Page 4 of 4   <      

Unscripted Lives

"Writing can be very isolating, but, you know, you get hooked," Hall says. "I just love it." Seeing one of her scripts produced "is like having a premiere every week. . . . It's very cool."

Soap writers make their own hours (Hall disciplined herself to work 9 to 5 most days), and tend to work on their own, usually at home. Under the guild contract, a 60-minute script earns a writer a minimum of $3,087; writers negotiate a guaranteed minimum number of scripts over each 13-week cycle. There's also the payoff of knowing your work is entertaining several million dedicated fans.

"My first thought when she started was 'What if she's no good?' " Simon says. "That was my secret fear. But she's got that thing I'm always trying to describe. She knows what to put in and what to leave out. When to go fast and when to slow down. It's hard to teach. You just have to know. She knows."

Hall's big concern now isn't the loss of her paycheck (her husband's employment helps) but the potential loss of her nascent career. She knows she's in a dicey business. When her mother started writing in 1980, there were 13 daytime serials on the air. Now there are eight, and ratings for soaps have declined for years.

A handful of soap opera writers -- the guild won't disclose how many -- have resigned from the organization in recent weeks, and are continuing to write the serials to keep the shows going through the strike.

Simon and Hall think that's a mixed blessing. It's great, they say, that the programs are maintaining their continuity, lest preemptions or repeats alienate fans permanently. But they know that continued production undermines the WGA's leverage.

What's more, it's hard for Simon and Hall to imagine that the stories and characters they've nurtured could be written by others.

Says Simon: "I'm not angry. I'm just sad."

The Veteran

Andrew Bergman has been through this twice before. He walked out when the WGA went on strike in 1980 (for three months, over pay-per-view residuals) and in 1988 (five months, over home video residuals).

"Every few years, there's a little blood in the streets," he muses, though he doesn't seem amused.

The last strike was particularly painful to him. It sank a sitcom he was developing for CBS Television called "The Dictator" after three never-aired episodes.

Bergman comes at this strike from several vantage points. He's been a producer ("Striptease," "Little Big League"), director ("The Freshman") and writer ("Blazing Saddles") in a career that spans more than 35 years.

Which is by way of saying that Bergman, 62, has beaten the entertainment industry's mortality tables. In a business that values a youthful sensibility, most screenwriters' careers begin to wane in their late 40s. He's one of the oldest writers on the picket lines.

Bergman, however, isn't considering retirement. "For writers, the difference between being retired and unretired is so thin you'd never know the difference," he says, laughing. Bergman spends his time working on a long-shelved stage project, a musical version of his 1992 film "Honeymoon in Vegas."

He isn't hurting, and he isn't complaining. "If you've been in the business for 35 years and can't afford to go three months without work, you've being doing something very wrong," Bergman says. "This business has been good to me and a lot of people."

If there's anyone who understands the value of residuals, however, it's a writer who's earned them for several decades. The strike, Bergman says, "isn't about money. It's ultimately about breaking the union. They [the studios] want to break us."

<             4

© 2008 The Washington Post Company