This article appeared in Written By magazine, the magazine of the Writers Guild of America, west. In it, I discuss the ad campaign I created for the WGA. See all the ads here.

 

Somebody Wrote Those

Written by Scott Roeben

Writing the "Somebody Wrote That" image campaign has always been the most enjoyable part of my job at the WGA. Since the series began, there have been 10 ads, all intended to connect the images on our movie and television screens with the words that gave them life. Choosing the moments to feature in the ads has been a challenge because there are just so many to choose from. Here's how the most recent ad was born.

I came across an Esquire magazine article in which the writer, Tom Carson, revisited The Great Escape [screenplay by James Clavell and W.R. Burnett, based on the novel by Paul Brickhill]. He praised The Great Escape for all the reasons I love the film: the gadgets, the action, the triumph of will over insurmountable odds. Carson focused on the famous bit of business Steve McQueen (as the Cooler King) does whenever he's thrown into solitary confinement—his baseball becomes a symbol of his defiance of his Nazi captors: "When you think of all the tiresome speeches about man's indomitable spirit that the sound of [the baseball] going ca-thunk makes unnecessary," Carson wrote, "you're helplessly grateful to whoever thought it up. For all I know, McQueen did; he could be shrewd about what worked for him."

That comment definitely got my attention. After all, I spent five years in the Guild's Public Affairs department as part of the team charged with "fighting the good fight" on behalf of writers. In that capacity, it becomes second nature to keep an eye out for slights to writers, and unfortunately there's no scarcity of those.

I decided to investigate Carson's comments further and sought out the script for The Great Escape. As I began to page through, I was overcome with a nagging sensation I didn't care for too much—the sensation that perhaps this time I'd be wrong. That business of throwing the baseball against the cell wall was just too natural, too spontaneous, to be scripted, right?

Even though I'd been surprised to find visual sequences spelled out with great exactness in the past, the sequence in The Great Escape was just too perfect and organic to have been detailed by the writers. Surely this was one of those moments improvised on the set, right? After a few minutes of scanning the script, I found the page that contained these words:

IN IVES' CELL--IVES
paces restlessly. Over comes a strange SOUND. A maddening, constant plin-plank-plonk-smack. Ives looks at the wall in exasperation, controls himself, resumes his pacing.

IN HILTS' CELL--HILTS
is sitting on the floor of the concrete walled cubicle playing a complicated game of rebound with his ball and glove. He is extremely skillful with the various ricochets, which set up a regular rhythm.

On the following page, that sound was repeated, with a slightly different spelling, but nevertheless it was there, "Plink-plank-plonk-smack." It's hard to express how utterly exhilarating it was to read those words. The writers not only described the business with the baseball but actually wrote out the sound.

The experience was a jarring (and humbling) reminder of why the "Somebody Wrote That" campaign inspired me in the first place. It came from a place of admiration and astonishment about the art and craft of scriptwriting. Somebody actually wrote that—even the part without words. Sure, dialogue is moving, and stories are wonderful, but there's something else writers don't get enough credit for.

Writers create pictures. (And, yes, sounds as well.)

Those sounds and images reverberate throughout our culture, and in cultures around the world, in the same way we want the tagline of the Guild's ads to echo in the halls of film schools, in production companies and networks, at film festivals, and in American homes.

Somebody wrote that.

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