Seven years ago, Javier Grillo-Marxuach got drunk with his fellow writer-producer Jose Molina and made a list of “made a list of all the sociopathic abusers [they’d] worked for, and a list of the good ones. One list was was significantly longer than the other.”
While he didn’t specify which of his TV jobs he was referring to — though “Lost” comes to mind thanks to recently surfaced accounts about its “toxic” writers room — Grillo-Marxuach spoke on ATX Festival’s Beyond the Page panel about how resources and mentorship for younger writers began dwindling when the industry shifted to a streaming model.
One of the major responsibilities a writer has aside writing scripts is to make sure those scripts retain their integrity throughout the production process. For any number of practical reasons, a scene that works on the page doesn’t always translate in front of the cameras, and it used to be universally acknowledged that TV writers were there to provide on-the-fly guidance about how to make adjustments that stay true to showrunner’s vision. But these days, writers are much more rarely paid to come to set at all.
“On streaming shows, you spend six months in a row writing scripts, and then everybody gets tolf to eff off,” Grillo-Marxuach said. “The only person leftover is the showrunner and maybe whoever the least expensive writer was on the staff. Then production begins, and you have to figure out what to actually do.”
“I had a job during the lockdown. It was a streaming show, and they wrote their season. Then the writers were told to eff off, and they did, and then [the studio] gave notes. And one of the notes was, “Can you please remove this subplot that is one-fourth to one-third of the season?’ The writers had all moved on to other jobs, so they called me like, ‘Can you spend time with the showrunner like fixing this?’”
Grillo-Marxuach describes the experience of working while completely divorced from production as “writing in a vacuum,” which both hurts the quality of a show and makes it difficult for junior-level writers to gain the experience necessary to rise the ranks and become showrunners themselves. Referencing the ongoing Writers Guild of America strike and arguing that on-set experience is paramount to the TV process, rather than a privilege, Grillo-Marxuach said, “The future of television is that Netflix is going to figure out that they have to make television. If we don’t go back to a model where we are doing it because that is the structure of it, then we have to bake it into the contracts, and they have to pony up to have the writers on set. To keep us as employees of the show for the duration of the writing and the production of the show. That’s what we’re striking for.”
On another panel, titled Artificial Intelligence and Us, he discussed another sticking point of the WGA negotiations: AI and how it may end up being used to write film and television. Rather than arguing that AI should be completely banned from the creative process, he posited that there are perhaps ethical uses of AI that could benefit writers and studios alike.
“We can be afraid of this technology, or we can embrace the fact of the matter: It’s moving at the speed of capitalism. The speed of light has nothing on the speed of capitalism,” he said. “It’s compiling things and it’s putting them together in ways that may seem uncanny. The fact of the matter is AI is going to write. So we need to teach people how to use the technology to enable us to make better choices — not to make choices for us. AI can help us find sources of information we didn’t know existed, but it is only as good as who is feeding it what.”
Before going on strike, the WGA made proposals that would limit economic harm to writers due to to the use of AI because, Grillo-Marxuach puts it, “Our immediate nightmare scenario is: Somebody’s gonna get AI to write crappy script, and then they’re going to make me rewrite it into a good script for less money.” The studios, collectively negotiating as the AMPTP, rejected the proposal and instead offered to hold annual meetings to discuss advancements in the technology.
At the panel, Grillo-Marxuach said, “They have a plan. If they’re talking about only having meetings now, that means they’re having meetings. They know what they’re going to do with it. We need to get to that. We need to grab those tools and say, ‘Hey, look. Here’s what I can do with it.’ Instead of the studios telling us, ‘Here’s what we think you should be doing.’”