Writers on the Line

On the Line
Signs of the Times
Alston Ramsay helps the WGA up its sign game, the Grishaverse invades Netflix, and lot captain Neil McNeil’s playlist powers Paramount
Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Alston Ramsay Signs Off

Alston Ramsay and Frodo.

When Alston Ramsay determined that he needed to up his sign game on the picket line, the WGAW member of three years was willing to put his mutt – and his money – where his mouth is.

A portrait of Frodo, Ramsay’s one-year-old Chihuahua-poodle-Pomeranian mix, adorns Ramsay’s custom made strike sign, under the message: “Studios Hate Puppies.” He crafted a similar sign with a photo of Masie, who belongs to Melanie Winter, a SAG member who Ramsay met on the lines.

Then Ramsay started to get really creative.

Using scenes from popular movies and TV series, he began blending the images with clever slogans and riffs: the wizard Gandalf warning the Balrog “You shall not pass…this picket line” or He Who Must Not be Named of the Harry Potter films accompanied by the message, “At least Voldemort paid his witches.” Over a weepy character from the series This Is Us, Ramsay came up with the line “This Is Us trying to pay our bills.”

Ramsay gets several blank signs directly from the Guild. After creating the graphics, he sends them off to a print shop and, once they come back, he delivers multiple versions of the sign to the corresponding studio where the film or TV series originated. Ramsay debuted a collection of new signs at the recent Lord of the Rings-themed picket at Amazon.

“I think a lot of the signs I’ve seen are hard to read because people have bad handwriting, and writers have particularly bad handwriting,” Ramsay said on the picket line at Universal, where he held both his sign and Frodo, its model. “We work in an industry that’s ultimately about the marriage of words and visuals.”

“We’re writers. We’re clever people, and we’re a lot more likeable than the studios," he continued. “We should make fun of our own creations at the studios that are screwing us.”

Prior to moving into the industry, Ramsay was a speech writer for many years in Washington, D.C. wrote and produced the independent feature Midnighters, and he has a TV series in development with U-TV on which, if it gets picked up, he would be a showrunner.

Until he can get back to work, he is happy to be contributing aesthetics of the picket line signage.

“I had creative energy, and I needed an outlet, and this was an outlet,” he said. “I’m good with graphic design, so I figured, why not?”

One of Alston Ramsay's signs.

See Photos from Tuesday's Picket Lines

WGA Writers are Bad to the Bone

Netflix Strike Captains Christina Strain, Shelley Meals, and Shadow and Bone author Leigh Bardugo.

Writers of all different disciplines are in unity with the WGA strike for a fair contract.

Young adult novelist Leigh Bardugo, author of the Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows series of fantasy novels (part of what is known as the Grishaverse), came to the Netflix picket line Tuesday. She arrived with merchandise for the fans, coffee and donuts for the picketers, and words of solidarity for striking WGA writers.

Bardugo joined event organizer and Netflix captain Shelley Meals, and WGAW screenwriter and WGA Negotiating Committee member Eric Heisserer, who developedthe Shadow and Bone Netflix series adapted from Bardugo’s novels..

“She believes in the writers, and she believes in our work stoppage,” Heisserer said of Bardugo, who is an executive producer on the series. “She knows that if we get a fair deal, we can get back to making Six of Crows and other books of hers.”

Drawing a parallel between the world of fiction writing and TV writing, Bardugo said that writers’ mini-rooms would be equivalent to forcing a novelist to string together five books in a single year.

“It can’t be done. That’s not the way creative work happens,” Bardugo said. “The idea that it’s something that can be churned out like a widget and then set aside, as opposed to something that needs to be adjusted and tweaked and cared for is absurd to me.”

Even with the strike seven weeks in, Heisserer said he is heartened to see morale and resolve among striking WGA writers staying strong on the picket lines.

“Anytime I feel like I start to lose some wind beneath my wings, I’m out again the next day, and there’s something about being around your fellow union member that reminds you why you’re doing this and that this is so much bigger than your own personal woes,” Heisserer said. “It’s soothing for me. It’s scary, but it’s scary for all of us, and there is a unifying element to that.

Shadow and Bone showrunner and WGA Negotiating Committee member Eric Heisserer at Netflix picket.

The Captain with the Hits

Paramount Captain Neil McNeil.
It’s not difficult to identify Paramount lot captain Neil McNeil. They’re the one constantly in motion.

“Very early on in the strike, I was coming out and mingling, and helping wherever I could, and people would come up to me and say, ‘You’re a natural at this. And I said, ‘I’m a natural at what? Dancing?’” said McNeil, taking a rare moment off his feet at their usual post in front of Paramount’s Motor gate. “I used to work in nightlife and bars before I got into the industry, so I’m used to keeping the energy up at 10 all the time.”

That go-go spirit that they display on the picket lines may be fueled by McNeil’s appreciation for the work of unions in general and for their conviction in the WGA’s fight specifically. The child of two New York Police Department cops and the sibling of a teacher, McNeil has educators, nurses, and fire-fighters throughout their extended family. “So my family is all union all the time,” they said.

Since joining WGAW less than a year ago, McNeil has witnessed first-hand the type of treatment that lower-level writers are facing. They've worked for shows that have experienced reduction in episode orders and cuts within the writers room.

“All of the scripts I’ve gotten have been as an assistant, so I’ve never actually reached staff level,” they said. “But all the rooms I’ve been working in and around have not really been staffing lower-level writers. They’ve been staffing mid- to upper-level writers, and it’s been hard to cross that threshold even on an established show where I’ve already had a script or two.”

“On a lot of the shows I’ve been working on, it wasn’t even a possibility to move up in the ranks. That’s a struggle that I and a lot of lower level writers have been facing,” McNeil continued. “There is no upward mobility, especially from the assistant to the writer level. So the staffing minimums are really ideal for us, and it’s creating this idea that you are going to try to bolster that talent. You’re going to try to promote from within and make sure that those people who have been training for five or six years are now working their way up the writer ladder.”

Making a living at McNeil’s level has not been easy, they said. McNeil put away some money and has been able to get in a freelance or odd job here and there, but they acknowledge that the summer ahead “is looking a little tough.”

“Even the residuals I do get are few and far between,” they said. “I’ll get a residual check and say, ‘Oh, that’s my gas money for the week’ and not, ‘Oh, I can pay my rent this month.’”

When the strike began, McNeil hit the picket lines on practically a daily basis. They were so enthusiastic and helpful that when the call went out for more captains four weeks in, a friend suggested McNeil step up. They did and have been moving the lines along ever since.

McNeil’s picket line musical playlist has become the envy of many of their fellow captains who joke that in their new career as a picket line DJ, McNeil has “opened” for Weezer and L.A. radio personality Big Boy, both of whom have appeared on the Paramount lines.

“It’s kind of controlled chaos, where it’s songs from the 80s and 90s all around and just kind of what the inside of my head feels like at any given moment,” McNeil says. “I’ll go from ABBA one minute to Kim Petras the next, and anything in between. I’ve been sending my Spotify list around, and making sure that everyone has it available, but truly it is the most chaotic mix of songs that is always playing the back of my mind.”

And as much as Paramount picketers may appreciate their efforts, McNeil is equally grateful to have the opportunity to serve.

“Being a captain is kind of being able to exert that energy, and not be cooped up in my apartment for hours on end going, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do,’” they said.