Pay the Writers!

January 26, 2008

Acclaimed novelist and pioneering independent filmmaker John Sayles explains the Writers Guild strike (above) and the chance that it might spark a new awareness of the need for a renewed labor union movement:

I feel a lot of what this strike is about is corporations looking at their entertainment division and saying, “What’s the deal here? As the paradigm changes, can’t we turn this into Wal-Mart?” . . . it’s going to be awfully hard. It’s not easy for workers outside the entertainment industry to think of people inside the entertainment industry, especially the so-called creative people, as workers. They just don’t get that part of it… the hours and the sweat that goes into making a movie. And the salaries are higher. That’s why when Ronald Reagan first came to power and wanted to bust a union, he picked a well-paid bunch of people, the air traffic controllers. But then, when airplanes were about to crash all over the country, their successors got everything the original air traffic controllers were asking for. So it was a symbolic thing that Reagan did, but he knew he could do it because some of them made over $100,000 a year. Nobody was sympathetic to them.

Hollywood’s hatred of writers is deep-seated and extraordinarily vindictive. Whether it’s the auteurs getting ready for ther profiles in Cineaste or the buffed-up actors getting Botox’d for Oscar night, everyone in the movie business understands that none of the glamorousness can happen until some disheveled writer who ought to spend more time at the gym figures out the dialogue and plotting that make movies work. They know that the film industry is an inverted pyramid with the point resting on top of the writer’s head, and if he shakes his head the whole thing topples.

And they hate it. They hate it the way Wal-Mart hates meatcutters unions and shelf-stockers who want a little more money per hour. They hate it the way wingnut radio squawkers hate anybody who wants to add a couple of nickels to the minimum wage. They hate it the way conservatives hate anybody who thinks the government should do something besides dole out corporate tax cuts and wait for magic marketplace fairies to put the world right.

Sayles has a new movie out called Honeydripper that’s perched atop my must-see list, but his place in the pantheon would be secure strictly on the basis of Matewan, his superb 1987 film about the West Virginia coal mine wars. Unfortunately, the film is available only in a substandard DVD edition with muddy sound, but if you haven’t seen it you should rent it (or put it on your Netflix queue) at once and hope that Criterion gets around to doing it justice sometime soon. It’s a direct, unvarnished film that reminds us of just how dangerous it was (and, in many parts of the world, still is) to be a union organizer:

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2 Responses to “Pay the Writers!”

  1. Caveat Says:

    Without the writing, there’s nothing. Even talk shows, which appear spontaneous, can’t go along without good writing. It’s what makes or breaks a production and after that is editing.

    It’s a lot like music, good music. People think it’s just there, somehow. They don’t think of the composer who agonized over every bar, or the songwriter who sweated every word.

    I’m convinced that the public believes that actors write the dialogue – and therefore has the mistaken impression that film stars are intelligent, well informed and authoritative. Now, a handful are but for the most part they are like ventriloquist’s dolls – somebody has to put the words into their mouths in order to tell the story.

    Pay the writers and editors, cut the actors, would be my approach. Which is more easily replaced? The mind or the body?

  2. Ron Fischer Says:

    Working in the industry the importance of writers becomes clear when you hear the mix of ideas tossed in by marketing people and executives. Certainly some of them understand deeply what will make a film successful, but as in most things a vastly larger number simply vye for control or push inclusions simply because “I want my idea on screen”. Its the writers, rewriters and ghost writers, who take this often frightening mishmash and make it into a decent story… or not. Case in point: Catwoman.


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