NPR : Fresh Air

Aaron Sorkin: The Writer Behind 'The Newsroom'

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As part of our year-end wrap up, we are sharing the best Fresh Air interviews of 2012. This interview was originally broadcast on July 16, 2012.

Aaron Sorkin's HBO drama The Newsroom follows the inner workings of a fictional cable network trying to challenge America's hyperpartisan 24/7 news culture. It's a typical Sorkin drama, complete with fast-paced dialogue, witty scenes and a strong ensemble cast.

So why a newsroom?

"It suits my style," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I like writing about heroes [who] don't wear capes or disguises. You feel like, 'Gee, this looks like the real world and feels like the real world — why can't that be the real world?' "

In Sorkin's latest fictional world, Jeff Daniels stars as anchorman Will McAvoy, who tackles hard-hitting news stories and calls out those who don't tell the truth. The show follows McAvoy but also pays close attention to the bookers, producers and editors who work behind the scenes to get their nightly broadcast ready for air.

Before writing the show, Sorkin spent two days on the set of Countdown with Keith Olbermann to get a sense of how a newsroom works. While there, he observed producers getting ready to cover the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion and got an idea for his own show.

"I realized I could set the show in the recent past," he says. "My big worry was making up the news — writing fictional news — because it was just going to take us too far away from reality. ... But [setting the show in the recent past] became the gift that kept on giving. Because you have the fun of the audience knowing more than the characters. ... I know that this device has bothered some people who think that I'm leveraging hindsight into a way to make my characters stronger. That wasn't the idea."

Reaction to the show has been polarized. Some TV critics have loved the show, while others have said it's sermonizing.

"I think that the critics and the audience who are reacting as hostilely to the show as they are, part of the reason is because they think that I'm showing off an intellect and an erudition that I don't have," says Sorkin. "I'm not pretending to have it. I know that I don't have it. I phonetically create the sound of smart people talking to each other. I'm not one of them. The characters I create would have no use for me."


Interview Highlights

On writing about journalism

"I like writing idealistically and romantically, and if you can do that in a place that's usually looked at cynically — the way journalism is now — you can get something fun out of it."

On talking like his characters

"I haven't met anyone who can. When I write these things, I'm alone in a room for a very long time, and I get to rewrite them, and I get to think for a long time about what's going to be said. If I get on a roll, then I can write a conversation like that without stopping, but I can't do it when talking to a real person, like you. That's not who I am in real life."

On his influences

"I've been influenced by so many writers, just the fact that the dialogue has to sound like something, whether it's Mamet or Pinter or Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams. I like writing things that are fun to say."

On the walk and talk

"Television is a visual medium. You have to create some kind of visual interest. And it's entertainment for your eyes."

On cocaine-fueled writing binges

"Early on, I was using cocaine to write. I was snorting it. It gave me a lot of energy. It gave me a lot of confidence. You think everything you're writing is brilliant. Everything was also hundreds of pages longer than it needed to be. I was able to write from sunset to sunrise.

"Something about the dirtiness of it makes you feel like an artist. Once I started freebasing — I don't know what other people's experiences are, but that wasn't a party drug for me. That was something I did absolutely alone. I couldn't have possibly written a work when I was smoking cocaine. It stops you. But my big fear, I know that when I was going into rehab, I was wondering whether I would be able to write anymore. I was terrified of not being able to write without cocaine.

"This very nice writer called me from out of the blue and said, 'I know you're worried about that. Don't worry about that.' And of course, they were right. It takes awhile to make the adjustment, to get used to writing clean. But it takes a little while to get used to doing anything clean once you've been using cocaine for 10 years."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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