The HBO drama series The Newsroom, from show creator/executive producer/writer Aaron Sorkin, centers on cable news anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), his new executive producer and former girlfriend, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), his newsroom staff (which includes John Gallagher Jr., Alison Pill, Thomas Sadoski, Dev Patel and Olivia Munn), and their boss (Sam Waterston). Showing the excitement and exhilaration that comes from getting breaking news on the air, it also illustrates the corporate and commercial obstacles along the way.
While at the HBO portion of the TCA Press Tour, Aaron Sorkin talked about writing for film versus television, addressed the criticism of the series, clearly defining characters so that you can then have them slip on as many banana peels as you want, that his writing staff didn’t really get fired for Season 2, balancing the comedy and drama, his decision to reference actual news events, and how the show will always remind a bit behind, so that it never catches up with current news. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
AARON SORKIN: You know, I don’t think I write differently when I’m writing a screenplay, as opposed to a stage play or a teleplay. Maybe if I were in a film class and there was time to think about it, we could point out differences. Mostly, the thing I know how to do most is write a play. I came up loving plays and learning about plays and writing plays. I actually feel like an outsider when I’m writing movies and television. By and large, what I’m doing is writing a play that a very brilliant director, like Alan [Poul] or David Fincher or Mike Nichols or Greg Mottola will come along and make visually interesting.
Even before the show debuted, there were some tough reviews out there, and some critics had some very pointed criticisms of the show. What did you think, when you saw those reviews? Would you consider changing anything about the show, based on what was said?
SORKIN: Well, we all know that there were critics who did not enjoy watching the first four episodes. Obviously, you’d prefer that the praise for the show be unanimous, but anytime people are talking this much about a television show, it’s good for television. It’s good for people who watch television. It’s good for the people who work in television. One of the nice, unintended consequences of working for HBO is that the entire season is written, shot and locked in the can, before the first episode airs. So, even if you are tempted to try to write a little bit differently to please people or change someone’s mind, you can’t do it. The season is done.
One of the criticisms of the show is that the female characters are not necessarily treated so well. How do you feel about that criticism, and do you think there’s anything to that?
SORKIN: Unfortunately, I can only speak a little to it just because there isn’t time to speak as much as I would like to. I completely respect that opinion, but I 100% disagree with it. I think that the female characters on the show are, first of all, every bit the equals of the men. They are not just talked about as being good at their jobs. We plainly see them being good at their jobs, beginning with the first episode. The only reason the show is happening is because MacKenzie (Emily Mortimer) comes along, grabs everyone by the throat and says, “We are going to do better.” And then, we see her thrust into a breaking news situation, which she handles beautifully. When we meet Maggie (Alison Pill), she’s one of the few people staying behind. Why? Out of loyalty to Will (Jeff Daniels). When we meet Sloan (Olivia Munn), we are told that she could be making a lot more money working on Wall Street. We see her get offered a job in primetime, which is a great career step, and her first reaction isn’t, “Yippy, I get to be in primetime.” It’s, “I think it’s fantastic that we are going to be doing more in-depth economic coverage in primetime. Let me give you a list of my teachers who are better qualified to do this.” These and many, many other qualities of caring about things other than yourself, of reaching high, of being thoughtful, curious and plainly smart, and of being great team players, are what define these characters. I’d say the same thing about the actresses playing them. Once you’ve nailed that down, you can have them slip on as many banana peels as you want. That’s just comedy.
SORKIN: A couple of weeks ago, an unsourced and untrue story appeared on the internet. That then got repeated, all over the place. So, I want to be as clear as I can possibly be about this. The writing staff was not fired. Just seeing that in print is scaring the hell out of the writing staff. They are acting very strange. They are coming to work early. They are being polite to me, and I want the old gang back. I love the writing staff. I thought that we did great this year, and it’s a fantastic group of men and women to come to work with. We have a ball. With series television, at the end of each season, you get together with the producers and with the department heads, and you talk about ways that you can get better. And so, a couple of staffing changes were made that included promoting our two writers’ assistants to story editors, skipping over the rung of staff writer. But, even more important, other than that, the writing staff was not fired. I’m looking forward to coming back to work with them, in a few weeks. The major change that we are making to the staff is that, this year, we’ll have paid consultants on the staff. For the first season, it was on a voluntary basis, and they did great. But, I am hiring a range of paid consultants from television, print and online media, representing every part of the ideological and political spectrum that you can imagine, and I think it’s going to be a big bonus for the show.
In terms of balancing comedy and drama, which is something you’ve done often in your career, how do you strike that balance where you’re going for comedy without necessarily selling out a character, especially when it comes to MacKenzie?
SORKIN: I think I do it by first nailing down the things that are important about the character. For instance, in Episode 2, Will has got cold feet. He says, “No, we’re not opening with the BP spill. The BP spill is going second because there’s a bigger story today. I understand that there’s good film on it.” And she says, “We don’t do good TV. We do the news.” She’s got the whole meeting with the staff, in which she’s extremely deft and a great leader. So, once you nail that down, for me, it’s permissible to have her hit “send all,” instead of just “send,” and make a mistake that I know I’ve made and other people have made, a million times, with an email. I disagree that all she does is apologize to Will. I think Jeff [Daniels] would disagree too. In that same episode, even when she blew the broadcast, or at least takes responsibility for blowing the broadcast, she doesn’t let a single lash of the whip fall on anyone else. These characters take full responsibility. Even when she’s done that, she rips Will apart, at the end, for what she sees as pandering.
SORKIN: The reason I did that was simply because I didn’t want to make up fake news. I didn’t feel like we would be able to relate to that world, in which not only wasn’t the news that we’re all experiencing together being presented, but a whole different world was being presented, in which we just invaded Japan, or something. So, I set the show in the past, so that I could use real news. I didn’t do it so that I could leverage hindsight into making our characters smarter at stuff, even though it’s seemed that way, from time to time.
Going forward, when the news starts to catch up with the timeline of the show, are you going to start making up news?
SORKIN: No, we’ll never make up news. We’ll always be roughly the same distance behind. Season 2 will be back on the air again in June, and I’m just now beginning to map out, in my head, where we’re gonna be. We’ll always be anywhere between 9 and 18 months behind.
SORKIN: I have exactly the same ability to comment on how the news should be covered, as I have in how to create Facebook, or how to run the Oakland A’s, or how to get the communists out of Afghanistan after they invaded in 1979, which is to say none. It’s not a chance to do that. What it is, is a chance to do what I love doing, which is creating a workplace environment that becomes a workplace family, where everybody is a team and working towards a goal that, to me, feels noble. The Don Quixote metaphor isn’t for nothing. We stick to it pretty closely. These are people reaching unrealistically high, and they’re going to fall down a lot. Those are the things that I love about writing romantically and idealistically. It’s by no means a review of how the news was done.
The Newsroom airs on HBO on Sunday nights.