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The Newsroom - Excellent Aaron Sorkin interview

"If Josiah Bartlet on The West Wing was the Democrat that Democrats would love to see, I think that Will McAvoy is the Republican that Democrats would love to see."

Easy title, I know, but this interview of Aaron Sorkin, creator of The Newsroom, the exciting new HBO series starting on June 24, is really great. I selected the best parts in my opinion (I didn't select solely stuff about The Newsroom and yes, it's a really long interview), but you can the whole thing right here on Vulture.

— Will the news events on the show always be real?

The news events will always be real. To make the place seem real, you want to see shards of a news broadcast, you want to see them in rundown meetings, you want to see them doing the job, getting the news. With Sports Night, it was fairly easy to make up fake news that sounded real. All you had to do was say, "And now, the Jets injury report : So-and-so has a torn ACL", and you’d cut away. With real news, it wasn’t gonna be that easy. So the idea to set the show in the recent past happened out of necessity. But then it became a kind of creative gift. For one thing, the audience knows more than the characters do, which is kind of fun. And it gives me the chance to have the characters be smarter than we were, which is always nice. But let’s be really clear about this—no character on the show is based, even a little bit, on anyone from real life. Okay? Anyone. Jeff Daniels is not playing Keith Olbermann. Will bears no resemblance to Keith Olbermann.

— Could you make the case, looking at your shows, that the higher the stakes have been, the more successful the series? I mean, when it was all about the fate of the free world, the result was a show that changed TV drama in the late 90s. When it was only about making a TV comedy show, the result was Studio 60.

If you want to make that case, the evidence backs you up. But there are a lot of other factors that played into the success or failure of those shows. With Studio 60, I simply didn’t write it well enough.

— Did you feel that at the time?

Yeah. A baseball player or a golfer can tell you that the moment they hit the ball, they know what’s going to happen with it, just from the way it feels. I would know, while I was writing the script, that I was fouling it off, that I was not getting solid wood on it, as a baseball player would say. I spent that whole season trying to improve my swing. When you’re writing this kind of show, it’s unforgiving. There’s just a much narrower margin of error than if you’re starting off with a dead body and ending up with the person who did it. If you’re going to be as high-handed with your premise and conceit as I am with these shows, you have to write it really well. I didn’t with Studio 60. I didn’t, frankly, with Sports Night either.

— Really? A lot of Sports Night fans would disagree with you.

It’s a little bit like looking at my high-school-yearbook picture. There’s a lot of the writing that was annoying, and I know I could do it better today.

My daughter has been asking for a while to watch Sports Night. And I haven’t let her, not because there’s anything inappropriate in it but because I didn’t want her to be bored by it, which I thought she might be. We have a great time watching other shows. We’re both crazy about The Office and Modern Family. And I just had this huge fear that she was going to watch Sports Night and it wasn’t going to live up to The Office or Modern Family.

Chances are, it would be more successful today than when it was first on. But it was my first television show. I never really regarded it as a failure. It ran for 2 years, and as a playwright I feel, "God, you run for 2 years, you’re a giant hit". But the higher the stakes are in any storytelling, the better off you are. And I understand the criticism of Studio 60 that the stakes aren’t high in a world where the goal is putting on a funny show every Friday night. But I even think that, given that premise, if I’d written it better, I could’ve gotten on base.

— So, to extend your baseball analogy, was The West Wing your home run?

Solid double.

— Really? Just halfway home?

A solid double’s good! Listen, I love series television for many reasons, but the one downside is, if I'm writing a movie or a play and I’m not writing well, I call the studio or the producer and say, "It’s gonna be late. I’ve run into trouble, you’ll have to wait another month or two". You can’t do that when you're writing a television series. You have to write when you're not writing well. I wrote 88 episodes of The West Wing. One of them is going to be your 88th best. And I’m not good enough for my 88th best to be very good.

— I so want to know which episode that is!

I’m not going to tell you.

— But do you know?


— Do you have any regret about not having been able to stay with the show for the last 3 years of its run?

Yes. Sure.

— I’m not asking you to assess what the show became after you left.

I’m unable to, and I’ll tell you why. Less than an hour after the press release went out toward the end of season 4 announcing that Tommy Schlamme, our principal director, and I would be leaving the show, Larry David called me. I’d only met him a couple of times, we’d shaken hands. Larry had left Seinfeld early. And he called me and said, "You can never watch the show again. Either it’s going to be great, and you’re going to be miserable, or it’s going to be less than great, and you’re going to be miserable. But either way, you’re going to be miserable". I thanked him for his advice, but I thought, you know, Larry is kind of professionally miserable. So, the day before the season 5 premiere aired, a copy was messengered to me. I stuck the tape in, and I did not get even 60 seconds into it before I had to shut it off. Not because it was great, not because it was less than great, but because it was like watching somebody make out with my girlfriend. Other than those 60 seconds, which I can’t even really recall, I’ve never seen seasons 5, 6 & 7. I missed it terribly when I left. But it was the right thing to do.

— The point when you left The West Wing was the moment when the action in TV drama sort of shifted away from the networks. Do you keep up with cable?

I didn’t keep up as much as most people do. And then, once I knew that I was going to be writing a new TV series, I purposely stopped watching hour-long dramas, because I’m so easily influenced.

— Are you competitive?

I’m made to feel inferior. When I’m writing a movie, I do the same thing : I tend to stop watching movies. I feel like "Damn it, that was good, that’s what I’m supposed to be writing, I’m not writing anything like that".

I’m aware of what Game of Thrones is. I’ve been watching Girls and Veep from the beginning. And I think all these shows are great, and I think The Newsroom is nothing like them. I’m like a kid whose parents have just moved, and it’s your first day at a new school, and you’re certain that you’re wearing something that makes you look like you’ve got a sign around your neck saying, "I'm the new kid and I don't know what I'm doing". That’s how I feel with a new TV show. That there’s something glaringly wrong about it.

— It’s a big difference writing for cable rather than network television.

There are no language restrictions. That’s not something that I tend to take advantage of a lot. There are certainly moments throughout the series—

— Will curses effectively.

I like that the full range of language is available to me. I’m not Mamet, I’m not David Milch. I’m saying this admiringly : these guys are able to compose concertos out of just saying "motherfucker". My jaw is on the floor at how good they are at that. On The West Wing, which is a show that got a lot of its juice from showing the president as a human person, it would have been nice if, once in a while, he had gotten to say, "What the fuck are you doing?", something we never hear a president say.

But that’s not the big advantage. It’s the other ones. Television tends to have a very passive relationship with its audience. Television is something you have on to keep you company. It’s something you’ll have on while you’re flipping through a magazine, cooking dinner, talking on the phone, putting the kids to bed. The stuff that I write doesn’t really work well as background music. You want people to watch it the way they’d watch a movie or a play. HBO's audience is already conditioned to watch things that way.

And there are no commercial breaks, so you’re not, every 8 minutes, building to a sort of phony climax. Fewer episodes per season, so you’re able to do a better job on each episode. There’s another advantage that nobody ever talks about. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is. And it’s end credits. Why are end credits a big deal? Because no matter what you write, the last moment is meant to resonate. And with HBO or any of the premium cable channels, it does. You have music playing, you have end credits rolling, the audience has a moment to sit there and just kind of feel the way the storytellers are hoping you’ll feel. On network TV, the last line of the episode can be, "Mrs. Landingham is dead". And then we cut immediately to a Nokia commercial. And so I always felt like the episode was getting punched in the face right at the end.

Finally : All 10 episodes will be completely finished before the first one airs. And what’s good about that is, you’re in the middle of a season, and you start hearing from everyone from your neighbor to your mother to critics, people who write about television. And you find yourself starting to write to change their minds. You can’t do that here—you’re all in. There can’t be any changes based on what anybody thinks.

— 2 years ago, you said that one of the frustrating aspects of Studio 60 was that people would do critiques of the show literally every week, in real time. But since then, that has exponentially increased.

I love that. That people are writing about TV and talking about TV, bad or good, gets it out of the background-music realm. So while my first choice would be that they’re saying good things, my second choice would be that they’re saying bad things, as opposed to nothing at all. But the healthy thing to do, just as a quality-of-life issue, is to leave it to others to discuss.

— Have you ever felt like you wanted to be a sideline coach for Obama?

There have been times when I have wished that I could make a rhetorical suggestion. For instance, you need the wealthiest people to pay higher taxes. Why not frame it as a patriotic sacrifice? Why not say that for generations now, it has been mostly the sons and daughters of working-class families who have fought our wars for us, with many of them paying the ultimate sacrifice? This is a national emergency now, because of what happened in 2008, and we’re going to call on a different group of Americans to make a patriotic sacrifice. We need you, for a certain amount of time, to pay an additional 4%, to simply go back to the Clinton tax rates. It’s not going to hurt, and we’re all going to appreciate it. Why not sell it that way? I would have suggested that, but there would have been nineteen people in the room smarter than I am. I don’t believe for a second that nobody thought of that. I just believe I’m not smart enough to figure out the reason it wouldn’t work.

— Are addiction and recovery something you’ve got in your back pocket for an upcoming season? Or are you writing about addicts in your own way already, because so many of your central characters are adrenaline junkies?

Well, as an actual drug addict, I can tell you that that’s something different than being an adrenaline junkie or a workaholic. I wrote a little bit about addiction on The West Wing, a bit about addiction on Studio 60. I may do it again. But first of all, I wouldn’t want anyone to think that I was writing auto­biographically. I don’t want people thinking about me when they’re watching "Oh, I wonder if that happened to him" or "He’s writing about himself, it’s not really about the character".

— What do you think it means when someone calls a piece of writing "Sorkinesque" or "signature Aaron Sorkin"?

[Laughing] I know that sometimes it’s a compliment and sometimes it’s not. I can’t write like someone else. I can only write the way I write. I guess that’s all I’ll say. It’s ironic, because when I started out writing, I was trying to imitate everybody else’s writing. But pretty early on, as early as A Few Good Men the play, not even the movie, people in the cast just joked around, trying to imitate the style, and then I’d find that critics who’d write about the play : the words "snappy" and "crackling" would be used a lot. And as time has gone on and I’ve written more, it’s just followed me around.

— Have you ever had a hard time imagining what certain characters would sound like?

You know, when I sat down to start writing The Social Network, I was aware that I was writing about younger characters than I had written before. And I was kind of choking on, I’ve gotta make them talk like 19-year-olds. I tried about a page and a half of that, and it was horrible. I can’t write like someone else. What’s going to distinguish the characters isn’t what they sound like. And it’s okay. With this kind of writing, you don’t want to tell the audience who the character is, you want to show the audience what the character wants.

— It’s interesting to me how often your work keeps intersecting with reality, with real-world stories, because you keep saying it’s not what you want to be doing.

I know. I’ve been saying I want to get out of the nonfiction business for a long time, because your hands are tied when you’re doing nonfiction. And just when I think I’m out... But good things keep coming along. And there’s something exhilarating about it to me. Something exhilarating about taking nonfiction and making it something other than journalism.

— And if we change the title "The Portable Aaron Sorkin" to "The Complete Aaron Sorkin", covering everything until you die, what percentage of the book is still blank?

I hope most of it. It was always meant as a compliment, but twice now, someone has said to me, “This is going to be the first line of your obituary". It happened during The West Wing, and it happened after The Social Network. I hope the first line of my obituary hasn’t been written yet.

— Would you like to write it now? I promise we’ll try not to run it for a really long time.

I hope whatever it is, it contains the words in his sleep.

To read the rest, as I said before, go to Vulture.

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