Sorkin's 'Newsroom' Weaves In Real Top Stories

Renee Montagne talks to Aaron Sorkin, creator of the new HBO show about cable news called The Newsroom. it depicts a newsroom filled with idealistic types. Some critics have panned it as overly earnest.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Aaron Sorkin is the rare TV and screenwriter whose name is as famous as its actors. That name was synonymous with the movie "The Social Network," and before that, "The West Wing."

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know, the series that's famous for its rapid-fire dialogue, people talking in low voices, talking over each other...

MONTAGNE: Or finishing each other's thoughts, often saying earnest and patriotic things.

INSKEEP: And the setting for his new show on HBO is the hyper-competitive world of cable news.

MONTAGNE: And because it's Sorkin's creation, "The Newsroom" is already being much talked about, and also panned by some critics as overly earnest.

INSKEEP: And the show does look back to a time when Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite ruled, and it depicts a newsroom filled with idealistic types.

MONTAGNE: All of them eager to recapture an earlier, golden age of news, just after anchor Will McAvoy experiences a very public career crisis. Well, Aaron Sorkin joined us from our New York bureau to talk about it.

Welcome to the program.

AARON SORKIN: It's good to be here.

MONTAGNE: Now, the show starts with a tirade from the lead character, Will McAvoy. He's on a panel, talking to a hall filled with journalism students. And one young woman asks the panel if - what makes America the greatest country in the world? Let's listen to just a few seconds of his response.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NEWSROOM")

JEFF DANIELS: (as Will McAvoy) We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next 26 countries combined - 25 of whom are allies. Now, none of this is the fault of a 20-year-old college student, but you nonetheless are, without a doubt, a member of the worst, period, generation, period, ever, period. So, when you ask what makes us the greatest country in the world, I don't know what the (beep) you're talking about.

MONTAGNE: Well.

SORKIN: Right. We're catching him at the moment of the perfect storm. It's a very unexpected thing for this character, Will McAvoy, who's played by Jeff Daniels, to do. He's known as a straight-down-the-middle-of-the-road anchor who has gotten very popular by not bothering anybody. They call him the Jay Leno of news. So for him to have this kind of outburst is very unusual. He's also a guy who's privately in a lot of pain. He's had his heart broken by a woman, and he's had his heart broken by the news.

MONTAGNE: You put into these episodes real news events. It begins with the BP oil spill in the Gulf, and goes from there, using actual news that people will have seen.

SORKIN: None of the news is invented. I didn't want, in this case, make up fake news. I wanted it to feel like the world we were living in. So by setting it in the recent past, I was able to kind of reexamine news events. But you can also do some fun things dramatically. You can have the audience know more than the characters do, and it's exciting to watch the characters catch up to what we already know on, for instance, the night we got bin Laden, that kind of thing, or, as you've mentioned, the BP oil spill. And so if you want, through the benefit of hindsight, you can make our guys smarter than people were. You can make them dumber than people were. You can just play around dramatically a little bit.

MONTAGNE: You are so well-known for your dialogue throughout all of your shows, throughout all your movies. And it's really unlike anything else - very fast-paced, overlapping dialogue. Let's play a sample from "The Newsroom." Here, Jeff Daniels, who's McAvoy, talking to his new executive producer, played by Emily Mortimer.

SORKIN: MacKenzie McHale is her name, the Emily Mortimer character.

MONTAGNE: She's basically berating him for resisting her wanting to get him going on a serious news show, not this sort of vanilla news show he'd been doing before.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE NEWSROOM")

EMILY MORTIMER: (as MacKenzie McHale) You're terrified you're going to lose your audience, and you'd do anything to get them back. You're one pitch meeting away from doing the news in 3D.

DANIELS: (as Will McAvoy) This isn't nonprofit theater. It's advertiser-supported television. You know that, right?

MORTIMER: I'd rather do a good show for a hundred people than a bad one for a million, if that's what you're saying.

DANIELS: What is it you're talking to me about right now?

MORTIMER: I've come here to produce a news broadcast that more closely resembles the one we did before you got popular by not bothering anyone, Leno.

DANIELS: I think Jay and I would rather be employed, if it's all the same to you.

MORTIMER: It's not all the same to me, you punk.

SORKIN: In this scene, you know, they haven't seen each other in three years. They do have a romantic history. But, you know, we've talked about romantic histories with a lower-case R. The show, at its heart, is meant to be romantic with a capital R - romantic, idealistic, quixotic, swashbuckling. It's not gritty. It's aspirational. You want an orchestra winding up with strings.

MONTAGNE: Which you have, as a matter of fact.

SORKIN: A 58-piece orchestra playing Tom Newman's beautiful score - yes, we do. And that's the show that I wanted to do. It's nice to take places that are generally treated cynically in popular culture, whether it's the White House or journalism, and turn that on its ear and write idealistically about it.

MONTAGNE: Although, I wonder the dialogue - you just said the word quixotic, and, in fact, MacKenzie says the word quixotic.

SORKIN: Everybody, at some point in this series, says the word quixotic. The theme of Don Quixote goes all the way through the series. They're constantly referencing it, as well as other - there isn't an episode of the show where a Broadway musical isn't mentioned.

MONTAGNE: Well, what I'm wondering, though, is if this is because a lot of the dialogue - which is very snappy and fascinating and you really can't stop listening to it - but that it also feels like it also comes out of debates in your own mind, as opposed to something you would overhear at the deli.

SORKIN: Yeah. Those debates - I do have those fights in my head and walking around my office and walking around home. And I need to get a fight started. If you can get two people in a room disagreeing about something - anything, the correct time of day - then you're off to a good start. But I really enjoy the sound of language, particularly dialogue. It sounds like music to me. It always has.

My parents started taking me to the theater when I was very young, and oftentimes they took me to plays that I was too young to understand - you know, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" when I was nine years old, that kind of thing. And even though I couldn't understand the story, I loved the dialogue. It sounded like music to me, and I wanted to imitate that sound. So, what the words sound like is as important to me as what they mean.

MONTAGNE: Will McAvoy, as he puts it himself early on, is on a mission, with - it seems like almost everyone he runs into - to civilize.

SORKIN: That's what he calls it. Yeah.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. I mean, but is that what you're hoping to do, in some sense, with "The Newsroom"?

SORKIN: No. My sights are set no higher than entertaining you for the hour that I've asked for your attention. This isn't discrete or an op-ed piece of any kind. I'm not trying to change your mind. My goals are exactly the same as the goals of the producers of "NCIS." I just want to entertain you for an hour.

And this is an ensemble show. It's a great ensemble cast who all have one foot in an older, more civilized time and one foot in today. And they are on, again, a quixotic mission to civilize, not just the news, but the world around them. And they're reaching unrealistically high, and they're going to fall down a lot.

MONTAGNE: Aaron Sorkin, thank you very much for joining us.

SORKIN: Oh, it's so good to be here. Thanks a lot.

MONTAGNE: Aaron Sorkin is the creator of "The Newsroom," which premieres on HBO this Sunday.

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