Here’s how to be Aaron Sorkin, triple-threat super-scribe for movies, stage and TV:
Go for bold. Stretch the boundaries of small-screen storytelling with the adrenalin-amped HBO dramedy The Newsroom, which you created, write and executive-produce.
Stack up those statuettes and awards nominations, too. Depict the birth of Facebook with your Academy Award-winning screenplay for The Social Network (2010). Take viewers inside a fictional, fiercely idealistic White House with your Emmy-winning episodes of The West Wing (1999-2006). Adapt your own Broadway play, A Few Good Men, into the Oscar-nominated 1992 film of the same name.
Love the insider look. Send up the media with your Humanitas Prize-winning series, Sports Night (1998-2000), about a fictional cable sports network, and your Saturday Night Live-styled Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007). Relive the genesis of TV itself with your 2007 Broadway play, The Farnsworth Invention.
Create a new language called Sorkinese. With every keystroke, stamp your rhythmic dialogue with serio-comic sincerity, spiked with socio-political themes and laced with literary allusions – all delivered at head-spinning speed by characters like The Newsroom’s anchorman Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his executive producer and sometime lady-love MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer).
Oh, and become your own gold standard. Be endlessly compared to yourself online, with fan lists of Sorkinisms and parodies in the Sorkinverse. Throw in chatter about your personal life, drug addiction and recovery as well.
Finally, join the conversation yourself by chatting with The Writer about The Newsroom and your writing life.
Your dialogue is drenched with humor and supreme seriousness, woven together. Does that come naturally, or do you need to think, “Will McAvoy is getting too serious right now, I need to lighten him up a bit?”
I’ve always liked telling a serious story funny. If you can do that, you’re doing yourself a favor. I wouldn’t say that it comes naturally to me but it feels natural. It feels right for me. When I’m writing well, that’s what I’m able to do, and when I’m not writing well, I’m not able to do that. I’m going too far to one side, it’s too silly, it’s going to be too something-or-other. But, you know, like a baseball pitcher who doesn’t have an overpowering fast ball – who has to get you out by mixing up his pitches, and throwing a curve ball here and a slider there, a change-up there, and you don’t know what’s coming next – that’s sort of how I am as a writer. I don’t have an overpowering fast ball, so I have to mix up my pitches.
Is the world of The Newsroom what you would like the world to be like, with its forthright and loyal colleagues collaborating on a common endeavor?
I like writing about workplace families and I like writing romantically.
You’re known for writing all the episodes of your shows yourself. But you do have a writing staff on The Newsroom. How do you all mesh together?
There are eight writers on the writing staff, plus two writer’s assistants, plus me. We all get in a room, and we pitch out ideas for several days. You know, you’ve got to go through 100 bad ideas before you get to one that might have potential. Once we land on something we like – and this is a fairly research-intensive show – the staff starts doing research. Once I feel like I’ve got enough to begin writing, that I know enough about the episode, that’s where I’ve got to go into a room by myself, and that’s where the rubber meets the road. That’s where I’ve got to start writing.
Did you do any advance planning with your writers on the storylines for the entire second season of The Newsroom, or is the plotting more “seat of the pants” as you write?
I sit with the writing staff for several weeks at the beginning of the season and talk about long arcs and where we’d like to end up. Then the writing begins, and things change as you go. It doesn’t really matter if you end up where you planned on ending up as long as you end up someplace different than where you started, and it was a fun trip getting there.
After the first season of The Newsroom, there was major buzz on the Internet about your alleged firing of some or most of your writing staff. True?
Last season there were three writers whose options were not picked up for this season. They’re all three terrific writers, and I’m sure they’ve gone on to terrific things. It just wasn’t the right fit. But it is not correct that I fired the entire writing staff. That was an incorrect story on the Internet. Most of last year’s staff is back, and there are some very good additions.
Do you also have consultants from the cable news industry on call?
We have 12 paid consultants from not just cable news but also from print and online. They are from all parts of the political spectrum, right, left, in between. I generally communicate with them via email. I ask them questions. I solicit any contributions they want to make, any comments, any notes, and they’re very, very helpful.
So how long does it take you to write an episode of The Newsroom?
It’s supposed to take me two weeks to write an episode ‒ that’s how much time I have. It usually takes about three and a half. I’m usually late with the scripts. Most of that time it wouldn’t look like I was writing. It would look like I was tearing my hair out. Once I know what’s going to happen in the episode, things start to move quickly. Generally in a scene, somebody wants something, and something’s stopping them from getting it. It’s intention and obstacle. When I know what that is, and I’ve got energy and a sense of humor, I can write that scene.
How do you stay organized?
In terms of how I organize myself – the writers’ room, you know, there are white boards filled up, the walls are covered with index cards. But once I kind of ingest all that information, as well as research documents for each scene, once I ingest all that and it comes down to writing – it’s just me and the keyboard.
Do you have any personal writing rituals?
I do have to be alone when I’m writing. I’m very active when I’m writing. It’s very physical. I’m walking around, I’m acting out the parts, that kind of thing. I take about six showers a day because I find them really refreshing, and I think well in there and I put on clean clothes and I feel like I’m getting a fresh start. I like to drive around in my car and listen to music.
What kind of music do you listen to?
I listen to what’s unfortunately now called “oldies” – but I don’t remember them getting old. I listen to the radio, or I have CDs of music that I’ve liked listening to since high school that will get me kind of pumped up when I’m driving ‒ Bruce Springsteen, Dire Straits. And I’m a Broadway musical geek. I’ll listen to original cast albums in my car, too. Anything that gets the energy going.
Do you have a set writing schedule, or do you just go with the flow?
Once you get on a roll, you just go. You don’t stop for lunch, you don’t stop for red lights. If you’re on a roll, and that doesn’t happen very often, you just go.
It’s no secret – you have a well-known backstory with using illegal substances. At this point does it feel normal or natural to write without them?
As a matter of fact, April 15 was my 12-year anniversary of not using cocaine. And yes, it does feel normal to write without it.
Does your real joy in writing come from language itself – its feel and rhythms and textures?
Absolutely. I was taken to plays by my parents when I was very little, and fell in love with the sound of dialogue. It sounded like music to me, and I wanted to imitate that sound. So what words sound like is as important to me as what they mean when I’m writing. I’m very aware when I’m writing that I’m not writing things that are meant to be read – I’m writing things that are meant to be performed. So it’s going to have to have all the properties of music.
What, for you, is really good writing for film, TV or theater?
Some people want characters they can identify with or aspire to be, some people want a gripping plot, musical dialogue, etc. What you need to do is find a way to engage the audience for however long you’ve asked for their attention.
How different is writing for TV compared to film or theater?
The thing you don’t have in television that you have in film and theater is time. If a play or a screenplay isn’t going well, you take more time. In television, you have to meet air dates.
What have you learned about writing after two decades as a writer?
I do feel like writers get better as they get older. There are plenty of fantastic young writers – Lena Dunham [HBO’s Girls] for instance. [But] that’s one of the nice things about being a writer. You get better with practice. You start to recognize bad habits. You trust the audience more. It’s not like being an athlete. It’s more like being an orchestra conductor.
And I think I am better now than I was when I was starting out. I look at things I wrote at the beginning of my career like A Few Good Men that – they sort of feel like my high school yearbook picture. I wish I could go back and rewrite that.
I think in my case I always have to – if left unchecked, I will go on and on for pages. I’ll fall in love with the sound of my own voice. And I’ll go on and on for pages, thinking I’m being witty, and I’m not. So more and more I want to cling to a strong narrative. I want there to be a strong intention and obstacle.
I’ve also learned from great directors that I’ve worked with ‒ David Fincher [The Social Network] and Mike Nichols [Charlie Wilson’s War]. The thing they’ve taught me is very simple: Move from something that works to something else that works. Keep doing that.
So becoming a fine writer is partly dependent on becoming your own best critic and editor?
You do have to be an editor, and you do have to be a diagnostician. You’ve got to be able to look at what you’ve written, know there’s a problem here and figure out what the problem is. Figuring out what the problem is, that’s important.
But also, I’m lucky that I’m not my only script editor. I work with people who are great at that. Scott Rudin, for instance. He’s one of the executive producers on The Newsroom. He produced The Social Network. He produced Moneyball. He’ll be producing my next movie, which is about Steve Jobs. I think he’s the best producer in the country. And one of the things that he’s great at is being a script editor, sitting down with you, talking about the story. He knows me very well, he knows my writing very well. He knows what I’m going for, he knows the potholes I’m going to fall into, and he knows how to get me out of them.
Do you find that you learn from projects – such as Studio 60, or the first season of The Newsroom – that may receive a mixed critical or popular reception? Or do you prefer to not read or not consider reviews or online buzz?
There are some critics I’ve read for a long time whose opinions I respect even when I don’t necessarily agree with them, but I’m also surrounded by people who are very smart when it comes to doing this. On The Newsroom there’s Scott Rudin and also [executive producer] Alan Poul, and [executives] Michael Lombardo, Sue Naegle and Casey Bloys at HBO.
The important thing is not to write in order to change people›s minds. It’s not going to work, and you’ll end up making things worse. Ultimately, you have to have confidence in yourself.
Did you have any sort of mentor or role model when you first started writing?
I had and still have a great teacher – William Goldman [prolific screenwriter of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men and many more films]. Bill took me under his wing after I wrote my first play, A Few Good Men. He’s taught me everything I know and about a tenth of what he knows.
What qualities does it take to become a successful writer for film, TV, theater, and what quality does take to become a brilliant writer?
If I knew the answer to that, my stomach wouldn’t hurt all the time.
Do you have any advice for new writers?
Write. Writing takes practice just like the violin. Find a strong intention and obstacle. Find the voice you like to write in.
Anything you can tell us about other projects coming up, or any dates on your upcoming Steve Jobs film?
I’ve been doing research on the Steve Jobs movie, and I’ll start writing when the Newsrooom season is over.
THE AARON SORKIN FILE
Aaron Sorkin is the creator, writer and executive producer of The Newsroom, which makes its second season premiere July 14 on HBO. Born in New York City, Sorkin graduated from Syracuse University in 1983 with a B.F.A. in theater. He lives in Los Angeles.
- Creator/writer/executive producer, The Newsroom (TV series, HBO, 2012-2013)
- Screenwriter, Moneyball (feature film), 2011
- Screenwriter, The Social Network (feature film), 2010
- Screenwriter, Charlie Wilson’s War (feature film), 2007
- Writer, The Farnsworth Invention (stage play), 2007
- Creator/writer/executive producer, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (TV series, NBC), 2006-2007
- Creator/writer/executive producer, The West Wing (TV series, NBC), 1999-2006
- Creator/writer/executive producer, Sports Night (TV series, ABC), 1998-2000*
- Screenwriter, The American President (feature film), 1995
- Screenwriter, Malice (feature film), 1993
- Screenwriter, A Few Good Men (feature film), 1992
- Writer, A Few Good Men (stage play, 1989)
- Critics Choice Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for Moneyball, 2012
- Academy Award for Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network, 2011
- Writers Guild of America Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network, 2011
- Humanitas Prize, 60 Minute Category for The West Wing, 2002 and 2000
- Humanitas Prize, 30 Minute Category for Sports Night, 1999
- Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Drama Series, The West Wing, 2003, 2002, 2001 and 2000
- Writers Guild of America Award for Episodic Drama for The West Wing, 2001