Director Thomas Schlamme Discusses Returning to ‘The West Wing’ and Staging a ‘Theatrical Representation’ of the Beloved Political Drama
"If there was something that we were able to pull together again for some other reason, that would be fantastic. And if it doesn’t, we're all still very much in communication with each other and they will be lifelong friends."
The much-requested, long-awaited reunion of The West Wing finally came to fruition in 2020. On the brink of a monumental election, The West Wing‘s A-list cast—Bradley Whitford, Alison Janney, Rob Lowe, Richard Schiff, and Martin Sheen reunited with their trusted leader Aaron Sorkin for A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote. The team reunited with a purpose: boost voter participation and turnout and ‘Benefit When We All Vote,’ a non-profit, non-partisan organization created by Michelle Obama.
The special took the form of a staged production of the 2002 West Wing episode, ‘Hartsfield’s Landing,’ with the cast returning to reprise their roles. To bring The West Wing to the theatre, Sorkin enlisted the help of his long-time collaborator, and fellow West Wing executive producer, Thomas Schlamme.
Schlamme’s work on The West Wing established the show’s visual palate; thus the acclaimed director was really the only person who could bring the world he helped create to the stage.
Currently serving as president of the Directors Guild of America, Schlamme is one of the industry’s most respected and celebrated directors, earning nine Emmy Awards and two more nominations this year for the reunion special. Here, he joins Awards Daily to discusses returning to the world of The West Wing and the company of his close-knit cast, translating the show’s iconography to the stage, his thoughts on iconic ‘Walk and Talk,’ and his legacy—in his own words.
Awards Daily: Fans have been asking for a reunion of The West Wing for years. How did this HBO Max special come together?
Thomas Schlamme: Aaron and I had talked about his desire to do a reading to benefit The Actors Fund with the cast. And I said, ‘You don’t need me. It’s a Zoom reading.’ And this was early on in the pandemic, there hadn’t even been that many Zoom readings.
By the time he called me again, HBO Max was involved in it. I said, ‘Well, I’m so tired of Zoom readings, there must be some other way of doing this.’ And because I’d been so involved with ‘return to work’ guidelines through the DGA, the Directors Guild of America, I knew that we were capable of shooting with protection and the guidelines in place.
I thought, ‘Okay, we can do this and we can do it not from our living rooms in little squares. Why don’t we open this up and treat it, creatively, in a similar way as we would any other project that Aaron and I have ever worked on? That doesn’t mean to do the same cinematic expression of it, but to find some way to do justice to these actors and to the words that he’s written.
And the more I read it, the more I started to realize that I could stage this as a theatrical representation. And, in some ways, deconstruct the cinematic language that I had used to create The West Wing and find a way to do that in this empty, beautiful theater. That was the origin of it.
‘Hartsfield’s Landing’ worked really well because it happened to be a show that was contained all within The White House and all through one night. I didn’t have to struggle with it on a theatrical stage. I could do this as if this was taking place in one.
AD: You directed The West Wing pilot and served as an executive producer on the series, but you didn’t direct ‘Hartsfield’s Landing.’ Did you find yourself going back and referencing that original episode?
TS: Well, you know, I was involved in all the episodes. I think Vince Misiano did an incredible job of directing it. I watched it once just to familiarize myself with the piece, but not to figure out the visual style Vince did, which was a visual style that the show had. Each director brought something unique, and Vince always brought something unique. This was not his only episode. But, it wasn’t about, ‘This is what they did, so what if we did that again?’ To me, the visual storytelling ability of The West Wing was so a part of my DNA that I didn’t need to go back and look at how we shot that or wonder how that was done. It wasn’t necessary. What I wanted to really see were the performances and the actors and be able to help them either fall back into that or more importantly adapt to a new way of approaching this material playing these same characters.
AD: There was a creative decision to have the stage directions read aloud and have the presence of an omniscient narrator [played by ‘West Wing’ alum Emily Procter]. How and why did you decide to do that?
TS: I think it was the theatrical nature of it. It was the Greek course, a sense of place. It was a way to remind everybody that this is a representation of this teleplay that we are now doing as a theatrical presentation. And I just think it lends itself, especially in the way that it was staged by putting it up in the box, to say, ‘I’m here to help and walk you through where we are with every scene and the truth in every act.’
AD: Sterling K Brown played the role of White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry. Why was he the right person to take over for the late, great John Spencer?
TS: There were a couple of situations that led to that. I think there was a Twitter thing quite a few years earlier where somebody had said there needs to be a revival of The West Wing. I think Aaron wrote, ‘If I did it again, I’d want someone like Sterling K. Brown to play the president.’ And Sterling then wrote back on Twitter, ‘I’m in.’ This was like three years earlier, but Sterling was already on everybody’s brain. What we were really trying to do was pay tribute to John in the best way that we could. Instead of trying to find somebody who would mimic John, it was, ‘Let’s just get an extraordinary actor who is filled with dignity and grace and let them play Leo however, they would want to play Leo.’ But the tribute still is to John and to his memory
We thought of Sterling. It was Emmy weekend. He was nominated. He was very, very busy himself. And, people were just starting to get back to work. But, he was so game and he happened fortunately to be a huge fan of the show and a huge fan of a lot of these actors. And the feeling was mutual.
AD: You have said that the thing that you missed about The West Wing was the collaboration and what would happen between takes rather than what we saw in front of the camera. That collaboration was the feeling that you were yearning for. Has this experience filled that void? Are you left itching to do more?
TS: Well, look, I feel great that it’s out into the world and I feel great that we had that experience together, especially after a moment in time, of 12, 13, 14 months where none of us had been with anybody, let alone a group of people that we worked with 20 years earlier. That sense, that’s what was projected in the black and white footage—the idea of us getting to be together. To work on something, being huddled with Brad and Janel [Moloney] to talk about a moment, to laugh with Alison, just being in awe of Richard and Martin, was great. And to walk around a stage with Aaron. All of that. [The West Wing] was a really special time in all of our lives. And to have this privilege to be together again, mostly because we were together for something that we so passionately believed in, the cause that we were doing this for— When We All Vote.
It was a special time. As in all really good things, I’m not one to go, ‘God, can we just do that again?’ I loved that it happened. If there was something that we were able to pull together again for some other reason, that would be fantastic. And if it doesn’t, we’re all still very much in communication with each other and they will be lifelong friends.
AD: There’s something interesting that you mentioned earlier that I’d like to go back to, which is that you wanted to translate the visual language of the show for the theatre.
AD: What exactly did that entail?
TS: Well, I wanted to deconstruct it. And, I think the greatest example of that is Snuffy’s music, the theme song. I heard Snuffy play the theme on the guitar by himself years ago. I had a copy of it. And when I started thinking about doing it, I kept listening to that. I realized that was the key. If I could visually strip things down so you clearly knew that this was The West Wing, but it wasn’t your father’s West Wing. So, in the same way that Snuffy was just playing guitar, but there was a little bit of orchestration. That was the same as me using the archways, using some of the high contrast lightings, using some of the pools of light, using a few props that would give you the idea of the world that we had inhabited in a much richer, more expansive way. So, I was trying to find that visual connection. We used rather dramatic framing, and we used the Orpheum Theatre as part of the framing device. One of the great things about The West Wing was we had this beautiful set. And the set was supposed to be the most extraordinary office building in the world, everything was done with enormous detail and great craft. And the theater has that feeling to it. It doesn’t have the feeling of The West Wing, but it has the feeling of something made with incredible care and craft. And so I used the theater itself as a framing device to reflect the visual grandeur of The West Wing.
AD: I have to ask about the ‘walk and talk.’ You know, I was doing research preparing for our conversation and there was so much written about the ‘walk and talk’ being your trademark as a director and your pop culture legacy. How do you feel about that?
TS: Well, it’s a very strange thing to me. People walked and talked in movies from Chaplin on. I understand it. I understand why it became associated with myself and Aaron. It really was in Sports Night, you know, there was an energy to his writing that I felt was conducive to the sort of movement of his characters. So, I adapted that. I personally like long takes. I like to work with actors who have had theatrical experience so that you don’t have to keep breaking up [the scene] even though my background was as an editor. It is a great way for me to be able to tell a story that’s all on one stream. And it was very conducive to do it on these two shows. At the same time, if I think of my own work, I always think of working with actors. It was never the camera. I’m flattered that somebody would go, ‘Oh the walk and talk and Tommy Schlamme’ And that there’s some sort of pop culture reference to it.
But, you know, for those who know my work, and the legacy for my own self is being in the trenches with actors. And that is the greatest joy that I get from working. I love working with cinematographers. I love working with production designers, but nothing more than two people sitting and having a discussion, and in the middle of that, we find a little nugget that would have gone by forever that was in performance. And either I can help someone get there or I can just watch them get there. That is a greater achievement on my part. There’s a great line, ‘You’re only as good as your reference material.’
And there’s been a lot of reference material about people who’ve moved and walked and talked in long takes. And, the truth of it is, early in my career, I started working with the steady cam. So, I kind of loved that particular instrument. Not because you could do long walks and talks, but because you could do long takes. That was really exciting to me, as a form of storytelling.
AD: Tommy, you’re an award show veteran and president of the DGA. This being Awards Daily, I wanted to know if there’s a moment from any of your Emmy wins that remains special or stands out to you?
TS: Well, what I’ve always said is, it’s just a great date night. My wife [Academy Award winner Christine Lahti] and I get dressed up and we have a place to go. It’s always a celebration to be there with my wife and to share it with her. And I’ve been able to go to some of these awards shows where she’s been nominated and times that I’ve been nominated. So for us, it’s just a really fun thing.
I will say the Emmy ceremony after 9/11 was very emotional. It happened to also be the night that the World Series was on and the Yankees were in the World Series, who happened to be my favorite team and I had a little radio that I had brought in with me and I was listening to the game during the award show.
I was fortunate to win that night, and part of what my speech was that I could have never imagined when in elementary school that I would ever even be in this business, let alone be nominated for an Emmy, let alone win one.
And the only thing I was worried about in elementary school was that I would sneak in with an A.M. radio and listen to the World Series and then feeling the same thing tonight. Some things never change and at a moment in all of our lives where there was so much fear and anxiety about what would happen next, I was in a community of people that I cared deeply about. And I felt so fortunate that I was part of that.
A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote is available via HBO Max. Thomas Schlamme is Emmy nominated for Outstanding Directing for a Variety Special and Outstanding Variety Special for his work on the project.