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Aaron Sorkin‘s love affair with exploring the inner-workings of live television returns to the small screen Sunday when HBO bows The Newsroom, a behind-the-scenes look at a cable news network and the personalities who populate its staff.
The series, which stars Jeff Daniels as Will McAvoy — a not-Keith Olbermann-type broadcaster whose career trajectory mirrors, well, Keith Olbermann — marks the SportsNight and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip creator’s third trip behind the curtain of live television.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with the Emmy-winning creator of The West Wing — and Oscar winner for scripting The Social Network — at Wednesday’s Hollywood premiere to pose a question to him that sinks Daniels’ Will and launches one of Newsroom‘s central themes: putting the news first and foremost amid an industry that has lost sight of its top job. In addition, Sorkin reveals what news people including Piers Morgan, Bryant Gumbel, Regis Philbin, Brian Williams, Bob Simon and Ashleigh Banfield, among others, thought of the drama following a private screening this week in New York.
The Hollywood Reporter: Taking a line from The Newsroom trailer: Why is America the greatest country in the world?
Aaron Sorkin: To give the right answer, I would be giving a spoiler on the season finale because Will actually encounters the sorority girl again and says, “Ask me that question again” — only he answers it differently this time.
I think it is the greatest country in the world, and a lot of it has to do with what Emily Mortimer‘s character said: “We are a country that keeps saying that we can do better.” It’s also a country where I’m allowed to write a show like this. I’m glad we’re that. I’m two generations removed from being blacklisted in Hollywood, I surely would have been one of those guys called in front of the committee, and we’re not that country anymore. We shoot The Newsroom on Stage 7 at Sunset Gower Studios — that’s the same stage where they shot The Monkees; it says so, there’s a plaque. My intention with The Newsroom is exactly the same as their intention: I just want you to have fun for an hour a night. I’m not trying to teach you anything, persuade you of anything; I’m not trying to make a difference.
This is meant to be an idealistic, romantic, swashbuckling, sometimes comedic but very optimistic, upward-looking look at a group of people who are often looked at cynically. The same as with The West Wing, where ordinarily in popular culture our leaders are portrayed either as Machiavellian or dumb; I wanted to do something different and show a highly competent group of people. That’s the same juice that’s behind The Newsroom. The journalists that I’ve met, they are sticking to the ideal, whether they work for The Hollywood Reporter or The Wall Street Journal, there is a reason they went into this. I know that there are market forces at work that sometimes clobber them, but I love underdogs — especially when they’re reaching unrealistically high. That’s what these guys are doing, and they’re going to fall down a lot as a result.
Having done SportsNight and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, what makes the behind-the-scenes aspect of television so attractive to you?
I find live television very romantic somehow. I’m not sure why. This is the third show I’ve done about live television, and there’s something about everything stopping at 8 o’clock and “you have to do this now for an hour” that for this one hour you’re either in control or you’re not. I have a lot of fun writing the episodes where everything goes wrong, too. I also like writing about a group of people whose lives are a mess except for that one hour a night when they can get it right and they’re up in this treehouse in a skyscraper in New York City, broadcasting this signal out into the night into the world. There’s something about that image that I find it very romantic.
We’ve been hearing for months that Daniels’ character, Will, is based on Keith Olbermann, and you’ve spent time with him in advance of Newsroom. How much time did you spend with him?
I spent less than 10 minutes with Keith; those reports are false. I’m very grateful that he let me come — he was hosting Countdown at the time. I spent two days at MSNBC, I spent a few days at Fox, a few days at CNN. In the time I was at MSNBC, we talked for a few minutes in his office, about sports mostly. But I liked standing by the wall and watching mostly. I liked hanging out with the more junior staffers because I knew there would be an Upstairs Downstairs quality on the show. I liked talking to the PAs, the associate producers, that kind of thing.
What I got was a certain energy and a real ideal that what’s in the water supply now is that the media is bad — that they’re either in the tank for one party or the other or they’re in it for sensationalism or the money or they’re jaded, etc. Of course there are bad journalists; there are also bad screenwriters, bad lawyers, bad doctors and bad dentists. The journalists that I’ve met really do have an ideal and badly want to do well. To me, going in and placing a show in a very cynical environment and populating it with very idealistic people was a lot of fun.
Of all the people you spent time with doing research for Newsroom, have they seen it? Have you heard feedback from them?
We had a screening two nights ago of pretty much everyone in the news business in New York. If a bomb had gone off in the Time Warner building, there would have been no one there to report it. It was really an emotional night; they saw themselves as the heroes of the story — and they are the heroes of the story — and I think they felt like, “Finally, somebody isn’t calling us bad names.”
Have you heard from Olbermann about what he thinks of the similarities between his career of late and Will’s character?
I haven’t. My relationship with Keith has been mischaracterized in the press; we don’t know each other very well. I admire him a lot and I think he’s a guy I would like to know, but I had never met him when I wrote SportsNight; I went and I hung out at Bristol, Conn., at ESPN, and I didn’t meet him until after the show was on the air. The second time I met him was last year with this. We’re not BFFs; we don’t talk.
The Newsroom premieres at 10 p.m. Sunday on HBO. Hit the comments with your thoughts: Will you watch?
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