November 3, 2017

Writers who “moved hearts and minds” through their television shows and films reflect on how they did it and the challenges of doing it in today’s political climate.

Every now and then a film or television show comes along that changes the way people think and behave. It illuminates prejudices, inequalities and social issues or opens a window onto the lives of a group of people that has been marginalized or overlooked on TV and in the movies.

Eleven screen and television writers whose groundbreaking works ignited social change came together last week on the stage of the Writers Guild Theater to discuss how and why they did it. They discussed the challenges of tackling difficult issues when they created their shows and films and today's climate of divisiveness.

(L-R) Ron Nyswaner, Ben Mankiewicz (moderator), Callie Khouri, Diane English, George Lopez, Lena Waithe and Scott Silveri.
Photo: Michael Jones

The panel, “Groundbreakers: Writers Who Moved Hearts & Minds,” was organized and hosted by the WGAW’s Publicity & Marketing Committee in partnership with American Cinematheque and event sponsor Final Draft. Moderator was TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz. Panelists, who collectively represented some of the most acclaimed shows and films of the past 30 years, included: Diane English (Murphy Brown), Susannah Grant (Confirmation), Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise), George Lopez (Lopez), Tom Musca (Stand and Deliver, co-written with Ramon Menendez), Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia), David Pollock (M*A*S*H), Scott Silveri (Speechless), Josh Singer (Spotlight), Lena Waithe (Master of None) and Brian Yorkey (13 Reasons Why).

“Their work has moved people to action,” said WGAW President David A. Goodman, kicking off the evening. “They unlocked uncomfortable truths that affect our daily lives.”

They did it, as most writers do, beginning with character, not cause.

“I didn’t approach Confirmation saying, ‘I really want to do something about those hearings,’” said screenwriter Susannah Grant, adding that she is often drawn to characters who are the underdogs that take on the status quo. “What I said was, ‘I think there’s a person there who we really haven’t seen.’ We saw the press footage of Anita Hill, but nobody saw what it took for her to make the decision as a 32-year-old law professor to say, ‘I have something to say about that nominee.’”

Murphy Brown creator Diane English said her approach to writing network television’s first powerful professional woman was an organic one. “When I write there’s a cumulative effect – something I experience in my own life that jumps out of my computer,” said English. “That’s how it works for me.”

Though the current political climate dominated much of the conversation, Thelma & Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri lamented, “I thought this territory had been covered 25 years ago.”

“It’s such a weird time now,” said Khouri. “There’s so much hate out there that it’s really bugging me. I’m so enraged all the time about what’s happening politically – watching women’s rights get rolled back – all the stuff we thought had been taken care of.”

(L-R) Ben Mankiewicz, Susannah Grant, Tom Musca, David Pollack, Josh Singer and
Brian Yorkey.
Photo: Michael Jones

Despite a somewhat bleak landscape, the writers agreed that progress has been made. When screen and television writer Ron Nyswaner wrote Philadelphia in 1988, no one imagined that gay people would ever have the legal right to marry.

“In 1988 AIDS was a death sentence,” said Nyswaner, who is executive producer of Homeland. “We said, ‘let’s make a movie about this. But let’s not make an art film that plays to liberal people who subscribe to PBS.’ The challenge was to get people to go to the mall and buy tickets to see a film about gay people dying of AIDS.”

Television writer Lena Waithe, who became the first African-American woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Comedy this year for Master of None, talked about the satisfaction she derives when people tell her their coming out stories.

“I try to honor every one,” said Waithe. “I think they’re all valid and poignant and courageous and beautiful. I also hear from a lot of parents who have young children who they feel might be gay, and they confide in me as well.

“I never thought I would tell my coming out story ever," Waithe continued. “But I’m glad I did it, not because of the success or even the award, but because society was longing for it. I didn’t even know that, but they needed to see a black queer woman who looks like me, who dresses like me, that walks through the world the way I do.”

But telling stories that shed light on political and social issues carries a burden of responsibility: you have to get it right. In portraying a teenager with cerebral palsy, Speechless creator Scott Silveri said he felt compelled to do a lot of research and to cast people with real disabilities on his show.

“That kept us on our toes,” said Silveri. “I have a brother who has a disability, but I did my homework to get inside the head of those who are an underexposed minority.”

The upside for a writer is that venturing into uncharted creative territory provides an opportunity to be the first to tell a story.

“You get to talk about something other people haven’t talked about,” said Silveri. ”I had written rom-coms for 22 years before this, and for the first time I was writing about a kid with a disability that was going mainstream.”

Spotlighting these kind of stories and the courage of writers who exposed truths, provoked conversations and inspired change, provided the impetus for the Groundbreakers event.

“The most effective films and TV shows are the ones that reach beyond the ‘choir’ and appeal to people who might not be as aware or enlightened about certain issues, and who see aspects of themselves in the characters they’re experiencing,” said WGAW Secretary-Treasurer Aaron Mendelsohn.