Aaron Sorkin on Rape Episode: ‘The Newsroom’ Is In Trouble

Aaron Sorkin (Getty Images)

Aaron Sorkin (Getty Images)

The night after the penultimate episode of HBO’s The Newsroom aired, an auditorium filled with anxious fans watched the much-anticipated finale of the show. Aaron Sorkin, the creator and writer of the series, stood in the back of the darkened room and took it all in, scrutinizing the final cut of his show and the crowd’s reaction to it.

When asked shortly thereafter what he was thinking as the closing moments of the series where unspooling, he responded, “To be honest, I was still doing a little rewriting in my head.” Wistfully, he added, “Hopefully by Sunday I’m just going to be able to watch it and enjoy it.”

Sorkin explained that although he’s helmed other shows, this is the first time that he’s written an episode actually knowing that it will close out the series. “The is the first time that I’ve know it was the finale while I was doing it. With Sports Night I had a hunch that we weren’t going to get picked up for a third season so I wrote a season a two finale that would work as a series finale. Then with The West Wing, I left after the 4th season so I wasn’t there at the end and for Studio 60 [on the Sunset Strip] it was like Sports Night in I had that same sort of hunch that we weren’t coming back so I wrote an episode that could either just finish the season or close out the show.”

His process with The Newsroom was quite different, revealed Sorkin, saying, “After the 2nd season, HBO wanted us to come back for multiple seasons and I told them that I would weigh coming back for only one more because of other commitments that I already had. When I did decide to come back, I asked them to announce that it was the final season so everyone would know that. This is the first time that I’ve had to aim at that. So from the very first episode I decided that we were really going to write a six hour end to this.”

Even with having his target in sight, Sorkin didn’t know immediately how the series would wrap up. “I wanted to know what was going to happen in the finale before the opener, but suddenly the season opener had to be written. I think I knew more about this season than I’ve ever known about a season of TV before I started writing it, but I still didn’t know how the show was going to end. But then you start getting closer and closer, it’s like that great line in the movie Apollo 13 when Tom Hanks says, ‘The world’s starting to get awfully big in the window.’ The end is getting closer and closer and there’s no plan – that’s how I felt. And then, halfway through the season I knew what it would be. It was a relief to know where I was heading and to write to that.”

While discussing the end of the series, Sorkin harkened back to the early days when he was working to come up with the best way to structure the show. “I was hanging out at MSNBC and it was day 53 of the [BP] oil spill. I was in the control during Keith Olberman’s show and I was ready to throw in the towel on the whole thing,” recalled Sorkin. “In my head I was wording the call I was going to make to HBO saying, ‘I’m sorry I’ve struck out.’ Then I was watching the live feed of spill cam that was showing the oil just gushing out and I knew that we couldn’t just make up fake news to use on the show. So I thought, we’ll do the show and halfway through we’ll do breaking news of the oil spill and then the date run across the screen and everyone will realize that it’s the recent past and that’s how we’ll do it — this whole thing will be historical fiction.”

The adoption of that idea wasn’t without its controversies. Sorkin explained, “That’s another misunderstanding that we’ve had; perception that the show was set in the past so that I could leverage hindsight to heroism, that we’re telling the pros, here’s how you should have done it. Not only was that not my intent, but that’s never happened on the show. I set it in the recent past because I didn’t want to make up fake news.”

Speaking of controversy, on this night, the night after a very divisive episode of The Newsroom, which featured a story about rape, aired, Sorkin didn’t shy away from discussing the background of the episode and his feelings about it.

“First of all, this was inspired by an actual news story. I can’t remember the real details, but this thing was happening and you start to change the circumstances and build the story and that’s how that happened.

This episode was different in every regard, in terms of my world. I always try to watch when the audience is watching, just to get that rush of this is what the audience is seeing now. It was the first episode of The Newsroom that I thought was really good. It was episode 24 of the series and it was the first time I didn’t find myself banging my head against the wall feeling like, ‘I can’t get the hang of this.’ Golfers would call it the yips. I’ve felt all the way through The Newsroom that I’ve had the yips. The yips happen to pro golfers who one day go to the practice range and miss the ball or hook it time after time, or just can’t hit it all, and that’s what I’ve felt like for two and half seasons, like I had the yips, and last night I felt like — bullseye. I knew that one of the stories was controversial and I’m not someone who courts controversy so I was a little surprised by the vitriol and misunderstanding this morning of what was going on in that episode and terrible inferences drawn from it about me personally.”

At this point, Sorkin didn’t shy away from talking about something else that’s been up burning social media since early Monday. Newsroom writer Alena Smith took to Twitter and claimed that Sorkin kicked her out of the writer’s room when she expressed distain for the rape storyline.

Sorkin explained his role in the incident, saying, “I have to tell you if I kicked everyone who disagrees with me out of the room, there’d be no one left in the room. The writing staffs on my shows are hired and paid to disagree with me. She made a terrific contribution to the show this year and she was very passionate about the point she was trying to make regarding this storyline. I felt like she’d been heard. I needed to move on and she couldn’t move on and then I had to make a judgment call. The script was behind and I’m not just her boss, I’m the boss of about 150 people. The show was in trouble at that point so I asked her to come with me in the hallway and I suggested, at about 4pm in afternoon, that she go home and come back fresh in the morning. I think I’m not only qualified to make that call, I think people are counting on me to make that call when the show’s in trouble.”

He summed up the previous 24 hours, saying, “So the weather today wasn’t great this morning. It began at 4am when you start getting the calls that there’s a problem. So at 10pm last night I was as happy as I’d been in a long time, and it lasted all of about six hours.”

As his series, which is about journalists and the integrity of those individuals and the profession as a whole, draws to a close, Sorkin was asked if his opinion of the occupation has changed given his work on The Newsroom, to which he rather passionately responded, “When we say journalists now, we’re talking about many more people than we used to talk about. Doing this show has only elevated my already very high opinion of professional journalists. These are people who, honest to God, still feel like it’s a calling, who still want to tell an important story well and honesty. Those people have been joined by a couple of thousand narcissists who want to direct attention to themselves. They don’t tell stories and the number of times the word ‘I’ is used in their posts is staggering. They’re stupid and they’re not good at it.”

Sorkin is quick to acknowledge that he hasn’t really learned any secrets about the news business that could be translated in any useful manner for real world implementation. “I wouldn’t know how to do the news well,” he full admits. “I’m certainly not trying to tell the pros how to do it. There are people out there really trying to do the news well. It’s not an easy thing to do by any means.”

Stepping aside from the heavy stuff, Sorkin laughed as he talked about coming up with the moniker for the series. “For some reason, it took us forever to come up with the title The Newsroom. Looking back I’ll never understand why we went through so many unwieldy titles. The original title was More as the Story Develops. There were like three others before it was just The Newsroom.”

Moving on from this show, Sorkin announced that he currently has no plans for another television series and that on January 9, 2015 rehearsals for a Steve Jobs feature film biography that he’s written begin rehearsals.

In another surprising declaration, Sorkin talked very enthusiastically about doing live theater on television. “I want to try to bring back the days of Playhouse 90 — new plays, old plays, great actors, great directors, live in front of an audience. I want to bring great plays to the millions and millions of people who can’t get to New York to see live theater.”

While this concept is still in the planning stages, Sorkin revealed that he’d recently had active talks with a major network to make this happen, stating that the first live production could be his award-winning play, A Few Good Men.

In every one of his series, Sorkin has used a specific episode title, one that he has chosen to use for the series finale of The Newsroom. Sorkin explained the origin of the title, “What Kind of Day Has it Been,” saying, “First, I like it because it’s a literary shorthand for what can be said of events up until now, but the real story is that when I was doing A Few Good Men, we had a legendary team of producers lead by a man named Robert Whitehead. He was a walking theatre history book, In his career he produced the theatre debuts of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, and in a stunning anti-climax, me. At the end of each rehearsal day and each performance there would be a meeting of myself, the stage manager and all the key department heads and he would begin every meeting with that question – ‘So, what kind of day has it been?’ – and that’s where that came from.”

For Sorkin and fans of The Newsroom, the culmination of the series will provide a definitive answer to that question, and many more.

Aaron Sorkin on Rape Episode: ‘The Newsroom’ Is In Trouble