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.
“‘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 presented by HBO, Schlamme returned to the Orpheum to explain how he, Sorkin, and the “West Wing” cast and crew was able to pull it all off.