Russell Baillie

Russell Baillie is the Herald’s entertainment editor

Sorkin gives journalism the West Wing treatment

Based on the athletic dialogue of his shows, any chat with Aaron Sorkin should really be done walking and talking at a rapid pace.

But the luxuriously carpeted corridors of the Beverly Wilshire are only so long.

And Sorkin knows them well. On one of his early forays to Los Angeles from his time as a Broadway playwright, he was put up in the place as he wrote The American President, the film which became the prototype for his name-making television series The West Wing.

His New York calling card had been his 1989 play A Few Good Men - "you can't handle the truth!" - which became the hit 1992 movie.

Sorkin has bounced between television and feature films, and between his own original ideas and adaptations ever since. His most recent included his Oscar-winning screenplay for 2010's The Social Network and the much-nominated Moneyball.

But now he's returned to familiar territory - the backstage TV drama. He's done them before with his early Sports Night, The West Wing and his one-season wonder Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. His latest, The Newsroom, is set in a fictitious US cable news network.

It uses real events in recent history - the pilot episode is set on the day the Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico - as a backdrop to the drama between the characters in the "ACN" newsroom.

Those include anchorman-editor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his new producer - and former girlfriend - MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer) whose unresolved personal issues help give the already fraught workplace a little more spark.

Stateside, the early episodes have caused much consternation among US TV reviewers, with many seeing Sorkin as sanctimonious for his critique of modern journalism, its partisan leanings and its hunger for ratings - and doing it with the benefit of hindsight when it comes to news events.

Case in point, the ACN newsroom figure out the Deepwater Horizon accident would be a huge environmental disaster within a few hours of the explosion.

But despite the apparent Sorkin backlash, just a couple of episodes in backers HBO have already renewed the show for a second season.

And after an Emmy or three, an Oscar and a surname that has become an adjective - Sorkinesque - the deeply tanned writer isn't too worried.

A few nights before our Los Angeles encounter, he had attended a New York screening, where he says the guests were a who's-who of the American television news business.

Holding court before a roundtable of foreign entertainment journalists, Sorkin says they took the show's idealistic view of journalism as a compliment. "The people in New York saw themselves as the heroes of the story and I think the people who wrote those reviews see themselves as the villains of the story - and they are certainly not. Also, I am not everyone's cup of tea, so that's certainly going to happen."

But let's go back to the beginning, why the return to television in a show about television news?

My big problem was I liked workplace shows and I wanted to do a show about a newsroom for the same reason I wanted to do The West Wing. In our popular culture our elected leaders are generally portrayed as Machiavellian or idiots and I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to show hyper-competent heightened reality and a romantic version of political leaders. Journalists nowadays are looked at very cynically too. So I wanted to give journalism the West Wing treatment and add romantic comedy to it.

The newsroom romantic comedy is a tradition that dates way back to Spencer Tracey-Katharine Hepburn movies, through to the likes of Broadcast News.

The characters on the show have certainly seen all of those shows and are all influenced by them. John Gallagher's character in the pilot script ... when I describe him when he enters, I just wrote "he saw All the President's Men when he was 11 years old and never looked back". And in describing Emily Mortimer's character, it was "she was locked in a room and shown Frank Capra movies until she was 21". All of those characters live in that world and want it to be real.

Are you trying to start a debate on the state of the American media with this show or is it just entertainment?

We shoot our show on stage seven on Sunset Gower Studios, about two or three miles from here. The same stage on which they shot The Monkees ...

A show which was a commentary on America ...

My goals are exactly the same as their goals. If that debate happens that's fine with me, but I am an entertainer. I have to obey the rules of drama.

So what is your drive to entertain?

To impress women ... I'm not kidding ...

But when you go back, what was it that sparked that drive?

My parents took me to the theatre when I was very young and I loved plays. I really loved plays. I thought at first I was going to be an actor when I was a little kid. I took a lot of acting classes. I went to college and got my BFA in theatre but more and more it was not about learning about what acting was but what a play was. The first time I wrote for pleasure, the first time I wrote for any other reason than a school assignment, it was dialogue. I love the sound of language. It sounds like music to me. And again, when my parents were taking me to see plays when I was little, at often times I was too young to understand the play or the story but I loved the sound of the words and I wanted to imitate that sound. These great speeches, language crashing into each other and people overlapping and I just wanted to imitate that sound. And sometimes I feel that plot and story is an unnecessary intrusion on what I really want to do, which is write with language.

What's a typical writing day for you?

You have got to think about what you are going to write before you write it and the thinking process looks like anything from watching college football to driving around in my car, to pulling my hair out. I have a staff of people on the show ... here's the one magic trick - always be the dumbest person in the room. Make sure you are surrounded by people who are smarter than you are and listen to their ideas and listen to them argue with each other. But eventually it's showtime and you have got to go into a room by yourself and write.

You've become an adjective - Sorkinesque - does that worry you?

I've got an 11-year-old daughter. I've got bigger things to worry about.

It's a compliment though isn't it?

If you like my writing it is. But I've seen it used as a perjorative.

Who is the audience you were aiming for with The Newsroom?

If you're a fan of the other things I have written, I think you will be a fan of this. And hopefully some new people will come to it. It's for everybody. It's not for a particular demographic and it's certainly not for a particular political persuasion. I think that what doesn't come across in those three or four reviews that you are talking about is the show is meant to be fun. It is an optimistic, idealistic, swashbuckling, romantic comedy set in a newsroom and I get that there is a lot of language and people are arguing about important things that divide us. But at the end of the day it is an underdog story about people reaching unrealistically high and they fall down a lot - sometimes literally. People in the first four episodes fall down five times. I am happiest when I am figuring out a way for people to slip on a banana peel.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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