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."
In preparing for the part, Daniels says he didn't study any real-life news anchors -- though he has since adapted a particular Brian Williams cocked-elbow pose when seated at the ACN News desk -- and denies reports that his character is a nod to Keith Olbermann. "It never came up in any rehearsal or any meeting," he says.
Mortimer and Marisa Tomei vied for the role of McAvoy's producer and romantic foil MacKenzie McHale. Sorkin cast Mortimer and initially asked her to employ an American accent, which the British actress later was told to ditch. "I could have kissed him," says Mortimer, adding that it's hard enough to master "Sorkin," which leaves no room for paraphrasing, in her native dialect. (A Sorkin script can be 15 pages longer than a traditional hourlong script.) Adds Daniels, only half-joking: "You're not climbing a Mount Everest, you're climbing a mountain range of Everests over the course of a Sorkin series."
Whether or not he will say so explicitly, Sorkin sees season two of Newsroom as an opportunity for a fresh start. He knows that given his past success, including six Emmys and that Oscar, the bar always will be set considerably higher for him. But even he was surprised by some of the reactions to season one. "We weren't expecting what happened, and my biggest thing then and now is the morale and the energy of the cast and crew," he says, having made a habit of sending the cast many of the series' positive reviews. Adds Poul: "Aaron was very gracious about saying that everybody should just realize that this is personal and had nothing to do with the work that any of them had done, but it didn't ameliorate the sense that there was something more going on. The extent to which some people were just waiting with knives out was a little bewildering."
In his search for explanations, HBO's Lombardo concluded that the venom was due in part to the series' subject matter hitting particularly -- and uncomfortably -- close to home for those writing about it: "[The show] very clearly had a comment to make about the state of news and journalism, and that's provocative to people who work in the media space," he says, his frustration on display.
As that vitriol mounted online, with a collection of critics militantly assembling on Sunday evenings to mock episodes on social media (Sorkin canceled his Twitter account soon after sending only two tweets), Sorkin agreed to appear at a Television Critics Association news conference in August. Accompanied by Daniels and Poul, he fielded questions about the harsh reviews, reports of a fired writing staff and complaints that the women on Newsroom were depicted as too bubbly or lovestruck. "HBO didn't want me to [go] because they knew what it was going to be," he recalls, noting that he felt it would "seem cowardly" if he pulled out. Adds Lombardo: "The way he handled it was so inspiring to me, because I'm somebody who probably would have curled up in a little ball." (A shelf in Sorkin's office is lined with six TCA Awards. "A reminder that they once liked me," he jokes.)
Self-deprecating humor aside, Sorkin remains fiercely defensive about some of the choices he's made and is eager to address them one by one. For instance, despite a July 2012 report in since-defunct The Daily that suggested nearly the entire writing staff was fired, he insists that only three of last season's 12 staff members did not have their options picked up. For the 10 who now work on the show, the job consists of kicking around ideas and breaking stories as a group. "At the writing point, I do have to go away and be alone. I'm a playwright. It's the only thing I was taught to do," he says, suggesting that it is for that reason that he has gathered a staff of largely green talent. In fact, for more than half of the room, Newsroom is their first professional writing job. "Experienced writers are not going to want to work here because they're not going to get to write," he adds. "So I'm bringing in people who think this is a paid apprenticeship for a year or two."
When it comes to the series' female characters, Sorkin disagrees with accusations that he's presented women as less than their male counterparts -- or as "ninnies," as a Time article put it. "It doesn't mean that [the critics are] wrong, it just means I don't see it that way," he says, pointing to a hotly debated scene early in the first season where MacKenzie accidentally sends a deeply personal e-mail to the staff. "We're supposed to believe that MacKenzie McHale covered conflicts in the Middle East and won multiple awards for her work, yet she doesn't understand how e-mail works?" Huffington Post's Maureen Ryan wrote after the episode aired. Though Sorkin says that the move had little to do with gender, noting that only seconds later a male ACN employee makes the same mistake and forwards the e-mail to corporate, he knows that it's a debate he will have trouble winning. "In every episode of the show, if you believe that the show treats women badly and that the show is sexist, you can find evidence to support your theory," he says. "I just think you can find a lot more evidence that contradicts your theory." It is clear that Sorkin is increasingly sensitive to the issue as his own daughter, Roxy, 12, whom he regularly picks up from school and brings to the Newsroom set, comes of age.
Mortimer takes it a step further, suggesting that there is something deeper going on. "What it is to be a strong woman is confusing to people, and I think that this reaction is more about that," she says, drawing parallels to the themes explored in a book she recently read, Sheryl Sandberg's best-seller Lean In. "In film, which is what I'm used to, everybody is a f---up. That's what interesting characters are. Features filled with characters who don't f--- up would be deadly," she continues. "So this sort of notion that you have to write these characters [for television] as perfect role models in order to be approved of is confusing to me."
It's not yet clear whether Sorkin will get another season with these characters, but he acknowledges that he'd like to do more, particularly given the abundance of news events including the Newtown, Conn., school shootings, which almost made it into season two. "Newtown comes after our season ends. I thought it wasn't going to, but it did," he says, wondering aloud what will come of the gun debate by the time a third season would roll around. Having overcome his nerves and near-perpetual writer's block, Sorkin has finished the ninth and final episode of season two, and he appears to be working through a fast-moving rotation of emotions: pride, relief and anxiety. "It's good to be done," he says, pausing to reflect. "Now all I want in the world is to go back and write it all over again."