Tuesday, November 14, 2017

"What Just Happened?"

This summer, I was tickled to read the oral history of one of the craziest episodes in TV history -- in which a dog who's digested marijuana makes off with the heart being brought into a hospital for a character's transplant.  Because I had been part of that creative process, as a story editor on season 6 of One Tree Hill.  

In fact I was kinda sad I hadn't been interviewed. 

I would have told the reporter the episode probably contributed to me not being asked back the following season, because when the creator, Mark Schwahn, pitched the dog-heart scenario, I blurted out "You can't do that!" 

Being told "no" was a trigger for Schwahn, who often reminded us he'd grown up in a trailer park and, with no showbiz connections, created the young-people smalltown soap opera and kept it on the air despite getting no respect from critics -- or even his own network.  Every season he concocted a finale that could double as a series finale, because he was never told in advance that the show would be renewed. Six seasons in, he bristled that he was still arguing with the higher-ups over his casting choices. In fact even though the show was produced by Warner Brothers, instead of being on the legendary studio lot the offices were on the lower-rent "Ranch" down the street, in a grim little trailer (a weird ironic twist given how far he'd come from his origins). 
Perhaps in retaliation, he made so many out-there nutty plot choices that the room had developed the catchphrase, "What just happened?" to remind us to think outside the box. While critics may have looked down on it, it outlasted, say, The West Wing by two seasons. 

So: when I blurted out "You can't," Schwahn bellowed back "Handelman! Never say 'can't'!" He was the king, and I was the peon. 

We both knew I was lucky to be there-- in fact he had rescued me from the scrap heap. He'd interviewed me for season 5 and not chosen me, and then my agents had dropped me. So a year later when they called to say he was looking for me, I landed the gig with no agents at all. 

So it was very hard to go up against him. And most of the other writers in the room were in similar positions --
they'd started out as assistants and been promoted over the years, and owed him everything. Writers were sequestered from set, unlike most shows, so they had no relationship with the cast and crew, and at the end of each season he told the writers there was no guarantee they'd be back, creating a culture where you were anxious to keep your job. Same thing with the cast, who were plucked from relative obscurity (except for Chad Michael Murray) and suddenly had that most elusive thing for an actor -- a steady gig. 

To be clear, the room was hardly a daily terror -- we shared a lot of laughs, exchanged Christmas gifts, and socialized. Schwahn at times could be funny and kind and even self-deprecating, cared deeply about the show, liked mentoring people, and actually let them write a lot of their scripts -- not as common as you might think. 

But that whole ethos -- "I can do what I want, and you all owe me" - had its dark side. One of the writers began dating a guest actress, and soon lost favor with Schwahn. When the lead actors were in L.A., they'd stop by the office to meet the staff, but the actresses never did. There was lewd talk, requests for backrubs.  One writer kept her private life super private from all of us for fear it would diminish her currency with Schwahn.

It was horrible for women, but created a bad work environment for everyone. You never knew when The Boss would be angry. 

Schwahn hired me in part because I had worked at Rolling Stone and he was a passionate music fan -- in fact in his office he had a sign saying "What would Crowe do," referring to Rolling Stone writer turned auteur Cameron Crowe (whose own credo had been "What would Wilder do," about Billy Wilder). 

But it was tricky to try to guess "What would Schwahn do." Sometimes he rebelled against a plot point simply because someone else had thought of it. Some veteran writers purposely didn't put their best stuff into first drafts for fear of outshining him. He would bring in his scripts and want us to praise individual lines. 

When it came time to write my episode, it was so late in the season I didn't want to miss out on the plotting of the finale. While most writers took the full two weeks to write their episodes.  I came back into the room with my first draft after only four days. One colleague cautioned me that no matter how good or bad the draft, the timing itself would backfire -- "He likes to think he's the only one who can write that fast," he said. 

My father had died toward the end of the season, and after it wrapped I was back in New York clearing out my parents' house, Schwahn emailed me at midnight LA time -- 3 a.m. my time -- and I happened to be awake when it arrived. He wrote that he was letting me go because of a budget crunch, the "last one out/first one in" thing, plus he knew I'd "have so much to deal with back east." 

I found out soon after that he replaced my slot with two young female writers looking for their first gig.
Cut to eight years later. 

"Have you been following this?" a former colleague of mine texted me yesterday. "This" was a link to an obscure website I had never heard of, which had focused on a string of Saturday tweets from a TV writer I'd never heard of, named Audrey Wauchope. 

Wauchope was motivated to tweet her truth publicly by Friday's news that the showrunner of FOUR concurrent TV shows, Andrew Kreisberg, had been 'suspended' for inappropriate sexual behavior to underlings. (I won't spend the time here asking how it is humanly possible to supervise four series at once, nor point out how many other qualified, talented underemployed writers could have better handled the duties and responsibilities.) 

It started on Friday with her heartbreaking observation, "Today was the day I realized I've spent my entire life nervous to think I was funny because I'm not comfortable in male arenas."

The next day she elaborated on her experience. She described a writers' room where "The staff sat on couches. Female writers would try to get the spot where the showrunner wouldn't sit as to not be touched. Often men would help out by sitting next to him, thus protecting the women."

Though she did not name the show, anyone could figure it out from her resume -- plus, once she realized she'd held the same title on two shows, she made it clearShe was writing about One Tree Hill - she'd been on season 8, two years after me. 

She opened the floodgates. Soon all three of the show's original lead actresses, Sophia Bush, Bethany Joy Lenz, and Hilarie Burton, tweeted their support. (Burton, who left after season 6, wrote "I have been angry for a decade.") 

And within 24 hours, they had collaborated on a group public letter about their mistreatment, enlisted several fellow cast and crew, and Variety ran the story, prompting another ex-colleague to message me, "Truth bombs have been dropped." Male writers on the show tweeted their support. 

Wauchope kindly added she didn’t blame the other writers who were also being manipulated by Schwahn, and the actresses who signed the group complaint said the same thing. As Lenz  put it in a tweet: “I hope you remember that the other writers who built that show with us and under Mark are all, wonderful people.” Sophia Bush re-tweeted another writer’s show of support saying, in part, “…your support meant the world then, as it does now.” The consistent message seemed to be an acknowledgment that everyone below the very top was caught up in a cycle of manipulation. 

As is the case in so many “open secret” situations, the breadth and depth of the secret usually isn’t known by everyone. Often you only see enough to make you uneasy, not enough to make you question whether it’s worth risking your job over. 

Looking back, I realized it's like being in a family with a drunk or abusive parent. It's very hard to break out of the family dynamic. The actresses say they were told if they spoke out, they'd be putting the 100 people on cast and crew out of work. As their statement suggests, this is an unfair burden to put on any young employee. When the show premiered, Bush and Burton were 21, Lenz (then Galeotti) was 22. Writers, though a little bit older, were even more expendable, since they weren't the face of the show. 

I feel especially guilty because in most work situations, I try to help defend women and underlings from any harassment I witness, but on One Tree Hill, I was entering a show and culture that had already been running for five years and to speak up when the boss was being lewd or asking for a massage would have been suicidal. Especially when I couldn't even question a plot point. 

Schwahn had a habit of following such behavior with a loud disclaimer: “I’m only kidding,” which, in hindsight was probably meant to undermine any possible complaint. But I regret not doing more. 

If you were to try to analyze -- not excuse -- Schwahn's particular response to getting power, lording over people and presuming desirability to women -- you might look at his hardscrabble origins - though plenty of people start out like that without behaving this way. He told us of sleeping on the floor of a dorm at college and eating potatoes. He told us of going home at Christmas and all his relatives just wanting him to hand over wads of cash as gifts. But nothing excuses abuse of others. 

With so many stories emanating out of Hollywood, it's hard to know what kind of longterm traction this particular one will have. One Tree Hill is long gone. His current show is up in the air as of this writing. 

This has been a breaking point for women speaking up, which is huge. My hope is that this cultural moment also leads to men speaking up in the moment and nipping this kind of behavior in the bud, instead of being ignorant or complicit. 

The irony underlying the catchphrase "What Just Happened?" is that we should have seen it all along. 

Also ironically, the show was always about being your best self, overcoming a malevolent Dad, and learning how to become an adult (season 5 brilliantly skipped ahead from high school years to post-college return to hometown, which allowed the actors to play closer to their real ages.) 

With the breaking of this story, the biggest headline should be the fierce strength of the female cast and crew assembled by Schwahn.  Not just in how they survived and supported each other, but in now creating a united front to help try to change the industry. Lenz even managed to speak of hope and redemption: 
POSTSCRIPT: two days after I posted this, the cast and crew of his current show, E!'s The Royals, issued its own statement about Schwahn's behavior. He was almost immediately suspended. 
POST SCRIPT 2: Friday Nov. 17, Variety's story with some of the gory, upsetting details of Schwahn's behavior was published. It isn't pretty.
POST SCRIPT 3: It took several more weeks, but Schwahn was indeed fired from The Royals. From Audrey Wauchope's small tweet grew a landslide. Bush and Burton tweeted that justice was served. 


Susannah Greenberg Public Relations said...

Abusers out of control, giant egos, hurt everyone. These brave women speaking up will, conversely, help everyone, I hope.

Profesora said...

Lenz's statement is wonderful. Thank you for this reflection, David.

me! said...

“My hope is that this cultural moment also leads to men speaking up in the moment and nipping this kind of behavior in the bud, instead of being ignorant or complicit.“ This!!! I can’t tell you how many times I’m in a room of men and something inappropriate gets said, and we all just awkwardly laugh it off to make it easier on all of us. It can’t just be all women saying “me too”. Men have to call this behavior out as they see it, too. Thanks for your thoughtful piece.

Uberchick said...

Well done, and well said.

Sarah Buttenwieser said...

Lenz's statement is wonderful and your framing of all of this is so insightful and graceful, really. I so appreciated reading it.

NancyBlog said...

“My hope is that this cultural moment also leads to men speaking up in the moment and nipping this kind of behavior in the bud, instead of being ignorant or complicit.“ So powerful and important. Thanks for writing this.

stmmendoza said...

Great piece! I hope others will learn from it. You’re a great role model for others.

Unknown said...

Im proud that the one tree hill men also spoke up.

Just call me "TV Lady" said...

I praise your truth, David. I'm proud you are my friend.