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'West Wing' to End Seven-Year Run

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams.

Inside the West Wing of the White House you will find a group of people working almost 24/7 for not much money, hoping to make a difference.

That was the pitch that producers Aaron Sorkin and John Wells took to NBC television. They wanted to do a show about the inner circle of staffers who serve at the pleasure of the President and sometimes suffer his scorn.

NBC eventually signed on and The West Wing debuted in September of 1999. The program took on the timely issues of American politics from the very start and over seven seasons. The season's finale is this coming weekend.

Executive Producer John Wells says another trademark of the show was its adrenaline pushed dialog, spoken by characters walking with great speed and intensity through the halls of the West Wing.

(Soundbite of show The West Wing)

Mr. JOSH LYMAN (Actor) (As character): You look like a million bucks, by the way.

Ms. C.J. CREGG (Actor): (As character): Don't try to make up with me.

Ms. LYMAN: I'll talk to Sam.

Ms. CREGG: I'll talk to Sam.

Ms. LYMAN: Toby.

Mr. TOBY ZIEGLER (Actor): (As character): Hi. How was last night?

LYMAN: The longest dinner of my life.

Mr. JOHN WELLS (Executive Producer, West Wing): That's a style that began with the technology, you know, the Stedicams, which are now kind of pervasive in television were, really just beginning as a tool when we started The West Wing.

ADAMS: Is it a difficult thing for an actor to do? That's a long take. It can be two minutes, it seems like on television.

Mr. WELLS: Oh, they can be a lot more than two minutes.

ADAMS: Oh, yeah.

Mr. WELLS: The film that has to be loaded onto the camera is 400 feet, and you can do about six and a half minutes.

(Soundbite of show The West Wing)

Mr. LYMAN: How does someone decline an invitation for a photo op with the President?

Mr. CREGG: I'm saying this is the kind of luck we're having.

Mr. LYMAN: Because of the joke?

Mr. CREGG: Because of the joke.

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) Good morning.

Mr. LYMAN: Good morning.

Ms. CREGG: Who's that?

Ms. LYMAN: Who cares. We need somebody.

Mr. WELLS: We often times did three and four minute takes. It's very difficult for the actors, but it's also extremely challenging because it's the closest thing to actually doing live theater, where you have to wind your way up to a full performance and engage in it and follow it, and it makes for an energy that I think translates into what you're viewing.

ADAMS: With that, the dialogue and the subjects on West Wing, a lot of times people are talking very fast about things that I do not understand, esoteric, arcane legislative issues and I have no idea what's going on.

Mr. WELLS: I think one of the great problems in network television has been, over the years, has been people underestimating the intelligence of the audience. You weren't always supposed to understand everything that was being said. You're only supposed to understand that they knew what they were talking about and get the emotional resonance of what they were talking about. And if you were listening and paying attention to the show, over the course of the episode you would understand the issue, you would understand what they were talking about and understand the complexity of that issue.

ADAMS: And movies have helped in that way. I think of Robert Altman's techniques over the years, where you'd have a lot of overlapping dialogue. And you're gonna miss a lot of it, you know, and it doesn't really matter in the end.

Mr. WELLS: Well, we always talked about it as sort of pointillist painting, really, that if you're too close to it, you're not going to understand all of it. The important thing is when you step from it, have you understood what the entire episode was about, emotionally for the characters, and did you understand the gist of what they were really talking about? And Aaron Sorkin just did it brilliantly in the creation of the series. You know, nobody did it better.

ADAMS: There is a scene which a lot of people are going to remember for a long time. President Bartlet at the Washington National Cathedral. His secretary, Mrs. Laningham, has died in just a random, freakish car crash.

Mr. WELLS: Right.

ADAMS: Tell me about the scene just a bit and them we'll hear it.

Mr. WELLS: Well interestingly, this is actually my favorite scene from the series, and one of the reasons it's my favorite scene is that I am very willing to admit that I tried to talk Aaron out of writing it. I felt that it was a scene that couldn't work. I had tried to write something that was similar in nature during, I wrote on a show called China Beach in the late '80's. And I had written a very unsuccessful scene and I went with great concern to his office to tell him I didn't think the scene could work, and it turned into my favorite scene, not only because it's so moving and about a man who we know to be struggling with all of the notions of God. Does God exist? You know, how powerful am I? What power do I actually have in the Presidency? But confronts God in Washington Cathedral and it is a beautiful, extraordinary scene. And they allowed us to shoot it in Washington Cathedral, which is part of the power of it.

(Soundbite of show The West Wing)

Mr. MARTIN SHEEN (Actor): (As Joshua Bartlett) You're a son of a bitch, you know that? She bought her first new car and you hit her with a drunk driver. What? Was that supposed to be funny? You can't conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God, says Graham Green. I don't know who's ass he was kissing there, 'cause I think you're just vindictive.

ADAMS: How is it they let you shoot in there?

Mr. WELLS: We made the request and they read the script and the only concern they had is that at the end of this scene he smokes a cigarette as an act of disrespect and smashes it out on the floor. But they also understood that the basis crisis of faith is an accurate portrayal of what many of us go through. And then Martin came and, you know, as we like to say, brought his A game. He was just ready to do it. He's extraordinary. You know, he's a very devout Catholic. He had struggled with just these own issues in his life and he was able to bring that to the scene. And I think that's what you see when you see him performing it.

(Soundbite of show The West Wing)

Mr. SHEEN: Yes, I lied. It was a sin. I've committed many sins. Have I displeased you, you feckless thug? 3.8 million new jobs, that wasn't good? Bailed out Mexico, increased foreign trade. Thirty million new acres of land for conservation? Put Mendoza on the bench? We're not fighting a war. I've raised three children. That's not enough to buy me out of the doghouse? (Speaking foreign language)

ADAMS: Now, I want to do some emotional manipulation of you here on this fine May day in Los Angeles. We're going to play the opening of a program. Music by W.G. Snuffy Walden, who gets a primary credit right at the very beginning, must have a good attorney.

Mr. WELLS: Much deserved, actually, primary credit.

ADAMS: Right. Okay, so here is the open and it starts building slowly, slowly, slowly. And then the music swells. Are you writing scenes for that?

Mr. WELLS: We are assuming that it's going to happen each week. And so we try to leave tension at the end of that, what we refer to as the teaser, which is the beginning of the show, to allow it to build. And when we shoot it we make sure we're shooting it so that visually it's leading up to it. There's usually, we're pushing in on the character with the camera so that you're getting closer, or you're pulling back, so that there's actually movement in the camera which mirrors the build of what's coming in the music. It's a very conscious decision every week, to try and get that emotional impact of it.

(Soundbite of show The West Wing)

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) I don't like being the first one to say it, but I'm gonna. I think the President has got to strongly consider not running for re-election.

Mr. JOHN SPENCER (Actor): (As character) You think you're the first one to say it?

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) Leo.

Mr. SPENCER: You are, at minimum, the 35th in the last two hours.

Unidentified Man (Actor): (As character) Well, we're the ones talking to you now. And we're the ones that are asking. Is the President going to run for re-election?

Mr. SPENCER: There's going to be a press conference tonight. I'd watch.

ADAMS: Now, here's what I want to know. Did your spine tingle just a little bit then or are you tired of it?

Mr. WELLS: Oh, I never get tired of it. You know, it's a beautiful theme and it, I think, calls to the imagination that sort of majestic build, the notion of -- that's what we want to think of when we think of Washington and we very infrequently get to. It was clearly our attempt to put an image of what we would wish leadership to be. And I say that in a non-partisan way. Democratic and Republican presidencies eventually always, I think, disappoint. And we had the opportunity to actually put something on that was what we had hoped it would be.

ADAMS: John Wells, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. WELLS: Thank you for inviting me.

ADAMS: John Wells is the executive producer of The West Wing, which concludes its seven-year run on NBC this Sunday evening. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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