A friend of mine was working on the writing staff of a television show produced at a large studio in the San Fernando Valley. This particular studio had decided, years ago, to augment its uncertain and faltering profits from movies and television by offering tours of its facilities to visitors. Apparently, when people come to Southern California, they're not satisfied by the sunshine and the beaches and the hedonistic atmosphere - they also want to visit the low, featureless stucco buildings that dot the landscape of a motion picture studio.
It's hard to understand, really, because a movie studio is a pretty boring place. Tourists would gather in the morning outside the studio gates, wilting in the Hollywood sunshine, and then be led around by a young studio guide who would cart them around the various studio landmarks - "Here's where they filmed King Kong!" or "Here's where Lucille Ball had her dressing room cedar closet!" or "Here's where they filmed a Nissan ad!"
And as they passed by my friend's office, if the windows were open, he'd occasionally hear snippets of the guide's patter. Some of it, clearly, less than 100 per cent accurate. "Here's where they filmed The Titanic," said one, pointing at a smallish soundstage to excited oohs and ahhs from the tour group. (That particular film was actually shot on a purpose-built dry-dock in Mexico, which isn't as convenient.) "Here's where they built R2-D2," said another, pointing to a small metal shop, "and it's also where the character Fonzie from the TV show Happy Days was animatronically created after Henry Winkler left the show." That sort of thing.
Most of the tourists were German or Japanese back then - American tourists usually knew a cut-rate tour when they saw it and stuck to Hollywood Boulevard and waiting in line for game show tickets. But once, when the windows to the writers' office were open, a tour passed by and my friend heard this: "And right here," the guide said, pointing to my friend's window, "right here is where we keep the writers."
Nice. Where we keep the writers. Like we're ... curios or livestock. Or factory-raised chickens. Here's where we keep them. Don't look them in the eye. And here - hold a rosemary sprig under your nose to blot out the smell. Which, OK, is sort of insulting but also sort of accurate. A writer's room is often a clutter of takeout containers, pieces of paper, greaseboard pens and secret loathings. Corralling all of the writers in one office is efficient for everyone, but it does tend to contribute to a general industry-wide PR problem. Writers in Hollywood just aren't given that much respect.
"I have a great idea for a movie," people in this business often say. "It's all worked out. Characters, plot, everything." And then they stop, think for a moment, and shrug. "I just need a writer." Or: "All the elements are in place. Director, star, we're just looking for a writer to - you know - flesh it out." And sometimes they don't even say "flesh" it out. Flesh, as in, put meat on the bones. Sometimes people get the phrase all bollixed up and say "flush" as in: "We just need to flush it out a bit," which connotes a certain attitude, a certain location, a certain perspective that whatever the writer brings to the project, it's something ultimately flushable.
But I get the impulse: writers can be a cranky, rude, dysfunctional group. It's only natural to fantasise about having some kind of pen or kennel to keep them in. Fed and watered and walked occasionally, but always energetically up for the next project, able to follow directions and execute commands in a timely and upbeat fashion - this is the not-so-secret daydream of every studio chief. But, of course, try as they might, writers - like goats - are tough to herd. We're hard to pin down, hard to lock up, infuriatingly lazy sometimes, and weirdly productive at others.
It's more accurate to say, "Here is where the writers keep themselves." Because there's something about what writers do - something about the solitary quality of it, the loneliness of it, that paradoxically encourages us to gather in groups, in coffee shops or writers' rooms or doctor's offices. We're organic, but we're not free range. Which is why it's best to keep us together. Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood