Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Sorkin Presents NEWSROOM at LA Film Fest

Halfway through the first scene (he writes long scenes) of Sorkin's NEWSROOM I thought, "This show could change the world." I am a Sorkin fan, and an idealist, but that's besides the point. In the same way that THE WEST WING made Americans feel apart of what was happening in Washington, NEWSROOM does too. It takes place in a newsroom in Washington, and not only that but it's set during the real events of the day beginning on April 20, 2010. I feel like this kind of pseudo-inside look on things can only be healthy for people. It's like catharsis or something. When many Americans feel disillusioned, out of touch, and like we have no idea what really goes on in Washington, a well-written, smart dialog that Sorkin himself calls "optimistic and idealistic" of what may or may not have gone down, can inspire us instead of render us apathetic.

 It's quick, smart, passionate, fun, intense, colorful, exciting, and elegant.

Besides making my heart race, the other thing the show did for me is desperately make me want to be a journalist. I know, I kind of am one here, but like a real, newsroom journalist! Inevitably the show will do the same for youngens across the country. With the phrase "journalism is dying" still afloat in our ether it makes me wonder, did Sorkin do this on purpose? Whether or not he meant to Aaron Sorkin wrote a show that makes journalism alive again.

 Funny how great art fuels gratefulness. You can get the same feeling from running really fast and far. That's how I felt while watching this.

A few scenes in I had to know: Mr. Sorkin, WHO ARE YOU? HOW DOES YOUR MIND WORK?

Lucky for me Sorkin came in for a panel with moderator Madeliene Brand, Producer Alan Poul, and Director Greg Mottola.

Here are a few things I learned.

Sorkin has always liked workplace stories, and has thought of live TV as very romantic ever since AMERICAN GRAFFITI. "I like to write a romantic and idealistic style, as opposed to a gritty style," he says.

"It's [NEWSROOM] extremely optimistic and idealistic, and it's meant as more of a painting than a photograph."

Mottola: "One of the things that I really love that Aaron does is he writes long scenes with a lot of shape and change within the scene." Mottola went to film school, and he says they always teach you to "come in late and leave early" in the scene, getting in and out as quick as possible. But that doesn't always allow you to get to the heart of it. "I love the development IN the scene, not just the juxtaposition of scenes" that happens in Sorkin's writing. Sorkin probably writes this way largely because he has a theatre background.

Actors are used to play real people in NEWSROOM. "People don't play themselves because it just jumps out as stunt-casting. There are situations where it works" but not here, says Sorkin.
The show is "incredibly research intensive." "I'm almost always writing about something I don't know about," says Sorkin. Because of that he surrounds himself with experts who can give him crash course tutorials. Sorkin will go to an expert and say, "Tell me what you think." Then he will say, "Tell me what the really smart person in the room who disagrees with you thinks." "Then we take that and try to make it entertaining," says Sorkin.

After the script is written and before it's shot the director has 2 weeks to prep the show. "In between, I rely on Alan and Greg and script editors," says Sorkin. But though they help a lot and make changes, they say the show remains Sorkin. Poul: "There's a very specific musicality to what Sorkin writes. We look at it as a score."

"We always have anxiety about the length of the script, but in Aaron's world it's faster, there's an urgency. There are a lot of smart/ really neurotic people (characters) who have a lot to get off their chest."

To act on the show, you have to know your lines WELL. "They have to be in your bloodstream...It's gotta be like your phone number," says Sorkin.

NEWSROOM confronts a lot of controversial current events. Brand challenged Sorkin about whether he has an agenda with this show. "What are you trying to say with this?"

I mean this: "A good time. That's all I'm going for."

It's a 10 hour story, but Sorkin also set it up as a 3 act structure of a movie.

"I'm not buying your 'just entertaining'..." said Brand.

"I grew up loving the sound of smart people arguing with each other. If I have a skill, it's phonetically imitating that sound," says Sorkin. "Entertaining is my only goal. It's very hard, and it's very gratifying...We are a divided country...It's a Don Quixote story. It's meant to be a swashbuckling fantasy set against the real world."

Don Quixote is to Aaron Sorkin as the Bible is to many. He's always reading it, when he's done he picks it up and starts at the beginning again.

Sorkin finally said this. If anything, NEWSROOM honors the idea that 'fairness and balance = good news' is contrary to good news and democracy. The news should not be: "There's 1 bad thing about a republican and 1 bad thing about a democract," but "There's an empirical right and wrong here and it's OK to say that on the news."

Sorkin agrees with the idea that, "There's nothing more important to a democracy than a well-informed electorate."

Production note: The acting, and energy of the acting dictate what the camera is doing (Rather than a prepared shot list). "We wanted the sense that you are capturing reality. Everything is set up to be live," says Mottola.

Sorkin snuck in during the LA Film Festival showing and sat in the back. "One of the things I hate about TV is I never get to watch it with you," he says.  

On his creative relationship with HBO, Sorkin says they serve largely as script supervisors. And with HBO, "Numbers are less important than how much the people who ARE watching it like it. You are in business with the audience, not with advertisers."

MIDDLE OF NOWHERE public premiere at LA Film fest

"It’s intimate, it’s elegant, it’s woman-focused and it’s colorful. It’s of rare hue and emotional nuance." MIDDLE OF NOWHERE had its first screening since Sundance at the Los Angeles Film Festival last month. Angela Bassett, guest host for the evening, calls it a gem. The film went fairly under the radar at Sundance, even though director Ava DuVernay won the Sundance award for best directing in drama, but Los Angeles Film Festival director Stephanie Allain knew she wanted to put it in the spotlight here, where it's one of three gala screenings.
“I’m really nervous,” said Duvernay as she introduced the film. “Maybe it’s because this is my hometown. Maybe it’s because there are over 1,000 of us here...But it’s probably the Angela Bassett factor.” Bassett showed up just to support the film. DuVernay is the first African American to win the Sundance award for Best Directing. "Stephanie Allain is a doer," said DuVernay. "She said, 'This is a small story, but it’s an important story, and we're going to put it where it should be, in the spotlight."' MIDDLE OF NOWHERE is a love story, "a difficult love story" of a happily married woman, Ruby, who's husband becomes incarcerated. As his life must go on hold for his 8 year sentence, she visits him often-- and decides her life will go on hold too. "Ruby," played by first time feature actor Emayatzy Corinealdi, is wrapped up deep- in love with "Derek," played by Omari Hardwick (who looks like a young Denzel Washington). Ruby has an inner strength and her eyes only see through the lens of the glossy world of romance--nothing else matters. She is removed, and untouchable beyond that love. When Derek is resistant to the idea of her stopping med school, he urges her to live her own life. "You ARE me," she tells him. “It’s about love and separation, and how separation forces us to find ourselves..." says DuVernay.
Ruby's removal is well displayed through her relationship with her mother, remarkably played by Lorraine Toussaint. The two can't have a real conversation, Ruby's mother can't get a clear word out of her. At one point after Derek's been in a fight in jail, Ruby skips work to stay home and wait for his phone call. "He's going through a tough time," she tells her mother. "Oh he's going through a tough time?" her mother retorts. She is upset to see her daughter sacrifice her life, but her concern doesn't come out the right way, and instead of helping the situation she seems to make it worse. "Relationships between mothers and daughters are complicated," said Toussaint during a Q&A after the show. "I'm a daughter and I'm a mother. I know both sides. There's lots of misguided love, often the love pushes instead of pulls." The film is so deep, so personal, so well acted. DuVernay makes it look easy, and I think that's in part due to how she works with her intuition. This is exemplified by the cast. They hardly rehearsed together much at all, but that didn't hurt anything. "We just accepted that we were a family and we just started working and loving each other," said Toussaint. Because of that intuition and the obviousness that DuVernay knows herself, as a writer/ director she easily delves into personal issues like love, and power. Besides Ruby and her mom, there are many what DuVernay calls, "power shifts" within the movie. "People don't realize the power they have themselves, and with each other" says DuVernay. "That's what disfunction is, not knowing where to put your power, or what it is..." Ruby and Derek are in a disfunctional power play. "Miserly loves company," said Hardwick during Q&A. In his role he had to manipulate Ruby. "What man hasn't tried to take power from a vulnerable woman?" he asked.
Ruby must be in practically ever scene. Because of her solo path of inner strength, the story has a loneliness to it. But it's so well done, we don't feel sad for Ruby's loneliness, we feel lonely too. The power of that loneliness comes from DuVernay, who was able to write this story because she has a similar loneliness inside. Her family is in another state, she explained. “I have a deep loneliness and longing" all the time. It is perhaps that loneliness too that at least in part makes DuVernay such a good director. Hardwick said he feels that she has just the right balance of family and loneliness. Because actors, on a solo quest, are lonely too, and they can relate. Perhaps you have to have a certain amount of loneliness inside to make great art. Because it's from that raw place, that deep sad place, that most basic place, that people truly relate the most. Hardwick let on to how DuVernay directed him. "Make this a lonely boy," she said. And that brought his character to life. Hardwick also believes what makes Duvernay such a great director is her confidence. "Often directors are insecure," he says. "From an actor's perspective, we have to deal with insecure directors who write characters that are really secure. Ava is just as confident as the roles she writes."

Be it loneliness, or intuition, whatever it is, DuVernay did something right. I haven't been this moved by a piece of art since I don't remember when. It's the kind of movie where the filmmaking is so personal and the acting so good that you start to breathe with the protagonist. Every move she makes you make, you feel her anguish. And there is anguish. At one point in the movie Ruby goes to see Derek after not seeing him in two months. What is the first thing you say to your love after not seeing them in months? We hold our breath as we wait to find out. It's the kind of movie you're so wrapped up in that time is warped-- a full minute goes by in a breath. Then you catch yourself and think, how long has it been? Somewhere in the middle of the film I thought to myself, "I don't want this to end."

It's really well shot, the soundtrack is incredible. "Black films have great soundtracks," says DuVernay to a laugh from the audience. "I fell in love with this character on the page. It's not what Ava wrote, it's what she didn't write," says Toussaint. The intution, instinct, trust, and lack of rehearsals let the actors explore their roles themselves.

Q&A moderator Elvis Mitchell asked the cast whether they are worried that since this is an all black cast that it will have limited exposure. Corinealdi says she's not concerned. "I'm concerned," said Duvernay. "But let me worry about that," she said to Corinealdi. DuVernay talked about how statistically it is just the case that white people don't see all black movies. DuVernay asked the audience to identify recent black movies that are popular. "Men in Black," one audience member called out. I think Corinealdi is not concerned because she knows DuVernay, who has a background in distribution, will take this film places. DuVernay says it's all about exposure. She used the term "visual vocabulary." We have to "train the audience to see black people in this environment." She spoke of having to cultivate this, with purpose, and intention, as a movement. "There's a reason we haven't seen these kind of films in distribution yet," says Toussaint. "There's a problem." But the studios aren't going to do the legwork to figure out why not. "We've got to do it ourselves, and I think we will." That's what's so exciting about DuVernay, she's DOing it. "I never thought we'd see a black president," said Toussaint. "But how sad is it that we have a black president but Angela Bassett doesn't have an Oscar on her shelf?" asked Hardwick.

 Sitting in the theater I felt like I was part of something. Watch out world for Ms. Duvernay. MIDDLE OF NOWHERE took 7 years to make. It will be wide - released in theaters this October. Watch the trailer here. This is also posted on my film blog at