At this time last August, the members of the city’s political and media classes were out on the campaign trail, hustling from town to town, shaping or reporting the reality of another general election. But this Wednesday night, a year later, we were back in DC in the plush, velvet environs of the Motion Picture Association of America, listening to Oscar and Emmy winner Aaron Sorkin, a master of mixing political reality, fiction, and drama. He first made a splash in Washington in the ’90s when he created the hit NBC series The West Wing. The screenwriter/producer/playwright was in town now to talk about his newest HBO series, The Newsroom, at an invitation-only screening and Q&A with New Republic literary critic Leon Wieseltier, who is one of the show’s many “consultants.”
The audience members were a mix of Sorkin acolytes, friends, and subjects—such as the evening’s cohost, New Republic owner Chris Hughes, one of the cofounders of Facebook. He had the particular distinction of having been portrayed, however briefly, in The Social Network, which chronicled the inception and early era of Facebook.
It was an audience of familiar names and faces. A few seats over from Hughes was Walter Isaacson, head of the Aspen Institute, author of a best-selling biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs, and a former editor of Time magazine and CEO of CNN. Just down from Isaacson was Stephanie Cutter, a political consultant who was deputy manager for President Obama’s 2012 campaign, and Roger Simon, chief political columnist at Politico. Multiples of those few basically defined the audience—seat after seat, row after row.
There were cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, a screening of the not-yet-aired seventh episode of The Newsroom, and then the draw of the evening: the back-and-forth between Wieseltier and Sorkin. Not that there was much back-and-forth. Sorkin is a natural-born talker, and speaks in a style that is familiar to anyone who is a student of the fast-paced, sophisticated, and often elliptical ways in which he shapes his sentences (or shards of sentences) for his characters.
Toward the end of the evening he showed a Washington talent for revealing something fresh. “I don’t want to make news tonight,” he said, but then went ahead and noted that HBO “asked me to come back and do another season, and it’s something I’d love to do.” The caveat is fitting it into his busy schedule—in two months he starts filming his next movie, The Trial of the Chicago Seven—and one other issue: “In terms of what that season would be about, I have no idea. I would want to know before I come back, and I would want it to be different from the first two.”
Here’s more of what the very quotable Sorkin had to say on a variety of topics, weaving in Aristotle where relevant:
Why The Newsroom is set in the recent past:
“Two reasons: one, I didn’t want to make up fake news. I felt it would take us out of it and that it wouldn’t seem like any role we were familiar with. The second reason is because I really like when the audience knows more than the characters do . . . never is that used to make them better than anyone else would be, and it’s never used as a critique of journalism.”
Why Newsroom character Will McAvoy is a moderate Republican:
“In any drama, what you need is conflict. The conflict on this show oftentimes is ideas that are crashing into each other. To me, nowadays, the more interesting conflict isn’t between right and left—it’s between right and far right. And so I had him be that for that reason.”
His affection for scenes featuring a legal deposition:
“There’s just something I find very clean about it. There’s a clear intention, an obstacle, and you suddenly don’t have to deal with, ‘Good morning, how are you, what kind of day has it been?’ So you can get to the stuff. There’s a reason people are having this very formal conversation. There’s just a lot about it that’s cool to me.”
Making fiction out of reality:
“Here’s what I care about getting right. I know this is going to sound a little corny and a little cute, but it’s real. I’m more interested in the appearance of reality than reality. It needs to feel real. . . . We need to feel [that] the characters—whether they are in a newsroom or the White House—what they care about first is doing their jobs. They care about us, they care about the integrity of what they are doing. Once you nail that down, you can have them slipping on as many banana peels as you want.”
“Let me say this about what I know about journalism, which is nothing: The difference between writing a show that takes place in a newsroom and working in a newsroom is the same as the difference between drawing a building and building a building. Which is to say they are almost unrelated. I don’t claim any expertise in what the pros do.”
“As much as the journalism world may resent the feeling that I’m working their side of the street, that is nothing compared with how much journalism is working my side of the street.”
On new media:
“Right now there’s a tremendous amount of media, and some of it is great and some of it, I believe, is a genuinely damaging force in our culture. I don’t think we’re very nice to each other anymore. There’s just too much money to be made and fun to be had laughing at somebody else fail. I’m not going to name names. . . . [A few sentences later] “I will name a name. It’s what covers the homepage of the Huffington Post, [where] there’s a need to put an exclamation point after everything.”
On the style of his dialogue:
“There are playwrights and screenwriters whose greatest strength is they are able to mimic the sound of people talking, and when you can do it well it can be breathtaking. That, though, is not a requirement; that’s not a storytelling element Aristotle said you had to have. A storytelling element that Aristotle said we did have to have is that the music of the language . . . has to have value. It’s got to be pleasing somehow.”
Critics and criticism in the modern age:
“There have been throughout history fantastic critics, from Harold Clurman to Brooks Atkinson to Janet Maslin, and—I thought—Frank Rich, when he was on the drama desk of the Times, and others. For all I know, they’re still out there, but two things have happened. Because of IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes, the review doesn’t matter as much as the aggregate. You get an 82 on Rotten Tomatoes, that’s fantastic. All that means is 82 percent of several hundred critics gave what Rotten Tomatoes believes to be a good review, which means [it] counts as much as A.O. Scott or Manohla Dargis.”
“To captivate you for as long as I have your attention. I’m not trying to persuade anybody or anything, change anybody’s mind, instruct them. It’s a recipe for disaster if you sit down and attempt to do anything more. If you’re going to sit down and write The Social Network and say, ‘Well, what I want to do is define a generation,’ that’s an unwritable thing. You can only do the things Aristotle told you are parts of drama. If you do it well enough, it can reverberate, and those kinds of things can happen. I try not to do anything that lives outside of writing.”