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.)
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.)
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."
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