Wynnewood's Alan Poul makes news with ‘The Newsroom'

Alan Poul: "Suddenly, this torrent was unleashed and there was a moment of shell shock."
Alan Poul: "Suddenly, this torrent was unleashed and there was a moment of shell shock."
Posted: August 07, 2012

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Some things you just don't see coming.

For Alan Poul, the Wynnewood native who's an executive producer on HBO's "The Newsroom" (10 p.m. Sundays), it was the first barrage of criticism for the Aaron Sorkin series set in a fictional cable news network.

"I think we knew that there were elements of the show that might spark a conversation, might be slightly provocative," he said last week, after a Television Critics Association press conference in which he'd sat beside Sorkin as the show's creator vigorously defended himself against charges that, among other things, he was portraying supposedly smart women in dumb ways.

"Blindsided" is how Poul described his own reaction to the first reviews of the show, which premiered June 24.

"I mean, I can speak only for myself. Totally blindsided. Not by the fact that things were deemed provocative, but by the level of vitriol. What did we say?" he asked.

"Suddenly, this torrent was unleashed and there was a moment of shell shock. Then there was a huge ricochet, you know, of people coming back and saying they loved the show and then we were like, ‘OK, that's the conversation that's out there; we can deal with it.' Because eventually the conversation dies down. What's left is the programs. I stand behind the programs," Poul said.

The storm hit after all 10 episodes of the first season had been filmed, and that earlier part of the experience was "unbelievably pleasurable," said the Lower Merion High grad.

"It's very rare — and I've been fortunate enough in my career to work on a number of good things, ‘Tales of the City,' ‘Six Feet Under' and ‘Swingtown' — but to get material this good and to get material this dense, it's rare. And so you feel you've been given a gift.

“And then on top of that, to be given a cast like this, where these people are all at the top of their game, they're unbelievably well-trained theater actors and they're unbelievably nice. An ensemble show, where you have eight leads, it's kind of a given that someone's going to turn out to be the bad penny, and the problem. And we didn't have it. We absolutely didn't have it," he said.

As for the criticism, "the worst thing would be to react to it," he said. "There are developments that happen in the last few episodes, where Mackenzie [Emily Mortimer's character] does take a stronger stand about things and does throw down for integrity. And there are things that happen where Will [Jeff Daniels] sort of looks like he's backpedaling a little bit and she becomes the stronger person. And the last thing you want is for people to look at that and say, ‘Oh, aha! Oh, they read my blog and they listened to me.' And it's not. Everything was shot before we started [on HBO]."

A second season, already ordered, is expected to launch next June, Sorkin said last week.

Poul, who also directed two episodes this season — the fourth, "I'll Try to Fix You," and the ninth, which premieres on Aug. 19 — has had the challenge of coping with Sorkin's notoriously long stretches of dialogue without resorting to the walk-and-talk technique favored by Thomas Schlamme, who pioneered that style on "ER" and worked with Sorkin on "Sports Night," "The West Wing" and "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip."

"Obviously, Tommy very much created that style and stayed with it and did an unbelievably brilliant job. This show is a little different. If you'll notice, people are not walking as much [as they did on Sorkin's other shows]. And it wasn't just to get away from the signature — it's because that's not what people in the newsroom do," he said, citing Sorkin's cameo "on ‘30 Rock,' where Liz Lemon [Tina Fey] runs into him and asks him a question and he goes, ‘Walk with me,' and they get up and they go through corridor after corridor."

By contrast, "we actually have seven-, eight-page scenes with three people standing around a desk. And so it's got to be performance, camera work and, above all, the text yourself that holds your interest. And we just try to make the work interesting and not have to invent diversionary camera moves or arbitrary blocking just so that people don't feel it's static," he said.

"We usually have multiple cameras; we have them on very long telescopic lenses and the cameras tend to rove and follow the action, or follow a thought, from character to character ... So it gives it a certain kineticism, but it doesn't feel forced," Poul said.

And when I suggested jokingly that he might wish that "The Newsroom" could break up a set of long speeches by throwing in a couple of naked women, the way HBO's "Game of Thrones" does, Poul laughed, but said he's never been concerned with holding the audience's attention.

"When you hear those actors read the material, that worry goes away."

Contact Ellen Gray at 215-854-5950 or graye@phillynews.com. Follow on Twitter @elgray and read her blog at EllenGray.tv.

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