Aaron Sorkin Reveals Depth of 'Newsroom' Angst, Season 2 Reboot, A-List Consultants
This story first appeared in the June 28 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
It's a mid-April morning at the Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood, and Aaron Sorkin's nerves are getting the best of him. "I have no ideas right now," the Oscar-winning writer confesses once his office door has shut. Soon, the cast of The Newsroom, his HBO cable-news drama whose first season was in equal measures praised and pilloried, will need to begin shooting an episode that he has yet to begin writing. He's aware that the holdup is worrisome -- for HBO, which is shelling out several million dollars on each episode; for his actors, who often are kept waiting until the 11th hour for his scripts; and for Sorkin himself, whose reputation as one of Hollywood's few name-brand writers is wrapped up in the series' success. Anxiety is a feeling with which Sorkin, 52, is all too familiar. "It'll be my 165th episode of television," he says, "and I've come to realize that it's only being scared to death that gets it done."
The debilitating angst -- which Sorkin once medicated with cocaine, resulting in a 2001 Burbank airport arrest between Emmy-winning seasons of his seminal NBC drama The West Wing -- might seem better suited for a life in film. There, if the ideas aren't flowing, he can call the studio and get an extension. With television, once he's locked into an airdate -- in the case of Newsroom's second season, July 14 -- he has no choice but to deliver, and those very real deadlines have him second-guessing his latest series. "It's a brutal, brutal feeling: I'm doing work that I know isn't good," he says, shifting into the self-deprecating mode in which he seems most comfortable. "I feel like I'm letting the cast and crew down," he continues. "I'm letting down HBO, people who are betting money on me, and most of all, I feel like I'm letting down the audience."
With a degree of candor that is as surprising as it is endearing, Sorkin will walk you through his routine: take a shower, put on clean sweatpants, try to write; have another shower, put on a comfortable outfit, take a crack at writing; shower again. "I'm not a germaphobe; it's kind of a do-over," he says of the six showers he'll often take in a day. The progression is "horrible," he acknowledges. "Writer's block is like my default position. When I'm able to write something, that's when something weird is going on."
For Sorkin, who got his start as an actor before moving behind the camera, the process is often physical, with him playing his characters' parts aloud as he paces about. If things are going particularly well, he can find himself a few blocks away from his Hollywood Hills home without realizing how he got there. Once, as he was working through an early episode of season one, he wandered into his bathroom and broke his nose while role-playing a scene in which Jeff Daniels' irascible anchor character, Will McAvoy, plunges toward a staffer. "I lunged at the bathroom mirror and nobody was there to stop me," says Sorkin, revealing somewhat sheepishly that there are unflattering photos of his swollen nose floating around the Internet.
One might argue that the accident -- a well-meaning exercise that resulted in injury -- was a metaphor for his series' first season. A workplace drama set at an idealistic version of a cable news network, The Newsroom promised Sorkin in his wheelhouse: the political relevance of West Wing, an ensemble cast led by seasoned pros Daniels, Emily Mortimer and Sam Waterston and the rat-a-tat wit Sorkin brings to his dialogue. But while the show won over viewers (averaging 7.1 million a week) and several critics (THR's Tim Goodman called it an "all-star drama"), a vocal group of detractors emerged, accusing it of everything from sexism to sanctimony to straight-up self-indulgence. The New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum described it as "so naive it's cynical"; Time's James Poniewozik suggested Sorkin was just "writing one argument after another for himself to win"; and Entertainment Weekly ran a piece about "hate-watching" with Newsroom as its prime example. Sorkin -- fresh off his Academy Award win for writing The Social Network -- suddenly had moved from toast of the town to highbrow punching bag. And often it felt personal. "He had just won the Oscar, and unfortunately when people are riding high, there is that wanting to take them down," says HBO programming president Michael Lombardo.
"There are a great many people who weren't just disappointed with The Newsroom but really maddened by it. It was impossible to avoid hearing that," says Sorkin, making a point to note that there also were plenty of people, including frequent Newsroom recapper Dan Rather and NBC anchor Brian Williams, who enjoyed it. Now, certain changes will be apparent when the series returns, including a more contemporary title sequence (the music remains), a greater focus on what's happening outside of the show's fictitious News Night broadcast and an overarching legal-based storyline that will inform the entire season. "I hope some of the people who were turned off by the show last year take a second look and maybe are a little bit happier," he continues. "But you're playing a dangerous game if you write to try to change people's minds."
"I want this to be a little messy," says Sorkin, who has entered Sunset Gower's Stage 7 -- home to another celebrated HBO drama, Six Feet Under, before Newsroom -- as co-stars Olivia Munn and Thomas Sadoski run through their first scene of Episode 7. "Cut that line," he tells Munn, who plays on-air economist Sloan Sabbith. "And the next one," he continues, his eyes darting around the script he holds, then back up at his actors, who hang on his every word. "This is going to be overlapping." They then read aloud at the kind of breakneck pace that has become a hallmark of Sorkin productions. "Step on each other's lines a bit," he says.
Before the actors have had a chance to process Sorkin's requests, he has vanished back to his Martyn Lawrence Bullard-designed office across the street to continue writing. In a matter of hours, news of a pair of bombings at the Boston Marathon will consume cable news. Coverage of the attack and the manhunt for the perpetrators is perfect fodder for a future episode of Newsroom. But Sorkin himself is not the news junkie that his viewers might expect. In fact, since he began on Newsroom, he claims his news consumption is largely work-related and thus consists primarily of network and cable news from a year and a half earlier. (Before a season begins, he and his staff compile a comprehensive list of every news event that occurred during the show's time period.)
To help brainstorm ideas for the second season, Sorkin assembled a team of consultants -- a paid group that includes MSNBC's Chris Matthews, former Bush adviser Mark McKinnon and Navy SEAL-turned-investigative reporter Kaj Larsen. He began by writing a welcome e-mail in which he asked them to suggest ideas from their experience that could create a compelling legal case on which to build his season. As is clear from his previous efforts, including A Few Good Men, West Wing and Social Network, Sorkin, whose father and two siblings are attorneys, is particularly drawn to the dynamic between lawyers and witnesses.
"It's possible that you already know about a legal situation that could serve as a jumping-off point and become considerably more dramatic if we started working with 'What if's,' " he wrote in the five-page e-mail. Within minutes, Sorkin says, former CNN employees Rick Kaplan and Jeff Greenfield responded with the same example: "Tailwind," a 1998 CNN news segment alleging, among other things, that the U.S. had used sarin nerve gas that killed more than 100 men, women and children in Laos during the Vietnam War. The report -- a heavily promoted story for a new CNN/Time series called NewsStand -- was later discredited and the network vilified.
Eager to hear more, Sorkin hopped on a plane to New York to sit down with Kaplan, who had been president of CNN at the time, and Greenfield, a NewsStand anchor. "Oh my God was Aaron prepared," recalls Kaplan, a fan of the show who all but begged HBO CEO Richard Plepler to help get him involved. "They were mostly process questions: 'How could this mistake be made?' 'How could this story get to the level it got?' 'What does it take to push a story over the top?' He was just writing notes after notes after notes."
That Walter Isaacson, author of the Steve Jobs biography that Sorkin is adapting into a Sony movie, was the managing editor of Time during the period proved a happy coincidence, and he, too, shared his recollection. (Sorkin has not yet started on the Jobs screenplay, though he has met with several Silicon Valley figures and will soon fly to New York to meet with Jobs' daughter, Lisa, who did not participate in the Isaacson book. Once the Jobs project is completed, he says he'll focus on a John Edwards movie he plans to direct.)