Pens Down: What Writers Not Working Really Means for the Shows in Production

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When A.C. Bradley was hired to write on the 2022 Disney+ series “Ms. Marvel,” part of her job entailed going to set every day to help with re-writing scenes on the fly while the show was being filmed.

“It was a mixture of everything from wanting to add new characters into the show to needing to change things because of location,” Bradley tells Variety. Just one example: The day the production was set to shoot a chase sequence at Marriott hotel, she helped to add a beat where the chase entered the kitchen because it was nearby. “Why not use what you have?”

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This kind of scenario is, of course, no longer possible during the ongoing writers strike. “Pens down” means no WGA member can write or change scripts whatsoever, before, during or after production. In many cases, that has meant that showrunners have left their shows entirely, like “The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power” executive producers J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay or “Cobra Kai” executive producer Jon Hurwitz. Other writers rooms have shut down in advance of production on their next seasons, like “Abbott Elementary” and “Yellowjackets.”

Some showrunners are still involved with their series, however. “House of the Dragon” executive producer Ryan Condal is on set during production of the HBO series’ second season in the U.K., but with scripts already completed, Condal is working in what a source close to the show says is strictly a non-writing capacity: no editing, no network notes, no writing. Similarly, while “Andor” executive producer Tony Gilroy is not on set and no longer writing — scripts were locked before the strike — sources say he is still working as a producer on specific, non-writing elements like casting and scoring for the Disney+ show.

(Representatives for HBO and Lucasfilm declined to comment for this story.)

But carving out writing from a showrunner’s duties remains a tricky tightrope to walk. “There’s a lot of producing responsibilities that go hand in hand with being a writer,” says a veteran filmmaker who has worked as a writer and director in TV and film. “Sometimes, there are questions that the actors have. Sometimes, you’ll rewrite something while you’re on set for clarity or to help with the scene or with acting.”

Unexpected delays could force a production to condense or cut a scene; losing a location due to unforeseen circumstances may force a last-minute change in the script. “If something is truly locked — like, we’re not going to change a word of this, we’re just gonna go shoot it exactly how it is — then that’s fair game,” says the veteran. “It’s just rarely the case.”

For that reason, WGA leadership has requested showrunners not go to set.

“The rules are very clear that virtually nothing that a showrunner does is permitted,” says Lowell Peterson, executive director of WGA East. “Almost everything a showrunner does involves writing, and that’s clearly prohibited.”

Adds WGA East president Michael Winship, “The minute I decide, ‘He should wear a red hat and he should wear a green hat,’ that’s an editorial decision. All of these things essentially come down to writing.”

In the case of “House of the Dragon,” a separate source with experience working on the precursor series “Game of Thrones” says that the gargantuan scope of that show meant that scripts were indeed very rarely changed once they were completed, since so many different departments had to work far in advance to prepare for production. (This source could not, however, speak to if the same were true for “HotD.”)

Whether or not showrunners remain on set amid the writers strike, the absence of any writing throughout the production and post-production process almost certainly restricts the creative freedom of the production — even when scripts were finished in advance.

“When you’re banking scripts, especially on short series, you’re writing them in a vacuum,” Bradley says. “You haven’t started location scouting yet. You haven’t often cast it yet. You don’t really understand the character fully until you cast, because the great TV characters, it’s a marriage of the actor, the writer and the material. And that’s what the writer does on set. We handle everything from small changes to, does this character even talk the same way anymore?”

In fact, the growing practice of excluding TV writers from the production process — with writers rooms finishing all scripts well in advance of filming — is one of the key factors in the WGA’s contract dispute with the AMPTP. Traditionally, a TV writer has been effectively the producer of whatever episodes they’ve written, charged with guiding directors through the process to ensure the series remains tonally consistent, as well as scripting any last-minute changes during production itself.

But growing practice of excluding most writers from producing has put even more producing weight on the shoulders of showrunners. “It’s kind of terrible for the showrunners,” says the veteran. “Writers don’t produce the rest of their episode. They just kind of go away, and then the showrunner is left to do all the work that would normally happen on set. It’s like you’re the captain of a ship. You have a whole crew. You come up with a shell, you disband the crew, and then you’re just the captain with no crew.”

Writers can also play a critical role in the post-production process. “They consider if you are cutting dialogue to make a scene make more sense, or cutting for time and deciding what dialogue to extract,” the veteran says. “That’s also considered writing.”

With the strike, that critical element of the creative process is no longer available, which can especially hamstring a strategy — like that of Marvel Studios — that relies on finding and reshaping the story all the way through the edit. “Often on big movies, especially, they’re rewriting all the time,” says the veteran. “It’s a constant process.” At least seven Marvel titles — feature films “The Marvels,” “Captain America: New World Order” and “Deadpool 3” and TV series “Secret Invasion,” “Agatha: Coven of Chaos,” “Wonder Man” and “Daredevil: Born Again” — are currently still in production or post-production. (A representative for Marvel Studios declined to comment for this story.)

For any TV show or feature film, the desire to continue working amid the writers strike could become moot once the contract deadlines for SAG-AFTRA and the DGA expire on June 30, which could lead to both guilds also joining the picket lines. For now, productions that do move forward are, in the words of the veteran, operating “with one hand tied behind their back.”

“I can’t imagine shooting anything without a writer on set,” Bradley says. “You can, but you will not get the best material — for the directors, for the actors, for the audience.”

Jennifer Maas contributed to this story.

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