THR Emmy Roundtable: Matthew Weiner, Aaron Sorkin and Other Drama Showrunners Debate Violence in Hollywood and Being Control Freaks
THR: What was it like to adapt a foreign format?
Willimon: Well, the BBC version was three parts of four. That's the sort of British model where four episodes comprises a season. And each was based on a different book.
Weiner: Are they longer? Like 70 minutes or something?
Willimon: No, just four hours. They moved very quickly, and the tone of the BBC version is much more tongue-in-cheek because the story is so much more compressed. You're not doing as much character development in those films. Also, TV was just a lot different in 1990. It was one of the first examples of an antihero, which all of us have indulged in to varying degrees. We are all professional thieves.
Weiss: I think it was Steve Martin who compared the process of adaptation to a failed marriage. Everybody starts out in love and with the best of intentions, and you run into rocky waters, and you're trying to make it work and you know it can work, but at a certain point, either amicably or otherwise, you realize that the source material and what you're doing need to kind of stay apart.
Gansa: I can still remember reading the first script of Hatufim, which is the Israeli format that Homeland is based on, and I had this euphoria because I realized that all we had to do was change the names "Haim" and "Nimrod" to "Nick" and "Jessica," and we'd be just fine! Of course, it didn't turn out that way at all. We realized quite quickly that two POWs returning to Israel was a very different proposition than a POW coming back in America. They are really national figures in Israel, so you could create whole stories around them.
Willimon: As corny as it sounds, each show has to find its own voice. The voice is way more powerful than the narrative mechanics of whatever you're adapting. That's what people actually connect with because that's what the actors connect with, and really the only reason we exist is so that the actors can have something to do because people like to watch actors.
Williamson: Did Kevin Spacey's character narrate the show in the BBC version?
Willimon: Yes, there was direct address. We definitely stole that in the very earliest conversations.
Williamson: I find that so fascinating. How involved is Kevin?
Willimon: Kevin's an executive producer, and as an actor, he's incredibly insightful and diligent but has a deep respect for the text, which comes out of the theater world.
Williamson: I love the relationship between Robin Wright's and Kevin's characters.
Willimon: Well, they save our ass constantly. And Robin is incredible in that she's one of the few actors I've ever met who wants as few lines as possible because she knows what she can do between them. You stick a camera on her face, and the layers that will come up if you give her enough to start with are way more powerful than any words you can put in her mouth.
Gansa: By year three, they all want the least lines. (Laughter.)
THR: If we asked your writers to give a fair critique of you, what would they tell us?
Williamson: That I'm a control freak? I've worked with some really crazy people in my day. You kind of learn to tap dance with anybody. I don't mind a personality dispute; I just want you to write a great script. If you deliver a great script, I don't care about your personality. I'll dance with you. But I don't know -- I think I'm controlling.
Sorkin: My writers room is unusual. I'm hiring mostly young, new writers. I don't want people who are going to be frustrated by not writing. I'm looking for really bright people who have an interesting writing sample, whose background is interesting. I absolutely try to surround myself with people who are smarter than I am and certainly people who think differently than I do, who will see this job as a one- or two-year paid apprenticeship before ... I'll do everything I can to place them in a show where they will be able to do more writing. But then once you have that room, you want people to feel ownership of the show, you want them to feel some kind of pride of authorship for the show. First of all, the room is going to be more fun that way, and you're going to get their best work from them that way. But like Kevin said, if you staff up with eight, 10 people at the beginning of the season, you're keeping your fingers crossed most of the time. If by the middle of the season, three of them are very valuable to you, that was a good haul. You did well. Then you hang on to those three people for the rest of your life.
Williamson: When they need you. And then they leave you!
Sorkin: Whatever they want, they will become, you know, executive producers of the show. And then you go looking for other people.
Williamson: You try to find one or two more as you stumble along. But yes, you find someone that you just really connect with, you don't let them go and you hold on to them.
Sorkin: But I think if you're asking, "What's the bad thing that people often say?" Probably it's going back to the schedule; we start shooting an episode a week after next that I haven't started writing yet. And it's a whole year of that. It's a whole year of constantly feeling like you have a term paper due. You know that feeling that we all had in school, and when the script is finished, you're happy for two minutes. Really, you feel that euphoria for two minutes before all it means is you haven't started the next one. It must feel like Sisyphus doing a television series.
Weiner: It's a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie. (Laughter.)
THR: On Homeland and Newsroom, you're riffing on issues currently in the public consciousness. How much do your scripts get altered for accuracy?
Gansa: Before season two, I took a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., to sit down with various active and retired CIA people and intelligence officers, and my No. 1 questions were: "Is Israel going to attack Iran?" "Is Netanyahu gonna take out the nuclear sites?" Not because I was concerned about world affairs necessarily. (Laughter.) But that was how we were going to start our season. I was terrified that either it was or wasn't going to happen before we aired. So I needed to know definitively. The responses were not uniform. Some said, "Absolutely, he's going to attack." Others said, "Absolutely not." It was a fascinating window into the predictive nature of the intelligence community. Howard Gordon, with whom I created the show, and I are crazy amateur foreign-policy wonks and visit council meetings, and we try to talk to as many people as we can about what's going on in the halls of power.
THR: And Newsroom exhibits a very close connection to the actual cable news universe.
Sorkin: We're doing historical fiction, recent history, so we don't invent news. But if Anwar al-Awlaki was killed on Thursday, and I need for him to have been killed on Friday and it's not upsetting the apple cart in any other way, I don't mind making that change. The more important thing is not leveraging hindsight to make your characters more heroic. When I do that, I pay the price.
THR: And a lighter final question: If you could write for any other show on TV, what would it be?
Weiss: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I love, love, love the show.
Weiner: 30 Rock is gone, but I would have loved to have worked there.
Gansa: We share a floor with New Girl, so when we're in the room talking about how when a suicide vest goes off, the top of your head blows off but usually the head remains intact, they're down the hall talking about Schmidt and whether or not you can break a penis. (Laughter.) I'd like to be in that room.
Willimon: I have to name two other shows that are no longer around: Deadwood and The Wire, both of which are masterpieces. I would have given anything to be a fly on the wall in those writers rooms.
Sorkin: I would love to write for Parks and Recreation, but I'm worried I would ruin it. Also, I wouldn't mind writing an episode of Girls.
Williamson: You stole my answer! We shoot next to Girls in New York, and I see them coming and going, and I think, "Well, wouldn't that just be fun?" But mostly I'd like to go back in time and be a staff writer on The West Wing.
Sorkin: Oh, please do!