Once you’ve conquered Broadway and Hollywood, topping yourself is a tall order. But after successes on the stage (A Few Good Men) and the silver screen (A Few Good Men and The American President), writer Aaron Sorkin now offers viewers the wit and wisdom of The West Wing every Wednesday night on NBC.
The hour-long political drama about an impassioned White House senior staff won a record nine Emmy awards after its first season, including one for writing. The trophy haul means that Sorkin now has an Outstanding American Playwright award, two Golden Globe nominations for screenwriting and an Emmy. Not bad for a guy who dreamed of being an actor.
In fact, Sorkin only turned to writing on a whim, and his first play was good enough to merit some high-profile stage readings. His second, much of it written on cocktail napkins, was A Few Good Men. By then, Sorkin had discovered that, unlike acting, writing lets you say whatever you want.
As a master of three mediums, Sorkin is in a unique position to compare them. “On the barometer of artistic integrity, the reading tends to be ‘Plays Good. Movies Bad. Television Worse.’ Don’t you believe it,” he says. “Mediums are not good or bad, only the work.”
There is evidence of that truth in the complex, fast-paced and riveting pleasure of The West Wing. But along the way, Sorkin also has learned a few lessons about writing for television. Chief among them: Television requires compromise.
“We’re shooting my first draft. There isn’t time to write several drafts, do two weeks of previews and get it the way you’d like it,” he says. “But the reward on the other end is phenomenal. A script that I write this week is going to be on television completely intact three weeks from now. If I was writing a screenplay, I could write a joke today and not hear the laughs for another two years.”
Although there is a writing staff for The West Wing, it is primarily a collaboration of content. Sorkin relies on other writers to suggest possible issues—say, school vouchers, slavery reparations and firing a cabinet member—and to collect research. Then he turns to a handful of expert consultants (like former presidential press secretaries Dee Dee Myers and Marlin Fitzwater) and says, “Tell me what you think, and tell me what the really smart person in the room who disagrees with you would say to that.”
From that, Sorkin cobbles together 42 minutes of drama. “I’m able to learn little more than the phonetic sounds of an argument,” he says, “and when I can learn more than that I consider it a real blessing.”
Of course pounding out scripts under the frenetic pace of series television rarely leaves time to ponder such lessons anyway. Sorkin credits his background in screenwriting with teaching him the importance of putting the expectations of others aside and relying on his own judgment when facing the pressures of such looming deadlines.
“For both of the movies I wrote for Rob Reiner, A Few Good Men and The American President, I spent the first few months of the writing process climbing the walls and trying to figure out in my head what it was Rob wanted.
“Finally, the deadline would come up in my face, and I had to start writing something. So I wrote what I wanted to write and then realized that’s what Rob wanted. He wanted me. He just wanted me to write.”
This article appeared in the August 2001 issue of Scriptwriting Secrets.