Less than a day into the strike by the Writers Guild of America (WGA)—the union representing 11,500 writers of TV, movies, and other entertainment—an article and tweet from Variety revealing that House of the Dragon Season 2 plans to continue filming prompted a fierce debate over the fate of TV scripts.
“All scripts were finished,” read the tweet. But were they, really? According to several TV writers and producers who weighed in online on what it means for scripts to actually be finished and who, exactly, finishes them, things change constantly in TV production. Viewers may not know that on-set writers—screenwriters who work during production to revise lines at the last minute—are a crucial part of the process of getting a show to screens. (Writer-producers—who develop, write, and produce scripts of new stories—can also fill this role.)
“Sometimes an actor has a question about a line, or about the old trope of ‘What’s my motivation?'” says Rob Forman, a TV, film, and video game writer who worked as an on-set writer for the Lifetime drama Army Wives. The show was written in Los Angeles but shot in Charleston, S.C. and writers would often travel to set during pre-production and filming. “Having a representative from the writers’ room—ideally, who wrote the script, or at least their name is on the script—can be very helpful for the entire process.”
A collaborative art form
Like all media, television is a collaborative art form, Forman says. If an actor asks for clarity on why or how their character says a certain line, an on-set writer can be there to tweak dialogue. And unexpected circumstances arise: An actor might get injured or a particular shot might be moved from outdoors to inside, and suddenly a line that worked before no longer makes sense. Even changing the blocking of a scene requires work and input from on-set writers.
The issue of on-set writers relates to why the Writers Guild is striking in the first place: the streaming era has upended the industry. In this new world, writing time and production have been siloed, reducing opportunities for writers to be on set.
“It’s an issue where newer writers coming up are not getting that production experience,” Forman says. “Whether you’re talking about the art department or the costumes or the director, to see how everything gets made, to walk the set—it helps you to write that show better.”
Online, responses to Variety‘s reporting on House of the Dragon echoed Forman’s thoughts.
Caroline Renard, a TV and film director and WGA captain, responded to Variety: “But [there’ll] be no writer on set so good luck with that if you think that’s all we do.”
“Scripts are done. Okay. But rewrites literally happen. Line changes. Alt line changes,” Renard continued. “[Who’s] gonna watch dailies and cuts? Approval on costumes. Tone meeting. Once again proving you guys have no idea what we do!”
Shows that have gone on hiatus or delayed production
Over the weekend, the Stranger Things “Stranger Writers” Twitter account issued a statement from series co-creators and co-showrunners Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer saying that the show has paused work on its final season. “Duffers here,” the tweet reads. “Writing does not stop when filming begins. While we’re excited to start production with our amazing cast and crew, it is not possible during this strike. We hope a fair deal is reached soon so we can all get back to work. Until then — over and out. #wgastrong”
That same day, production wrapped early on Season 4 of Paramount+’s Evil. A source “close to the series” told Variety that the change was due to the leave of absence that an unnamed cast member took because of a personal family matter. On Friday, though, Writers Guild members had disrupted the Evil shoot.
And on Monday, the author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the novels that inspired Game of Thrones—wrote in a blog post that the Game of Thrones spinoff A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms: The Hedge Knight has also paused its writers room.”There are pickets in front of every studio lot and sound stage in LA, and many in other cities as well,” Martin wrote. “Get used to them. I expect they will be there for a long time. I am not in LA, so I cannot walk a picket line as I did in 1988, but I want to go on the record with my full and complete and unequivocal support of my Guild.”
On Thursday, Variety reported that the second season of The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power—which has 19 days of filming left—would continue production without its writers—including writer-producers J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay, who developed the show.
‘It’s going to be a problem’
Joshua Safran, an executive producer and writer of Gossip Girl, added that on-set writers help shape TV as it is created. “Blair and Chuck might never have happened without the creators and writers having seen their chemistry on set and writing to it!” he tweeted.
On the official Succession podcast, executive producer and writer Lucy Prebble said that the show’s secret to packing so many good lines in each episode is that “we always have at least two writers on set. Sometimes three.”
In a tweet early on Tuesday, Renard referenced the Succession podcast: “Bringing this back for people who are like ‘well the scripts are already done so they can go ahead and still film.’ Shows like Succession are great ‘cause writers are on set for rewrites and line changes. To talk to actors and directors. Adjust things.”
As for the House of the Dragon season 2, a source “close to production” told Variety that the scripts have been finished for a while, so filming won’t be impacted.
“Luckily for HBO, completed scripts allow production to keep going,” the article reads, “though it’s unclear how the cabler will handle any rewrites that are required on the show.”
“If there is no one on set—it’s a union show, so they can’t tweak those lines,” Forman says of House of the Dragon. “Sure, they probably can shoot them exactly as is, but if they run into any of those issues, it’s going to be a problem.”
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