Socially-conscious programming is in Casey Patterson’s DNA.
The mega-producer was in the midst of planning a televised event honoring the centennial of the 19th Amendment when the country went into lockdown. Looking for a way to help with COVID relief, a mutual friend connected her with Aaron Sorkin. In an election year and with divisive rhetoric and misinformation on the rise, Sorkin and Patterson decided to change direction and team up with When We All Vote, Michelle Obama’s non-partisan, non-profit, to aid with get-out-the-vote efforts.
A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote reunited The West Wing‘s A-list cast and many of the original behind-the-scenes crew, the group staged a theatrical production of season three episode, ‘Hartsfield’s Landing,’ with celebrities and politicians making appearances to dispel myths and encourage voting.
‘Hartsfield’s Landing’ is ‘an ode to voting.’ Similarly, the long-awaited West Wing special served as a beautiful ode to a beloved series that shaped a generation of bright-eyed kids with a passion for politics. It was a joy to see Josh (Bradley Whitford) and Sam (Rob Lowe) and Toby (Richard Schiff) and C.J. (Alison Janney) together again. And all for a worthy cause. Something tells us President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) would approve. As do we.
Read more from our interview with executive producer Casey Patterson below as she details how A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote came together.
Awards Daily: What was your relationship to The West Wing prior to joining the reunion special?
Casey Patterson: I’m an Aaron Sorkin fan in all ways. But The West Wing, in particular, has been that in the same way that some people watch Friends or The Office is just that thing that’s part of the furniture of your life. The thing you go to that you can watch over and over again, The West Wing has always been that for me. So, I just happened to know it backward and forward.
AD: How did you become involved with A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote?
CP: When the opportunity came up, it was wonderful to work with that cast because I was such a huge fan of all involved— of Aaron and Aaron and Tommy [Schlamme]‘s work together, and certainly this cast. So you can imagine, in front of an election, being able to marry the part of yourself that loves content and loves what we do and loves great writers. With this particular cast in this particular show at that moment in time was really extraordinary.
Leading into the election, I decided to take sort of a sabbatical year. This gift that I would give myself before I lept into some other big projects that I knew would take a lot of time. I thought I’d give myself this year leading into the election to work on behalf of women. We were working on a big women’s centennial project in D.C. We had successfully lobbied to do the first big nationally televised celebration of women and their contributions to the country and our national history leading into the election, which was also the women’s centennial, the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment. So, we were working on that project and literally standing on the National Mall. We had this incredible board of historians and politicians. So many people were supporting us in that effort when we heard there was essentially a pandemic coming and that we should go back home. There would likely be an uncomfortable month or two; that’s how it was put to us at the time. We came back, and I would say two weeks later when the country went into lockdown.
We decided to pivot my company’s focus to COVID relief at that time—anything that we could do. Being a part of MTV for all those years, we had done everything from Hope for Haiti, to Sandy relief, 9/11 benefits, Rock The Vote, and Choose or Lose— these socially-minded, mobilizing the community around a moment in time [events] were in my DNA. We reached out to every charitable organization that was doing work at that time and offered our services, The Actors Fund was one of them. And at one point, they came back and said, ‘We happen to share an attorney with Aaron Sorkin, who’s also willing to help. Can we match you two?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely.’ We met and we were developing what we might do, which was a very humble remote table read.
Aaron didn’t previously have any plans to revisit The West Wing. As we got closer to the election and the decibel was getting louder and louder and we were becoming more divided, the ground was shifting every week. As we got closer to the election, it just became really clear that if he were going to speak in the voice of The West Wing again, with that cast, it should be on behalf of the election and what was happening with voting rights. So we pivoted. I had been working with When We All Vote on another project, Michelle Obama’s non-profit, non-partisan voting organization. I brought them in to partner with us, and we did this in support of their work trying to get the vote out; under such, I don’t have the words, ‘unprecedented circumstances’ doesn’t really do it justice.
AD: How did you all settle on ‘Hartsfield’s Landing’ being the episode you all wanted to recreate?
CP: There were other scripts in discussion when this was going to be a COVID relief project, but when we decided that this would be in support of a free and fair election, and we partnered with When We All Vote, Aaron immediately went to ‘Hartsfield’s Landing’ because it’s an ode to democracy. It’s a love letter and an ode to voting. And it felt so good, and so right, for a lot of reasons. At the end of the day, at that time, the decibel of rhetoric and the division was so noisy, so divided, and frightening that something wholesome as ‘Hartsfield’s Landing’ felt like the only way we might be able to get people’s attention— bringing the level of noise down a bit and doing something that was a more quiet, purposeful, focused endeavor.
‘Hartsfield’s Landing’ is about a small town where each individual takes the right to vote as a privilege. In the final scene, you cut to Hartsfield’s Landing, where the vote is happening. And a young woman is coming to place her vote, and they say her name and that she’s 18. And that this was her first vote. I thought that was perfect for the time.
AD: The cast has been very vocal about how much it has meant to them to be part of this special. How did you get all those pieces to come together and get everyone to participate?
CP: The cast was in it from the beginning. They were a part of the decision-making process and every decision that we made. We would get together on Zooms and talk about the right approach and the right partners and organizations.
People talk a lot about how The West Wing politically affected the generations of people who watched it. But I think sometimes they forget the effect that the series, and the fans’ reaction, had on the cast. You know, the cast understands how The West Wing lives in the hearts and minds of people who watched it and exactly how it’s affected people. And they are activists, one and all.
As you might imagine, 20 years later, the experience they had together only becomes more and more profound and how rare that is. So they couldn’t wait.
AD: And how did you settle on that hybrid format of having the theatrically staged portions of the episode interspersed with the notable celebrities and activists coming in to encourage voting?
CP: As you might imagine, you wouldn’t ever want to alter Aaron’s script. We wanted it to feel very organic. It’s not something where we were looking to reinvent the wheel and the scenes exist as they exist in the script.
Because the show was originally done for broadcast television, with commercial breaks, We decided to leave the script and the material untouched and have people watch it exactly as they would before. Instead of commercials, we wanted to bring in partners like Mrs. Obama and Lin Manuel Miranda, who’s one of the founders and sits on the board of When We All Vote. We brought in other like-minded socially conscious people to do a little myth-busting with us.
Aaron wrote all of that material and the misinformation was so rampant at the time that we found there was something new to address daily. ‘Is my vote safe? Can my dog vote?’ We really did have those conversations, ‘What’s being said to people? What are the biggest concerns? And how can we address them in these breaks?’ It sounds overly earnest, but we just wanted to be of service, be a public service without an agenda, and give people accurate information.
That’s really how we landed on the format. And the theater of it all—if you’re an Aaron Sorkin fan, it was really extraordinary and very exciting, the notion of having set it as a play. To have Aaron Sorkin, the playwright, the writer/creator of The West Wing, bring those two worlds together and stage it in this really humble way in an empty theater, which we needed to do for safety. But we may have just done anyway so that the power would lie within the performances and within that script because there was such a great message.
AD: How does this West Wing special compare to other things in your career? As you mentioned, you’ve done so much variety programming and you have a strong passion and history of activism. I would say this is like marrying all the best parts of your career together.
CP: [Laughs]. Truly! This is going to be tough to top, especially because we were able to be of service. We were able to support people who just wanted to safely cast their vote without an agenda. Despite what people may think, without an agenda, or who they voted for. We just wanted to preserve the notion that they should be allowed to vote and not be made to feel, ‘Why go through so much risk to cast a vote when it’s not going to count anyway?’ That’s the message that was out there at the time, ‘It’s not going to be safe.’ ‘It’s rigged.’
Personally, it was the perfect moment in time to work with these incredible performers and creators on The West Wing, which is just so important to me and beloved by all. But to do it with a purpose, it doesn’t get more meaningful than that.
It was really incredible. We sort of went method in the way that we approached it. We brought back all of the original West Wing crew—the wardrobe, script, lighting, and set decorator-they all came back together as a family. And to see them work together—none of them ever thought that would be possible, even if Aaron were to revisit The West Wing at some point, it very likely wouldn’t be with this cast. I think from a cast perspective, they didn’t ever expect to be back together acting again in those roles. So it was quite amazing to see them come together and do that again with purpose and to be of service at that moment in time.
That was also a moment in time where no one was filming anything live. It should be said that this cast took a risk. There were protocols in place, but very few people had begun to do that. They were not paid, and they did not rehearse. There were no rehearsals because we had to limit the amount of time that we were together. So they got the script, they prepped themselves, and they rehearsed a bit together on Zoom in pockets. Then on the day, they showed up, we started filming,
I think it’s important that people know that the cast did this so that we could raise money for When We All Vote versus a paycheck. They fell right back into those roles and delivered those performances unrehearsed. And we had so little time. It was amazing to see them come back together in that way and how easily they fell back into those roles. And it was also really heartening to see that at a time when people were feeling like victims, like everything was just happening to us, the pandemic and being locked in our homes. This was a way that they could have one another as The West Wing family. And it was a really beautiful thing to watch, all led by Aaron, beautifully directed by Tommy, but all credit due to this cast, who was willing to show up in extraordinary times, for the greater good.
A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote is available via HBO Max. Casey Patterson is Emmy nominated for Outstanding Variety Special for her work on the project.