BY DAVID KRONKE
ON THE AIR: (top) The open design for The Newsroom set allows for live interaction between characters in the office, the studio, and the control room; (bottom) director-producer Alan Poul, with Sam Waterston, wanted to match the linguistic complexity of the series with visual inventiveness. (Photos: Melissa Moseley/HBO)
It’s a hot May afternoon at Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood, and director-producer Alan Poul is shooting a scene from the third season of HBO’s The Newsroom on the show’s vast broadcast and office set. In the scene, the fictional Atlantis Cable News is being swarmed by FBI agents. “This is the closest we get to an action sequence,” says Poul with a laugh.
The Newsroom was created by Emmy- and Oscar-winning writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, The Social Network), who recognizes the value of directors to this show. “The things I write usually have a lot of language and not much visual interest, so I need to work with directors who are turned on by that and know what to do with it,” says Sorkin. “When I met [with Alan] about The Newsroom, he was able to tell me what I didn’t even know I was imagining.”
The show is as much about relationships as it is about reporting the news. It focuses on the dedicated—if frazzled—staff of the network’s high-profile primetime broadcast, headlined by Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels), a news anchor whose talents are frequently upended by his arrogance, and his conscientious producer and ex-lover, MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer). Their efforts to present facts rather than the blather that dominates much of cable news is the plot device for many of the episodes, but at its core, the series is a love story between Will and MacKenzie, who spend much of their time sparring contentiously about the news and their past.
“No matter how big or devastating the breaking news story is, the episode always revolves around the characters—the news events are chosen because of what they will ultimately say about them,” explains Poul. “Our job is always to keep it about the characters.”
Since these are news people doing their job, the drama of their lives largely plays out in the workplace. In order to capture the complicated personal and professional crosscurrents, Poul and the pilot’s director Greg Mottola decided to shoot the news broadcasts simultaneously with the interaction between the characters in the studio and the control room (which is an actual working control room), as if it were a real news broadcast in real time. “The only thing we can’t do is broadcast. If you’d plunk down a satellite dish on our stage, we could even do that,” quips Poul.
The adventure began when Poul, Mottola and their team visited the New York offices of CNN, MSNBC and the Fox News Channel. Poul still marvels that HBO allowed such an enormous set to be built for a pilot. “We saw that several of the news divisions we visited had large bullpens for the reporters, which were also in evidence behind the news anchor,” explains Mottola. “We wanted to emulate the strangeness of doing a high-pressure job while someone is doing a live broadcast only a few yards away.
And like many corporate workplaces,” he continues, “we saw a lot of glass walls, aquarium-style offices, and conference rooms. We liked the idea of the transparent layers and reflections. Of course, it’s a problem to shoot two or three cameras with all those reflections, so every piece of glass on the set is on a gimbal,” allowing it to be tilted so it won’t reflect the lights or cameras.
Adds Poul: “We knew the interplay between the newsroom, the studio, and the control room was going to be critical, so our production designer [Richard Hoover] designed the set so that each area could be seen from the other areas. We also knew that working primarily with long lenses was going to give us the immediacy we wanted, so we built oversized sets which gave us room to create distance between the camera and the actors.”
Having so much activity going on at once has clearly upped the difficulty level of directing the show. When Mottola and DP Barry Ackroyd were figuring out how to approach shooting the pilot, they discussed the idea of being on the outside of a circle of people, looking in, peeking over the shoulders, trying to get a glimpse of how they work. “With this in mind, we often started a scene with three cameras placed in a semicircle around the actors, often on dollies so the cameras could move with the actors,” recalls Mottola. “We rarely forced the actors to hit precise marks; we let the energy of the scene dictate their movements and the camera operators pursued them, as in a documentary. In addition to the documentary vibe, we wanted to let the actors feel unhindered.”
BREAKING NEWS: Right from the time he shot the pilot, Greg Mottola, working with Emily Mortimer, wanted the broadcast and surrounding action to be live, so the actors could feel each other. (Photo: Melissa Moseley/HBO)
In retrospect, Mottola believes that approach saved the day. “We burn through 11, 12 pages of dialogue a day. Thank God we shoot it documentary-style. I don’t know how we’d do it otherwise.”
Making things even more complicated is that the news show within the show is not only being shot live, but being edited live. Before each episode, Poul, the directors, and the video team plan split screens, two-shots, and other newscast effects. “Our broadcast sequences are technically very complicated,” says Poul, “because we’re shooting and cutting the broadcast live, including remote segments, and at the same time we’re filming the characters doing their jobs in both the studio and the control room.”
While McAvoy is interviewing someone outside of the studio, that actor is usually set up in the back of the stage in front of a green screen. The image is then seen live on the monitor near the anchor’s desk. In this multilayered world, there could be as many as seven cameras shooting at once.
The logistics weren’t easy to figure out initially. For the pilot, Mottola had wanted the broadcast and the surrounding action to be live, so the actors could feel each other and didn’t have to respond to a playback. But once the show went to series, there were fewer days to do the newscast sequences. “The learning curve was steep, but it was pretty fast,” says Poul. “At a certain point, it became second nature for us. But every time we brought in a new director and described what we wanted, we saw this look on their faces.”
The 1st ADs, Kenneth B. Roth, who has been with the show from the start, and Scott Schaeffer, who joined at the end of the second season, are instrumental in maintaining the unique look of the show. “Kenny was present on the pilot when we had to crack the complex logistics of shooting the live broadcast scenes,” says Poul, “and he’s been critical in bringing each new director up to speed on how we approach those sequences.”
Anthony Hemingway, who Poul hired to direct an episode in season two, was up for the challenge. “It was an ambitious and complicated episode, and he did an extraordinary job of tying all the elements together,” says Poul, who invited Hemingway back for season three to share responsibilities as director-producer.
Hemingway, who has worked on many of the most ambitious series of the past two decades, says directing The Wire and Treme, both created and written by David Simon, had prepared him well for the bustle of Sorkin’s Newsroom.
“One of the hard things about the show,” says Hemingway, “is that it’s set in New York but shoots in Los Angeles, so there are often big story or character scenes that are delayed until we go to New York. This causes a little [stress], trying to foresee the unknown which will affect what’s being shot presently in L.A. But I was an AD for 13 years before transitioning into directing, [so] for me, it’s all about doing your homework and being prepared.” He adds with a laugh, “I’m learning a lot about how the news works. I feel like if my career in TV goes south, I’ll be able to get a job at CNN.”
DESKTOP: (top) Paul works with Jeff Daniels at the anchor desk. (bottom) Anthony Hemingway directed a complicated episode in season two and came back as a director-producer on season three. (Photos: Melissa Moseley/HBO)
Poul became a director via a uniquely circuitous route. He had studied Japanese literature in college, which led to director Paul Schrader hiring him as an advisor on Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), a biopic of sorts about writer Yukio Mishima. From there, Ridley Scott used him on the Japanese crime picture, Black Rain (1989). After 20 years in the business as a producer, Poul’s first directing credits came on the HBO series Six Feet Under in 2002.
Poul’s first directing assignment on The Newsroom was episode four, which concluded with a live report of the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. While other news outlets were reporting she had died of her wounds, McAvoy resisted broadcasting that until there was firm confirmation, which, of course, never came.
“The Gabby Giffords sequence, as wrenching as it was, was fundamentally about Will and MacKenzie, and the arc they had been through over the course of the hour when they once again learn to trust one another,” Poul recalls. “That’s what I found most moving about that episode.”
The scene Poul is shooting today is a Steadicam shot tracking one of the characters from behind as he enters the newsroom set. The shot snakes around the corridors and comes into the newsroom, where he sees all the FBI agents in action and exclaims, “What the fuck!” Poul confers with the DP to make certain he’s getting what he needs. However, on the first take the FBI agents seem in short supply; it’s not a big enough deal.
Poul huddles with the camera operators and then re-blocks the shot so the character’s head is in the center of the frame as he enters the room, and the extras playing the FBI agents are in the foreground with props to make their business seem more urgent. “We need to see more activity to stop him in his tracks,” Poul explains. After a few more takes the room has come alive and the reason for the character’s alarm is revealed.
As for Mottola, he came to The Newsroom after enjoying a series of theatrical successes with the teen comedies Superbad (2007) and Adventureland (2009), but he didn’t find that career path satisfying. “I was getting a lot of scripts about young people and I was worried about getting stuck doing young adult material,” he says. “I thought, ‘Shit, this was not my intention.’ [When] I was approached by [Newsroom producer] Scott Rudin, I was thrilled to do something more adult, and more outside my style—more political.”
Mottola matched the linguistic complexity of the series with visual inventiveness right from the opening of The Newsroom pilot when he shot an extemporaneous McAvoy tirade. Appearing at a university symposium, McAvoy explodes when a student asks him what makes America the greatest country in the world. Rather than the expected kneejerk answer, he explains why America can’t make that claim anymore, and the show was off to a rollicking start.
“I felt that the provocative, entertaining, show-stopping speech by Jeff would do 99 percent of the work for me,” says Mottola. In the scene, Will may or may not see someone he knows [MacKenzie] pushing him to answer truthfully. “So I experimented with that by using strange angles and filters on lenses to do it in-camera, like a
filter that has split pieces of glass in it that changes the focal plane. I screwed around a lot, and a lot didn’t work; it was a jigsaw puzzle. I had to show that something strange was happening to this character we hadn’t really met yet. There were more straightforward ways we could shoot it, and it made me nervous that we were spending so much time experimenting. But it serves up his speech in a good way, and it was a chance to play with film language before we’re about to be overwhelmed by [Sorkin’s] actual language.”
All of the directors agree that there’s a distinct difference directing a series written by Sorkin, whose epigrammatic dialogue combines deadpan wit and righteous fury, often within the same line.
“The way Aaron writes is more akin to conducting music,” says Poul. “You know exactly how it should sound; the actors know how it should sound, and you can alter the pitch a little but you’re not going to change the melody. In other shows, you can decide what the rhythms are. When you’re putting a scene up on its feet, you’ll usually encourage actors to take pauses where there might not be pauses, to find unusual ways to phrase, and sometimes you can deepen something by interrupting the flow. But if you’re directing a show written by Aaron and you try to alter the rhythm, you’ll know it’s off immediately.”
Mottola agrees. “Coming from comedy and fast-and-loose improv, it was a challenge to understand that his dialogue is to be delivered the way it’s written, down to the punctuation.”
Despite the directors’ obvious pride in their work, The Newsroom will be delivering its final scoop this fall when the season and series ends. But they insist that doesn’t affect the professionalism or mood on the set. Poul, who will direct the finale, says he’s too focused on the job at hand to give it much thought.
“You want it to be great, whether it’s the beginning, the middle or the end,” says Hemingway. “It’s heightened at the beginning and the end of a series—you want to make a lot of noise at the beginning and you want to be remembered at the end.”
Mottola concedes there might be a bit of sentiment at the end. “It would be different if people weren’t so busy trying to keep up. Maybe it will be emotional on the last couple of episodes, when it’s our swan song. I expected those emotions, but right now everyone’s just concentrating on getting it right.”