Extended Interview: Tommy Schlamme
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TERENCE SMITH: How important is it that your show approximate reality?
TOMMY SCHLAMME: I think it’s important to us that it be real, as close to the reality as a piece of fiction can be. And what I mean by that is, I think that we all sort of came to this project with the idea that we wanted some emotional truth. What I mean by that is not necessarily everybody said the exact things that you would say, that you would walk the exact way that you would walk, that you would read the exact things that you’d read; but that the overall essence of what it would be like to work in the West Wing would be reflected in our show.
TERENCE SMITH: And do you need, therefore, to be true to the issues that you raise, which really form a kind of backbone of the plot?
TOMMY SCHLAMME: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you need to be true to those issues, and the way a liberal Democratic president would handle them?
TOMMY SCHLAMME: I think the answer is “Yes.” But as you well know being around politics, a liberal Democrat might handle an issue a multiple amount of ways; so that we then have a huge license within that. And we’re also not trying to define ourselves as a completely liberal Democratic president, so that he has the ability to make some choices, which you see now in politics far more than you did 25 years ago.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you think it is possible that you can convey the background or process of a decision in the White House even better in some ways than mainstream news media?
TOMMY SCHLAMME: I don’t know whether we can do it better, but I think we can do it in a way that makes an audience feel far more comfortable about it. I think that we can make an audience be able to sort of relax and watch the environment around them.
When it’s all over with, they’re actually understanding it better than if they picked up the New York Times even and they watched your show, where they’re coming there specifically to be told the truth.
TERENCE SMITH: Is it at all a scary notion to you that large numbers of Americans might be getting their chief impression of life in the White House and the decisions from your show?
TOMMY SCHLAMME: Yeah, of course it is. And the reason for that is not because we don’t have anything to say. I think, as an American, I have something to say. As an American, you have something to say.
But I think what it is, is that it keeps us on our toes, and makes us have to be, if not truthful, at least have to be conscious that what we’re saying is going to be heard and is going to shape policy to some people.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you concern yourself with the show becoming even too issue-heavy?
TOMMY SCHLAMME: Sure, we do. We are a piece of fiction, and we are there for entertainment. When we did the pilot, the idea was: “We want to entertain you. We don’t want to educate you. If that happens, it’s great.” I think, because of the amount of press that we’ve gotten, because of people talking about this show exactly the way you’re talking about it, [that] puts a little bit of a pressure on us that we didn’t really ask for and we’re not looking for. We love to talk about the census, we like to talk about, you know, any political issue we can–if it serves the drama. And that’s the reason that we talk about it.
TERENCE SMITH: What are some issues that you’ll deal with in the upcoming season?
TOMMY SCHLAMME: I think we have in the third or fourth episode, we have [a segment] about an African country who’s coming [to the White House] for an AIDS seminar, and it’s a very powerful episode. And it deals with the pharmaceutical companies; it deals with AIDS as a form of genocide in certain African nations. It’s under the context of a relationship between the “President” and a leader in an African nation. That’s the drama. The drama that we’re interested in is their relationship as two men.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. You may be interested to know that two people we’ve interviewed, Marlin Fitzwater, who was in the White House, and Joe Lockhart, who is in the White House, both believe that, within the limits of dramatic license, you fairly accurately reflect life there.
TOMMY SCHLAMME: Right. It’s incredibly flattering to us. Even though it was a wonderful thing to win a lot of Emmies, when we get that feedback, it means so much to us. We’re working so hard to somewhat be truthful. And it’s a very interesting thing. The higher up that people seem to be in politics, the more responsive they are to our show. It’s somewhat the lower level, the entree level, that people are going, “No, you don’t do this.”
You know, they’re picking out the specific things that we know you don’t do. But the bigger thing, which is these people are working this way, I think people are getting, which is great.