Writer-producer David Schulner is hoping that the hard lesson he learned from his mentor, veteran showrunner Shawn Ryan, during the 2007-2008 writers’ strike will inspire his fellow scribes to stand with the WGA in its ongoing battle with Hollywood’s talent agencies. That struggle is now completing its third week since the guild ordered its members to fire their agents en mass who refuse to sign its new Agency Code of Conduct.
Schulner, creator/executive producer of NBC’s medical drama New Amsterdam, credits Ryan with showing him what sacrifice and union solidarity meant in those tumultuous early days of the strike.
“Twelve years ago I got my first pilot made,” he wrote in a recent series of tweets, referring to the 2008 Fox supernatural drama pilot The Oaks he’d created. “It starred Jeremy Renner, was directed by Michael Questa, and Shawn Ryan was the showrunner. I won the lottery. Then we started filming – on the first day of the writers’ strike. At 3 am I got a letter on my doorstep from the studio. If I failed to show up to set that day to fulfill my producer responsibilities, I would be sued. I would be held in breach of contract and would forfeit any money I made from the sale of my pilot. So I arrived before my set was picketed by my fellow writers.”
His first reaction was to try and have it both ways – to keep working on the pilot while at the same time picketing it. “At 3 pm I left video village and joined my fellow writers on the picket line. I picketed my own show for three hours until my fellow writers went home and I went back to work for fear of being sued. I was useless on set. I was a mess. I did this every day for entire shoot.
“On about day 2 or 3 of this, Shawn Ryan wrote a missive that quickly spread like wildfire. He said, not only would he not write, but he would not produce. He would not edit. He would not do anything that provided the studios with content that would only prolong the strike.
“The day before Shawn made this public, he told me what he was going to do. He apologized profusely. Not only was he abandoning me, he was abandoning editing the final season of The Shield. He also had The Unit on the air. He was putting his entire career on the line.
“I told him I felt like a hypocrite. I should join him. He was my mentor, my partner, my showrunner. Why should he sacrifice everything while I sat on set and collected my check? He said ‘I’m taking the risk so you don’t have to.’”
Here is an excerpt from the email Ryan, then a member of the guild’s negotiating committee, sent in November 2007:
Tomorrow, we begin to film the Series Finale of The Shield. I think it’s the best script our writing staff has ever written. This is the show that made me. This is the show that is my baby. If the strike goes on longer than two weeks, I won’t be able to step on set for the final episode of the show. I won’t have a writer on set, as I have had on every episode since the fourth episode. I won’t be able to edit this final culminating episode. I won’t go to the wrap party that Fox TV and FX are paying for. You can’t tell me that any episode of television is more important than this one is to me, and I am ready to forego all those things in order to strengthen my union.
Looking back at Ryan’s stand 12 years ago, Schulner said that “This is what it means to me to be in a Union. This is why #I Stand With The WGA. I know this story isn’t a perfect analogy to the struggle we find ourselves in today. But I describe it because it saddens me that the opposite seems to be happening right now.
“Many upper level writers and show runners are the ones complaining. Writing anonymous letters. Acting in their own self-interest. And the lower level writers are the ones taking a stand. Being brave. Fighting for the future. I stand in solidarity with them. With you.”
“If there is anything I can do for you, tell me,” he tweeted. “If there is a risk I can take so you don’t have to, tell me. I have a debt to pay. Now is my time to pay it.”
The WGA strike of 2007-08 lasted 100 days. The guild’s current “collective action” against the talent agencies is now in its 21st day.