An Aggregated Oral History of 2009 Films Ruined By the Last WGA Strike

The last time Hollywood writers walked out seeking a better deal, there were consequences for several tentpoles and would-be franchises.

Hollywood is facing the threat of another Writers’ Guild Strike, one which would immediately stop all writing and rewriting on guild signatory productions – essentially everything from the major studios. So far, negotiations have been contentious, with the WGA arguing that though the business has seen record profits, the average writer’s income has declined in this boom period. And yet, at the bargaining table, the AMPTP – who represent the producers – came offering not gains, but rollbacks. They basically asked the writers to accept less than their current contracts.

The total cost of what the writers are asking for is not particularly excessive. For instance, the cost to Disney would be $21.2 million a year – barely more than half of Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger’s $43.9 million salary last year. I don’t want to get too far into the weeds on this, but if you’re interested in the particulars, this post from TV writer Ken Levine lays it all out pretty well.

So if the writers demands aren’t that excessive, is it wise for the AMPTP to force a strike by playing hardball? A long strike would have the result of impairing production in television and film. In TV, the fall season would be delayed and on the feature side, the major tentpoles set for 2019 might have to begin production without complete scripts. And under Guild rules, no writing or rewriting can be done on those scripts for the duration of a strike. This would include Marvel’s Captain Marvel and the sequel to Avengers: Infinity War, the ninth Fast and the Furious film, the next Spider-Man film, Transformers 6, and at least one or two yet-to-be announced Warner/DC films.

Is a strike something those films could just sail through? Through these aggregated interviews, let’s recount how the 2007–08 strike hurt the films of Summer 2009.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Michael Bay, director (in 2008, before production and mid-strike): “I can’t do the movie without my writers, but I have been prepping. I’m not in the guild, but I’ve been writing every day. This strike (is) insane, and a director’s responsibility is to the 50 crew members who depend on you for their livelihoods. We’ve got battle plans ready for the possibility of an actors strike. Somehow, you’ve got to keep the ball rolling.” Source.

Roberto Orci, co-writer: “We gave them a treatment before the strike which they prepared off of, then when we came back, we started writing immediately.” Source.

Bay: “When I look back at it, that was crap. The writers’ strike was coming hard and fast. It was just terrible to do a movie where you’ve got to have a story in three weeks. I was prepping a movie for months where I only had 14 pages of some idea of what the movie was. It’s a BS way to make a movie, do you know what I’m saying?” Source.

Orci: “Two weeks before the [2007–08 writers] strike, we handed him a 30-page treatment, then he went off, he turned it into 70 pages. He started prepping the movie, and because of the time constraints he got totally locked in. We were locked in a hotel room for three months because the strike had just ended, and it was five blocks from Michael’s office. So it was me, Ehren and Alex in a hotel room every day so he could drop by at noon, see what we had, take pages, and then go prep the movie because it’s gotta go shoot!” Source.

Ehren Kruger, co-writer: Many of those things, under a normal process, would have been considered a first draft outline. And then suddenly you’re locked into some of those things. And at that point it becomes very difficult – and very expensive – to try to rework macro ideas. Added to which, he was a bit cross about us going on strike in the first place! Source.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Hugh Jackman, actor: “It was the writer’s strike, so we couldn’t have a writer. Literally, the script would say things like, ‘Deadpool comes in, talking a mile a minute, very funny.’ Uh, where’s the dialogue? We’d say: ‘Yeah man, do whatever you can.’” Source.

Ryan Reynolds, actor: “So we were in the middle of production, there were no writers, no anything. Every line I have in the movie I just wrote myself because in the script we had, it said, ‘Wade Wilson shows up, talks really fast.’ I was like, ‘What?! What am I supposed to do with that?’” Source.

G.I Joe: The Rise of Cobra

As reported in The Hollywood Reporter, screenwriter Stuart Beattie was hired in September 2007 to write the film – a mere six weeks before the WGA contract was about to expire. Beattie initially balked at the time frame, but producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura assured him “That’s plenty of time. Don’t worry about it.”

Stuart Beattie, co-writer: “[I said,] ‘You’re crazy. I love that. Let’s do it.’ “For the first three weeks, I really didn’t write very much at all. I just was concentrating on structure… That six-week period was all about finding a strong structure so I could layer a good and simple story that will allow room for characters to breathe.” Source.

Stephen Sommers, director: “G.I. Joe gave me a lot [of existing mythology]. I didn’t have to do as much work. But, at the same time, the writer’s strike was coming up. The established mythos really helped me because if we had not had such an extensive predefined back-story, we would have never been able to keep the film on schedule [because of the strike].” Source.

Beattie: “I wasn’t sleeping much. I barely saw my family for three weeks even though I was in the same house with them. I was working Saturdays and Sundays, all hours. I just wrote and wrote. It’s 12 weeks usually for a first draft and then eight weeks for a second draft and all through preproduction, which is three or four months. That’s when you want to fix things, because it’s just on paper at that stage.” Source.

Channing Tatum, actor: “Look, I’ll be honest. I f – king hate that movie. I hate that movie!” Source.

Star Trek

John August, reporting on the strike in his blog: “Neither [director] J.J. [Abrams] nor [producer] Damon [Lindelof] are writers on the movie. But they are writers, and WGA members. During a WGA strike, you’re not allowed to write on movies or television shows, period. So they can’t change a word of the script, nor can anyone else. The script they had at 11:59 p.m. November 5th is the script they have to shoot.

“To a screenwriter, that might seem kind of awesome. For once, the director can’t change things. But when its your own movie, it’s maddening. J.J. was describing a scene he was shooting the day before. Midway through it, he got a great idea for a new line. Which he couldn’t write. Couldn’t shoot. Couldn’t be in his movie.

“Damon described it like having one of your superpowers taken away.” Source.

Roberto Orci, co-writer:Star Trek shot through the strike and luckily, because we were executive producers, we were able to be on set as producers without violating our commitments to the writers guild. But we couldn’t change anything. All we could do was sort of, make funny eyes and faces at the actors whenever they had a problem with the line and sort of nod when they had something better.” Source.

Alex Kurtzman, cowriter: “The other thing is that on set, a lot of the time the actors are – new energy comes up. Sometimes surprises come up and great new opportunities come up, so to be on set and to be able to improvise changes – in the case of Star Trek, there was very little room for that, very, very little room. I think more than any movie we’ve ever done, there was very little room. And we did so much work on the script right before the strike that I think everyone kind of had weighed in by the time they were actually shooting the movie.” Source.

Quantum of Solace

According to a December 9, 2007 article in The New York Times, the latest draft of Quantum of Solace arrived a mere two hours before the strike began, and about six weeks before the start of shooting. At the time, director Marc Forster was wearing a poker face, announcing to the press he was “very pleased.” He assured the reporter that, “It’s a script I can shoot.”

Years later he would tell a different story.

Marc Forster, director: “It was tricky because we didn’t have a finished script… Ultimately at that time I wanted to pull out. Ron Howard pulled out of Angels & Demons which Sony was about to do and they sort of shut down, and at the time I thought, ‘Okay maybe I should pull out’ because we didn’t have a finished script. But everybody said, ‘No we need to make a movie, the strike will be over shortly so you can start shooting what we have and then we’ll finish everything else.’ I said ‘Yeah but the time crunch’…” Source.

Daniel Craig, actor: you swear that you’ll never get involved with shit like that, and it happens. On “Quantum”, we were fucked. We had the bare bones of a script and then there was a writers’ strike and there was nothing we could do. We couldn’t employ a writer to finish it. I say to myself, ‘Never again,’ but who knows? There was me trying to rewrite scenes – and a writer I am not.” Source.

Forster: “So ultimately I said ‘Okay’. The idea was to make a follow-up to Casino Royale and ultimately I felt like, ‘Okay worst case scenario the strike goes on, I’ll just make it sort of like a 70s revenge movie; very action driven, lots of cuts to hide that there’s a lot of action and a little less story (laughs). To disguise it.” Source.

Craig: “Me and the director [Marc Forster] were the ones allowed to do it. The rules were that you couldn’t employ anyone as a writer, but the actor and director could work on scenes together. We were stuffed. We got away with it, but only just. It was never meant to be as much of a sequel as it was, but it ended up being a sequel, starting where the last one finished.” Source.

Forster: “While you’re shooting you’re also editing, and you’re trying to figure out if the story works… That was, to be honest, the least of my concerns because we were editing as we were going and the key for me was to make sure the visual effects are looking good, and to make sure the story would work. My nightmare was if the strike keeps going, we don’t have a completed story, plus we have a release date, plus we have five weeks to cut it, plus if all of this doesn’t work the film still comes out and you’re the person responsible for it. So I thought, ‘Okay, am I going to work after this?’ (laughs)” Source.