Being a fan of the long running television series The West Wing, created by Aaron Sorkin, meeting Director Producer Thomas Schlamme in conversation with Sandy Shaw at the Dendy Cinema in the Circular Quay Sydney Harbour venue was both exhilarating and informative. Certainly it added a personal connection to my recent viewing of this now considered landmark series on DVD.
Kingston Anderson from the Australian Directors Guild (ADG) proudly introduced the audience to a select show reel that showcased the ground breaking, diverse and eclectic work of director-producer Thomas Schlamme.
Scenes from his enormous body of work stimulated curiosity within the audience as they were about to discover more information about this charismatic man. They included glimpses of television series like The West Wing (1999-2003), Murder in the First (2004), Manhattan (2014-), Pan Am (2011-2012), Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007),Invasion (2005), Mr Sunshine (2011), Friends (1994-2004), The Americans (2013-), Invasion (2005), Mr Sunshine (2011), Boston Public (2000-2004), Mad About You (1992-1999).
Thomas Schlamme’s warmth and sense of humour were immediately apparent as he dryly commented that he had directed everything except the show reel.
Most of the evening’s questions were about the powerful drama of The West Wing. Its first season honours included the prestigious Peabody Award for excellence in television, plus an unprecedented nine Emmy Awards’
“The best written, best performed, best produced and most compelling drama on the air” quoted the New York Daily News.
Thomas Schlamme had created his famed ‘walk and talk’ signature style with The West Wing. When invited to discuss The West Wing it bought back “fond memories” to Thomas Schlamme as he reminisced about how very exciting it was being involved in a television series that became a massive hit in its second season.
Thomas Schlamme elaborated on the key factors of the show’s success.
At the time of making the series the American people were feeling overwhelmed about the state of politics and government decisions. The series maintained the notion that the public service and the government were trying to do their best.
The series celebrated public service by making the participants real. The characters were believable, at times vulnerable and endowed with the positive and negative qualities that reflect human nature. This was very different from the cynicism of popular culture.
Thomas Schlamme confided “we need to be careful about the messages sent out.” He believed he had a responsibility to the viewers. In addition to this benevolent vision the mixture of comedy and seriousness hit the spot-on combination at the right moment.
There was a very satisfying richness and joy about the show as the spirit of optimism pervaded the series in a way that is not evident in current political series like House of Cards.
It was interesting to learn when shooting the series began they hadn’t cast the President’s role. Sydney Poitier was the first choice; however his fee prohibited his selection. Hal Hoper was originally cast but there were concerns about his suitability for the role (later he would be the Ambassador).
Finally Martin Sheen was offered six episodes after his successful screen test where his portrayal was more the ‘father figure.’
His rendering of the President was very different to the original conception and obviously the impression had a strong impact on the course of the series.
Martin Sheen “opened the door to a different kind of writing” for the famed series writer Aaron Sorkin (who wrote every episode for four years except for one).
However the real focus of the show was not the President but the people who worked for him.
Sandy George wanted to understand the influences behind his decision to become a director.
Thomas Schlamme declared that the major influence was Cecil Pickett his High School teacher in Houston. “He changed my life … saw my creative spirit.” He wisely articulated that great teachers change peoples’ lives.
Air conditioning was the motivation behind Thomas Schlamme’s move from the field into the high school drama classroom. In the very hot Houston, Texas climate this was one of few rooms in the school that was air conditioned.
Later his big break though came when he shot Bette Midler’s Art or Bust Concert in 1984. From that work begat more work and he has remained consistently busy and involved in numerous projects.https://youtu.be/o5mxt4Q–eQ
To keep match fit for ideas for shows he revealed he has different methods. He has his own company, secures much material from newspaper articles and “stays open to people who aren’t in the industry.”
He fervently believes that for first time directors you need to expand horizons and offer new opportunities for their innovative voices He often checks with crew members especially women to discover if they would like the chance to direct.
The importance of supporting indigenous talent was also emphasized by Thomas Schlamme.
One of his ongoing series Manhattan is about the development of the first atomic bomb and the total secrecy surrounding its development.
The production of this series resulted from his assistant insisting he read the unsolicited series outline script. After reading the script and immediately responding to it, it had to be a show and he had to be involved.
Commitment was a strong characteristic of this ground breaking director-producer especially to politically orientated material.
It was staggering to discover that the budget of between two and three million dollars was allocated for each hourly episode.
Some of Thomas Schlamme’s final comments were about the effects of television on society. He expressed quizzically television has “enlightened us and made us stupid.” He articulated the industry has enormous responsibility and moral obligations about the messages released.
He stated that there was an irony deficiency in the USA, however here in Australia we have achieved a successful balance of comedy and drama.
Thomas Schlamme is a fine teller of stories, modulating each scene, allowing his instincts to surface. He is masterful at finding the right tone and discovering material that the viewers can connect to. In sharing his expertise the audience was enriched and I am sure eager to revisit his old series as well as watch his current gems.
Rose Niland, Special Features NSW, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015