The latest issue of Emmy magazine (Issue No. 3, 2007, with Michael C. Hall on the cover) includes selections from our Archive of American Television interview with director/producer Thomas Schlamme. He was interviewed for 3 and 1/2 hours in 2006 by Stephen J. Abramson. Here are some excerpts from the article:
Q: What were your career aspirations?
A: I devoured films in college. There wasn’t a day that I didn’t go to a film. By the time I was a junior, I started to entertain the idea of being a filmmaker. If there was somebody that made me think, “That’s who I’d like to be,” it was probably Robert Altman. At that point he was making Nashville, Brewster McCloud and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. I thought, “Wow, you can tell a story and not necessarily in the most linear way.”
Q: How did you move into comedy?
A: I had directed an episode of Mad About You and the pilot for Spin City — the perception was that I had done this a lot. I decided to shoot Mad About You a little differently. I put the cameras deeper into the set — there were more angles; it wasn’t so proscenium-like. I thought the set lent itself to that. NBC was very excited about the way the show looked — they became very supportive of me. I might have been the only director at that time who would direct an episode of Friends, then go do ER, then Chicago Hope and then another half-hour comedy.
Q: What was unique about the pilot of Spin City?
A: What I remember most about that was convincing executive producer Gary David Goldberg to shoot a traditional half-hour sitcom in a different manner, which meant he couldn’t necessarily go in later and cut to the joke. It would have more of a cinematic feel to it, which Michael J. Fox was very excited about. I’m not a producer on the piece, but I was important in the process, treated with respect, and I got along great with Michael. The world that we were creating, it’s one of my proudest moments.
Q: How did you come to work with Aaron Sorkin?
A: I had read Sports Night and West Wing on the same night and said to my agents, “Get me a meeting with this Aaron Sorkin. I need to get involved in this.” I came in and we started to talk about Sports Night and then he said, “What would you do to make this a little bit more conventional? How would you shoot the show?” I said I wouldn’t do anything. I’d shoot the show exactly as written. I said, “I wouldn’t do this with an audience, I would do this with the fluidity that is written here. It feels like people are talking to one another and not to an audience. I don’t think it should have a laugh track, but if we have to, I understand. No one’s landing a big joke. If you land on the joke, it won’t seem as funny as traditional sitcoms. You want to feel the world more than the joke.” Afterward, I walked out of the room. Whatever happened behind closed doors, I have no idea. But I was lucky enough to get to direct the pilot, and that started our relationship.
Q: You found an innovative way to move that dialogue along. The show had its signature walk-and-talk shots….
A: Sports Night and The West Wing had somewhat different styles, though they looked very similar. In the Sports Night scripts I read, I never felt like I was reading — I immediately felt the energy of Aaron Sorkin’s writing. [My challenge was,] how do I make that energy translate visually? The characters have a lot of energy; they’re all Type-A personalities. They move around a lot. It was a way of shooting that I had always done, but it was specifically those words…. I felt [Sorkin] was writing with a metronome in his head, and I heard it. Most of the
time it was in sync, sometimes it wasn’t. There’s music to the way his stuff works, so it felt more like choreography as opposed to just staging.
Q: How did that energy transfer to West Wing?
A: The West Wing didn’t have the same sort of “We’re on air and it’s about time” feel [as Sports Night], but his words still had this rhythm. The design — by having glass [offices] and by being able to see [everyone at work] — you wanted the audience to feel that whatever acharacter was doing, somebody else was doing something equally important somewhere else. I wanted it to feel like the day never ends for these people. The set had to be interconnected. It suited both the material and the idea that this is the most important office building in the world.
Q: What do you consider the legacy of The West Wing?
A: For me, the legacy is that a group of people could raise the bar as high as they wanted in television, that you could maintain it if all your energy went into making it. The storytelling was a valentine to public service. It was about people committed to making the world a better place.
Q: What advice would you give an aspiring director?
A: Live and observe life the best you can. I think John Huston once said to a writer who was struggling with a scene: “Just get in the scene. You’ll figure out a way to get out of it.” I don’t think he just meant in writing, he meant in life. Experience life.
You can find the issue at some newsstands, or it can be ordered through the Emmy Magazine Webpage. The entire interview is not online, but can be screened at the Archive’s headquarters in North Hollywood, CA.