Aaron Sorkin Reveals Depth of 'Newsroom' Angst, Season 2 Reboot, A-List Consultants
Admired and attacked in Season 1, the HBO drama reboots with A-list advisers as its creator opens up about his process (up to 6 showers in one day), how he broke his nose and dealing with hate-watchers: "You're playing a dangerous game if you write to try to change people's minds."
Kaplan and Greenfield, along with Larsen and two former members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff whom Sorkin declines to name, would help him take the Tailwind story and update it as something that could happen today. The result is "Genoa," an ACN News report addressed in the opening scene of season two that makes a bold allegation about actions taken by the Obama administration. "The story just keeps getting bigger and bigger," says Sorkin, noting that a fill-in news producer, Jerry Dantana, played by guest star Hamish Linklater, is pushing the unflattering coverage despite resistance elsewhere in the newsroom. (Kaplan visited the set on the final week of filming and was blown away: "I sat there [in the edit bay] and thought I was going to die because Aaron so captured the sense and the tone of it," he says.)
For Sorkin, moving back and forth in the story via flashbacks proved a bigger challenge than he had anticipated. "I doubt HBO's going to be happy with my telling you this, but I got off to a false start with season two," he acknowledges, noting that only after he wrote the first three episodes and shot the first two did he realize that structural decisions he had made would prove problematic later in the season. He admits others had tried to warn him, but until he had finished the third script he was convinced he simply wasn't writing well enough. "With my hat in my hand, I went to HBO and said, 'Would it be all right if I started again? I know it's going to cost time and it's going to cost a lot of money.' Other networks would have said no." (Lombardo appears to have no regrets about the decision: "Aaron presented a very reasonable and responsible approach to how he wanted to restructure the second season," he says, "and it was a very easy yes for us.")
Production briefly was shut down for a week or so on either end of the cast and crew's planned holiday break, according to executive producer Alan Poul. Sorkin rewrote the season's third episode and found a way to reshoot large swaths of episodes one and two. The season order also was cut from 10 episodes to nine. "There was a certain amount of surgically organized reshooting whereby we kept everything that we possibly could, but some of it was a bit repurposed or moved to a different place," explains Poul of a move that cost HBO several million dollars. The last time Sorkin made a request of this size was on West Wing, when he had the series' third season delayed -- at a reported cost of $10 million -- so that he could craft an entirely new episode to address the events of 9/11.
When The Newsroom returns for its second season, it will pick up a week after season one ended, with Daniels' McAvoy paying a steep price for calling the Tea Party the American Taliban on air. Though Sorkin suggests the election will be used primarily as a marker of time, its central characters will be worked into the narrative. John Gallagher Jr.'s producer Jim Harper, for instance, will leave the ACN newsroom temporarily to travel with the Mitt Romney campaign, a move that requires Dantana to fill in. But, adds Sorkin, "we never see Mitt Romney, or any of the faces or names that we became familiar with from the Romney campaign." He also has woven in such hot-button stories as the Occupy Wall Street movement, SOPA, Trayvon Martin and the Supreme Court's decision on the Affordable Care Act.
Though Sorkin's left-leaning politics are well known and apparent in much of what he writes, he insists the series does not advocate a political position -- nor is he in any way an activist. In fact, he's somewhat envious of other political shows, such as HBO's Veep, where viewers are unaware of the characters' political affiliation. "Why alienate half the audience if you don't have to? 'Republican' and 'Democrat,' those are radioactive words that are immediately going to get people's backs up," he says before explaining why that wasn't an option on his show. "With The Newsroom, it's historical fiction, not a parallel universe. We know who the Democrats and the Republicans are, and that's often where the point of friction is."
Fox News already has jumped on the season-two trailer, with an anchor claiming June 14 that the show is a "liberal fantasy." Asked about the statement hours later, Sorkin says: "I didn't see it and I get that they probably didn't mean it as a compliment, but the show is a liberal fantasy."
HBO executives Lombardo and Plepler had a wish of their own when they took the reins of the network's programming in 2007. "We said, 'Who would be the fantasy to work with?' And the first name out of both of our mouths was Aaron Sorkin," recalls Lombardo, a self-proclaimed junkie of Sorkin's ABC series Sports Night. The pair had his WME agent Ari Emanuel set up a lunch with Sorkin at The Palm in May 2008, where the writer mentioned an interest in the world of cable news but at that time did not want to tackle another series. During the next couple of years, Lombardo and Plepler would periodically reach out to Emanuel or send an e-mail to Sorkin reminding them that their door was open.
"Then lo and behold we get a call that Aaron had written a script, which we read and very quickly said, 'Let's go,' " Lombardo recalls. The series would pull back the curtain on TV news -- or a utopian portrait of what it could be -- just as Sorkin had done with White House politics (on West Wing), sports news shows (Sports Night) and a late-night sketch comedy series (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). "It really felt like the right moment for this show and the right project for HBO to do with Aaron Sorkin," adds Lombardo of a series that has delivered a sought-after "thinking" audience. "The news has changed, and Aaron comes from a place of enormous passion, and I share his concerns about what's going on."
Despite his characters' quixotic mission to do the news in a more responsible, informative manner, Sorkin says he did not set out to fix the news. He does acknowledge, however, that the fictional news show he created is one that he would watch if he had more time. (In addition to year-old news, must-see TV for Sorkin includes half-hour comedies The Office, for which he sent the series' writers the only piece of fan mail he has ever written, and Parks and Recreation.)
In mid-2010, Sorkin, along with executive producers Scott Rudin and Poul, hosted two lunches with a collection of news division players at The Four Seasons in New York. "We made sure to have some balance on the ideological spectrum, and Aaron framed everything by saying what would happen if you were freed from the immediate constraints of money, ratings and public opinion," recalls Poul, who would later return to New York for private tours of the Fox News, Bloomberg News, CNN and MSNBC newsrooms for inspiration as he assembled the show's elaborate set (it cost about $2 million, according to one knowledgeable source). In those meetings, Sorkin was seeking answers to two primary questions: "What would a utopian news show look like?" and "What's stopping you from delivering one?" Says Sorkin: "The answer to the second was always some form of guts or courage."
Casting came next. Rudin had produced God of Carnage on Broadway with Daniels and urged Sorkin to meet with the veteran actor for the series' lead. Sorkin's only concern was that outside of Carnage, he had only ever seen Daniels play the "nice" guy. "Jeff must have been told about my concerns because he just sat down at the lunch and smacked me in the face and said, 'Trust me, I'm not a nice guy,' " says Sorkin, with Daniels adding: "It was mine before the check came." (The role has since thrust Daniels, already a Golden Globe and SAG Awards nominee, into the Emmy conversation.)