Sean Clements Turns the Subtitles On During the WGA Strike

Comedy Features Sean Clements
Sean Clements Turns the Subtitles On During the WGA Strike

For a decade, Sean Clements has had his knives out for Hollywood. He’s carved up the self-indulgent and egotistical personalities that populate showbiz alongside co-host Hayes Davenport on the podcast Hollywood Handbook. Both television writers, they put on buffoon personas of wannabe industry insiders. The satiric kabuki sometimes leaves the podcast’s own guests wondering “What just happened?” Their mimicry is done in intentionally contrived business and artistic vernacular that argues confidence and buzzwords are often a veneer for being completely full of shit.

The irony isn’t lost on Clements that for his new podcast Subtitles On, which is released on The Flagrant Ones’ Patreon feed, his gear shift to sincere discussion has turned him into one of the very things he’s skewered. Each episode dissects a film that addresses the profession of screenwriting, such as Barton Fink, State and Main, and Adaptation. His guests span the generational and professional gamut including: Broti Gupta (The Simpsons), Goldy Sharpe and Alec Sulkin (Family Guy), and David, A. Goodman (Golden Girls and co-chair of the WGA negotiating committee). Their conversations examine the depiction of screenwriters and often indulge in behind-the-scenes tales that include assuaging outraged celebrities and deploying a designated “truck conversationalist” to appease one particular star.

Paste spoke with Clements about the erosion of the writers’ room, loving Paul Thomas Anderson, and becoming his own punchline.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Paste Magazine: Tell me about what brought you to start Subtitles On.

Sean Clements: It was partially inspired by the WGA strike, which caused there to be a larger conversation around writing, the state of the industry, and the way the studios and executives treat writers. It had my head turning around all that stuff and I had additional free time because we’re not working. I’ll give credit to the Blank Check guys. I was loving listening to their show. The Action Boyz, too.

I really enjoy talking about a movie point-by-point. I didn’t go to film school. I don’t have the background or breadth of knowledge about film that a lot of my peers do and so I have felt sometimes unqualified. Even though I enjoy talking about it, I always feel like the people I talk to know more than I do. But because it’s the writers’ strike, I have an access point that was seeing how writers are represented on screen and how it is or is not reflective of my own experience and the experience of my friends, and how it’s reflective of the time in which it was made versus the state of the industry right now. These are things that I’m hopefully more qualified to talk about and don’t feel like as much of a phony as I would to just say this movie is “good” or whatever.

Paste: You started writing on network shows right before the streaming boom. How has your job changed in that relatively short span of time?

Clements: One of the first shows I worked on was Alan Gregory, an animated show on Fox. People largely don’t remember it and it was viewed as an abject failure almost immediately. It wasn’t that long ago, like 12 years or something. Within, I would say four years, the viewership numbers we got on a show that was DOA would be considered a runaway success. The diminishment of audience size on network television was so precipitous. I don’t think I knew right away that was tied to streaming, but obviously it’s all related. 

I just worked on a show for Netflix where I think the total viewership numbers would have been a massive success on network television at the time. I think the total number of people who will at least try a show on a streamer is huge. But because they have this unquenchable thirst for subscribers, content, and sustained viewership, that number is not considered a success now. So it does feel like I am constantly chasing this unattainable goal.

Paste: …the goalposts keep moving.

Clements: That’s a good way to say it. The goalposts keep moving. You were always looking two years back and going, “Oh, what we were doing then would be successful now.” Then I moved over to work on streamers at a time that also was in flux. You go, gosh, these numbers sound impressive, but their metric says “No, this is not enough.” 

The showrunner on Season 1 of Unstable on Netflix is also the creator of Santa Clarita Diet. He would say the whole reason I came to Netflix was to get away from the network development, notes process, focus groups, audience testing, and all that stuff. Netflix said, “We’re not going to do that, we’re not a TV company. We’re a tech company.” Which at that time was seen as a good thing. They said “We’re going to let the artists handle the art and we’re going to handle the infrastructure.” In a very short timeframe, they hired all of the same people that were overseeing the networks they had just destroyed. They hired them to do the exact same process.

I joke on Subtitles On how I’ve become the thing I mocked and it’s like the streamers did it, too. They were like “These networks are dinosaurs; they’re the old way of doing things and we’re gonna show them.” They took big swings and hit cool shows and then became exactly what they said they were there to replace.

Paste: What’s something that frightens you about the strike?

Clements: My career has primarily been writing for other people’s shows. It feels like what the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) wants, at least from some of the conversations so far, is to make that less of a viable career option. That being someone who staffs on shows will not be a way you can make a living in Los Angeles, have health insurance, and take care of your family. 

My fear is that the television writers room will disappear or will be further eroded, which I’ve already seen happening. That it’ll strangle the union to the point that we won’t have the health fund and all these things that make the union able to exist and do things like this labor action with any kind of legitimate power behind it.

Alan Gregory was seven episodes and I got over 30 weeks of work out of it. It was a lot to get on my first job and I got a ton of experience. On Kevin Can F*** Himself, the writers’ room was 12 weeks for eight episodes of an hour long show. Myself and the creator and showrunner we work beyond that, but for somebody who was on their first job, you don’t learn as much. It was also during COVID, over Zoom. There was no in-person interaction. You don’t make connections and you can’t make the same impression to further your career.

I would hate to be starting out now. I complain about the industry but I’m so fortunate and grateful to have been working already. A 25-year-old, first-time writer would need to get hired by two or three shows a year to make the same living that I made from working on one show six or seven years ago. I can’t imagine the pressure that someone feels who’s just getting in the door. It’s got to be really daunting and must not look like a possible path.

Paste: Can you tell me something that you feel you think is maybe misunderstood or unfamiliar to people about the WGA strike?

Clements: It appears possible that it’s a goal of the AMPTP to have it be that there is not a writers’ room when you sell a show. What the guild would like to do is codify when there is a show ordered to series, a writers’ room will be part of making that show. I don’t think it’s 100% necessary to a show getting finished, but it has a massive impact on the quality of the show that makes it to air. 

Say you sold a show and you’re gonna write most of the episodes. You’re going to outline the season yourself, hire one of your buddies to help you, and then farm out three of the eight scripts to other friends. The people who are just getting freelance scripts cannot sustain that as a career. If you’re just trying to collect scripts here and there, you’re never going to make your year in a way that allows you to live in this city. The idea of that happening is really scary to me. 

As I look back at what’s happened since I started, I worked with 12 writers and then on other shows, there were consultants coming in and there were eight to ten writers—even for shows that were only doing 10 episodes. Now there may only be six writers to do eight episodes and in a very short amount of time. 

I go, “Oh, they’ve been stress testing how small a group and how short an amount of time can they still get a finished product out.” If the answer is they can do it with two writers and 10 weeks, then that’s what they’ll do because that will be the most cost effective version. It won’t be in the service of making something good. 

That’s the scariest part to me. Not only because that’s what my career is, but also because I really love TV shows. I really want things to be made that are good and that I can enjoy and I’m afraid that that will not really exist if they successfully eliminate the kind of collaborative writing process that has existed on these shows for like 100 years.

Paste: One of the questions you ask on the show is “What are the lines that you wish you wrote?” Can you tell me a screenplay you wish you wrote?

Clements: The first one I watched the most in my formative years when I was starting to think “I want to do this and I want to work in this” was probably Boogie Nights. You read the script and it was like this new voice that exists. 

There’s so many little touches in the movie, like the status games John C. Reilly plays. It’s so funny and feels very human and well observed. You knew what these peoples’ internal lives were from what they were saying but it also had a style where things seemed like just slightly off from reality in a consistent way.

I have a project of my own that has a sports movie element and I was thinking about sports movies I liked and I just looked online and found the script for the Moneyball. I love that movie and every time I watch it, I’m like, God, it’s even better than I remember.

Paste: Philip Seymour Hoffman is great in both of those, because he can do anything, you know?

Clements: He’s a huge hero of mine. At the time he passed away, I wrote a little essay about it, on like Facebook. When I was getting sober in my early 20s, he was someone who was this really cool, great artist I admired who had gotten sober in his early 20s and done all this amazing, challenging, artistic work while sober. That was something I really needed to see at the time to know that like, you didn’t need to be destroying yourself in order to be a cool artist.

Kent M. Wilhelm is happy to discuss James Bond with you, regardless of your level of interest. He is a freelance multimedia film journalist whose insignificant brilliance can be found on Twitter @kw_hc.

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