Writers recruit Hollywood stars for silent protests

Some of the biggest actors in Hollywood are to support striking writers in a series of internet downloads due to debut on Thursday.

The cast list for the 21 spots, which range in length from a few seconds to several minutes, reads like a who’s who of liberal Hollywood. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Harvey Keitel, Martin Sheen and Ed Asner have all been filmed, and are joined by members of the casts of hit TV shows including Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty.

Forthcoming subjects include Woody Allen, Jane Fonda, Charlize Theron, Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman.

To accentuate the effect of the strike, which has seen film and TV writers picketing studios for almost three weeks, the campaign has taken its lead from one of the great communicators, the artist and occasional filmmaker Andy Warhol.

Titled Speechless, the short spots echo Warhol’s famous Screen Tests, which featured iconic figures of the late 60s filmed in black and white simply doing nothing. The inactivity of Warhol’s subjects, who ranged from Salvador Dalí to Susan Sontag, accentuated the intimacy of film and, in some cases, the discomfort of the subject.

In one, Sean Penn, who famously espouses liberal causes and is a relentless critic of the Bush administration, talks earnestly to the camera.
But his words are inaudible. Instead we hear birds chirruping and a stream babbling. The message is that without a writer, Penn has nothing to say.

That message recurs in all the clips. In another a voiceover recreates the opening spiel of the 1950s TV series The Naked City. “There are eight million stories in the city,” says the voice, as the camera pans across the Manhattan skyline, “and this is one of them.” The camera stops at the grizzled face of actor Harvey Keitel. But Keitel, writerless, has nothing to say, and merely squirms.

In a third spot, actors Susan Sarandon and Chazz Palminteri are engaged in a tense domestic drama, accompanied by crashing piano music. But instead of dialogue, the two merely say “Blah blah blah” to each other. It is surprisingly effective.

The spots were conceived by writer Alan Sereboff and documentary filmmaker George Hickenlooper, who wrote and directed the Warhol-themed feature Factory Girl, released in 2006.

Hickenlooper, a member of the striking Writers’ Guild of America, spent the first morning of the strike on a picket line in Los Angeles. But by the afternoon he and some colleagues had decided to put their time and talents to better use.

“I was on the picket line and I was surrounded by this incredible talent,” he said. “I was thinking there’s got to be a way to use the internet, the very medium we are struggling over, to express our position. Why not use that talent in our celebrity-obsessed culture? This is the first time in Hollywood history that A-list acting talent has taken its work straight to the internet. It’s a very powerful statement.”

Hickenlooper and screenwriter Alan Sereboff, together with producer Kamala Lopez put together a team that includes Paul Haggis, writer of Crash and Casino Royale, and a host of Hollywood’s leading writers and directors.

The initial concept of the actors standing silently before a camera holding a sign reading “Speechless” developed as filming progressed. By the second day of filming several scenes had been improvised, some included dialogue and a few ran to several minutes in length. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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