Over the past 30 years, PaleyFest has held panel sessions and screenings that connect the worldwide community of television fans with the casts and creators of their favorite TV shows. One of the drama series celebrated this year were the folks behind HBO’s The Newsroom, and Collider was there to get the updates on Season 2.
After giving a sneak peek at 10 minutes of the first episode of Season 2, airing sometime this summer, creator/writer/executive producer Aaron Sorkin, executive producer Alan Poul and actor Jeff Daniels spoke during the panel about why cable news was the right setting for this show, how much pressure it is to do a Sorkin monologue, how the show has polarized critics, and the unique way in which the show is shot, along with giving tidbits about the news stories they’ll be covering in the second season, more of the Don (Thomas Sadoski) and Sloan (Olivia Munn) relationship, and that Will McAvoy (Daniels) and MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) possibly getting together won’t kill the show. Check out what they had to say after the jump.
AARON SORKIN: I like to write very romantically, and I think that the news is fundamentally a noble calling. I think that we tend to be cynical about it today, and that, for me, is a really good recipe for people trying to do something well, in an environment that it’s really hard to do that.
How cynical are you about the news, based on all the research you did for the show?
SORKIN: One of the things I was really heartened by was that I met a ton of people and everyone said the same thing. After they talked about how difficult it was because of ratings and because of the corporate culture, everyone would say, “But, we’re still trying to do the very best that we can. We’re all doing this for the same reason everybody has been doing it for hundreds of years.” I liked that, and that was the spirit of our show.
Jeff, how much pressure do you feel when you get one of those Sorkin monologues, like the one you had at the beginning of the first episode?
JEFF DANIELS: First of all, Aaron had worked really hard on that. I think he rewrote it half a dozen times to get it just right. It was day three of shooting the pilot, and it’s also placed about five minutes into the first episode. So, I was very aware that where it was placed was where American would be sitting with their remote wondering, “Do I stay with this, or not?” And then, as we were driving up to the set, I got a ride with Aaron and, unsolicited, he said, “As important as this speech is to you, it’s twice as important to me.” So, there was a little bit of pressure.
SORKIN: It was a little pep talk.
DANIELS: But, that’s what you want. We all want that speech. The beauty of his writing is that he writes for actors. He writes scenes that you get to play and get your teeth into, and that was one of the great ones that I’ve gotten to do. We’ve all gotten those scenes and those speeches. That’s unusual in movies, television or on Broadway. It’s to be cherished. It really is.
SORKIN: That speech was the third thing that we were shooting, so everybody was getting to know each other. The speech was several pages long, and I like the sound of names and dates and places and statistics. It’s kind of a drum solo, in the middle of a speech, and that speech was stuffed with that. We shot it in an auditorium about half an hour away from College of the Canyons, and Jeff was sitting on stage alone. You’re never really sure if he’s happy or unhappy, and I didn’t know how to approach it, but I just wanted to assure him of something. I went up to him and said, “Listen, if you want, we can write it out on cards and have it off camera,” and the look he gave me was to never suggest anything like that again. And then, to make his point, he said the speech literally backwards.
ALAN POUL: It is entertainment, and I feel like that word gets abused a lot. There’s no message to the show. I do think Aaron has a romantic idea and a slightly utopian vision of what used to be. My job, in particular, was making sure we had all the details right, so that all the sets, all the performances, all the mechanics, and all the technological wizardry that we have to pull off to create a live newscast was 100% accurate, so that it has the look and feel of total verisimilitude. But, that doesn’t mean it’s a documentary, and that’s where I think some people get confused. It looks like news, it sounds like news, the set feels like news, so they think that we’re just trying to recreate the news, but we’re not. There’s something more being said.
SORKIN: Just to clarify the division of labor on the show, I write the show and Alan does everything else.
But, this show is so realistic because you are address real news stories.
SORKIN: With this, all I wanted to do was take the real world and the only change I wanted to make to it was to put this corporation that owns this cable news company, ACN, right in the middle of it. I wanted the news to be real, but to solve the problem of not knowing what the news was going to be, I set the show in the recent past. By doing that, it becomes historical fiction.
The critics came out in a uniquely polarizing manner, with this show. Do you care, or do you just pretend you never read reviews?
SORKIN: I’m not setting out to polarize people, and I prefer that everyone like the show, but I know that’s not going to happen. I hope that some of the critics who weren’t happy with the show in the first season take another look in the second and maybe reassess their opinion. But, I can’t think of anyone who’s ever won a fight with a television critic. I doubt I’ll be the first one, and I’m not even going to try.
Jeff, how badly did you want this role?
DANIELS: When I met with Aaron, I wasn’t leaving until I had it. At least, that was my intention. When you’ve been around for decades, when you get an opportunity to sit with Aaron and he’s going to go back to television, how lucky is television to have him lead that foray into wherever it is that his artistry is going to take it. That makes it about, “What do I have to do to get it?” So, I was desperate, but also more determined.
DANIELS: Yeah, I really am. I don’t watch dailies. I don’t pretend not to read reviews, I just don’t. I wait for it to come on the air, just like everybody else. I learned a long time ago that the show you’re going to see isn’t the one you have in your head. As soon as you understand that, you’re going to enjoy it a lot more. There are a lot of really talented people on this show, who don’t worry about improv. You learn it word for word. That’s how we do it on Broadway. But, we’re just the actors on this show. There’s no star school crap of, “Hey, I rewrote that scene.” There’s none of that. You don’t do that. You don’t go up to the directors and go, “Put a 75 on that. Take the 50 off.” I’ve worked with those assholes! Our jobs are to do Will, do MacKenzie, do Charlie. We come in and hit it as hard as we can, and hope we gave them enough to work with. That’s what this show is.
Aaron, what can you say about the stories you’ll be telling in Season 2?
SORKIN: Season 2 begins a week after Season 1 ended, and a week after Will went on the air and called the Tea Party the American Taliban, and it goes through just a little bit after the November election. There’s one story that’s running through the entire season. There’s actually more than one story that’s running through the entire season. So, we have the election, the primaries, the conventions, Trayvon Martin, the Supreme Court’s decision on the Affordable Care Act and drones. We just went up to Sandy Hook. Right now, I’m writing Episode 5 and I’m not 100% sure what I’m going to actually do with that. That’s a tough thing to write about without minimizing it, exploiting it or just spreading Cheez Whiz all over it. Newtown was a profoundly important moment to all of us, and the last thing you want to do is handle it poorly.
Are there any news stories that you won’t touch, for some principle reason?
SORKIN: If the only ways that I could think of a story would reduce it, then I wouldn’t do it. At the moment, I’m looking down the calendar at Sandy Hook and that’s my fear there. But, just on principle? No, I can’t think of anything.
Being the seminal story of the year, can you really have a Season 2 without covering Sandy Hook?
SORKIN: You could stop before Sandy Hook. That’s the only way you could do it. You can’t go until February and pretend that Sandy Hook didn’t happen, so I think the answer is no. But on the other hand, you’ve got to be careful. I’m sorry for the bad metaphor, but in doing a story like Sandy Hook, there are so many land mines out there to step on that you really want to make sure you don’t do a disservice to the story that I think was very important to all of us.
Will Don and Sloan’s personal relationship expand in Season 2?
SORKIN: If you’re a fan of Don and Sloan, I would definitely be watching Season 2. That’s really all I can tell you.
SORKIN: I do not think it kills the show, if they get together. I’m not telling you whether or not they do, but that’s something you’ve got to be careful with. If you keep dancing up to the fire and going make enough times, the audience will give up on you, so you have to calibrate that a little bit. But, I do not believe that a couple that’s together is any less fun, romantic or sexy than a couple that’s trying to be.
Aaron, are there things that make you angry that you haven’t written about yet?
SORKIN: There’s no question that anger is a great pension for writing, if you can harness it, but you’ve got to be careful with it, too. If that’s all it is, it can just end up like finger-painting, so I like to have my head on tight, if I’m going to be mad about something. But, it’s certainly easy for me to make a fictional character mad about something. I can get them angry about something that I’m relatively indifferent about, just because I’m not educated on it, if I go to someone who is educated about it and is passionate about it. I find a point of fiction and then give it to them.
Alan, can you talk about how this show is shot and edited?
POUL: The show is shot in a rather unusual way. We always work with multiple cameras. In general, rather than having our directors come in and stage a scene the way it’s in their mind, we try to let the action evolve organically, and then our cameras’ job is to figure out how to capture it. We’re very fortunate in that our director of photography is very great at lighting, so that we can shoot several directions at once. With our group scenes, the first thing we’ll do, every day, is just sit around in a circle and just read the words with Aaron, and figure out what the rhythms are and what the tone is. And then, when the director – whether it’s me or somebody else – starts to put it up on its feet, it’s really about, “What would you do? Well, what would you do?” We let everybody pretty much behave the way they would naturally, bringing their instincts to the scene. Of course, you have to make adjustments, but we figure out how to calibrate. So, doing that with multiple cameras and zoom lenses on very long pieces of track or board, our camera operators are able to follow the action in a more organic way, rather than forcing the actors to step into the camera. That gives you the sense of something that you’re overseeing, and it gives the show a lot of its sense of realism. What’s helpful with the performances is that, because we’ll have two cameras moving back and forth and zooming in and out, the actor often doesn’t know if it’s a wide shot or a close-up. These actors, because they’re so great, don’t say, “Where am I? Am I like this, or am I like this?,” because that will affect their performance. We give them space, and then we capture it.
SORKIN: No, I can’t imagine anybody else playing that role. And I don’t think we even thought of anybody but Jeff. I know we didn’t meet anybody but Jeff. Jeff had just finished up doing God of Carnage on Broadway, which Scott Rudin, our other executive producer, had produced, and it was Scott that suggested Jeff. I said, “Jeff is one of the greatest actors we have.” My only concern was that I had never met Jeff before, but the sense that I got from him, from everything that I’d ever seen him do, was that he was just a terribly nice guy and there was no way he was going to not be a terribly nice guy. I mentioned that concern to Scott, who must have somehow gotten that message to Jeff because, when it was time for our meeting, Jeff had to go, “All right, how big of a prick do you want me to be?”
The Newsroom returns to HBO this summer.