Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is nothing to write about. All you do is sit in front of a typewriter and bleed.
What Papa Hemingway meant, of course, is that the craft of writing is emotional, exhausting and often psychologically taxing, especially when extracting stories that highlight crucial social issues such as racism, sexual harassment and civil rights. Writing is also a solitary quest, perhaps the one aspect of filmmaking that can, in most cases, be done in the cocoon of one’s home – and one’s mind – before the process takes a resolutely collaborative turn, with producers, directors and editors working their collective magic. Many screenwriters have, in fact, used the mandatory quarantine period to their creative advantage, hibernating bear-style and launching new projects. But how has the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown affected the screenwriting industry as a whole?
For nominees in the Original and Adapted Screenplay categories of the Writers Guild Awards, several of whom are nominated for the first time (e.g. Emerald Fennell, “Promising Young Woman“; Will Berson & Shaka King and Kenny Lucas & Keith Lucas, ” Judas and the Black Messiah”), there have been challenges, but also some upsides. (The WGA awards will be presented at 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 screenwriter Andy Siara, nominated for “Palm Springs.” “I was on set every day during production, working, working, working, and then everything stopped, everything changed.
“But I have to say, it actually helped me create a different schedule than before, where I was on set more than 12 hours a day,” he continues. “I learned time management, I guess you could say. So I think the pandemic has affected how I approach my writing. And, honestly, the flexibility of not having to drive anywhere helped too.
But there was a drop in “fluidity”, explains Keith Lucas. Before the coronavirus, when a project was given the green light, there was usually a good idea of when production would begin. Now the unpredictability hangs in the air.
“There has always been this degree of certainty,” he notes. “Now so many things have been delayed. People are still writing scripts, there are a lot of missions, we keep busy, but whether or not those scripts go into production is the question.
“I wouldn’t say COVID has drastically and fundamentally changed the industry, but I would say, anecdotally, 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 “nothing prevents people from developing ideas”, the screenwriters, deprived of the pre-pandemic structure of cinema, run the risk of developing “burnout “.
“Work-life balance doesn’t really exist anymore,” says Powers. “It’s just locked up in my house – it’s been a year now. You lose track of the day of the week. It’s not uncommon for me to sometimes find myself writing seven days a week, which is a really bad habit that’s hard for me to break when you’re stuck at home. So, sure, I’m incredibly productive, but almost wrong. When I finish the project I’m working on now, and when people will be vaccinated I will definitely get out of Dodge I found myself absolutely running out of life.
As for Zoom, Siara says, it’s no substitute for in-person meetings where writers and directors can discuss ideas and brainstorm.
“When I’m writing the script, I work best when I’m locked in a room alone, but, you know, that part of being a normal human being in the world and being social, I miss that,” he says. “For ‘Palm Springs’, for example, the director and I, Max [Barbakow], we would go into 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, Siara says, it’s sometimes much more difficult to access the “emotional core” of the stories the screenwriters seek to tell.
“When you’re a writer working with other writers or a director and a crew, you develop a shortcut with each other where you can go straight to the vulnerable things in terms of story and characters,” he says. . “Now you’re zooming in with people you’ve never met in person, it takes longer to get to those kinds of intense conversations. I miss being in a room and talking about things. It’s so that’s what’s hard. And that’s what I miss the most. It’s gonna be great when the world opens up and I can go back to a room full of people who are smarter than me and we can brainstorm ideas.
For the full list of nominations, visit wga.org