LAFF 2012: Inside ‘The Newsroom’ With Aaron Sorkin

By  · Published on June 24th, 2012

Please read this article with caution as it does contain plot details that some may consider spoilers for the first episode of HBO’s The Newsroom.

After screening the pilot episode (“We Just Decided To”) of Aaron Sorkin’s new show The Newsroom, the Los Angeles Film Festival audience was treated to a Q&A session which featured Sorkin himself along with executive producer Alan Poul, director Greg Mottola, and moderated by Madeleine Brand (The Madeleine Brand Show.) Anyone who has attended a Sorkin Q&A (or seen the man speak) knows that it is the equivalent of being shot out of a cannon. Sorkin’s signature fast-talk does not just live on the pages he writes, it is also how Sorkin speaks himself.

It was clear that whatever Sorkin and Brand had spoken about prior to coming into the theater had left them both riled up. Brand (much like the Northwestern professor does to Jeff Daniels character, Will McAvoy, in the first scene of the premiere episode) refused to let Sorkin get away with non-answers or quips. Brand continuously pushed him until Sorkin, the man of a million words, let out an exasperated breath… and then jumped right back in.

The Newsroom’s first episode takes many twists and turns as Sorkin establishes these characters (who all embody his signature mile-a-minute speak), but the news itself focuses on the Louisiana oil spill back on April 20, 2010. While there are certainly moments of walk (or even run) and talk, the first scene (a portion of which can be seen in the show’s promos) has Will ripping into a female co-ed at a rapid fire pace without ever leaving his seat. While the staff are constantly running around to compile the news (sometimes hilariously caught doing so in the background of the broadcast), it is Will who sits stationary to report it, giving The Newsroom that combination of movement and stillness that proved to be both captivating and invigorating.

Here are the 19 things we learned during “Developing Story: Inside the Newsroom” conversation and panel.

1. Sorkin likes to write romantic and idealistic shows, not gritty ones. Sorkin said that he knows The Newsroom will get compared to Network, but he pointed out that Network was a cynical look at television whereas The Newsroom is an optimistic look at news television.

2. Sorkin wishes we could go back to the “golden age” of news reporting when the most trusted man in America was an anchorman. In this case, Sorkin was referring to Walter Cronkite. He went on to say that we used to have a firewall between entertainment and the news, but now with ratings driving everything, that firewall no longer exists.

3. Mottola (who directed this first episode) said his main goal was to “do with picture what Sorkin does with words.” Mottola approached Sorkin’s long, dialogue heavy scenes as acts to be broken up through various cuts and camera angles (all with a degree of experimentation when filming this first episode to see what worked best.) He said he wanted that energy and the surprising turns that appear in Sorkin’s writing to also be reflected in his direction as well.

4. The two pundits featured in the first scene were originally going to be played by real people from the left and right, but the dialogue overlapped so much, Sorkin knew they would need actors not “stunt casting.” In that moment, Sorkin decided that no one would play themselves on the show outside those featured in the real news footage. He said the idea of putting real pundits into that first scene would be like “sticking myself into a Lakers game.”

5. The opening scene was the last one written.

6. Sorkin writes every episode himself, but does so with a staff made up of experts to give him “crash courses” on topics he may not know about. Sorkin laughed that he is almost always writing about things he knows nothing about.

7. Sorkin relies on Poul and Mottola as script editors. He joked that if the first episode were left in only his hands he would have written a “long speech” in that first scene.

8. Mottola said it is helpful to have that singular voice. Many have compared Sorkin’s words to music and Mottola repeats that idea here saying he would approach Sorkin’s scripts like you would score. There is room for creative input, but at the end of the day, “score is score” and any changes would mess up the tempo Sorkin had created.

9. When Sorkin asked if Daniels would feel more comfortable delivering his extensive dialogue during the news scene via cue cards, Daniels responded by reading the news stats to him backwards. Mottola credits Daniels with setting the bar high as his character has the most dialogue, but he is always on top of it, forcing the rest of the cast to “keep up with Jeff” until everyone knew their lines backwards and forwards as well.

10. Sorkin credits his actors for making his long speeches and verbose dialogue bearable. He said that while he can put it on the page, it is up to the actors to deliver and perform the lines with an appealing and interesting style that keeps audiences entertained.

11. Mottola confirmed that the sets are real with a working newsroom and control room. Sorkin did not want the actors performing to playback so everything you see on screen from Mackenzie (Emily Mortimer) producing Will to Maggie (Alison Pill) giving him stats is filmed in real time with the actors actually reacting to each other.

12. There will be ten episodes this season and they are all locked. The first episode will seem a bit long and that’s because it is, clocking in at a total of one hour and fifteen minutes. Sorkin said he gave much more thought to the full scope of this show’s arch this time around and the season resembles the three acts of a movie. After this first episode, we are in the first third of the three acts. Since the show is completed, Sorkin said it allows him to avoid “writing for change” where one finds themselves writing in response to audience reactions to episodes.

13. The show will cover eighteen months in its first season.

14. Sorkin knows people will dislike the show because of its politics (much like they did with The West Wing), but he views the show as a “swashbuckling fantasy against a real backdrop.” Sorkin wanted to make the show balanced since is something he thinks should be a priority of a news program. On The Newsroom, if someone says something bad about the Democrats, something bad must also be said about the Republicans.

15. There is a Don Quixote reference made in the premiere episode and Sorkin admitted he reads that book “like other people read the Bible.” He went on to joke that he would be honored if people even considered him the donkey of the show, continuing to use the Don Quixote metaphor.

16. Just before giving up on the idea of a newsroom drama, Sorkin came up with the idea to make the show a “period piece.” Sorkin had been spending time in newsrooms, hoping something would happen to inspire him, and just as he was about to write the project off, he noticed that he had been staring at the spill cam for the 2010 oil spill. It was in that moment he decided to make the show a “period piece” and set it through past news events. Sorkin never wanted to make up fake news, but he also knew he would not know the news six months before it happened so the idea of setting the show back a few years would allow for the news to be real while the fictional characters could be “that corner of Camelot.” This also allows the audience that added fun of knowing things the characters do not.

17. The Newsroom starts out like a normal show, but with the reveal of the breaking news story, you suddenly realize that the show is actually set two years in the past. Using real news stories also allowed Sorkin to show the behind-the-scenes process of how people who give us the news get it themselves.

18. Jesse Eisenberg has a guest-starring role in the first episode. As the voice of Eric Neal (real life Minerals Management Services inspector) and Sorkin noted that this would be the only instance on the show that an actor would play real person. Sorkin added that everything Eisenberg said as Neal in the interview was real and was pulled from the actual interview Neal did (only Neal’s interview was conducted weeks after the spill, not moments after the news broke.)

19. Sorkin’s main goal for The Newsroom is to entertain audiences. He noted that there is a plaque on the studio they film in commemorating The Monkees (who also filmed there) and Sorkin claims their goals are “exactly the same” as The Monkees – they simply want to entertain.

While it is no question that he can talk, Sorkin is also a master at taking any question (whether from Brand or an audience member) and giving answers that are incredibly interesting and layered, elevating the questions themselves through his responses.

The Newsroom will premiere on HBO this Sunday, June 24th, at 10pm.