When it comes to words, Aaron Sorkin is rarely lacking.
That’s why when Sorkin – the celebrated creator of “The West Wing” and much-awarded screenwriter behind the films “The Social Network” and “Moneyball,” and one of Hollywood’s most celebrated writer-producers – stepped before a virtual firing line of television critics to face their half-admiring, half-displeased reaction to his HBO series “The Newsroom” - which wraps up its debut season Sunday night - he had plenty to say in response. For example…
On criticisms that the female characters are coming off professionally inept: “I a hundred percent disagree with it. I think that the female characters on the show are, first of all, every bit the equals of the men. I think that they are not just talked about as being good at their job. We plainly see them being good at their job beginning with the first episode…Many other qualities of caring about things other than yourself, of reaching high, of being thoughtful, curious, plainly smart, of being great team players, those, to me, are what define these characters. And I'd say the same thing about the actresses playing them. And that once you've nailed those down, you can have them slip on as many banana peels as you want. That's just comedy.”
On choosing to build episodes around real-life news events: “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, one in which we just invaded Japan or something. I would need to be making up these fake news stories…I didn't do it so that I could leverage hindsight into making our characters smarter at stuff…If our guys do something right, there is never a time when somebody else didn't do it right too.”
On his creative process handling professional worlds he hasn’t operated in:“I, most of the time, write about things I actually don't know very much about. Last year, I had "Moneyball," and because of Michael Lewis and Billy Beane himself and Bill James and a lot of other people pumping me full of information, I was able to create the sound of somebody who knew how to run a baseball team. But I certainly don't have any idea how to beat the New York Yankees with the second lowest payroll in baseball. And, likewise, political opinions that I have are at the level of sophistication of someone who has a BFA in musical theater. And I use the same system. I get pumped full of information by people who do know what they are talking about so that I can find the point of friction and write an episode.”
On plans for Season Two: "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…We did have consultants [before] – they weren't in our employ, but before I wrote the pilot, when I was just thinking about the show and didn't really quite know what it was gonna be, I had a series of lunches – some of them one‑on‑one and some of them roundtable lunches – with great journalists. I won't name them – I'm sure everybody in this room would consider them great journalists, and we talked about a lot of things. I would ask them two key questions, two important questions. First was ‘What would a utopian newscast be?’ And the second was ‘What's stopping you from doing that?’ And there were a lot of different answers to the first question. And the answer to the second question was almost always some form of guts, and if you're somebody who likes writing romantically and idealistically and is gonna write fiction, you couldn't hope for a better answer than that."
As the series wraps up, PopcornBiz caught up with Sorkin one on one:
Is all the discussion and debate that “The Newsroom’ have sparked what you were going for with this show? Are you happy that everyone has opinions about what's been going on the air?
I don't like riling people up. That's not what I'm going for, but I think that when people are talking this much and this loudly about a TV show it's good for television.
Do you think part of the polarized reaction to the show is endemic to what's going on in America currently? How people feel about the news – and everything else?
Well, I do, and we're talking about things that we were all taught growing up: that there are certain things that you don't talk about at the dinner table. The television in your home is kind of an extension of the dinner table. It's in your home. You didn't go to a theater to see it, and we're bringing up subjects that are sort of impolite to talk about with strangers. So there was bound to be that kind of division. Like I said, I don't wish to be a rabble-rouser. I prefer to be liked, but I think that these are really important subjects and if on Monday morning people are talking about them then that's a good thing, as long as they come back the next Sunday night and watch the show.
Does that inform your writing going forward?
I have to be very, very careful because I'm easily kind of knocked around by other voices. Luckily the first season is done and there's nothing I can do about it, and I have to, when I start writing the second season, work in the same way. I have to write the way that I write and not write in order to change people's minds. If 999 people like the show and one doesn't, I will abandon those 999 people and try to get the one person.
What do you think of the press now, having been the subject of some tough articles and have had to correct one article that had many inaccuracies?
You know what? Someone sent me an article from China. Incredibly, the show is a big hit in China. I'll be honest with you: I didn't know that they got HBO in China. But somehow they do, and there's a Twitter frenzy about the show in China that's entirely different than the Twitter frenzy here because what they can't get over when they see the show is the free press. That's all they’re seeing. They're seeing what a free press looks like – and it's not like this is the first show that's shown a free press. It's just that it's really only been in the last five, ten years that stuff from the West has been making it to China and I guess this was the first thing about a free press. So when I read that I remember the press and a free press – if I can answer the question that was asked of Will in the first scene – is maybe what makes America the greatest country.
What will the full-time consultants bring to the show?
Well, I think there are a few things. They're going to bring real experiences that they've had working in a newsroom. 'There was this one time when all the electricity went out and we had to do this.' Wow, that's the beginning of a great story. They're also going to bring a political perspective that I don't have. I'm hiring some really bright, interesting, conservative minds who've worked in conservative politics who will help me bolster some conservative arguments at those moments we're talking about politics. Like I said, I don't know yet exactly what the timeline of season two would be, but I would be extremely surprised if it didn't include the election and the conventions that are coming up. So, there are going to be those kinds of arguments and I just want to make sure that generally when I'm asking someone, a consultant or an advisor, someone the staff for an opinion, I'll say, 'Tell me what you think and then tell me what the really smart person in the room who disagrees with you is going to say to that?' Now I have the really smart person in the room.