Writing And The West Wing
In my home office I have two writing shelves. One that proudly displays books I have written, and one that holds books that inspire me or guide me.
In pride of place on the inspiration shelf is a book of scripts from The West Wing, the US TV drama series about work and life behind the scenes in the White House. Reading these scripts is a great demonstration of the power of good writing. It’s so crisp and concise, but contains all of the energy and meaning that you see on the screen. Just reading a script brings everything alive in your head. You can see what I mean by reading a PDF of the script for the pilot episode.
Recently, Empire magazine published The Definitive History Of The West Wing, compiled from interviews with the key cast members, the director, and the writer Aaron Sorkin himself. It’s quite similar to a previous article by the Hollywood Reporter.
They’re a fascinating insight into how a great TV programme is made. These are the points I drew from the articles.
The Writer Has The Confidence To Lead
Aaron Sorkin has a reputation as a bit of a prima donna, but at least he asserts himself where so many writers are content in the background. He’s the man with the vision for the series, and every great project needs a visionary to drive it through.
The cast talk about him insisting they perform their lines exactly as written, because of the precision of meaning and cadence that goes into the writing. Martin Sheen Says: “Aaron’s very sticky about using precise language. It’s in his contract: you have to use what he writes! It was poetry couched in politics, but it was poetry for the common man. It made us feel that our thoughts and our emotions and our hopes and fears could be expressed in a more lofty way and be no less human. He has that extraordinary gift of making ordinary people speak in an extraordinary way.”
But they seem to be able to discuss ideas with him to feed into that writing. Sorkin says: “Sometimes they’ll come and say, ‘This series of words just sounds strange coming out of my mouth.’’ And I’ll make some kind of adjustment the way you would if someone was buying a new suit.”
The cast also seem to be impressed that what he puts in the script ends up on set in terms of the scale. In one quote a cast member says “If Aaron has written that the presidential motorcade has 75 cars, it’ll have 75, not 74.”
His confidence of leadership and vision transfers the drama from his head to the page to the screen.
Great TV writing snaps and crackles
I have the book of West Wing scripts and what struck me in reading it is exactly what struck me when watching the programme — the writing is so crisp and concise. Each line contains the minimum number of words, but a strong impact. The drama and the characters are constantly being propelled forward.
I get the impression that a large part of Sorkin’s writing process is in the editing. Cutting, and cutting again, until the writing is snappy and the script crackles with energy.
Great TV relies on a magic combination of writer, cast, producer and director
This is mentioned by a number of the interviewees in the articles. If anyone had been weak, the effect would have been lost, however strong the others were. Thomas Schlamme, the director, is the one that came up with the idea of the long tracking walking shots in the corridors that kept the feeling of momentum. Without that there would have been too much static exposition. The cast brought a depth to the characters that isn’t conveyed in the words alone. And of course, however hard the cast and director would have worked at their jobs, it would come to nothing without a powerful story and dialogue. The producer, John Wells, recognised grand vision, and the talent of his team. He backed them to the hilt, sheltering them from problems from the studio and the network.
The People That Run Studios and TV Networks Have No Idea What Makes Great TV
This is shown in the articles, and seems to have been a feature of every great TV hit I have ever read about. From the BBC recommendation to reject Fawlty Towers to NBC not wanting to make the West Wing, it seems TV executives just don’t get TV. This makes the challenge for great TV writers, directors and producers even harder — but demonstrates the worth of self-belief and persistance in the face of negativity.
Bradley Whitford (who played Josh Lyman) says: “It should scare the shit out of every development person in Hollywood that if any of them had any idea that Breaking Bad was going to be as successful as it was they would’ve destroyed it. The same is true of The Sopranos. If they thought it was going to be successful, they never would’ve met Gandolfini. And if Aaron had allowed his show to have the conventional network interference it would’ve been a disaster. They read the pilot and, if you remember, the Cuban refugees were on boats and Sam and I are trying to figure out whether we let them land in Florida or send them back. The note from NBC was, “We need to get Sam and Josh in the water.” Like Rahm Emanuel in a fucking Speedo! Saving the Cubans!”
In summary, the articles are a fascinating insight into a great programme, and the creative process behind it.
If you’re a West Wing fan, you might also like this behind the scenes tour of the set.