Early into the pandemic, Thomas Schlamme got a call from Aaron Sorkin. There’d been talk about hosting a Zoom-based reunion of the cast of “The West Wing” doing a reading from an episode as a benefit for the Actors Fund, and since Sorkin and Schlamme were both original executive producers on the show, Sorkin asked his longtime friend and collaborator if he wanted to be involved. As the president of the Directors Guild, Schlamme already had his hands full as the industry reeled from the total shutdown, so he demurred; besides, it was just going to be a bunch of talking heads reading from a script, so Schlamme figured Sorkin didn’t really need a director, anyway.
Roughly four months later, Sorkin called Schlamme again.
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“‘You remember that thing I talked about, the Actors Fund?'” Schlamme recalls Sorkin saying. “‘It’s kind of morphed into something completely different.'”
With the 2020 presidential election looming, Sorkin had decided to work with When We All Vote, the nonpartisan initiative created by Michelle Obama to increase voter turnout across the country. Sorkin’s conception for the event, however, was still that the “West Wing” actors would likely be reading from a script either via Zoom or standing on a stage.
“But he made the mistake of calling me,” Schlamme says with a rueful smile. “And I was like, ‘I think we could actually do a little bit more with this than that.'”
Schlamme’s vision ultimately became the HBO Max program “A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote,” in which almost all the actors from “The West Wing” shot in the Orpheum Theater in downtown Los Angeles over three days in September to recreate the Season 3 episode “Hartsfield’s Landing.”
Sorkin had already selected that particular episode before he called Schlamme because it dealt with the issue of voting. But Schlamme was grateful for the decision because the episode was largely set over one night in the White House, which kept the scope of the production relatively self-contained.
Still, Schlamme’s approach to the special was a novel one. He’d directed the logistically demanding live episode of NBC’s “ER” in 1997, and he also looked at old episodes of live TV series like “Playhouse 90” for inspiration. But what he wanted to do — using minimal props and set design to suggest everything from the presidential limo to the Oval Office, but shoot the special largely as he would have shot the series — wasn’t really a live production of a play, yet it was also nothing like the original show itself.
“I felt pretty secure that we were going to be able to accomplish what was in my head,” Schlamme says. “I wasn’t sure that what was in my head was the right way to do it.”
It all made for a lot of sleepless nights for Schlamme, but he remained steadfast in his conviction to do something new.
“The safe thing is we could have done Reader’s Theater,” Schlamme says. “Nobody would have criticized it one way or the other. And I have to say Aaron wasn’t my champion the whole time, going, ‘This is great! You’re opening it up!’ He had a lot of question marks, too, about would it work.”
For Variety‘s “Making A Scene” series, Schlamme returned to the Orpheum to explain how he, Sorkin, and the “West Wing” cast and crew was able to pull it all off.
Choosing the Orpheum
“I didn’t want to do it on a soundstage,” says Schlamme. “I didn’t want to do anything that in any way smelled like the way we used to do the show. This started [with] the Actors Fund, so there’s a love for theater. So the idea that we all missed that, that people couldn’t congregate anymore, couldn’t be part of the theatrical experience, maybe it would be a beautiful thing to do this in a theater.
“So we were talking about the Hollywood Bowl for a little bit of time, because I thought, ‘Well, it’s outside, so maybe that’s a little safer too.’ But it didn’t quite have the magic that this place does, the old theatrical element. We wanted it to feel theatrical and let the theater be part of the set, as opposed to shooting a way that would be proscenium-like.”
Marshaling the main cast
Sorkin had already done a lot of the work to round up the “West Wing” cast, including Martin Sheen (as President Josiah Bartlet), Allison Janney (as C.J Cregg), Bradley Whitford (as Josh Lyman), Richard Schiff (as Toby Ziegler) Janel Moloney (Donna Moss), Dulé Hill (as Charlie Young), and Rob Lowe (as Sam Seaborn).
But they’d all signed up for an experience akin to other cast reunions and script readings that had started to proliferate through the internet over the summer of 2020: Sitting in front of a Zoom camera, with a script at the ready. So once Schlamme realized he was going to do something much more involved, he called all the actors to deliver the news.
“There was enough PTSD for all of them remembering working with me, so they knew, ‘Okay, it’s going to get more complicated than it had been before,'” Schlamme says. “Allison and Dulé went, ‘Wait, so we’re walking now? There is a walk and talk in this thing? How am I going to read my script? I better be off book.'”
Schlamme’s biggest concern was whether the 80-year-old Martin Sheen would be up for shooting roughly 30-pages of dialogue under strict COVID-19 protocols.
“It’s a very heavy Bartlet episode,” says Schlamme. “We wanted to make sure he was safe, we wanted to make sure he didn’t have to work extra hours in any way. So I did a couple of rehearsals just on Zoom [and] in the very first rehearsal I did, I think with him and Rob, Martin was already off book. So much like on the show, he set this template and everybody gravitated towards him.”
The day before he started shooting, Schlamme brought in stand-ins to block out all the scenes, to avoid any overlap with the actors amid COVID protocols. (Everyone was tested 24 hours before shooting, and tested again the morning of.)
Since everyone had the actual episode to use for reference for how the scene unfolded, when the actors arrived on set, Schlamme learned he didn’t need to do much explanation.
“I would just walk them through and they would go, ‘Oh, we remember this. You want us to go from here to here and to figure that out.’ And there was some blocking that it was like, ‘Let’s just leave this up to Brad and Janel, and as Josh and Donna, they’ll come up with something.'”
The only actor who received a separate rehearsal was also the only actor new to the main cast: Sterling K. Brown.
Finding a new Leo
During the final season of “The West Wing,” beloved actor John Spencer, who played Bartlet’s close friend and chief of staff Leo McGarry, died suddenly of a heart attack. Any attempt to reshoot an episode of the show would, of course, have to find an actor to replace him.
“There was this big challenge of, It would be wonderful to get everybody back together, but who in the world is going to step in to John Spencer’s shoes?” says Schlamme. At first, he thought Sorkin should step into the role.
“Aaron used to read the characters who weren’t there at the table reads, and he’s a wonderful actor. I thought that would be a beautiful tribute,” he says. “The more we thought about it, the more we thought, ‘No, let’s find an actor who isn’t a John Spencer type necessarily, but somebody who could carry on the weight that Leo has in the show.’ I think three or four years ago, somebody had talked to Aaron about doing a reboot of ‘The West Wing’ and if you needed a new president, what about Sterling K. Brown?”
With the Emmy-winning actor already in Sorkin’s head, it was a no brainer to ask him to step into the role of Leo; Brown, already a fan of the show, said yes.
“As opposed to just trying to do what the brilliant John Spencer had done for the show, he found another place to be this character that actually created a different response from the people who were doing scenes with him,” says Schlamme.
Recreating the idea of the White House, if not the actual space
“It was a little bit of an evolution for us to figure out exactly how many real elements would be part of this theatrical presentation,” says Schlamme. “Would there be doorways? Would there be desks? Would there be podiums? Would there be scripts?”
Working with the original production designer for the show, Jon Hutman, Schlamme set out to set that balance, with the organizing principle that less was always more. Doorframes established a room. Pools of light established hallways. A few key sentimental props were used — C.J.’s goldfish, the framed “Bartlet for America” napkin that was the original one used on the show — but otherwise, other than props actors needed direct use for, the rooms were kept spare.
“I knew I wanted it to be theatrical, I wanted it to feel like, let’s say there had been an audience, could we have accomplished this with a real audience?” Schlamme says.
The one exception was the Oval Office, which took up the entire stage set, including using the downstage orchestra pit, which was filled in for the production.
“It was Jon who kept pushing, ‘But don’t we want the Oval Office to have a little bit more than everything else?'” Schlamme says.
Bringing back the recurring cast — even if they weren’t in the episode
As “West Wing” fans know, the show had a deep roster of recurring actors on the show, Schlamme and the production was able to bring back almost all of them for the special, including Anna Deavere Smith (as Nancy McNally, the national security advisor), Thomas Kopache (as Bob Slatterly, the assistant secretary of state), Melissa Fitzgerald (as Carol Fitzpatrick, C.J.’s assistant) and Peter James Smith and William Duffy (as staffers Ed and Larry).
“They were just as important to the show and to the camaraderie of the show,” says Schlamme. “We don’t like to call the show a reunion, but for us in our lives, it was a reunion to see each other after so many years.”
That included asking Emily Procter — whose fan favorite character, conservative White House counsel associate Ainsley Hayes, wasn’t in “Hartsfield’s Landing” — to be on hand to read all the stage directions.
Originally, Schlamme had planned for three other major “West Wing” actors — John Amos (who played Percy Fitzwallace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), Tim Matheson (who played Vice President John Hoynes), and Timothy Busfield (who played White House reporter Danny Concannon) — to also read the stage directions, but COVID precautions meant they couldn’t fly in for the taping. So Procter ended up hanging out all three days of production for whenever they needed her to introduce a new scene.
Finding a new way into a familiar scene
Watching “Hartsfield’s Landing” and the new special side-by-site, it is remarkable how the show’s cast finds news ways to approach Sorkin’s script.
“We talked about this idea that we’re not trying go back and watch ‘Hartsfield’s Landing’ and go, ‘Did I take a beat there? Is that what I did here? What was going on here?'” says Schlamme. “You’re still these characters, but you’ve lived a life since then.”
One of the trickier dynamics to sort out was the one between Donna and Josh, whose playful, will-they-or-won’t-they banter was a highlight of the show when Moloney was a wide-eyed, twentysomething assistant and Whitford was her brash, thirtysomething boss.
“There was a youthfulness and an innocence about that, and I thought, ‘Okay, that’s not Brad anymore. He doesn’t look like that anymore,'” says Schlamme. “As he said, he’s worried that people would [say], ‘Who’s that older fisherman that’s still in the show?’ But they found a rhythm together and an understanding of each other that felt more mature.”
Another critical change came during the most intense scene of the episode, as Bartlet and Toby play a testy game of chess while talking about Toby’s concerns that the president softens his intellect in public to be better liked. At one point, Bartlet mentions his father, who Toby reflexively calls “an idiot.”
On the original episode, Bartlet is immediately and visibly angered, but in the special, it’s more of a slow burn, until Sheen suddenly lashes out and strikes the table, knocking over one of the chess pieces.
“They are two world class actors — neither have made a decision as how to do something until they hear how the other person has done it,” says Schlamme, who knew instinctively to cross-shoot Sheen and Schiff’s close-ups at the same time. “It was just a completely real moment between them. They had done three or four takes, and then Richard said, ‘Can I do it one more time?’ If I’d learned anything it was say yes if Richard says he’d like to do it one more time. … It’s how Richard decides when he puts that [chess] piece back up, and how he puts that back up, and how he’s apologizing to him — it’s just beautiful.”
For much more on “A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote” — including how “Black Panther” cinematographer Rachel Morrison ended up in a surprising role on the special, and how Schlamme wanted to reimagine the series iconic open credits music — watch the full episode of “Making a Scene” at the top of this story.
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