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'The Newsroom' creator Aaron Sorkin on Keith Olbermann and his return to TV
Why does the 'West Wing' vet want to tell stories set in the real world this time?
Aaron Sorkin loves television.
Though his career began as a playwright, though he has had a lot of success in writing for movies (including an Oscar for "The Social Network," a nominated script for "Moneyball" and an upcoming job writing a Steve Jobs biography), he keeps coming back to television — to write both for and about it.
His first series was the ABC dramedy "Sports Night," about a fictional rival to ESPN, the lives of the staff and what went into putting together a broadcast every night. His biggest TV hit, "The West Wing," wasn't about television — was, in fact, designed to show you the moments in between the moments that political junkies see on television — but his follow-up series, "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," went back to the "Sports Night" model as it depicted life behind the scenes of a long-running sketch comedy show.
"Studio 60" suffered from a variety of problems and was gone after only a season, but Sorkin is once again revisiting his favorite medium and favorite subject matter with "The Newsroom," a new HBO drama that debuts on Sunday at 10 p.m.
"The Newsroom" stars Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, a cable news anchor, once famous — and popular — for his refusal to express an opinion on anything. After a public meltdown, Will is goaded by his new producer (and ex-girlfriend) Mackenzie MacHale (Emily Mortimer) into taking a new, more high-minded and candid approach to the news. The series is set in 2010, which allows Sorkin to have Will and his team covering familiar real-life news stories like the BP oil spill or Arizona's immigration laws.
I spoke with Sorkin about his return to television, about once again doing a character who resembles Keith Olbermann, what it's like working without longtime directing partner Tommy Schlamme, and more.
My first question comes courtesy of Josh Malina, who wants to know, (a) why is he not playing the Olivia Munn part and, (b) can Steve Jobs be middle-aged and Jewish?
Aaron Sorkin: I will use Josh Malina any time. It wouldn’t surprise me if he showed up on "The Newsroom" or if he plays Steve Jobs.
This is, I think, your 4th different project about television if you count the Philo T. Farnsworth play. So what is it about the medium that you find so fascinating that you keep returning to and going behind the scenes in this way?
Aaron Sorkin: I think it’s been a slightly different reason each time. I do find television, live television particularly, and I’m going to use a word now you’ll probably hear me use several times during this conversation, just very romantic. It’s nostalgic. It kind of takes me back to a different time. I love that there is a clock on the day, that whatever it is has to get done by 8:00. I like writing about workplaces and workplace families. The stakes are high for all of them. They’re way up in a skyscraper in this tree house above the city broadcasting out into the night. I don’t know what it is. All those things feel very romantic to me.
Now when you did the research for "Sports Night," my recollection is that you were not actually able to go to ESPN and shadow them.
Aaron Sorkin: No, no. I did. I went to Bristol several times as a matter of fact. What I didn’t do, and you’ll see where this is going in a second, I never met Keith Olbermann. The first time I met Keith, the show was already on the air and he had gotten in touch with me because he was going to be in Los Angeles to see if he could come by and visit the set. Similarly, none of the characters in The Newsroom are based on or inspired by, even a little bit, someone from real life. I spent a couple of minutes when I was at Countdown, back when Keith was hosting Countdown at MSNBC, I spent a couple of minutes talking to Keith. But I spent most of my time there with associate producers, PAs, interns, and just hanging out and being a fly on the wall. And I did the exact same thing at CNN, CBS, FOX, every place. All of these characters are entirely a product of my imagination.
But it’s sort of funny. Given where your career was when you first came to TV and then now, and where Keith was in the ‘90s and where he is now, is there a part of you that feels like it’s not exactly Casey McCall 20 years later, but it could be?
Aaron Sorkin: I know what you’re saying. Yes, but the important things about Will, we’re going to start to learn in episodes two going on. His history, he’s damaged, the pain that he’s in, all of which by the way generally translates to comedy in the show. There’s a lot of romantic comedy on the show. But Will quickly distinguishes himself from other characters that I've written.
And again I’m not suggesting that it’s the same thing, but there are certain archetypal roles that you have from show to show. Isaac, and then Leo, and now Sam Waterston’s character, the romantic tension between Will and Mackenzie, etc.
Aaron Sorkin: I think that’s because I’m writing workplace families. That there’s a theme running through all of the shows, which is that--and some of the movies, too, that it’s alright to be alone in a big city if you can find family at work. You’re going to have a father figure, a big brother figure, and a big sister figure, but it’s nothing incestuous about it, but there’s also going to be romantic comedy among the people there. Again, they’re all in a trench doing something together that’s very important to all of them, that they’re all very good at.
Now, we know the state of cable news and what first Fox News did then how MSNBC followed them. When this show takes place, do you think there could be a cable anchor who succeeds by not giving an opinion? Because it certainly seems to me that people are now specifically looking to find someone who agrees with them.
Aaron Sorkin: Yeah. I’m not sure. That’s a very good question. It is for that reason that that character in his iteration in the first episode – he’s going to evolve – but the way we meet him, the Jay Leno of news anchors, a guy who has succeeded by not bothering anybody, and a moderate republican to boot. I haven’t seen that guy on TV; perhaps on network news, but certainly not in cable news. And I’m not even really sure where he is on network news. No. It may be that the biggest leap that we have to make is that there is a Jay Leno behind a news desk. I had to do that to him in order to, and again you’ll find out it’s important for anybody to keep their ratings high and to keep their audience. He has a personal reason for doing that, they’re his only friends. He doesn’t want to be abandoned. So he had to risk something in order to do what he’s going to do. So it was important for me to make him a guy who insidiously embraces the middle of the road and has perfected that. But that’s all going to come to an end.
Why did you decide to set it in 2010? It’s not a huge period piece. It’s only going back a couple of years.
Aaron Sorkin: Why did I decide to put it in the past?
In the past and dealing with real events, because on your other shows it’s been a parallel universe. I think Michael Jordan was mentioned once on "Sports Night," but you mostly used fake athletes or fake politicians.
Aaron Sorkin: Inventing the news on "Sports Night" was easy when we were hearing shards of the news broadcast. It will sound real if you say, "Now to the NFL injury report," and so and so on the New York Jets has a torn ACL, and that kind of thing. And then we cut away to something else. It legitimizes it and makes it sound like a real newscast. There was no way to do that with real news. It was, in fact, while I was at MSNBC. I think I was there for day 55 or day 56 of the oil spill, and I was staring at that spill cam. Remember the spill cam?
Aaron Sorkin: The underwater camera that gave us a 24 hour shot of the oil gushing out. I thought, “Here’s a way to do it.” Set the show in the constant recent past. Don’t invent any news. There’s no news on the show that’s invented. People play themselves in archival footage but there are no cameos of real people walking through the room. But they do play themselves in archival footage. No news is invented, just the characters, our characters are invented. I thought that’s going to be the thing that solves that problem, that gets me out of trouble. There’s been so much added value to it, it turns out, because I get to have the audience be ahead of the characters at certain times. If I want to, I get to have our guys be smarter than some of the real guys were, since now we know all the facts. I’ve got all the benefits of hindsight.
Okay. Does Will take away scoops that someone got at a certain point? How do you insert them into the stories? Sometimes reporters do become part of the story.
Aaron Sorkin: Yes. That doesn’t happen. For instance, in going back and researching how the BP spill was reported, it wasn’t until day three that it was being reported that the spill was a serious problem. So search and rescue mission until them. So I’m able to (create) this very fortunate combination of phone calls so that they’re chasing the right story two days before anybody else. If there was a reporter that got a huge scoop on something, I don’t. Because that reporter exists in our world, and I can’t say that Will got it when this other person really got it. On the other hand, in an episode in which Gabby Giffords is shot, NPR, MSNBC, I think CNN and I think FOX, all at one point reported that she was dead. I will show that happening. I’ll show there being a lot of pressure on Will to stay current, that these guys in the control room will flip the sound on it. We’ll see them reporting that she’s dead then make the decision to wait until we have confirmation from a doctor, that kind of thing. There’s a lot in hindsight that can make you look good.
It’s been a few years since "Studio 60" ended. You’ve been doing okay for yourself in the movies. What was the impetus to say, “I want to go back. I want to do this"?
Aaron Sorkin: I love series television. There’s just a different kind of story that you can tell on television. I love working with the same group of people every week. The invitation to come to HBO was irresistible, and work here. You could ask the question that you just asked to anyone involved in the show, this whole cast is in the middle of or at the beginning of very healthy feature careers. We kidnap half the cast off a Broadway stage. I’m really thrilled that they would want to come and do this show. God knows Scott Rudin is always producing five Oscar nominated movies at once. And he’s doing this show. I think that it was about 10 years ago or so that we started to blur that big brother/little brother line between features and TV, and I think it’s gone now.
Working a) on pay cable, b) without Tommy (Schlamme), and c) after this period where you’ve had this big movie success, has your process changed at all? Are you doing anything differently in terms of how you write and how you work?
Aaron Sorkin: If there’s a difference this time around, it’s that in the past I’ve written each episode by the seat of my pants. I would finish a "West Wing" episode and have no idea what was going to happen in the next episode, the possible exception of the last few episodes of each season where I had to lay the track to get to the season finale. In the case of The Newsroom, I knew where I was going before I started. We’ll see how that turned out, but it felt right while I was doing it. I liked knowing what I was doing while I was doing it.
Was it a mutual decision for you and Tommy not to team up, or was he just unavailable because he was doing "Pan Am"?
Aaron Sorkin: He was doing "Pan Am." I love Tommy, and I hope to work with him again, soon and as many times as possible. We were really lucky to get Greg Mottola for this. This show doesn’t quite look the same as the other shows. There’s a different shooting style to it. I think that fans of the walk and talk, you will find some of it there, not as much as there’s been in the past. People sit down a little bit more when they’re talking. I think that Greg, who did the pilot episode three and the season finale, and then also served as co-executive Producer, sort of teaching other directors, I think he did a magnificent job.
Did it take you any bit of time, though, to learn a common language? Having worked with the same director on every other TV show to that point?
Aaron Sorkin: It was an odd adjustment. Until the pilot of "The Newsroom" I had never made an episode of television without Tommy. I don’t think it took more than a day for me to fall in love with Greg, and for us to be having a great time.
Getting back to the idea of the stratification of cable news. It feels like it’s the chicken and the egg thing. Did Fox News and MSNBC rise doing what they’re doing, and that then in-turn made politics itself angrier? Or is it just reflecting what’s going on, where people only want to talk to other people they agree with?
Aaron Sorkin: There are people who can give you a much more informed answer to that question than I can. From my layman’s seat, it does look to me like it’s cable news that’s driving the polarization and the anger.
Surely an interest in cable and what’s going on has to fuel the idea behind the show. So you’ve been reacting. What was the point at which you said, “This is getting a little extreme here"?
Aaron Sorkin: I think it was the point at which suddenly facts were up for grabs. Jeff shouts that line in the pilot. People choose the facts they want now. That was it for me. The other thing was this, the idea that we, good people, people who were brought up right, are conditioned to believe that there are two sides to every story, that the truth lies somewhere in the middle, that there’s enough blame to go around, and you want to be a good person and stick to those things. Sometimes that’s just not the case. Sometimes there’s only one side to the story. Sometimes there are five. Sometimes the truth doesn’t lie in the middle. Sometimes the truth lies right here and the lie lies right here. I’ve found that the news is very bad at saying that. As Will and everybody talks about in the second episode, the news isn’t biased toward the left or the right, it’s biased toward fairness. It’s biased toward talk toward false equivalencies, false neutrality. They should use the world lie more often than they do. Someone makes the joke in the second episode that if the entire house Democratic caucus were walking to the capitol and say that the earth is flat, the headline on the New York Times the next day would read, "Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on shape of Earth." That it’s really okay for the news, when it comes to facts, to be a referee and say the facts are immutable and this is what they are. That statement was wrong.
You dabbled in the idea of the heroic Republican with Ainsley and then with Harriet in "Studio 60." Why did you decide Will is going to be a moderate Republican?
Aaron Sorkin: And again, I can’t emphasize this enough. It’s not the politics that are driving the show. It’s the characters, it’s their personal relationship. The political journey that Will is taken on is, he is a moderate Republican. He becomes horrified by what the radical right is doing. He doesn’t believe that he’s a RINO (Republican In Name Only). He believes that they’re the RINOs, just as I strongly believe that it should be moderate Muslims who are making the most noise about radical Islam. That it should be well-meaning, unbigoted Christians who are making the most noise about the Dobson’s. I believe it should be moderate Republicans who are making the most noise about the Tea Party, and so I wanted to dramatize that. Will thinks that as well, that if it’s coming from the left nobody’s going to listen. It’s a left/right thing, but maybe I can get a couple people to listen to me if I say, “I’m a Republican. This is why. This is what the Republican party has stood for. This is what Ronald Reagan stood for. This is what Teddy Roosevelt stood for. This is what Eisenhower stood for. This is what Nixon stood for. What they’re saying here has nothing to do with that."
Yeah. Will obviously gives the big speech in the opening episode and berates the poor blond girl —
Aaron Sorkin: The poor blond girl is going to do fine. I’m telling you, the punch line to that speech doesn’t come until the season finale.
Okay. HBO’s put out some trailers where you see Will doing some extreme things. He’s throwing the Blackberry. How do you view his character in terms of, obviously he is the hero of the show and he is on a journey, but he doesn’t get along with anyone. We’re told in the first episode how many bridges he’s burned.
Aaron Sorkin: All of that changes. We like a guy who tries and we like a guy who changes. Episode two, for instance, in the pilot you saw that he doesn’t know anybody’s name. Episode two begins with him at his dining room table studying, quizzing himself like they’re flashcards. He’s got everybody’s security ID, and he’s memorizing their names and their job titles. He’s very proud of himself. Now, it turns out he’s memorizing the names of people who no longer work there, but he doesn’t know that yet. He’s trying. And we like people who try.
Last one, going back to the beginning. Having done fake cable news, fake sketch comedy, and fake cable sports, what is the easiest in your mind to fake?
Aaron Sorkin: I’ve never in my life had an experience writing that was easy. I think they’re all tied for hardest.
But is there a trick where you say to yourself, “Alright. Now I feel like I have the essence of it, and I can have my characters be plausible as…”
Aaron Sorkin: Yeah. You know what you have to do is, there are a ton of little things. If I asked you right now, for instance, to imagine that CNN was up there, whatever CNN show is on right now. And I asked you to describe what does the screen look like to me, you’d be able to describe some of the things. You’d miss about five things. But if I showed it to you with those five things missing, you’d say that doesn’t look right. There’s something wrong there. That doesn’t look right. It’s the same thing with the patois, the language that they’re using. I did have to study exactly what it sounds like when these guys talk. This is the kind of show where the appearance of reality is very important. For my money, one of the greatest sitcoms of all time is "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." For the success of that show, we don’t have that that’s really how the 6 o’clock news is done. "Murphy Brown," we’re not really supposed to believe that that’s how "60 Minutes" is done at a linoleum table near the elevators. Those were comedy sets. There were a lot of doors. "M*A*S*H" on the other hand, while neither you nor I really know what an army hospital in Korea looks like, there was the appearance of reality. It was important to nail down. That show was going to have blood in it. It was important to make us believe that was a real place before we told any story, and certainly before we told any joke. Same thing with this, we need the appearance. I don’t care about reality at all, I care about the appearance of reality, and we create it with language and there’s a whole team of men and women led by one of our brilliant producers, Dave Henry, all they do is collect and build all the footage that’s pumped through all the monitors on the set every day, whatever day that episode takes place. Putting banners on it, lower thirds, building graphics that do all kinds of things. It does look like a news show. We’re proud of that.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com