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WGA Awards: ‘Promising’ New Writers Talk Changes in Film Biz

Palm Springs Judas and the Black
Palm Springs: Christopher Willard/Hulu; Judas: Glen Wilson/Warner Bros.

Ernest Hemingway famously once said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

What Papa Hemingway meant, of course, is that the craft of writing is emotional, draining and often psychologically taxing, especially when mining stories that bring to the fore crucial social issues such as racism, sexual harassment and civil rights. Writing is also very much a solitary pursuit, perhaps the one aspect of filmmaking that can, in most cases, be carried out in the cocoon of one’s home — and mind — before the process takes on a decidedly collaborative bent, with producers, directors and editors working their collective magic. Many screenwriters have, in fact, used the mandated quarantine period to their creative advantage, hibernating bear style and pounding out new projects. But how has the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting lockdown, affected the screenwriting biz on the whole?

For the nominees in the Writers Guild Awards original and adapted screenplay categories, several of whom are first-time nominees (e.g., Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman”; Will Berson & Shaka King and Kenny Lucas and Keith Lucas, “Judas and the Black Messiah”) there have been challenges, but also certain perks. (The WGA Awards will be handed out in a virtual ceremony hosted by writer-director Kal Penn on March 21.)

“I was in the middle of production on a show I was working on,” says first-time feature screenwriter Andy Siara, nominated for “Palm Springs.” “I was on set every day during production, just working, working, working, and then everything shuts down, everything changes.

“But I have to say, it has actually helped force me to make a schedule for myself in a way that’s different from before, where I was on set for upwards of 12 hours a day,” he continues. “I’ve learned time management, I guess you could say. So, I think the pandemic has affected the way I approach my writing. And, honestly, the flexibility of not having to drive anywhere has also helped.”

But there has been a drop in “fluidity,” says Keith Lucas. Before coronavirus, when a project got greenlit, one generally had a solid sense of when production would begin. Now, unpredictability looms in the air.

“There was always that degree of certainty,” he notes. “Now, so many things have been delayed. People are still writing scripts, there are a lot of assignments, we’re staying busy, but whether or not these scripts go into production — that’s the question.”

“I wouldn’t say that COVID has drastically and fundamentally altered the industry, but I would say, anecdotally, that there’s probably about a 5% drop in terms of projects going into production,” adds Kenny Lucas.

Kemp Powers, nominated for “One Night in Miami,” points out that while “there’s nothing stopping people from developing ideas,” screenwriters, lacking the pre-pandemic structure of filmmaking, run the risk of developing “burnout.”

“The work-life balance doesn’t really exist anymore,” says Powers. “It’s just being locked up in my house — we’re going on a year now. You lose track of what day of the week it is. It’s not uncommon for me to find myself writing seven days a week sometimes, which is a pretty bad habit that’s hard for me to break when you’re stuck in the house. So, sure, I’m incredibly productive, but almost to a fault. When I’m done with the project I’m working on now, and when people are vaccinated, I’ll definitely get the hell out of Dodge. I absolutely have found myself kind of missing life.”

As for Zoom, says Siara, it’s no substitute for in-person meetings during which writers and directors can hash out ideas and brainstorm.

“When doing the actual screenwriting, I work best when I’m locked away in a room by myself, but, you know, that part of just being a normal human being out in the world and being social, I do miss that,” he says. “For ‘Palm Springs,’ for example, the director and I, Max [Barbakow], we’d get in a room together and have these endless conversations. And now we have to do it through Zoom or the phone.”

Without the benefit of being in a writers’ room, says Siara, it’s much more difficult to sometimes access the “emotional core” of the stories screenwriters seek to tell.

“When you’re a writer working together with other writers or a director and crew, you develop a shorthand with each other wherein you can go straight to the vulnerable stuff in terms of story and characters,” he says. “Now, you’re Zooming with people you’ve never actually met in person, it takes more time to kind of get to those types of heavy conversations. I miss being in a room and talking about things. So that is what’s difficult. And that is what I miss the most. It’s going to be great when the world opens up and I can get back into a room full of people that are smarter than I am and we can throw around ideas.”

For the full list of nominations go to wga.org