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Aaron Sorkin: The Writer Behind 'The Newsroom'
Originally published on Thu December 27, 2012 9:18 am
As part of our year-end wrap up, we are sharing the best Fresh Air interviews of 2012. This interview was originally broadcast on July 16, 2012.
Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama The Newsroom follows the inner workings of a fictional cable network trying to challenge America's hyperpartisan 24/7 news culture. It's a typical Sorkin drama, complete with fast-paced dialogue, witty scenes and a strong ensemble cast.
So why a newsroom?
"It suits my style," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I like writing about heroes [who] don't wear capes or disguises. You feel like, 'Gee, this looks like the real world and feels like the real world — why can't that be the real world?' "
In Sorkin's latest fictional world, Jeff Daniels stars as anchorman Will McAvoy, who tackles hard-hitting news stories and calls out those who don't tell the truth. The show follows McAvoy but also pays close attention to the bookers, producers and editors who work behind the scenes to get their nightly broadcast ready for air.
Before writing the show, Sorkin spent two days on the set of Countdown with Keith Olbermann to get a sense of how a newsroom works. While there, he observed producers getting ready to cover the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and got an idea for his own show.
"I realized I could set the show in the recent past," he says. "My big worry was making up the news — writing fictional news — because it was just going to take us too far away from reality. ... But [setting the show in the recent past] became the gift that kept on giving. Because you have the fun of the audience knowing more than the characters. ... I know that this device has bothered some people who think that I'm leveraging hindsight into a way to make my characters stronger. That wasn't the idea."
Reaction to the show has been polarized. Some TV critics have loved the show, while others have said it's sermonizing.
"I think that the critics and the audience who are reacting as hostilely to the show as they are, part of the reason is because they think that I'm showing off an intellect and an erudition that I don't have," says Sorkin. "I'm not pretending to have it. I know that I don't have it. I phonetically create the sound of smart people talking to each other. I'm not one of them. The characters I create would have no use for me."
On writing about journalism
"I like writing idealistically and romantically, and if you can do that in a place that's usually looked at cynically — the way journalism is now — you can get something fun out of it."
On talking like his characters
"I haven't met anyone who can. When I write these things, I'm alone in a room for a very long time, and I get to rewrite them, and I get to think for a long time about what's going to be said. If I get on a roll, then I can write a conversation like that without stopping, but I can't do it when talking to a real person, like you. That's not who I am in real life."
On his influences
"I've been influenced by so many writers, just the fact that the dialogue has to sound like something, whether it's Mamet or Pinter or Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. I like writing things that are fun to say."
On the walk and talk
"Television is a visual medium. You have to create some kind of visual interest. And it's entertainment for your eyes."
On cocaine-fueled writing binges
"Early on, I was using cocaine to write. I was snorting it. It gave me a lot of energy. It gave me a lot of confidence. You think everything you're writing is brilliant. Everything was also hundreds of pages longer than it needed to be. I was able to write from sunset to sunrise.
"Something about the dirtiness of it makes you feel like an artist. Once I started freebasing — I don't know what other people's experiences are, but that wasn't a party drug for me. That was something I did absolutely alone. I couldn't have possibly written a work when I was smoking cocaine. It stops you. But my big fear, I know that when I was going into rehab, I was wondering whether I would be able to write anymore. I was terrified of not being able to write without cocaine.
"This very nice writer called me from out of the blue and said, 'I know you're worried about that. Don't worry about that.' And of course, they were right. It takes awhile to make the adjustment, to get used to writing clean. But it takes a little while to get used to doing anything clean once you've been using cocaine for 10 years."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week we're featuring a few of our favorite interviews of the year, and up next we have our interview with Aaron Sorkin. He's the creator and writer of the new HBO series "The Newsroom," which premiered this year. Sorkin has been known for his verbal fireworks ever since he wrote Jack Nicholson's famous line - you can't handle the truth - in "A Few Good Men."
He created the series "The West Wing," won an Oscar for his screenplay for "The Social Network," and co-wrote the film adaptation of the book "Moneyball." Sorkin's series "The Newsroom" is set at a fictional cable news network and stars Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy, a news anchor who gives up his straight-down-the-middle approach for a more hard-hitting show that will, as his producer says, speak truth to stupid.
"The Newsroom" is set in the recent past and draws on real news events, but the characters are fictional. In this scene, during the 2010 midterm election campaigns, Will McAvoy interviews two leaders of the fictional group The Riley County Tea Party Express.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE NEWSROOM")
JEFF DANIELS: (as Will McAvoy) You describe the Tea Party as a grassroots movement, right?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Absolutely. We have no central control, no traditional power structure, and that is something that seems to confound the media.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) I'm sorry?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) That's what confounds the media. It's what the media doesn't get. We are not being run by a George Soros-type figure. We are we the people.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Where does your funding come from?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) What little funding we have comes from private citizens who mail in $5, $10, $1, whatever they can spare.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) OK, have either of you ever heard the name David Koch?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) I'm sorry?
AARON SORKIN: (as McAvoy) David Koch.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) No.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Have you ever heard the name Charles Koch?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) No.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) Have you ever heard the name Koch Industries?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Are you talking about Coca-Cola?
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) K-O-C-H. Have either of you heard of Koch Industries?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) No.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) I think that very soon you will. Koch Industries is the second-largest private company in the country, bigger than Coca-Cola, and the Koch brothers' personal wealth of $50 billion is exceeded only by Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, and they could buy and sell George Soros 10 times over. They own dozens of companies and industries, including oil and gas, refining and chemicals, minerals, fertilizer, forestry polymers and fibers and ranching.
(as McAvoy) You two both attended the Texas Defending the American Dream Summit over the July 4th week?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Yes.
DANIELS: (as McAvoy) That summit was paid for entirely by Americans for Prosperity, AFP, which has two founders, David and Charles Koch. In the last six months, they've bankrolled Tea Party candidates in excess of $40 million. Cheryl(ph), Mike(ph), are the Koch brothers average Americans whose voices are being drowned out by lobbyists and special interests? I'm confounded.
GROSS: Aaron Sorkin, welcome to FRESH AIR.
SORKIN: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: I've got to say I'm really enjoying the show. It's, like, so much fun to me to watch a series where there's drama about booking guests and conducting interviews.
GROSS: So what about you? Why did you want to, like, set a show in a newsroom?
SORKIN: I like writing idealistically and romantically, and if you can do that in a place that's usually looked at cynically, the way journalism is now, you can get something fun out of it.
GROSS: Why do you like writing idealistically? Another example of that would be "The West Wing."
SORKIN: Sure. It suits my style. I like writing about heroes that they don't wear capes or disguises. It's aspirational. You feel like, gee, it looks like the real world and feels like the real world. Why can't that be the real world?
You know, in this case, throughout the series, really, the metaphor of Don Quixote is used, a metaphor, all kinds of lost imaginary cities are used. The name of the company is Atlantis. They talk about Camelot. They talk about Brigadoon. And the show was meant to be a fantasy set against very real and oftentimes very serious events.
GROSS: So in this interview that you and I are doing right now, I get to ask the questions, you get to give the answers. In the interview clip that we just heard from "The Newsroom," you got to write the questions and the answers.
SORKIN: That's the great part about being a writer: You get to decide what everybody says.
GROSS: Yeah, so tell me how you wrote that interview.
SORKIN: What I did with that interview, which is what I do with every interview like that on the show - first of all, I just want to make it clear, real people don't make cameos on the show. They only appear when they're in news footage. And, you know, we'll roll tape of plenty of real interviews and real statements.
When I'm making up a person in order to represent people, for instance those two people in that clip, they're from the Riley County Tea Party Express, which is fictional. But what I do is I look at a ton of interviews with Tea Party people that were conducted, and I try to as fairly as I can take their answers to questions.
And then what I'll do is I'll have Will ask the follow-up that was never - that I thought was never asked. In the episode a week ago, which is the episode where that scene took place, in Episode 3, Sam Waterston's character tells us that the idea is that Will is a fantastic prosecutor and that they're going to harness that strength and that the studio is going to become a courtroom and that he's going to treat guests like they're witnesses on a stand. And I like that because I like writing courtroom drama.
GROSS: Right. So I know you know Keith Olbermann and that "Sports Night" was inspired by the show Olbermann used to co-anchor, "SportsCenter," and a lot of people assume that he's one of the inspirations for your new show, which you've denied. You also know Lawrence O'Donnell because he used to be a consultant, right, on "The West Wing," and he anchors a show on MSNBC.
So how much time did you spend at MSNBC in doing the research for your new series?
SORKIN: I've met Keith Olbermann. I don't know Keith Olbermann. We've met twice. He - once "Sports Night" was on the air, I got a call from him asking if he could visit the set, and that was the first time I met him. And the second time I met him was when he was really gracious. He allowed me to hang out at MSNBC when he was the host of "Countdown" for a couple of days.
And I just spent time being a fly on the wall, mostly speaking with junior staffers. You know, all I knew was that I wanted to do a show set in a newsroom. And I didn't know anything more than that. And my big worry was making up the news, writing fictional news, that it was just going to take us too far away from reality.
And I didn't want to have to make up news events, make up an earthquake someplace, make up an assassination attempt, make up a stock market crash, that kind of thing. I did want it to be set against real news events.
But I was sitting at "Countdown," and I was on my second day there, kind of despairing because I was about to give up on the idea, but while I was thinking that, I was staring at a monitor. And the monitor was showing - I don't know if you remember the spill cam, it was an underwater camera attached to BP Deepwater Horizon that could show you 24 hours the oil spilling out of there. And this was day 55 of the oil spill.
And I was sitting there staring at it, and that's when I got the idea that I could set the show in the recent past. Now, originally all that was was something that solved the problem that I was having: Here's how you don't make up the news, set the show in the recent past.
But it's sort of a gift that kept giving because you have the fun of the audience knowing more than the characters do. In the pilot episode, for instance, when they get the news about two-thirds of the way through that there's been this explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, and nobody quite knows what's going on, the audience wants to shout at the screen: This is a real story, take this seriously, I know what the end of this is going to be.
I know that this device, the dramatic device of setting the show in the recent past, has bothered some people, particularly people in the news, who think that I'm leveraging hindsight into a way to make my characters smarter. That - again, that wasn't the idea.
I'm aware that I get to control everything that happens in my universe, in my fictional universe, and in real life, people don't get to control anything that happens.
GROSS: We're listening back to my interview with Aaron Sorkin, the creator of the HBO series "The Newsroom." He also wrote the movies "Moneyball," "The Social Network" and "A Few Good Men." We'll talk about his NBC series "The West Wing" after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Aaron Sorkin. He created the HBO series "The Newsroom," which premiered this year, and he created "The West Wing," which was famous for its smart, witty dialogue and hyper-verbal characters. This is an example of the kind of (unintelligible) scene that became known as the walk and talk. Here's Rob Lowe as Sam Seaborn, the deputy White House communications director, walking through the West Wing talking to Charlie Young, a personal aide to the president played by Dule Hill.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "THE WEST WING")
ROB LOWE: (as Sam Seaborn) Charlie, listen, how do I look?
DULE HILL: (as Charlie Young) You look good.
LOWE: (as Seaborn) I went to the gym. I rode the bike, had a shower and shave, even got my shoes shined, too. You know why?
(as Young) Sam....
(as Seaborn) I'm going to the Beijing Opera tonight, which I imagine will be excruciating, but I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway.
HILL: (as Young) Sam, tomorrow is the assistant transportation secretary's 50th birthday, and Leo wants you to write a message from the president.
LOWE: (as Seaborn) He wants me?
HILL: (as Young) Yeah.
LOWE: (as Seaborn) He wants me to write a birthday message to the president?
HILL: (as Young) Nancy Becker(ph) needs it tonight.
LOWE: (as Seaborn) Are you sure he doesn't want someone who, you know, isn't staggeringly overqualified for the job?
HILL: (as Young) He specifically asked for you.
LOWE: (as Seaborn) What time is it?
HILL: (as Young) Ten after seven.
LOWE: (as Seaborn) Somebody, anybody, write a two-page memo on the personal history and professional accomplishments of the assistant secretary of transportation. I've got this under control.
GROSS: A lot of the dialogue in "The West Wing" became known as the walk and talk, where two or more of the characters would be talking to each other, exchanging strategy or whatever, as they walked through the hall. And, you know, in reality a lot of this dialogue would probably be, a lot of these conversations would probably be held behind closed doors, as opposed to in the hallway. So how did the walk and talk come into being?
SORKIN: I'll tell you exactly how. First of all, I don't write a lot of action. My first movie was "A Few Good Men," which was based on my first play. And there's a scene in the movie where Tom Cruise is in his car, he pulls his car over to the side, to the curb because he wants to hop out and buy a copy of Sports Illustrated at a newsstand. He does. He hops out. He buys the copy of Sports Illustrated at the newsstand. He gets back in his car and he drives off. That is my action scene. That's as close as I've come to writing an action scene.
SORKIN: And because there's very little of visual interest in what I write, visual interest has to be created. And it was created by Thomas Schlamme, my partner on "The West Wing," the principal director of "The West Wing," the guy who came up with the look for "The West Wing," and it happened right off the bat in the pilot episode.
What I had written was a series of scenes in different rooms in the White House all involving John Spencer, who played Leo McGarry, the chief of staff. And Tommy came to me about two days before shooting began and said listen, I want to walk you through something because I'd like to try doing this in one, as it's called, in one continuous shot using a Steadicam, that Leo - John Spencer - can go from this room into this room, do this thing here, stop at Josh's office, walk through the corridor, come down here, do this here, and finally we sneak a peek at the Oval Office and we walk through here.
And Tommy choreographed the whole thing and that was the day the walk and talk was born.
GROSS: So there was a really funny parody of the walk and talk on "30 Rock" and you were in this scene.
SORKIN: Yeah. That's right.
GROSS: So I want to play the scene. So let me give the setup.
GROSS: So Liz Lemon, played by Tina Fey, has just found out that the show she writes for is going to be put on hiatus. So she's applying for a writing position on a TV singing competition called "The Sing-Off" hosted by Nick Lachey...
SORKIN: Nick Lachey.
GROSS: ...who became famous as a member of the boy band 98 Degrees. So while she's in the waiting room waiting for this job interview, she's shocked to see you, Aaron Sorkin, waiting too. So here's the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "30 ROCK")
TINA FEY: (as Liz Lemon) Do I know you?
SORKIN: (as himself) You know my work. Walk with me.
(as himself) I'm Aaron Sorkin, "The West Wing," "A Few Good Men," "The Social Network."
FEY: (as Liz Lemon) "Studio 60?"
SORKIN: (as himself) Shut up. Do you know Nick Lachey? I hear he doesn't even let you sit in the meeting. He just screams at you to see how you react.
FEY: (as Liz Lemon) But you're not really applying for this job, are you?
SORKIN: (as himself) Of course, I am. You got to take work where you can find it, especially now. Our craft is dying while people are playing "Angry Birds" and poking each other on Facebook. What is poking anyway? Why won't anyone do it to me? I'm cool.
FEY: (as Liz Lemon) So it's really that bad out there. I mean you're Aaron Sorkin. Speaking of "Angry Birds," do you know how to beat 11-4? It's just a red guy and a green guy.
SORKIN: (as himself) The key is to not use the green guy as a boomerang.
FEY: (as Liz Lemon) Did we just go in a circle?
SORKIN: (as himself) Listen lady - a gender I write extremely well if the story calls for it. This is serious. We make horse buggies. The first Model T just rolled into town.
FEY: (as Liz Lemon) We're dinosaurs.
SORKIN: (as himself) We don't need two metaphors. That's bad writing. Not that it matters.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Mr. Sorkin, Mr. Lachey will see you now.
SORKIN: (as himself) Mr. Lachey, huge fan. Huge fan. I have all your albums.
GROSS: That's so funny.
SORKIN: Yes. Well, it was a lot of fun to do. It's a great crew over there.
GROSS: Did you write any of that yourself? Did you have any input?
SORKIN: Absolutely not. That script was written by Robert Carlock, who is great. I also had a chance to - I've played the jerk version of myself a couple of times and I got to do it on "Entourage," too.
GROSS: So there's a line in there where she's giving all your credits and she says "Studio 60" and you say shut up.
SORKIN: Yeah. That's actually the only tweak that I made because I thought that Robert Carlock, who wrote the script, was trying to be a little too respectful of me. So I just pitched the line to Tina who then went over to Robert and everybody there laughed, so Tina came back and said yeah, let's do that.
GROSS: OK. And for people who don't get the joke, you had a show that premiered the same season that "30 Rock" did called "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." And like "30 Rock" it was a behind-the-scene show about a sketch comedy show, kind of like "Saturday Night Live."
But yours was a drama and hers, you know, was a comedy. And a lot of people thought that hers was not going to make it and yours would, but it ended up being the other way around. What did you expect when you found out that there was another show doing a different take on the same kind of theme?
SORKIN: I didn't think that the two shows were anything alike. I didn't think anything more about it than when "The West Wing" and "Spin City" were on the air at the same time or "ER" and "Scrubs."
I thought that - and still do think that - "30 Rock" is great but a completely different show than "Studio 60," and "30 Rock" deserves all the success that it has had.
GROSS: So we've just heard you're very good at playing yourself. You used to play other people, as well. You started off as an actor before you became a writer. Is that what you really wanted to do when you were growing up was to act?
SORKIN: I think saying that I started off as an actor might be misleading. There was...
GROSS: Should I say you started off trying to act?
SORKIN: I didn't even give it much of a try. When I was very little all I wanted to be was an actor, and I acted in all the school plays, and I was the head of the drama club, and I acted in community theater. And then when I went to college, I auditioned for a conservatory program at Syracuse University and got a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in, of all things, musical theater.
But I realized pretty early on that when everyone around me was learning how to act, for some reason what I was learning was what a play was. And I again, very early on, loved writing dialogue. I just loved writing it. And so when I came to New York it was to be a playwright.
GROSS: So you got your BA in musical theater. You loved musicals...
SORKIN: BFA, I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
GROSS: BFA, OK, OK.
SORKIN: I have absolutely no liberal arts background at all, and really no, no higher education to speak of at all. Like I said, my four years of college was a conservatory training program in theater where we weren't allowed to take that many credits, that many academic credits.
GROSS: Do people expect that you will know the great books, and actually you don't?
SORKIN: Yeah. I am often mistaken for somebody who knows something. and I'm not. I create characters who know things. And I'm not just being self-deprecating. I think this is important. You know, the reaction to "The Newsroom" has been polarized.
There are a number of television critics who did not enjoy themselves watching the first four episodes. There are a number of television critics who loved the first four episodes. And I think that the critics in the audience who are reacting as hostilely to the show as they are, part of the reason is they think that I'm showing off an intellect and an erudition that I don't have.
And just to be very clear, I'm not pretending to have it. I know that I don't have it. I phonetically create the sound of smart people talking to each other. I'm not one of them. The characters I create would have no use for me.
GROSS: So we've established that you love musicals...
GROSS: ...and that, just going back for a step, and that you have a degree in musical theater. Are you a good singer?
SORKIN: I am awesome in the shower. But that's...
SORKIN: I think I'm a good singer. I don't think anybody else would say that I am.
GROSS: So I know for while you did singing telegrams.
GROSS: What were the telegrams?
SORKIN: They were, I worked for a company called the Witty Ditty singing-telegram company and they would call you in the afternoon and say, you know, OK, I got a job for you. It's an anniversary. You're going to go to this fancy restaurant. Come here and get the lyrics.
And it would just be set to the tune of, you know, of a famous song, and you'd have to walk into a fancy restaurant holding a big thing of balloons and you're in a red-and-white-striped jacket with a straw boater and a kazoo. And, you know, you're thinking here's my parent's tuition money hard at work. And even the songs themselves, you know, they would change two words of the song. It would be like...
(Singing) Rocky mountain high, happy Birthday.
SORKIN: It was remarkably uncreative. And I even remember thinking, you know, is it OK if I maybe rewrite some of the songs, but I didn't want to insult the person who wrote the song.
GROSS: Aaron Sorkin, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
SORKIN: It's really good to talk to you, Terry.
GROSS: Aaron Sorkin, recorded last July. He created the HBO series "The Newsroom," which is scheduled to begin its second season in June. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.