Aaron Sorkin is the biggest fan of the Man of la Mancha. The creator of the TV series The Newsroom, the first cable series from Aaron Sorkin, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning creator of The West Wing and writer of The Social Network explains in this interview why most of his lead characters are based in the figure of Don Quixote.
His new show is not just a return to television but a series about television in particular, television news and its squandered powers As we watch, the anchorman at its center, Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), has a kind of political awakening, shedding his status as “the Jay Leno of news anchors” and reinventing himself as an iconoclastic, Network-style truth-teller, and discovering that, like most great Sorkin characters, he has an awful lot to say. In Los Angeles we had the opportunity to talk to him about his passion for writing and his admiration for Don Quixote
Q: What was like going back to television after that movie interlude?
A: You know what, I love writing television, I’m really lucky I got to write all three, TV, movies and plays, I love working with the same group of people every week, I love being able to tell a different kind of story, a kind of story that you can tell on TV, and I love the immediacy of it. The tough part of television, what you don’t really have in movies, and in plays, is that if I am writing a screenplay, and writing isn’t going well and that happens a lot, for me, at least writing goes badly, much more than it goes well. You can stop, you can call the studio or the producer and say I’ve run into a problem and I know I said I was going to be delivering the script next month, but it will probably be another month after that. They might not like it, but they will live with it. Usually they are understanding. With television, you have a hard deadline and you have to write when you are not writing well. You don’t have a choice. You have to put a script on the table for the table read, that you know isn’t as good as you wanted it to be, you’ve got to shoot it and you’ve got to broadcast it to millions of people, you’ve got to show them not your best work, and it’s a ten episode season, one of those episodes, it’s going to be my tenth best, and I’m not good enough for my tenth best to be good enough. And that’s the only part of television that I don’t like.
Q: What is so captivating for you about the Don Quixote character, because that’s the thing that goes for your movies?
A: Yeah, Don Quixote is I think the book that’s had the most impact on my life in terms of my writing, it’s just a story I love, and I think that in everything that I do, but in a lot of things that I do, I keep trying to write Don Quixote over and over again.
Q: When did you started that passion for Don Quixote?
A: Man of La Mancha was the first play I ever saw—I was 5 years old, and I remember it vividly. It had a huge impact on me. I’ve got a little windmill on my desk. Don Quixote’s a big deal to me. He just reminds me of my father a lot. In the best way. And in Don Quixote, instead of bringing him down with swords, they just hold mirrors up, so he can see what a fool he is in his stupid helmet and rusty armor, and that really sends him into a hospital bed.
Q: Do you relate personally to the character?
A: Only in the sense that he reminds me of my father.
Q: Are you writing about a dying art or a dying profession? Journalists as you portray in The Newsroom?
A: Yeah, I hope I’m not, but if I am, that makes it even more romantic, again, Don Quixote, in his mind, was living in a different time, a time when there were nights and he was going to go out and be valorous, and that’s what these guys are going to try to do.
Q: It just strikes me that you were talking about the lead character, it’s less a plea for politics than a plea for intelligence?
A: Civility and yeah a plea for intelligence, not to be regarded as a bad thing, and I’m able to say that because I don’t have much intelligence, I want to listen to people who are smarter than I am, and I think that we in a democracy, it works best, we arrive at the best ideas, when we can hear the best form of two competing arguments debate. That we the American public, the electorate, the people who ultimately decide these things who pull a lever in a voting booth, should be able to hear the two best competing forms of about an argument about healthcare, or an argument about education, an argument about the economy, an argument about jobs and unemployment, without having to hear about Kenya and birth certificates and Marxism and socialism and these guys are trying to ruin the country and that guy tied a dog to his car, it’s very loud out there and most of it is nonsense. And the reason why, it goes all the way back to the commoditization of news. Will talks a little bit about this in his on air apology that opens the third episode. That it used to be that in exchange for a free use of the airwaves the networks had to do one hour a night of informational broadcasting. But the fatal flaw in that agreement was that congress didn’t demand that there would be no paid advertising during that. But for a long time that didn’t matter, that wasn’t written in, the networks did it themselves, they built a firewall between the entertainment division, and the news division. So that all day long, you could show soap operas and at night you could show Gilligan’s Island, and all of these shows and they were going to make your company money, and the news wasn’t there to be money, it was a public service. It was a lost leader. That firewall hasn’t faded. It’s gone. It’s disappeared, so the news now, they are required to get people to watch and in order to stay in business, and in order to pay the bills, and you are going to get a lot more people to watch if you run Casey Anthony than if you try to give an economics lesson.
Q: How many scripts were written before you started production in Newsroom?
A: When we started production? I think four. I could be wrong, but I think four scripts after the pilot script and one of the nice things about HBO, is that we shoot the entire season before we even air the first episode, and that’s good for two reasons, you learn things along the way and you can maybe go back and re-edit something in Episode Two because of a discovery that you made in Episode Ten, but even more important has to do with you guys, and it’s this, in a network season, if you are writing The West Wing, if you are writing Studio 60, where you are writing as the show is on the air, we have just broadcast Episode Five and I’m writing Episode Nine, you are reading a lot of things, you’ve read the reviews, you are reading what bloggers say, that kind of thing, and there’s the danger of trying to write to change people’s minds. You think Will is a jerk, I’m going to change his mind with this episode and it’s a bad way to write. With the HBO schedule, you write them all, you shoot them all before any of them are even seen, it’s impossible to do that. So what you are seeing is exactly what I intended, the best version of what I could do, of what I intended, with no, without trying to please others.
Q: What are your intentions with this show, are you planning to shake up the world of news, are you planning to shake up the world of politics, or what?
A: I want to be as clear and as strong as I can possibly be. No. (laughter) Not at all. We shoot our show on Stage Seven at Sunset/Gower Studios, and there’s a plaque outside that stage reminding you that that’s where The Monkees were shot. My intentions and my goals are exactly the same as theirs were. I want you to have fun watching the show. That’s all. I’m not an activist, I’m not trying to change anybody’s mind, I’m not trying to persuade you, teach you, preach to you, anything like that. This is a workplace romantic comedy and it’s set against real events and people are going to argue about them and people are going to disagree about them, we are not really used to that on television, by its nature, stays away from anything that has the potential to alienate a huge chunk of its audience, because of its politics. So we are more used to seeing that in a play probably than a television show. We are not used to seeing it, so I know it seems like I’m trying to take on the world by writing this show, but my goals are exactly the same as the writers and producers of The Monkees.
Q: But you are starting out quite challenging, you are challenging that the United States is the greatest country in the world, and you are bringing idealism on the table.
A: Idealism is different. Crazy about idealism. (laughter) I am, I am so idealistic, I wrote about a democratic administration at the White House that was able to get things done, and this show was written with the exact same spirit, we have a very cynical take on our leaders in government, in pop culture, they are generally portrayed as either Machiavellian or idiots, and I wrote The West Wing to write a very idealized, romanticized version of our leaders, we have today a very cynical view of journalism, and I just wanted to give journalism The West Wing treatment.
Q: Would you be able to do The West Wing now?
A: Would it be able to be on network television? Depends who was running the network. I would, I’m not sure someone else would. No, the answer to your question is no. (laughter) But back when we did The West Wing, my favorite letters that I would get would be from people who would say, I am a conservative, I don’t agree with Jed Bartlett’s politics, but my family and I love watching the show. Those were my favorite letters. I don’t think there would be as many of those letters now, we are just more divisive. You will see with this show that even though the hero, the main hero of this show is a Republican, a moderate Republican, a moderate Republican who is not crazy, because I’ve been accused in the past of making all Republicans into horrible monster figures, a romantic, bright, moderate Republican, who is not crazy, there are going to be people in the radical right who say that this is liberal hogwash. Only they will use worse language.
Q: Was it always your intention to have real life events as the backdrops?
A: When I was sort of trying to let the show form in my mind, and that’s a process that usually takes a couple of years before you start writing, you want to do another series and you think well I’d like to it to take place behind the scenes at a nightly news show. And then you begin thinking about it. The one thing I didn’t want to do was do fake news. It was just going to make the show seem fake. These weren’t going to be real people and I wasn’t going to be able to get the same kind of idealism in it that I wanted to, that it’s easy to be, easier to be idealistic when I get to make up what the news is and what the resolution of the news is. And I wanted everything about the show to be real, except the characters, who by the way are entirely fictional, nobody is based on anybody. But how can you do that when you don’t know what the news is going to be, when the show is on the air? So I was spending a lot of time hanging around in newsrooms, and I happened to be in a newsroom one day just being a fly on the wall, sitting there, and getting very unhappy because I didn’t think I was going to solve this problem, and I was honestly an hour away, if not minutes away from making the decision not to do this show. I wasn’t able to figure it out. That I can’t do it. And while I was thinking all this, I happened to be staring just kind of blankly at a television monitor in the newsroom that was showing, it was an underwater camera, showing oil spilling out of bridge patrol steep water horizon. It was day 55 of the oil spill. And they had the spill cam, it was 24 hours, showing the oil spilling out, and I just looked at it and went, hang on, why does the show have to take place today? I understand when we say period piece we usually mean 100 years ago, but why can’t you do a period piece that’s two years ago? If we just do the show, we start the show, start the pilot, and it just seems like a regular show, we are setting up the conflicts and the relationships and everything, and then we just hear beep, it’s called Eye News, the news alert on the computer, and the news comes over that an oil well has exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, and a legend comes up on the screen, April 20th, 2010, and we realize that everything that we’ve been watching happened two years ago and not today. Not only will that solve the problem, but it will also give me some really fun storytelling tools to work with. For instance, there can be times when the audience knows more than the characters do. And that’s always a lot of fun, and I’m going to be able to show news events that we are familiar with from the point of view of the people who got the news first, before they reported it to us. Suddenly there are all these advantages, and that day, I sent an email to Scott Rudin, Alan Poul and myself are the Executive Producers, I sent an email to Scott, Alan wasn’t yet on board, and I said, I want to do this, what I just described to you, and he said, sounds great. And that’s how it happened.
Q: What are the ramifications of that, because sometimes you are showing real people and things that they said on television, so…
A: Yes, we only show real people, real people only play themselves in news footage. There won’t be any cameos on the show, but yes, you see real people in film on our show all the time during the broadcast.
Q: You were saying before that there’s a lot of pressure on you now that you have to write really quick even if you are not writing well. And I was wondering, what is the ideal recipe for a good writing situation for you? From the look of you, I assume it’s in the sun. (laughter)
A: When our mothers told us to wear sunscreen, they may have been right. (laughter) Also when you spend a year just completely indoors writing and then step out into the Southern California sun, this happens in two days. (laughter) You should have seen me before. The ideal conditions for writing? It’s not a physical condition, it’s an intention, it’s understanding the intention and obstacle, it’s sort of worshipping at the altar of intention and obstacles. If somebody wants something, something is standing in their way of getting it. They want the girl, they want the money, they want to get to Paris, if they can need those things, that’s even better than wanting them, and something formidable is standing in their way of getting it. And if I know what those things are, I am halfway there.
Q: How do you know when you write well and when it sucks?
A: I know it when it’s happening. A baseball player will tell you that they don’t need to see the ball after the crack of the bat to know if it’s a base hit or a home run, or if they fouled it off or it’s an out, they can feel it in their hands. And if I am writing and it’s kind of coming out like molasses, it’s a struggle and I am very embarrassed by it, it’s terribly embarrassing.
Q: Do you think because Aaron Sorkin is sort of a brand as well, do you think you can kind of go A, I can go to HBO, and say, I’d like to do this and they go yeah, but possibly people, I’m thinking of you were mentioning bloggers and critics, they perhaps come to it with tinted glasses if they are not in favor of your stuff?
A: Yeah, well it’s the cost of doing business, there are now with bloggers, thousands of critics and people who aren’t fans of mine tend to be very vocal about it.
Q: Do you read on the internet, the comments and blogs?
A: No, that’s, you don’t want to get out of the car in that neighborhood. (laughter)
Q: The dialogue is so smart and so sharp, do you surround yourself with people that smart?
A: Yeah, that’s the only way I get away with it, I have to surround myself and I grew up surrounded by being with my family and my friends, I just happened to grow up with people who are smarter than I am and I really enjoyed the sound of intelligence. I don’t possess it myself but I possess the ability to imitate it phonetically.
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