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WGA Stories Behind the Stories

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Stuart Beattie | Australia. Photo courtesy Dexter Kim/WGAW

It is a rare treat to see masters at work in any medium, which is why you may walk the streets of New York City and encounter countless tourists taking pictures of overweight men behind counters flicking thin sheets of pizza dough. A luxurious craft, or particularly lucrative? No. But these men are good at what they do, plain and simple, and there is a sense of pride and honesty to their work. This is what brings out the cameras.

For writers, the process is no less hands on and labor-intensive, but there are shockingly few audiences standing around, jaws agape, as tireless men and women hunker over their computers and Moleskines. In fact, most often the complete OPPOSITE is true. Only when writers put down their pens and close their laptops in solidarity against the media conglomerates that pay them, do they get noticed by the masses. The WGA's Writers Strike, just one year removed from today, is the most dramatic and clear example in recent memory. Thankfully those days are behind us. Well, almost.

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Perhaps us, as the glowering and finicky masses, should truly be thankful that screenwriters across the land even decided to return to their craft. Lucky for us, many writers have either too much creativity to keep inside, or they have -quite literally- written themselves out of any other vocation. And on Monday, November 17th at the Writer's Guild of America West (WGAW), a select few attendees were invited to sit down and shake the hands of those who will be bringing many of us the silver screen joys we've come to expect over the holiday season. Called The Stories Behind The Stories, it was a truly remarkable experience that allowed writers to come together and discuss the nature of their craft, the work involved, and their latest accomplishments.

All of the writers featured - and there were many - have managed to claw their way to the top of their respective writing classes, and make good on promises made to themselves while sitting in dark rooms at 4am, struggling to find the right verb. The cast of scribes represented an array of new and established talent, and several different genres. First there was the wonderful Clayton Frohman of the new Daniel Craig film Defiance, followed by Matt Allen, Jon Lucas, Scott Moore, and Caleb Wilson who collaborated on the seasonal comedy flick Four Christmases, with Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon. Not to be outdone were Justin Haythe of Revolutionary Road starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the charming Grant Nieporte (fresh off the new Will Smith pic Seven Pounds), and the true master of the room: Stuart Beattie, whose new film Australia is a joint writing venture with the legendary Baz Luhrmann. His other film credits include Pirates of the Caribbean, Collateral, Derailed, 3:10 to Yuma, and 30 Days of Night, making him the true top dog for the evening.

What is most appealing to sitting down with writers, much like their pizza-slinging counterparts, is the honesty with which they work, despite an industry filled with lost promises and personal struggles. All of the writers shared excruciating stories about the anonymity of their work, the years of toil, and the unwavering dedication to an opportunity so fleeting. For Matt Allen and Caleb Wilson that meant struggling at desk jobs with International Creative Management and Brillstein/Grey, while hashing out their ideas and futures in the parking garage on breaks or at home after 12-hour days. For Clayton Frohman, the struggle has always been a balance of survival between the project in his heart and the project on the table in front of him; it is hard enough to last 10 minutes in a pitch meeting, let alone decades navigating the chummy waters of this chosen profession. Others, like Justin Haythe and Grant Nieporte, began their ascension gradually, which can often be a whole other kind of pain. For Haythe it began as writing pure fiction with an eye towards the cinema, until 2004's The Clearing hit well with the Sundance crowd. Nieporte was a showrunner's assistant and staff writer for television for many years, while silently struggling in his free time to find his true voice and bring it to the screen. Most hilariously, Stuart Beattie describes his lean times in a story involving an old, crushed muffin in the bottom of a bag...and one very hungry writer.

While each writer certainly represented the 'weekend warrior' spirit needed to condense all of their available free time into a single meaningful task, the Stories Behind the Stories event really represented the achievements they had all finally made, and the futures stretched out in front of them. None of the evening's scriptwriters were particularly happy to rest on their laurels in any way, and viewed their most recent success as a truly precarious position that must be navigated even more carefully than the path that brought them there in the first place. And this must be true; there is a certain freedom to working as hard as you can at one thing for many years, in that at some point you just come out swinging, and keep it up until the obstacles around you fall. There is a lot of trial and error, but with that is the implicit knowledge that you have the ability to try again. When perched uncertainly upon the precipice of success, there are fewer options to attack, and the penalty may be much more severe.

This is not to assume that any of these individuals are not cognizant enough to revel in their momentary spotlight. However, As Clayton Frohman will tell you, there is no stopping or slowing down, beyond the momentary sniff of seasonal success roses. For him, it is back to work on a labor of love that has been crafting itself inside him for more than a decade, while simultaneously keeping food on the table and tuition paid. Stuart Beattie is also right back to work, trying to keep up with a personal goal of one film a year. For Grant Nieporte, his pride in just in bringing Seven Pounds to the screen is almost palpable, but he is quick to point out that he's in no position to put the neighborhood on his back and carry them across the poverty line. Revolutionary Road's Justin Haythe doesn't seem worried either, instead relying on a calm demeanor and history of literary success to ensure his future remains stable. And as for the Four Christmases quadfecta, there is a distinct feeling that these guys will be sticking around for a while. In jeans and sandals, laughing easily and complimenting each other constantly, you have to believe they've found a happy medium between personal comfort and success, and the frivolities and showmanship this business can require. But whatever the angle, we should all be hopeful that these men do return to work, and with the same intensity and honesty that has gotten them to where they are today. For the WGAW and the writer's strike, America truly did not know what it had until it was gone. And now that it's back, the hope is that we can all sit down with our jumbo popcorns and calorie colas and remember, for even just a moment, what it took to get it all there again.

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Australia opens in theaters November 26th.
Four Christmases opens in theaters November 26th.
Seven Pounds opens in theaters December 19th.
Revolutionary Road opens in theaters December 26th.
Defiance opens in theaters December 31st.