Adobe Stock / Stokkete
Writer Phil Reisman reminisces on his father’s career as a writer and the impact of the WGA strike on Westchester County.
My father (below) said that being a freelance film-and-TV writer gave him “precarious independence.” For emphasis, he coined an aphorism worthy of Twain: “The greatest achievements of a freelance writer are solvency and survival.”
He was proud of his best work, but he swam in a sea of existential angst. Once he shared a personal accounting of his year-to-year earnings — carefully annotated in a little notebook.
You might think that somebody who pounds out action scenes and dialog for glamorous screen stars would pull down big bucks, and you would be right if the writer was, say, David Mamet. For most, it is a different story. As a work-from-home freelancer, my old man had to hustle for jobs, churn out as many scripts as possible and then anxiously wait for the mailman to get paid the contracted price, minus the agent’s cut.
Consequently, his annual “take” was never guaranteed, as evidenced by the up and down years recorded in that notebook. Most startling was that the ledger entry for 1973 was left blank.
“That’s when the Writers Guild was on strike,” he said. In other words, he made nothing that year.
Fortunately, my father did not drink — the occupational hazard of many working writers. But the price of precarious independence was steep: financial worry, debilitating bouts of writer’s block, an overdependence on caffeine and a decades-long cigarette habit, which left yellowish-brown nicotine stains on the ceiling of his office, in the back of our house in Larchmont. I remember how the veins in his forehead protruded as he paced back and forth, lost in an unseeing trance. If ever there was a portrait of a stressed-out writer on deadline, the perfect model was my father, a baggy-eyed, sleepless man staring into an abyss with a Chesterfield dangling from his lips.
I always thought there was something heroic about my father’s rare ability to make a living in a tough, dog-eat-dog business, equipped only with an exceptionally creative mind and a Royal typewriter. Naturally, flashbacks of his struggles and triumphs flooded back to me in early May, when the Writers Guild of America again went on strike. As of this writing, the strike was in its third month — and, if the history of WGA strikes is a guide, it may well have been settled by the time you’ve read these words.
The greatest achievements of a freelance writer are solvency and survival.
However long it lasts, the strike should take an economic bite out of Westchester County, which in recent years has been enthusiastically marketed as an ideal location for film crews. For instance, on its city government website, White Plains bills itself as “film friendly!” Just before the strike was underway, The Westchester posted an online feeler invitation to film-production companies to check out the upscale White Plains shopping mall as “a great location for film and TV shoots, commercials and parking for nearby filming.”
Star-struck county officials claim that Hollywood brings Westchester a bounty of $1.1 billion a year in economic activity. If that is half true, even a relatively short strike of a few months could cost millions of dollars in lost business.
The Mayor’s Office of Film & Photography in Yonkers assists filmmakers in myriad ways, from location logistics to parking permits and property rentals. Melissa Goldberg, the office’s film director, told me that the months of May and June are typically the busiest months and that when the WGA struck it was “business as usual” at first.
“We were scouting and meeting with everyone, and then, after two weeks, the calls stopped coming in,” she says. One big production that was delayed in Yonkers was The Boss.
Of course, there was no Westchester film scene when my father wrote live TV teleplays, network movies of the week, and documentaries. The business was vastly different a half-century ago, when he walked the picket line; it was a simpler, analog world.
Nevertheless, the issues are basically the same — money and respect.
The old man frequently lamented how script writers were underappreciated. There is an old Hollywood story that may be apocryphal, involving the legendary Frank Capra, who directed It Happened One Night, It’s A Wonderful Life, and other staples of Turner Classic Movies.
In a 1934 magazine interview, Capra expounded on the magic of the “Capra touch,” implying that the success of his films was owed to his creative genius. After reading this, Capra’s writer, a guy named Robert Riskin, supposedly walked into the director’s office, slammed 120 blank pages on his desk and said, “Try putting the ‘Capra touch’ on that!’”
My father loved that story — and I know who he’d be rooting for.