Summer 2017

A Crisis Storms The West Wing

A season finale culminates in one of the greatest moments in television history

By Thomas Schlamme

In this pivotal episode of The West Wing, there is a storm brewing in D.C.—both literally and figuratively. 

President Bartlet has knowingly hidden his multiple sclerosis from his staff, the public and the press. Now, on this stormy night, wrestling with his own ghosts and guilt, our hero must face the cameras and the questions. 

Despite his degenerative disease and the potential political fallout, the question at the center of the episode—the finale of Season 2, which originally aired May 16, 2001—is: "Will he run for reelection?"

The final sequence is set up beautifully by Aaron Sorkin's magnificent script. I also had the benefit of another brilliant writer, Mark Knopfler, as Dire Straits' "Brothers in Arms" underscores our montage. The song and storm build, along with the anticipation of Bartlet's decision.

In this shot, the President impulsively decides to walk out of the Oval Office into the rain, a baptism of sorts, to wash away his previous sins. By initially shooting him through the open door, we feel both the force of the rain and the spirit of the recently departed Mrs. Landingham, who served as his executive secretary.

This was shot on our soundstage at Warner Bros. where we had an incredible 20,000-square-foot interior set, as well as an exterior portico that connected the West Wing to the residence of the White House. What we did not yet have was the ability to create a rainstorm inside of the soundstage. In order to accomplish this, we were forced to install a rather elaborate and, unfortunately, rather expensive drainage system to protect the interior portion of the set.

The first to Bartlet's side is Charlie. His loyal "body man" offers the President a coat to shield him from the storm, but Bartlet refuses. Charlie lives in the shadow of his boss, and in this high-contrast wide shot, he is wearing a dark hood; we are thus unable to see his reaction to Bartlet's rejection of the coat. Then cutting to a close-up of the wonderful Dulé Hill, illuminated for a brief second by the lightning effect, is all we need to read Charlie's deep concern and loyalty.

Stealing from every great Western, my concept for this sequence was to see the cowboys—the "brothers in arms"—joining forces with our hero. In the first shot, the camera finds Leo in his office putting on his coat, and he takes us into one of our many hallways where he meets the President, Charlie and the Secret Service.

This kind of choreography could never have been accomplished without the wisdom and talent of Jon Hutman, our production designer [for the pilot], and Tom Del Ruth, our DP. Jon created this gigantic labyrinth where our many different worlds were all interconnected by a multitude of hallways and doorways, all a bit wider than normal to accommodate the Steadicam. Tom masterfully lit each area differently to give them their own unique character and devised an elaborate dimmer board to allow us unlimited movement.

The second image starts with a wide shot of the bullpen where, in the deep background, Sam meets Josh as he exits his office. As they head out of the room, Toby walks into a close-up and takes us around a corner and into our lobby. We lose Toby momentarily and reveal Bartlet and his previous entourage heading toward us (see #6). As Sam and Josh fall in behind them, they now all walk into another hallway, where Toby falls in step. Ready for battle, they march forward together.

Since the pilot, I had been using the Steadicam to accomplish three important things: First, to create energy and movement in a show with very dense dialog. Second, to bring a sense of urgency—important information can be exchanged on the move, scenes set on their feet, illustrating that there is no time to waste in this world. And third, to accomplish a seamless transition from character to character, allowing the audience to see the ensemble as a whole. These two Steadicam shots illustrate the third reason in the most dramatic way and help the audience understand that these characters all serve at the pleasure of the President.

Meanwhile, back in town (maintaining the Western motif), our dedicated press secretary C.J. Cregg is keeping the restless crowd at bay. The rest of the montage is all shot on location in Washington, D.C. We needed to find a room with grandeur and scale to shoot the final press conference. The Classical Revival architectural style of the Great Hall in the Department of Commerce was perfect. A year later, though, when we asked to film there again, the answer was a resounding no. Not because of anything we did, but because there was now a "new sheriff in town." We never got quite as warm a reception from the Bush White House as we had from the Clinton one. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Martin [Sheen] had called the new President "a white knuckle alcoholic."

The visual language of The West Wing was often as dense as the verbal language. One traditional cutaway might tell three different stories. In this particular cutaway, we have a hostile press corps positioning to be called on by the press secretary in the foreground. In the midground, we see Donna and Margaret arrive with a look of confusion and concern for the President and their bosses. And in the deep background, we see on a live monitor what everyone is reacting to: C.J. being bombarded by questions.

We only had minutes before the sun came up to get a few very important shots of the President traveling in his limo. These were shot using a "poor man's process" in the Commerce Dept. parking lot. Our wonderful DP in Washington, D.C., Mike Mayers, who had no time to light this, resorted to holding an inky and running back-andforth along the side of the car, in the rain, to create the passing lights. This was the end of three long wet days and nights of shooting, and the exhaustion shows on Martin's face in this close-up, which fortunately helped illustrate the same feeling his character was having.

The juxtaposition of the next two shots dramatizes what we often tried to accomplish on this show. We were always looking for ways to expose the personal side of our characters by allowing the audience a peek behind the curtain—to reveal these public figures as regular, vulnerable human beings. Here in the first shot, we see C.J. in full control, standing higher than her subjects, patriotically framed by the colorful flags. She is commanding the room from the podium emblazoned with the Presidential seal. This is her professional side, which is also captured by the television cameras that were part of the press conference within the show.

The reverse shot voyeuristically through a doorway sees C.J. with the lights glaring in her eyes, silhouetted by the flags which now appear to imprison her, standing behind the empty, unimpressive podium. All of these elements help reveal the personal side of C.J., at this moment lonely, exposed and vulnerable. This view is only captured by our cameras, and not the cameras at the press briefing.

These two shots give the viewer a very different impression of the exact same moment.

We mostly used wider elements on the show. However, in this episode, I wanted to do a series of long-lens compression shots, referencing classic Western imagery. Inspired by the very familiar shot of the gang on horseback appearing on the horizon (as seen in Ford's The Searchers, Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, George Roy Hill's Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, etc.), we created a dramatic entrance for the motorcade in the back of the Department of Commerce.

In another shot (as seen in Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood's Pale Rider and Kasdan's Wyatt Earp), we borrowed an equally familiar image-panning up from determined feet to the faces of our heroes on the way to the gunfight. Instead of dust, boots and cowboys, we had shiny floors, Florsheims and politicians.

The final shots of this episode might be my favorite of the whole series. The setup is that, ever since President Bartlet was a child, whenever he had decided to do something, he would stick his hands in his pockets, look away and smile. So we needed a shot of that very action which culminates with his hands at the podium. I wanted it to be choreographed in one 180-degree, slow Steadicam move. Compared to some of the other shots we had accomplished, this was not incredibly difficult. But what makes it so special to me is the very last frame (#15). I had asked the grips to build a flagpole in the courtyard so that an American flag would be visible from the secondstory window.

We had rain towers hitting it and a Ritter fan blowing it. My hope was that we might catch a glimpse of it in the background. But miraculously, on the take when the Steadicam move was just perfect, the flag fluttered exactly at the last moment of the shot—filling the whole background frame. I have always felt it symbolized our enormous good fortune to work on this show. As Thomas Jefferson said, "I am a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work the more I have of it."

(Photos: (top) Scott Council; Screenpulls: Warner Home Video)