October 2023

The Nation Reviewed

The embolden age of Hollywood

By Marieke Hardy
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
The writers strike in America brought often solitary artists onto the streets to come together to protect their livelihoods

When Australian writer and actor Harriet Dyer first heard about the Writers Guild of America industrial action, she was in Los Angeles.

“We got the email from the union telling us. We knew it was coming, so we were unsurprised when it happened. We knew it was a fight worth having, but I think we all hoped it would be wrapped up soonish, so the feeling was one of hope. But obvs that hasn’t happened…”

You know Dyer: along with her husband, Patrick Brammall, she created the local comedy series Colin From Accounts, which swept the recent Logie awards. (Brammall characteristically endearing himself to the room by accepting his Logie for Outstanding Actor with the words: “My main thanks goes to my co-writer, co-show runner, she is also my wife, she is also my muse … she is funnier than me, she is prettier than me, she is younger than me.”) A sweet, witty, very Australian romantic comedy about two unlikely paramours brought together over a car accident and a small dog, it was recently greenlit for a second series – which means that US-based Dyer and Brammall are currently writing scripts for a local production while their American comrades (and American projects they both had in development) down tools indefinitely.

In May, after months of futile negotiations with studios and streamers growing fat off the cream of Other People’s Ideas, the muscular WGA decided to go on strike for the first time in 15 years. “We must now exert the maximum leverage possible to get a fair contract by withholding our labor,” the guild leadership announced. Writers were requesting a broad swathe of changes through the industry, including increased compensation, better residuals and artificial-intelligence protections. The WGA also issued an unequivocal warning for any opportunistic thrillseekers seeing the “pens down” moment as a chance to slide cutely into the DMs of various Hollywood producers, stating that any non-WGA members working with struck companies or individuals during the period of industrial action would receive a lifelong ban from ever joining the guild.

There was a general glum sense of inevitability among writers, who had felt this coming for some time. And as sets and studios duly went dark, Hollywood prepared itself for a long and lonely summer of Going Without. For the most part, there’s been a collective holding of the line, with a few interesting exceptions. If you had “Drew Barrymore is a union-busting scab” on your 2023 bingo card, then you have Simpsons-writers’ levels of prescience and I salute you.

Writing is, for the most part, a solitary craft. We sit alone in turrets (always in a turret, don’t bother correcting me), feverishly chasing our muse, pausing only to pace the room and/or drink whisky, howl at the moon and curse more successful colleagues. Poets, playwrights, novelists: it can be a lonely life. Among my creative pursuits, I can most often be found screenwriting, which at least breaks up the many solo hours of scribing with weeks-long writers’ rooms – a magical, chaotic creative roundtable whereby worlds are built and shattered in a matter of seconds. (“Let’s make him a twin!” “No, let’s kill him!”) These rooms are in turns hysterically funny and brutally frustrating, platforms where writers offer their own lived experience (and trauma, hurt, grief, humiliations) in order to deepen character. We share in order to better the project and in doing so find human connection and empathy.

And while Kafka described writing in his usual buoyant fashion as “utter solitude, the descent into the cold abyss of oneself”, the importance of collectivism and coming together through this period has never been clearer. Writing is something we mostly do alone, but solidarity needs company.

And so it is: writers more accustomed to sitting in darkened rooms are blinking in the Californian sunlight, holding handmade, pithy signs on picket lines (a few personal favourites: The Penpire Strikes Back, Succession without writers is just The Apprentice, ChatGPT doesn’t have childhood trauma), and marching alongside their fellow striking actors (Margot Robbie effortlessly glamorous in a pristine white shirt).

During the torturous years of seemingly endless lockdowns, the Victorian government launched a campaign imploring citizens to avoid the hell out of each other – “Staying Apart Keeps Us Together”. In the case of the writers’ strike, coming together through industrial action means we’ll eventually have the ability to return to our more solitary lives, fairly compensated for the work we do – back to hours of rumination and daydreaming and staring blankly into space trying to remember a synonym for the word “delineate”.

I’m a card-carrying member of the Australian Writers’ Guild, though I do have an American management team and have been lucky to have worked fairly regularly in the States as a screenwriter. The entertainment industry in LA can be an adorably ridiculous place: earnest, self-serving, problematic, surreally amusing, giddyingly contradictory, inane. I’ve duly done the rounds of water bottle meetings, sweltered in traffic schlepping from Studio City to Silver Lake, pitched for 20 breathless, performative minutes to an obviously bored exec who kept checking his watch and at the end flatly responded, “That was funny.” For the most part, I’ve loved working there, meeting the big dreamers, leaning into a new way of doing things after more than 20 years absorbed in the Australian system. In April, I was attached to both TV and film projects in the US, excited to participate in more of those cheerily interminable meetings and capitalise on creative relationships fostered through years of Pacific crossings.

And then… silence.

It’s weird to be standing in solidarity with striking writers on one side of the world and still able to work as a writer on the other. There’s a sense of survivor guilt, of wanting to triple-check if it’s really all right for you to meet with a production company, or deliver the first draft of your episode. Not wanting to tell American comrades that you’re pitching a new project, or attending the wrap party of a new series you’ve had the honour of writing for (hello Heartbreak High Season 2, I love you).

I was raised in a hard-left household. “Never cross a picket line” was drilled into my developing brain right up there with “brush your teeth before bed” and “eat your greens”. My grandfather, Frank Hardy, threw himself into numerous political causes and actions (once spontaneously offering himself as legal counsel for a teenager who spat on then-premier Jeff Kennett), but none more significant than the famous 1966 walk-off at Wave Hill – a strike action led by Gurindji elder and stockman Vincent Lingiari demanding equal pay for Aboriginal workers, which soon morphed into a demand for the return of traditional lands.

Frank’s dead and my relationship with my existing blood family is complicated. It’s been isolating. But through trial and error, romance and work, over the years I’ve carved out a chosen family. It’s ended up that a lot of those chosen family members are writers, because we get both the grind and the gift of making up stories for a living. I love talking shop with other writers, even when we’re circling around the topic of the unceasing thrust of hyper-capitalism. 

In the circumstances, I’m pleased to have had an excuse to reconnect with Brammall and Dyer – glorious, kind, fucking funny humans I’ve known on and off for years. We message on Instagram and email, and discuss the strikes, their work and the recent birthday party thrown for their two-year-old daughter, Joanie. We acknowledge how lucky we are to be working in our country of origin and that there are still things for us to do in the States, if and when Hollywood ever opens up again.

Dyer points out that the issue extends far beyond the simple needs of script departments. “We wonder not just how the writers are paying their rent, but the actors, extras, make-up artists, the gaffers, the caterers, the dry cleaners, the transpo folks, the costumers, the hair stylists, the ADs, the directors, the location departments, the sound teams, the camera departments, casting, everybody. How is anybody paying their rent? A lot of those wages didn’t have a lot of fat in them to begin with, so that is why Hollywood feels particularly bleak right now.”

So, what else can we do? We keep finding ways to connect, to support, to hold the line. To let those hermitical, introverted members of the writing community have their moment in the sun. And to remember the words of Billy Bragg: “The Union forever defending our rights / Down with the blackleg, all workers unite / With our brothers and our sisters / together we will stand / There is power in a Union.”

Marieke Hardy

Marieke Hardy is a curator, screenwriter, artist, and producer.

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