When some 11,500 members of the Writers Guild of America They went on strike In early May, screenwriter Ed Solomon, like many of his colleagues, was worried about the stagnation of his creativity.
During the two previous writers’ strikes, in 1988 and 2008, Solomon (whose credits include “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” “Men in Black” and “Now You See Me”) had taken classes, signed up for a summer film school and a series of fiction writing workshops.
“I was thinking, ‘What can I take that will still bother me?’” he says. “I just hoped to keep pushing myself and challenging myself.”
While searching for similarly stimulating courses earlier this year, Solomon realized that, having worked for decades in Hollywood, he already had access to many of the city’s best film and television writers.
What if, instead of taking a course, you helped lead one? And what if you offered it for free to other writers as a way to foster a sense of community and raise money to help those negatively affected by the strike?
On June 10, Solomon launched the idea to his 94,000 followers on the platform formerly known as Twitter: “If I were to do a series of Zoom workshops during the strike (I was thinking Q&A sessions on various parts of the craft of writing), would anyone show up?”
Three months and a dozen workshops later, the answer has been a resounding yes.
Launched in partnership with the blacklista platform dedicated to empowering Hollywood writers, Solomon’s weekly series, Word by wordhas featured a who’s who of screenwriting luminaries including Judd Apatow, Jesse Armstrong, Eric Roth, JJ Abrams, Lena Dunham, Amy Schumer, Liz Hannah, Sharon Horgan, Craig Mazin, Neil Gaiman, Adele Lim, Chris Miller, Phil Lord , Tracy Oliver and Christopher McQuarrie.
Informal and fluid, the two-hour sessions begin with topics such as “Fear, Failure and Fucking” and “Delineation: A Necessary Evil?” in open, often surprisingly candid conversations about the agonies, ecstasies and detailed mechanics of the writing process.
With each new episode of Word by Word, which is aimed primarily at writers but is open to anyone at no cost, the audience has steadily grown through social media and word of mouth, with more than 1,000 people tuning in for a session recent Zoom. with Charlie Kaufman and Boots Riley.
By soliciting donations from attendees, Word by Word has so far raised approximately $55,000 for three strike funds (the Union Solidarity Coalition, the Entertainment Community Fund and the Hollywood Support Staff Relief Fund) to help not only the writers but also the team members and other people affected by the work stoppage.
As soon as he saw Solomon’s tweet, Franklin Leonard, who launched the Black List in 2005 to highlight the best unproduced scripts, he knew he wanted to participate. Within moments, Leonard sent Solomon a direct message to begin figuring out how they could collaborate. With the help of Black List Senior Vice President Megan Halpern and other members of the company’s team, Word by Word was up and running two weeks later, with Susanna Fogel and Lena Dunham as its first guests.
“My team and I feel very fortunate to be in this position where we can continue to do the work we’re doing to support the writing community,” says Leonard, who is not a member of the WGA but has been on the picket lines. twice with the rest of his company. “I have said long before the strike that writers are the most underrated community in the industry. So to be part of that work is a real joy, even if this is not the work any of us would like to do and shouldn’t have to do.”
From the beginning, Word to Word’s goal was to go beyond the usual advice given to aspiring screenwriters.
“Our thing was that we didn’t want this to be something that you could read in a book or that could be taught better somewhere else,” says Solomon, who named the workshop after Anne Lamott’s much-loved writing advice book, “Bird by Pájaro.” “It’s really about trying to create access to the inner lives and inner processes of people whose work I admire and who are willing to share it.”
The Word for Word workshops have offered many practical tips and hard-earned wisdom about the craft. (The second half of each two-hour session is dedicated to questions from the audience.)
Riley, who wrote and directed “Sorry to Bother You,” detailed his daily ritual of writing from 6 to 10 a.m. every day on a laptop without an Internet connection to avoid distractions. McQuarrie, whose recent credits include “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One,” emphasized the importance of tying expository dialogue to character conflict to avoid boring the audience, explaining: “Information is the death of emotion. “
With little formal structure and often surprising guest pairings, conversations often take unexpected directions. Along with Abrams in a recent episode, Apatow recounted the inauspicious start to his own film career: He dropped out of USC film school after winning “The Dating Game” so he could collect his prize from a trip to Acapulco. Abrams revealed that in his youth, he and some friends had once stolen a Newsweek magazine with Burt Reynolds on the cover from Reynolds’ own mailbox, only to return it later out of guilt.
At one point during her episode with McQuarrie, Schumer’s 4-year-old son climbed onto her lap and told a joke. “Have you seen the new pirate movie?” —He asked McQuarrie. “He is classified as Arrrr.”
“People are seeing something they haven’t seen before,” says Halpern, who runs the Blacklist’s screenwriting lab program. “When you’re paired with someone unexpected, it’s a really easy way to engage in unexpected conversations so it doesn’t feel like you’re hearing the same stories and advice you’ve been given before. “It allows them to have a little more wiggle room.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, the psychological torment of the blank page and the fear of failure have been recurring themes in Word for Word. Kaufman, who won an Oscar for original screenplay for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and is one of the industry’s most revered writers, spoke of his relentless inner critic. “I lack confidence,” he said. “Every time I embark on something new, it’s a struggle.”
Solomon says the shared feeling of self-doubt and creative angst, whether one has written a hit film or series or simply aspires to one day, is a key part of Word by Word’s appeal.
“One of the most encouraging things about this is how much people who are earlier in their career feel validated by being able to see themselves in these guests,” says Solomon, who recently created the limited series of Max “Full”. Circle,” his third collaboration with director Steven Soderbergh. “We’ve had some extraordinary people and none of them feel like they’re okay. “Everyone feels like they are still learning the trade.”
With no end in sight to Hollywood’s historic double strike, Solomon and his Blacklist partners continue to book weekly episodes; Upcoming guests include Ben Stiller, Patton Oswalt, Spike Jonze, Janicza Bravo, Callie Khouri and Sarah Silverman. “We haven’t had any doubts from anyone,” Solomon says. “Everyone has said, ‘How can I help?’”
Beyond the strike, the team behind Word by Word plans to continue the series once everyone returns to work. “It may be a little more intermittent once the strike is over, because scheduling will become more difficult, but continuing this in some form after the strike is a no-brainer for us,” Leonard says. (An announcement regarding the availability of previous episodes will be coming soon.)
Solomon believes the series will eventually expand beyond the writers to include guests from other creative fields, while still fulfilling its mission of raising funds to support the entertainment community.
“I think any form of art could be substituted for writing in these conversations,” he says. “Writing a song, building an elegant piece of furniture, being an architect, dreaming about how to make a certain vintage of wine: I think there are more similarities between them than differences. The idea after the strike would be to continue raising money for these funds, because they can and will be used in future work stoppages. So the more we can help, the better.”
Meanwhile, Solomon is getting all the creative stimulation he could have hoped for from any class and more. “Talking to incredible writers, you realize there are so many different ways to approach the process,” she says. “You are so immersed in your own process that you forget that what you do is just a habit that becomes deeper and deeper. So having these conversations with people has really opened up the world to me in a way.”