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Extended Interview: Aaron Sorkin

September 27, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT

TERENCE SMITH: What was the original concept for this show? What interested you about the White House or the West Wing to do a dramatic show about it?

AARON SORKIN: There’s a great tradition in storytelling that’s thousands of years old, telling stories about kings and their palaces, and that’s really what I wanted to do.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. And it’s our king and it’s our palace.

AARON SORKIN: That’s right. So obviously it’s a fascinating world. There really isn’t a story that you can’t tell inside of it. It’s very much a clearinghouse for anything that goes on in the world. So you’re not at all limited. It’s populated by people who, by and large, have terrific communication skills. Every day is an extraordinary day. For me, it was just a great area for storytelling.

TERENCE SMITH: Was the timing of this creation in any way pegged to or motivated by the huge attention on the White House vis-a-vis the Monica Lewinsky affair

AARON SORKIN: No. I think, if anything, it was slightly hindered by it. The show was meant to premiere a year before it had. I turned in the pilot script of the episode to Warner Brothers and to NBC I think about three weeks [after] Monica Lewinsky came on our radar screen. And at that point, there was a feeling that there was a bit of a “snicker” factor attached to the White House and that we wouldn’t be able to do the show, the kind of show that we wanted to do.

TERENCE SMITH: You made a decision, obviously, not to include that aspect of the Clinton White House.

AARON SORKIN: Absolutely. And it’s too bad because there’s actually, you know, there’s some great stories you can get out of scandals. But they’ve already done it. So, yes, a conscious decision not to include any of that.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. You tackle some very heavy issues, important national and international issues. Why so issue heavy?

AARON SORKIN: It’s important to remember that, first and foremost, if not only, this is entertainment. “The West Wing” isn’t meant to be good for you. We’re not telling anyone to eat their vegetables, and we do not consider it important in the sense that you’re saying.

TERENCE SMITH: In the news sense.

AARON SORKIN: Exactly. Our responsibility is to captivate you for however long we’ve asked for your attention. That said, there is tremendous drama to be gotten from the great, what you would say, heavy issues. There’s also drama to be gotten from issues that most people would consider very dry and wouldn’t want to pay any attention to. Those are the fields you’re going to plant. Certainly, last year we did an episode about the census and sampling versus a direct statistic.

You just said the word “census,” and people fall asleep. It’s a questionnaire. It turns out it’s terribly important. There is a genuine issue there with two sides who disagree fairly passionately on it. Any time you get two people in a room who disagree about anything, the time of day, there is a scene to be written. That’s what I look for.

TERENCE SMITH: It’s interesting, we went back and looked at the news coverage of the census, and it was barely there at all. You devoted an episode to it.

AARON SORKIN: Yeah. Well, you know, I have a luxury that news outlets don’t. I can tell stories, and it’s more difficult for them to tell a story. With news, “It’s just the facts, ma’am.” I already have a built in set of characters that an audience enjoys being with for an hour. In other words, I already have their attention, and I have the luxury of making it fun, which news organizations don’t and probably shouldn’t.

TERENCE SMITH: That raises a question that perhaps you can get at issues, including serious issues, that news organizations find hard to do.

AARON SORKIN: It raises a question, and it also raises a problem, which is that, as I said, my first, if not only, obligation is to entertain. A news organization has a much different responsibility. I might not be telling you the whole story. I might not be telling you a story in a manner that is properly sophisticated. I would hate for anyone to limit the scope of their education on a subject to me. And, frankly, every teacher I’ve ever had in my life would agree with what I’ve just said.

TERENCE SMITH: And yet polls show that the American public draws some, or even a lot, of information about politics from late-night comedy and perhaps the White House from “The West Wing.”

AARON SORKIN: Perhaps. And because of that, despite the fact, once again, we’re writing a television show here and not a newspaper, we do take that responsibility seriously. We want people to have faith in us. I can justify those two things by simply saying, when that stops happening, when we lose our credibility, the show isn’t as good.

TERENCE SMITH: How important is reality, to be faithful to the facts?

AARON SORKIN: Well, and I don’t want to get too fine with you here. But the appearance of reality is more important than reality. What do I mean by that? We’re about to shoot an episode on Air Force One, for instance, and we’re going to take liberties, small liberties, with Air Force One, as we take small liberties with our White House set. You are going to absolutely believe this is Air Force One, and it’s going to have the effect that we want it to. And that’s all that matters.

If it’s important that you, the first thing that’s important is that you buy that this is a real White House. And it’s not necessarily true that I need to make a real White House in order to sell that to you.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you believe that it is possible for a dramatic show like this to actually get at the truth of what happens in the White House more successfully than conventional news reporting?

AARON SORKIN: Well, what a show like this will do that conventional news reporting can’t, is, we can show you the two minutes before and after what you see on CNN. By and large, what you’re going to see on the news, what you’re going to read in the newspaper is the result of something that’s happened at the White House, and there isn’t much of an opportunity to see how they arrived [at] that. And that behind-the-scenes element is important to me, it’s important to the show.

You know, one of the things I like about this world, or at least I like about the way we’re presenting this world, is these issues are terribly complicated — not nearly as black and white as we’re led to believe. There, by and large, aren’t good guys and bad guys. You’re talking about very learned people capable of arguing both sides of an issue, and it’s that process that I enjoy dramatizing.

TERENCE SMITH: You also make them, the characters in this show, largely high minded about public service and what they’re doing.

AARON SORKIN: Yeah. They’re fairly heroic. That’s unusual in American popular culture, by and large. Our leaders, government people are portrayed either as dolts or as Machiavellian somehow. The characters in this show are neither. They are flawed, to be sure, because you need characters in drama to have flaws. But they, all of them, have set aside probably more lucrative lives for public service.

They are dedicated not just to this president, but to doing good, rather than doing well. The show is kind of a valentine to public service. It celebrates our institutions. It celebrates education often. These characters are very well educated, and while sometimes playfully snobby about it, there is, in all of them, a love of learning and appreciation of education.

TERENCE SMITH: What are some of the issues you’re going to tackle in the second season?

AARON SORKIN: Well, I must tell you I write the scripts very close to the bone. So I’m writing episode seven now and couldn’t tell you what happens in episode eight. But I can tell you, thus far, education is a constant thing that comes up–a nuclear test ban treaty, Social Security, AIDS in Africa in our fourth episode.

I worry. I feel like I say these things, and I can hear people clicking off their remote controls across the country. I just hope that, by now, people trust that no matter how heavy or no matter how dry an issue might be, we are always adhering to our first rule, which is you have to have a good time while you’re with us.

TERENCE SMITH: Let’s look at the politics of this show. This is a liberal Democratic president. How did you decide to make it that way?

AARON SORKIN: Well, that was easy. My father wouldn’t let me in the house if it wasn’t. I think what’s important is that the tendency probably in television would be, if you were going to do a show like this, you better have a White House that drives down the middle of the road, one designed to bother as few people as possible. This is a White House, particularly early on in the season, that bothered quite a few people, people on the right.

And I’d like to say a couple of things about that, if you don’t mind. One is that I don’t think that television shows or, for that matter, movies or plays or paintings or songs can be liberal or conservative. I think that they can only be good or bad. I think that if this is to be a credible White House, we are very familiar with the vocabulary of government now. We all read the newspapers, we all watch the news. There are going to be words like Democrat and Republican. People are going to take sides, and people are going to argue.

The characters on the show are capable of arguing all sides of an issue. Oftentimes, their position is not what you’d expect it to be. In the third episode last season, Bartlet took a position on a military response that was so hawkish it frightened the joint chiefs. But, finally, if you don’t mind a bit of a sales pitch, the show has, in some quarters on the right, has been attacked for being too liberal.

And at a time when the FTC report has come out and Hollywood is being scolded, I think it’s a good idea to notice that “The West Wing” is a show that has no gratuitous violence, no gratuitous sex. It has featured the character of the president of the United States kneeling on the floor of the Oval Office and praying. This, I would think, would be exactly what conservative Republicans would want to see on television.

TERENCE SMITH: Are you going to ever have Bartlet run for re-election? I mean, are we going to see an election in the show?

AARON SORKIN: We are. Well, in fact, the universe of “The West Wing” is two years off of reality. So we have midterm elections this season, and they are eager to win the House back. In the season opening two-part episode, we go into extended flashback sequences to three years ago the original primary campaign, showing how all of these people came together in the first place. But hopefully we’ll be on the air long enough so that he can run for election again.

TERENCE SMITH: Is there anything you want to tell people about the premiere?

AARON SORKIN: No. The premiere, interestingly, as I said, it’s a two-parter that I had written assuming that it was going to be aired over two weeks, and it’s now going to be aired back-to-back.

And I’ve seen it many, many times now, and I’m just concerned that somehow I forgot something in the writing of it, where if you air it on the same night, it won’t work. But other than that, I hope they enjoy it, and we’re very proud of the episode. It’s a very ambitious episode, the most ambitious we’ve done.

TERENCE SMITH: You’ve got a cliff hanger to resolve. You do that right away?

AARON SORKIN: We do do that right away. Anyone who wants to know who got hit is going to find out in the first 90 seconds. We are telling two stories at once. We’re telling the story of the shooting happened at about 10 o’clock at night, and we’re telling the story of the next 12 or 14 hours of what happens when the president is shot at. And needless to say, the world wakes up in the middle of the night.

It’s very serious, from the military implications and whatnot, to an interesting constitutional question. The constitution only gives the vice president authority in the event of the president’s death or if the Cabinet has voted on the 25th Amendment. Absent that, the vice president isn’t an understudy. He doesn’t automatically get this authority. I can’t tell you how, but the issue comes up in this episode, as well as any number of other things.