The best way for me to explain the complicated power structure that governs show business, and the reason that Hollywood labor unions exist in such uneasy relationship to one another, is to tell you this story:
Years ago, I was working on a show and we were filming a “tag”—the short, less-than-one-minute sequence that comes at the very end of an episode.
The setup: The main character had been complaining for the entire episode about his bad luck in general but especially with airplane seat assignments. He was always seated in the middle seat, between a crying baby and a really fat person.
The tag was simple to shoot. It opened on the interior of a crowded airplane. We panned across one of those jammed rows of seats at the very back of the airplane. And as we panned, we revealed: a hugely fat person, then our main character, and then a woman holding a crying baby. The guy takes a minute and looks at his seat neighbors, sighs, then says: “Well, I see we’re all here.”
Because the mother, baby, and enormously fat person didn’t have lines of dialogue, they weren’t hired by the casting director. On a film or television set, these parts are cast by the second assistant director.
Here’s how we explained it to the Second AD: We need a crying baby extra and a big fat extra. Which are not the professional (or nice) terms to use. We don’t say “extras” in show business anymore. We say “background actors.” But we were the writers, and writers are often jerks, so we told the Second AD to get us a big fat extra and that was that.
When we arrived on set to shoot the scene, however, there was a problem. Sitting to one side of the star was a mom and a baby who was, in fact, screaming. But on the other side was a person who could only be described as Los Angeles Fat, meaning not really fat at all. He was merely plump—carrying a few extra pounds, sure, but not spilling over the armrest and into the next seat.
The Second AD clearly hadn’t understood the joke, and now we had to find a clinically obese background artist to replace the only slightly tubby background artist in the next 10 minutes.
We told the Second AD he was an idiot. He told us the background actor was fat enough. We told him to replace the actor immediately. He told us that it was too late to do that and if we angled the camera properly it would look fine.
Tempers flared. The assistant directors on a film set are powerful mandarins in the outfit, below only the director in power. They, like the directors, are members of the Directors Guild of America. But on a television set, it’s the writers who run the show. They’re in the Writers Guild, which has many requirements to be met before you’re allowed to join…but interpersonal skills aren’t one of them.
This took place on the soundstage, in loud voices, about six feet from the airplane set where the not-obese-enough background actor heard us loudly describing him as not fat enough, basically normal-looking, merely overweight, etc. All of which might have made him feel great in another context except this one, which meant he was about to be fired by the showrunner.
The background actor, just to complete the troika, was a member of the Screen Actors Guild. It was SAG, in fact, that spearheaded the effort to get us all to stop using the term “extra” and treat background actors with respect and dignity, which at the very moment we were not doing.
Writers aren’t uniquely thoughtless, of course. Especially in the entertainment industry. But it’s hard not to reflect on this moment—and other moments like this, repeated endlessly across the television business by the people in charge, i.e., the writers—when I see colleagues and friends in the Writers Guild marching on the picket line, claiming “solidarity” with the various other trade unions that make up the complicated constellation of the show-business workforce.
Showrunners, in television, are the on-set bosses and de facto employers of the entire production. They hire and fire the other writers, naturally, but they also decide who directs the show and how often, who runs the casting department, what the final edit looks like, and how fat the fat extra is supposed to be.
Put it this way, in my 30-year career as a television writer and producer, I have made more deals with writers than I have had deals made for me. For every series I have run or created, I have hired (and fired) a dozen writers, casting people, art directors, episodic directors, background actors, and actors with actual dialogue.
The showrunner, in other words, is The Man. They often forget that. I should say, we often forget that. Especially when it comes time to go on strike. At which point we immediately stop lording it over everyone and raise a picket sign and pretend we’re all in this together, when in fact we routinely complain about the other trade unions and craft guilds and their (to us) idiotic work rules. We suddenly stop being The Man and instead claim to be Everyman.
For instance, you’re shooting late at night, and it goes way past schedule, and the turnaround time—union rules require a certain number of hours of downtime between shoots—is going to mean an expensive rescheduling, unless somebody asks the UPM (unit production manager, a member of the DGA) to ask the crew (Teamsters, IATSE, and other unions) something like, Come on, guys, we all want to get this thing done, you know?
Or you could squeeze another shot in before dinner, but you’ll probably go over a bit, so somebody in the WGA asks somebody in the DGA to ask people in SAG and IATSE, etc. Hey, are you going to be jerks about this?
And if they are, we roll our eyes and moan that this is exactly why it’s so difficult to get anything done in the entertainment business. We repeat the dialogue that studio executives use when they talk about us. Sure, every few years we snap out of it during a labor fight and get all Power to the Worker!! and Solidarity for All! But when it’s eventually settled, which it will be, we go right back to treating everyone (and in the case of many showrunners, our writer-employees, fellow WGA members) like insignificant hired help.
Okay, back to the fat background actor:
As it happened, one of the production crew members was, in fact, a hugely fat person. Really really fat. Needed-a-seatbelt-extender-on-the-airplane fat. Make-the-joke-work fat.
So one of us had to approach this person and gingerly sound her out on the subject of the joke and the obesity required thereof. It had to be subtle and sensitive because you never know, do you, what a person sees when she looks at herself in the mirror?
The conversation went like this:
“Do you see who the Second AD hired for this?”
“Do you see the problem?”
“It’s just that—”
The crew member held up her hand. “Don’t explain,” she said. “I’ll do it. But you have to give me a line. I need a line of dialogue. So I can get into SAG.”
Deal. We added a line, which we knew we were going to cut from the show, but it didn’t matter to the crew member or to SAG. A line of dialogue is a line of dialogue, whether it makes it to air or not. We got a very funny tag and the crew member (IATSE, I recall) made it into SAG.
The not-fat-enough background actor was replaced, though he was paid his full fee plus a union-mandated bonus, which we all thought was outrageous and the whole reason show business is in trouble.
Photo: AP / Chris Pizzello
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