At a time when writers prepare to fight for their fair share I sat down for lunch with Janet Batchler, a founding member of AWD, an award winning director, and an accomplished screenwriter.

Interview by Michaela von Schweinitz

Janet Batchler

Janet, you’ve been a member of the Writers Guild for 25 years. What’s the low down on last week’s development that keeps us all in suspense?

Before we took the strike authorization vote, what we were asking for was 1/3 of 1% of the 51 Billion Dollars in profits that companies made last year, record profits. One third of one percent of that to be spread over three years. Record profits. Remember these are Hollywood profits, so these are profits they couldn’t hide. What they offered was 1/25 of 1% of the 51 Billion that they made in profits last year to be spread over three years. That’s the gap that has to close this week. If it closes sufficiently we don’t strike. If it doesn’t close sufficiently then 96.3 percent of us said we will strike. And we will.

Just in time before a possible writer’s strike you signed a contract?

That was an option on a script already written. So they can go forward with that historical drama around the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates on election and make offers to directors and to stars. It started to go out to some movie stars. Also, we are executive producers on that. We’ll be involved as producers. We also EP’d over the last year a little indie shot in Hawaii. It’s in post right now. It’s called ‘Jo’ and it’s set about a hundred years ago on a coffee plantation in Hawaii, so it’s taking us into a world of what we’ve really never seen. It’s a world of extreme racial prejudice. The star is a young man who is half white, half asian, so nobody would talk to him because of that. He is shunned, he is an outcast, and he falls in love with the daughter of the plantation owner. It gets complicated.

How did you get involved?

We were asked to look at the script. It was structurally a mess but it had moments that were so lyrical and so beautiful, we’re like, we want to see those moments on the screen. We got involved, we helped sort of shepherd the script through several drafts. Wonderful to give notes and have them taken and see it all come together. We’re waiting to see the rough cut at any moment. And we can sort of comment on editors notes as producers, that’s not a writer task. We can work as producers, but no, we can not write, we can not meet, we can not do any writerly duties during the strike. And again: maybe there will not be a strike. And if the studios make the right offer before the contract ends, there will not be a strike. They make an acceptable offer, no strike.

How much of your writing for Hollywood is business versus creative work?

That’s a great question. I’ve talked to actors who say their job is not to act, their job is to audition. Acting is the payoff they would get if they audition well. I think in many ways it takes longer, you put in more time trying to get a job or sell something than actually creating it. Much longer. And you can spend two years trying to sell something, going through various permutations of it and then have it go nowhere. You can also spend that time writing something and have it go nowhere but at least you have something to show for that time. I write with a partner. It generally takes us anywhere from three to nine month to write a script, depending on the project, how difficult it is. Some are just harder to write than others.

Do you have a particular strategy?

There are really two paths that we try to be pursuing simultaneously. We’ll have things that we are pitching. Right now we are out pitching a serialized legal drama. So we’re holding our breath with the strike because there are places we’re supposed to go with it and we don’t know if we are. We’ll talk to our producers next week, depending on if we are on strike or not, to see how we are proceeding. That’s something we’ve been out pitching, we continue to go out pitching, where we have the preliminary deal but we’re looking for the deal where it is set up. That’s one kind.

The other is where we generate a project and we just write it. Sometimes they are projects where they are just not pitch-able, for any of many reasons. It might be that it is too obvious an idea and if we walk in and say, I am going to do this, a studio will say, oh, we don’t need you to do that, and they’ll just develop it on their own. Another one is, if it’s all going to be about the execution of it. So think about a movie like ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. I can’t imagine pitching ‘Little Miss Sunshine’. Its all in the execution. We always have a project usually that we’re working on on our own, and writing.

Writing begets writing?

You need to keep your muscles in shape. If you spend too long without writing, you have to warm up a little bit more to get into it. So having something that we’re always working on is just a healthy thing.

So we have two paths going that we writing something but also have others things that we’re out pitching. And then you just see where the doors open on those paths. I think it’s important for a writer to do both. That’s something that a writer has available to them that a director or an actor doesn’t. It’s much harder for a director or an actor to self generate projects if they’re not also a writer. They can purchase material and go out with the material with themselves attached. That’s probably the closest thing, is to option material and go out with that. But the one advantage that a writer has is that we can create something from scratch that is, hopefully, sellable.

The Kennedy-Nixon script is one we generated. We talked to our manager about it, about various ideas, and we sat down and wrote it. That one’s done. We have another project that we’re writing right now just to write. And when it’s done we’ll say. Here it is.

Do you need an agent in this business?    

It doesn’t hurt, but it doesn’t always help. You need somebody. Whether that’s a manager or an agent. We had many years when we had only an agent and no manager. We had years where we had only a manager and no agent. You need a representative; what that takes the form of can vary.

You were already an established writer when you directed your award winning short. Tell us about this experience.

I loved being able to bring something to life. I loved the feeling of running a set, and the sort of just the forward motion of keeping everything moving and making all the decisions. When I directed ‘Spitting Image’ as sort of my show piece I was five months pregnant with my second child and I came out of that and sort of realized I’m going to make a whole lot more money as a writer than trying to fight to be a director. So I didn’t do the follow up that I probably should have, because I had two very very small children at home. The energy that it took to have an infant and a toddler at home and a writing career, it ended up being overwhelming. So I went where the money was.

Any insights for your writing you gained from directing?

I teach young screenwriters at USC and I always tell them to go out and make something, because as a writer, oftentimes people are only thinking about words on a page. They are not thinking about, “Can this be shot? How does this cut together? Can I go from this scene to the next scene? What do I need to get from this scene to the next scene? What is this going to look like? What do I want it to look like? Is it even possible to do this scene on the budget I have? They don’t always think practically and I encourage them to think, ‘You’re not writing a script, you are writing a movie. A movie has to get made and how is this going to get made?” I think anything that a writer does that puts him in the world of actually making something makes him a better writer, because now they start thinking like the director or producer or actor who is actually making those words come to life. And that’s a healthy thing.

How did life change, now that your kids are in college?

It freed up time. You know I sort of saw it coming. I was so involved with AWD and on the board and I saw this coming. The reason I pulled back from AWD as a board member was that my children’s school asked me to be a board member there. I could see that I couldn’t do both in terms of volunteer commitment. When I was asked that, all of a sudden, that was the moment when it hit me and I said, I have a few years left and they’re gone. I’d better be involved with them because I’m never going to get to again. So it shifted my volunteer focus over to their school for a few years. Now, when the first one left, it was like ‘whatever’. When they’re both gone, and it was quiet, and I wasn’t getting up at six in the morning anymore every morning, it was a really big shift.  It was a really really big shift. And now I’m at the point where I’m like, ‘oh really, they’re coming home for the summer? Oh no!’ It was a big shift. A good one. It was a good one.

Do you have a writing routine?

We work our way through story very intensively, we go back and forth, we do that together, we agree on things. Then we’ll figure out what’s the best writing process going to be, once we’re ready to start writing pages. So the thing we are writing right now, we really just this week, last weekend sort of, decided what is the process going be, what are we going to deliver to each other as writing partners. This is a big ensemble piece so what we decided to do is split all the story lines apart and write them separately. That’s an interesting new thing we’re trying procedurally as we work. Then what we end up doing is, we hand pages back and forth to each other. Sometimes we’re very happy, sometimes we’re very unhappy with what the other person has done. We just keep writing, we just keep writing and distilling it, as if we were distilling whiskey, over and over.

How do you collaborate with your writing partner?

Right now it’s usually more the case, especially during the school year, that my writing partner takes the first drafts, because I am pulled away to work on my students’ work to help my students. But I do sort of most of the re-writes and pretty much all of the polishes, and the sort of the weaving together. I’ll be doing the weaving together of the story lines, I do all the continuity, I have sort of an editor’s heart. So I go at them with the editor’s eye, with a little bit of a director’s eye, of what does it look like, how are we getting from one scene to another, where are the cuts going to be, is there a way to tighten it, is there a way to shorten it, what are the visuals, where are the visuals going to be. Eventually we pull it together.

We have a writers group. We get feed back from our writers group. It is invaluable. Eventually we get to a point  where we both sort of agree that we’re pretty much there and then we do one final read-through where we literally read the script out loud. He says, Fade In, I say, Ext. Train Station – Day, he reads the next line, I read the next line. And every time we stop and say, do we need that line of dialogue? Didn’t we just see that already, so we don’t need that line, wait a minute they sort of just said the same thing on the previous page, they don’t need to repeat themselves. Do we need the word ‘both’, how often do you need the word ‘both?’ Word by word we just sort of trim it and polish it and make it all shiny and then we hand it to our representative and say, okay, tell us what you think? Where can we show this? Where can we send this to? That’s really what our process is.

How does it affect the business side of things to have a male partner at your side?

I feel very confident that it made it much much easier. Much easier to have a male partner. I’m sure. You know what, I do all the pitching ’cause I’m just a good pitcher. I’m just a really good pitcher. I teach pitching at USC.  So, I do the pitching and sort of handle the business stuff but I think just the impression, especially with some of the things we’ve written, I think that studios might not have been comfortable with a woman writing those stories without a man there.

Do you think you needed a man to write those stories?

I personally needed my writing partner because what each of us brings is so different to our partnership. I teach collaboration too at USC and I tell the writing teams you’re looking for the third writer. You’re looking for the project that neither of you could have written alone, that you could only write as a team and that third writer that comes out of your team is the one that you are fostering. The third writer that is the combination of the two of us, personally, only together could we have done the projects that we have done.

I think that’s true of all collaborations, regardless of male of female. The reason for collaboration is that something comes out of that teaming that would not exist with one or the other. It is qualitatively, quantitatively different. So yes, in that case, absolutely. Do I think it has anything to do with male versus female, not at all. Not at all. It’s what he brings and what I bring as individuals. Do we bring a different take on male, female issues in our scripts? Yes, we do. But I think that any team brings different things to a writing relationship that comes out in the final draft one way or another.

So to have a partner is an advantage, to have a male partner not necessarily?

In terms of the writing not necessarily. In terms of getting it sold probably yes, that has been an advantage. I think also, certainly there is a long history of teams in comedy and you can talk about what you get out of having a team in comedy. I’ve sometimes gotten a sense from executives that they feel they are getting two for the price of one when they hire a team. And they sort of are. They feel like they are getting more. In some ways they are because we don’t write a draft and turn it it, because we’re handing stuff back and forth so often we might write six drafts before we put the word first draft on it. So they are getting a little more refinement and polishing in the process.

Do you write every day?

No. It’s sort of week by week. And summer time and the school year are different. I just sort of look at what each day is like for the week and I sort of know this is going to be a good day to write. And I protect that day. When somebody will say, can you do a meeting on Thursday, I’ll be like, can they do Friday? Because I want to protect certain, you know, if I see big white spaces I want to set those aside and sort of have that day where I’m just staying at home in my t-shirt and shorts and I’m not putting on make up and it’s me and my computer working. And I don’t have to go out into the world at all. I really now try to protect those very carefully.

That’s good advice. What is a productive day for you when are you really happy with your work?

I don’t really care so much about the hours. I’ll try and accomplish a certain amount of something. Which might be two hours, it might be four hours. I might solve a story problem or reach the end of a sequence, say, or solve a plot problem and work out that – sort of more task oriented than time oriented.

I try to think through the answer ahead of time if I can. And then eventually I start hearing the characters speaking. Oftentimes going back and writing the previous set of scenes, rewriting them, is a good warm up to sort of move you into the new stuff. Because by the time you get to the blank page, well you’ve already been writing for an hour, so you might as well just keep going. And you’re not sitting there going, I don’t know what happens next. That’s a nice trick that I use to get myself into whatever the day’s work is.

Do you write exclusively on the computer? What do you do to get going?

I do a lot of plot work by hand. Especially when I’m drawing charts. Or I’ll draw character maps. And I do those by hand. And then I’ll like go back and do them again and make them pretty, because the first once, you know, are horrific looking. But I’ll do character maps by hand, I’ll do plotting by hand, if I’m weaving story lines together, I’ll do charts, all of that, you’re right, your brain sort of works at that pace whereas when I‘m writing actual pages, dialogue, I want to type because I need to be faster because the voices in my head are talking at a faster pace. I’m not so much thinking as I am channeling and I don’t want to miss anything. So, yeah, I do a little bit of write hand charting too.

So that’s one where I used mind mapping software. You see the characters, the mayor characters, how the different characters are related to them with the arrows. I loved the way it looked but it took so long to crank up the software and make it look pretty, after that I went back and did it by hand.

Back to the current negations. What about this timeframe in regards to exclusivity?

That comes from when seasons were longer. When if you were signed for a deal as writer for a season, that season was going to last a long time because the show was going to make 22 episodes over the course of the season. Now some seasons are six episodes or ten episodes. But the writers are still being held to the same time of exclusivity. And exclusivity is not unusual. Actors deal with exclusivity as well, but for very brief periods.

But writers are told, no you can not write for anybody else but we are not going to use you. The problem if you are expected to write x number of episodes if you are paid for those episodes over that period and all of a sudden you’re writing and being paid for a third of those episodes over that period, now you’re not making enough to live on. And you’re not allowed to go anywhere else to make enough to live on. That is one of the issues.

Could there be a strike over Health care?

The Guild has run the numbers every which way. Here’s the situation with the health plan. Health care, and this is pretty much true for all the Guilds. Healthcare plans get a three percent bump every year. Healthcare is not going up at 3% a year. Healthcare is leaping up, the cost of medications, etc. There’s also some specific things from the affordable care act that are expensive, they are good things but kids now stay on your health care plan until they’re 26. Well that’s a great thing. That’s great. I happen to have two kids over 18 on my health care plan. I’m happy with that and honestly I look at my students graduating and like, they can’t afford $1000 a month in health care right out of college. It’s not doable. So I think that’s great.

But, no healthcare plan, you know when they budget ten years out nobody said, oh, we are going to have to cover 18 to 25 year olds. They didn’t budget for that. 18 to 25 year old children. Another thing that the affordable healthcare act did was it brought about parity between physical health care and mental health care so that before maybe your healthcare would cover five trips to see a counselor, now they have to be covered in parity so mental health care costs have gone up substantially because people now can take advantage of what they couldn’t before or what they were paying out of their own pocket is now covered. So expenses have gone up all over.

Our health plan right now is fine, is solvent, it’s healthy but projected with all of these changes and the projected continued increases in health care costs it doesn’t look good down the line. At first people were saying, are we really striking over health care? And then you look at the numbers. Actually if we don’t strike over health care, three years from now, we’ll have to strike over it, because we’re screwed. And the companies can take away anything they want to save our health plan. So will we the writers pay more into our own health care? I’m sure we will. And honestly I was talking to people at the Guild and asked why don’t we pay more and they said, oh, you will, but that doesn’t cover it. And they have crunched the numbers every which ways. So it’s really just more about what is happening to health care in the country than about this one particular plan. We’re just seeing a reflection of what’s happening across the country.

So it does effect your life and your children’s future?

It does. Before the strike authorization vote, basically what companies said was, you can have an increase of your healthcare plan but you will pay for it out of your basic minimum increase. So instead of giving you the standard three percent increase that the DGA, that everybody gets every year, we just move that over to health care. And it was like, well then we don’t have an increase, do we? We don’t have a cost of living increase.  I think there are a lot of ways to solve that problem and I hope that they can agree on one.

Would be better for the companies if there was no strike?  

It’s not like they don’t have the money. They have the money. It’s about how they want to spend the money. I don’t remember the specific numbers, but somebody crunched the numbers and I saw that basically what it would cost to pay for The Writers Guild’s original ask at CBS was something like 25% of Les Moonves’ salary from last year. To cover all the writers. 25 percent of his salary would pay for all the increases for CBS. That number may be wrong, I saw the numbers and I don’t remember the specifics, but I just remembered, it was a small fraction of one man’s salary. The money is there, it’s how they choose to spend it.

We’ll see what happens.

I know the actors are looking very eagerly at what’s happening ’cause they’re affected by all of this. The rise of SVOD, where does that fit in? That was what our last strike was about. Our last strike was about the internet. We didn’t get everything we wanted but you know what, nobody gets everything they want. And if we hadn’t struck then there would be no jurisdiction over the internet. Imagine being asked to work for Amazon, work for Hulu, work for Netflix, and being told, oh, by the way, we’re going to pay you what you would be paid to make a youtube video for your neighbor next door. And we’ll take the profits. No.

I know some filmmakers have their movies at Netflix and they don’t know the numbers.

You know what, they should call the DGA because with writers there are writers who don’t know what the numbers are but the Guild knows what the numbers are. So those Directors should call the DGA to get the numbers on their project, because the DGA should have those. I mean if they don’t, they’re not doing their jobs, so I assume that they have those numbers. I know the Writers Guild has those numbers. And of course all those numbers can be really well tracked. Computers are doing the counting.

BTW what’s your take on VR?

I don’t know that much about it. They’re pushing it so hard at USC right now. Seems there is a VR seminar every week. I’ve seen one. It was just like a demo. It was interesting. I care about story, and I’m not sure story telling has been mastered. That feels more like a video game format than a story telling format to me. And that’s fine. I’ve nothing against that. But it doesn’t speak to me the way it speaks to some people.

That’s the challenge: to get story telling mastered in VR?

I think it is. But I think it’s also a monetary challenge. Because VR is something that has to be sold one on one. I mean at least at this point. What’s the distribution for it? You know, how are you going to distribute it, make money. Like a game, you sell a game, the buyer plays the game through, and then chances are they sell the game back as a used game if they don’t want to play it again once they’ve experienced the whole thing. Some games you’ll love and you keep and you play over.

To me that’s what it feels like right now, is that you know one person or a handful of people – other than the online games, I’m talking about platform based video games – it’s not something that a large group experiences at the same moment. It’s not something that is broadcast to millions of people around the country at the same moment. That’s what VR feels like to me right now. Will it go beyond that? Maybe.

I have the feeling it’s going to be the game writers, because games are becoming more story based, and I think it’s probably going to be those game writers that figure out how to handle story in VR. But then of course somebody in distribution has to figure out how to make money on it. I’m not sure that they have figured that out yet. For now, I have other ways I’d rather spend my time. It’s interesting, and if I was a gamer, I’d probably really enjoy it. Right now, I’d rather be in the middle of a story than in the middle of a game. Both my kids are gamers, they might love it.

Thanks for having lunch with me.

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