THR Emmy Roundtable: Matthew Weiner, Aaron Sorkin and Other Drama Showrunners Debate Violence in Hollywood and Being Control Freaks
There was nary a tough topic left unexplored by the six drama writer/creators who gathered on a foggy April morning in downtown Los Angeles to chat about their craft on the eve of Emmy season. In the frank, freewheeling discussion, five showrunner veterans -- Alex Gansa, 52 (Homeland, Showtime); Aaron Sorkin, 51 (The Newsroom, HBO); Matthew Weiner, 47 (Mad Men, AMC); D.B. Weiss, 42 (Game of Thrones, HBO); Kevin Williamson, 48 (The Following, Fox); and one television newbie, Beau Willimon, 35 (House of Cards, Netflix) -- share their lingering insecurities about writing, the pain and pleasure of adapting source material, how they cope with unexpected plot twists and why being a control freak just might be the secret to their success.
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The Hollywood Reporter: Violence in movies and television has been a hot topic this year. How much do you engage in the debate and how has the controversy affected your shows? Let's start with Kevin.
Kevin Williamson: Yeah, I've gotten this question a couple of times. I've actually been trying to not engage in the discussion. When children watch violent television -- there are tests and studies about it -- it makes them more aggressive. So it is really up to adults to monitor their children's viewing habits. The Following is not for children. Parents should turn the TV off or turn the channel. But I think there's a bigger issue at play -- mental illness -- which I'm glad has finally come to the surface, and yeah, those people should not be watching The Following. How do I get them not to watch it? I don't know. Is there a responsibility? I'm a writer, and I want to tell my stories. So should I be able to do that? I don't have an answer.
Alex Gansa: Well, personally, I've been appalled by the violence on The Newsroom. (Laughter.)
Beau Willimon: It's shocking!
Aaron Sorkin: The only thing anybody has to fear if you watch too much of The Newsroom, or really anything I write, is that you'll start singing Gilbert and Sullivan.
Matthew Weiner: Equally scary!
Sorkin: I think we can all empathize with Kevin. But something that isn't discussed in terms of Hollywood's influence on the culture is that we've also created the mythology that -- I don't want to make this a liberal discussion -- so many people, particularly on the right, want to restore America to this thing that it never was. Whether it was that World War II was a very glamorous war or, you know, that African-Americans are subservient people who occasionally impart wisdom. And that Father Knows Best kind of thing. Didn't we create those myths as well as glamorizing violence?
Williamson: I grew up watching [everything] and feel like fiction is the place I can take these ideas and let them out. I don't go out into the real world and create violence. I'm actually squeamish. The sight of blood terrifies me. I don't watch horror movies anymore because I've grown into that old man who has a sensitive stomach.
Weiner: I don't have the stomach for violence either, but working on The Sopranos, there was some competitive part of me that wanted to write a brutal, violent scene to capture who those people were -- their disrespect for human life. But there are age restrictions on these shows. The stranger thing to me is that people have a very high tolerance for violence. Blowing people's heads off, shooting them in the face. You can show somebody cutting off a breast, but you can't show a baby breastfeeding!
Willimon: Shakespeare and the Greeks were way more violent and gory than anything that we're up to. I think it's interesting that people focus so much on physical violence and what they don't talk about is ideological violence. What makes Birth of a Nation so troubling? It's not the physical violence; it's the anti-Semitism and racism, which is way more destructive. Great movies like The Godfather or Apocalypse Now … no one's sitting around saying now, "Why are they so violent and ruined a generation of children?" The double standards are laughable. People had no problem seeing on House of Cards some of the ways people behaved emotionally or physically violent to one another. But we killed a dog in the first 30 seconds and people freaked out.
D.B. Weiss: When we killed a horse on Game of Thrones, people were not happy. But we didn't actually kill a horse. No horses harmed!
Weiner: I'm always shocked by how much the audience has an appetite for viscera.
THR: Where does that appetite come from?
Weiner: Viewers are powerless, and they want revenge.
Gansa: But I would say that there's a line at which things start to feel gratuitous.
Weiss: There's a line beyond which it starts to work against itself and become comedic and look like The Evil Dead II and …
Williamson: Too bloody and fake.
Weiss: Violence in the real world is awful to witness. But it's the sanitized versions of violence on TV that are worse because they're letting kids watch. On network TV, people die in droves in a way that's clean and easy to watch and fun. It's more like an old video game.
Sorkin: The Louisville basketball player [Kevin Ware] who was terribly injured in that NCAA tournament game? You couldn't look at it; the players were on the bench covering their eyes. But why, an hour later on one of our shows, can they look at something much worse?