Hollywood unscripted

Three writers share their thoughts as strike deadline nears

Work days for Bruce Helford usually begin at a leisurely 9:30 a.m. However, there's no rest for the writer after that. The days begin with an editing session on one of his three shows: "The Drew Carey Show" (ABC), "Norm" (ABC), and "Nikki" (WB).

From there, he usually drops in on one of the writing rooms for the various shows, where he will spend several hours that almost always include a working lunch. Wall monitors broadcast the working script, which is tracked by a writing assistant so writers can continue writing as they eat and discuss plot developments. Afternoons include run-throughs of shows, after which Mr. Helford hands out notes so the writers can adjust the scripts. At the end of the day, he makes the rounds of each show for additional story tinkering and editing. On a good day, he's home somewhere near 7:30 in the evening, which is devoted to his wife and two young children, ages 8 and 10.

Mr. Helford is quick to point out, however, that he gets home so early only because he's in management now as an executive producer, in addition to his writing duties. He almost always leaves his staff of writers at their keyboards. "You give up your life; the hours are horrendous," he says of television staff writers. "Most come in at 9:30 and expect to be on call until midnight to 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning, especially with new shows."

This pace is a far cry from his early days in Los Angeles. He wrote his first script in 1984, fresh from a job in his family's Chicago pet business.

He moved his family to Los Angeles, determined to make it as a writer. "It was a thing I'd always dreamed of doing," he says, although the first few years were challenging. "I told my wife I'd spend a year learning about the business." He made $3,000 his first year, during which "we lived off the trivia questions at McDonald's, winning free burgers."

He was hired as a staff writer within a year, which saved the family from another move. "We made an agreement that if I hadn't made it by the time I was 35," he says, "we'd move to Montreal and live off a muffin shop."

Today, Helford is one of a small handful of writer-producers with enough clout to command $20 million, multiyear contracts. As the threat of an industry strike May 2 suddenly puts the creative industry in the national limelight, Helford is able to put his job in perspective: "The tough part about a strike for writers is that we're a highly paid group, and there's nothing particularly sympathetic about writers trying to get more money."

Unless, he adds, the demands are framed in the context of the amount of money that is being made off their work. "Writers in TV exchange a great deal of their lives and energy for their work," he says. "So it is a job that requires sacrifices like any job, and they do have the right to a fair share of the work and what management gets from the work."

An action duo forges ahead

Screenwriting partners Miles Millar and Alfred Gough got one of their biggest breaks when the producers of the Jackie Chan movie "Rush Hour" came calling.

"They said 'Jackie wants to do a western,' " recounts Mr. Gough. "We were like, 'Great, what's the idea?' They said, 'That is the idea. He wants to do a western.' "

It was up to the two writers to flesh out a story and script for what was to become another Chan success, "Shanghai Noon."

Mr. Millar's and Gough's names have also appeared at the bottom of movie posters for "Lethal Weapon 4" and "Double Tap." It's a tiny acknowledgement considering that these movies began as words on their laptop screens long before they appeared as projections on multiplex screens.

"That's why we do television as well," Gough says. "The writer gets more recognition there."

The duo have just finished shooting the pilot episode of "Smallville," a new series about Superman's teenage years that they've written and produced for the WB network. But a writer's strike could paralyze the return of the superhero more effectively than a cage made of Kryptonite.

"We don't have episodes sitting on the shelf," Millar explains. "We won't move forward until afterward. We'll start up again and hire the staff, do the stories, and get into production."

Both writers hope the strike won't proceed. But they do feel that the decades-old rules about profit-share for writers need updating for the DVD age.

Bonded by a common love of the same films and a shared work ethic, Millar and Gough first became friends at the film school of the University of Southern California. In 1994, they waltzed out of film school after selling a course-work script.

Now the pair have their own office on the Warner Bros. studio lot. Not that they use it much - the duo work out of Millar's apartment seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. with an hour's break for lunch. "Much to our wives' chagrin," Gough says.

"It's not about sitting on a beach and writing on a laptop," Millar says, explaining that writing in the same room is vital to their creative process "It helps because you have a scene in your head and then when you talk it out, it's different. Getting it out into the open helps really shape the theme and shape the script."

When the two have writer's block - or "story block" as they prefer to call it - they head for a local diner to talk it out.

"We talk about how we'd change it, what we'd do, the characters, the dialogue," says Millar, who adds the scripts are more like detailed architectural drawings than blueprints. Even action scenes are choreographed like musical numbers "from the glass shattering to the tires bursting.

"When we sit down and write the script, we know every scene we're going to write. We may not know every line of dialogue, but we know the thrust of every scene."

Most recently their diner conversations have revolved around devising the story line for their next feature film, "Showtime," a twist on the buddy-cop genre that will star Robert De Niro, Eddie Murphy, and Rene Russo.

But the pair may not always stick to action and comedies.

"We certainly have other types of stories that we'd like to tell and that we'd like to direct as well," Gough says.

After 13 years, instant success

Rob Miller is a new writer's guild member, having joined in the wake of his first script sale, a romantic comedy bought by Fox Family Channel this past fall. These days, instead of spending mornings hunched over a new script, he is out meeting producers and pitching ideas that he hopes will sell.

"My agent has me out doing 15 to 20 pitch meetings a week," he says over a cellphone between meetings. "I'm trying to sell my ideas, trying to light their eyes up when I talk."

Agents and pitch meetings are relatively new accouterments for this Georgia native. The lawyer who negotiated his first sale recommended him to an agent who was looking for new clients.

"I sent the agent a script, he read it, another agent read it, then they wanted to shop the script around," he says. "I'm in the middle of the fruition of that first script sale."

The payoff was a long time coming for Miller. "I moved out [to Los Angeles] in 1988," he says. "I didn't have a computer because I couldn't afford one." He took a job in a downtown sales office. "I'd go to my office at night, so I could work on their computers," he recalls. "I'd just write and write, not necessarily to get better but because I loved it."

Like most aspiring artists, day jobs have been a staple around which Miller has worked his writing life. But "I've always seen myself as a writer, long before I was selling anything," he says.

The possibility of a strike looms large on the horizon of every writer in town. While this industry newcomer says he's sure every writer's life is different, he wonders if there isn't a misperception about their lives.

"We're not a bunch of long hairs sitting around in coffee shops," he says. "The vast majority of writers whose livelihood is on the line in this strike are average folks, workaday people with real demands on them." Miller says if he were single, he wouldn't last more than three months without selling a script.

"I'm not going to include my wife's income, but in any event, without that first script sale, I couldn't last more than six months," he says.

"Stockpile scripts" is one of the most commonly heard answers from writers when asked "What will you do if a strike happens?" Miller is no exception, although he acknowledges that his situation is better than that of a sitcom writer, whose livelihood would shut down almost immediately. "At least I can make a sale and then wait a year or two, working on ideas. I don't know what I'd do if I were a TV writer."

Like nearly everyone in this town, Miller hopes there will be no strike. "There are no bad guys here," he adds. "A strike would be detrimental to both sides."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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