with. I loved how MOWs (especially green-lit ones!) went into production minutes after I handed in a script. None of the months and years of development that went into film assignments only to wind up abandoned when the studio regime changed.

NBC Loomed large in my life and my cousin Craig and his wife Karen (who shares my exact birthday - year and everything) when they visited us in California.
NBC Loomed large in my life and my cousin Craig and his wife Karen (who shares my exact birthday – year and everything) when they visited us in California.

Another perk – television writers exert considerably more control over their work than feature writers; this is far truer for staff series writers than MOW writers. Either way, you are far less likely to be rewritten in television than features. That said, I did my fair share of MOW rewrites as well as originals; my name doesn’t appear on some of them because, unless it’s a page-one rewrite, it’s difficult for second or third writers to get credit and it always involves a WGA arbitration.

Outside in the NBC parking lot with Craig and Karen Thu again.
Outside in the NBC parking lot with Craig and Karen Thu again.

Kanan Road – which became Malibu Shores – has a special place in my heart because it was a backdoor pilot for a series which was ordered into production early in ’97. It turned out to be short-lived (being scheduled at 8 PM on Saturday nights – what some people called “the Tower of London” because that’s where NBC shows awaited execution – didn’t help. Especially since the target demographic was teens). That said, I learned a lot and appreciated every minute of it. I’m grateful to everyone who made it possible.

NBC Dropped the ball on this one..........
Did anybody drop the ball, who knows?

 

November 15, 1980

november-15-1980

This was an amazing day, full of promise, and it retains its magic quality in my memory even though almost nothing unfolded like expected. I got the assignment to adapt  S. E. Hinton’s classic novel, the Outsiders, for the screen. I did pose as a high school student and return to the high school I graduated from (more than a decade earlier) without getting busted.

Gio Coppola took this Polaroid of me with Fred Roos on this day.
Gio Coppola took this Polaroid of me with Fred Roos on this day.

Augie didn’t direct the movie, Francis did, which was the good news and the bad news. I’m awed by his talent; he directed some of the greatest movies of our time IMHO. How could this development possibly be bad? He’s an equally talented writer and took over the rewrite himself. When I saw the final shooting script, my name was nowhere to be seen.

Under the Writers Guild of America rules, this triggered an automatic arbitration because a production executive (director, producer etc.) sought screenplay credit. Three anonymous writers read all of our scripts and rendered a decision about screenplay credit. After a second and third arbitration and a Policy Review Board, I prevailed. It was a tense time.

After winning the arbitration - before the storm.
After winning the arbitration – before the storm.

This experience piqued my interest in the arbitration process and I volunteered to serve as an arbiter. Eventually I got to serve on the Policy Review Board, which I continue to do to this day.

Reading multiple drafts of the same script to decide who deserves screen credit provides a spectacular education in screen writing or, more accurately, rewriting. It was a front row seat to see exactly how scripts assume their final shape. I also learned a lot about human nature.

W/my sisters, wearing my Writer's Guild Strikes! tee-shirt. The WGA struck for the right to determine their own credits - and it was worth it.
W/my sisters, wearing my Writer’s Guild Strikes! tee-shirt. The WGA struck for the right to determine their own credits – and it was worth it.

There are significant financial rewards for getting your name on a script, even if the movie’s a bomb. That might have motivated a few writers to battle but I think most of them fought because they believed they deserved to win. It reminds me of the joke about the actor playing the gravedigger in Hamlet, who’s convinced the play is about the gravedigger. Time after time, writers clearly saw – and frequently exaggerated – their own contribution and missed or minimized the contribution of writers before or after them. I doubt I’m immune to this self-serving blind spot; no doubt I do the same thing, despite being aware of this trap.

I suspect this tendency isn’t restricted to actors and writers – that many, if not most, human beings focus on their own contributions to the exclusion of others regardless of their line of work.

 


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