Saturday, November 05, 2005

"West Wing" Live

Drinking Liberally is organizing a public event in New York City where visitors can watch the live debate.

The Santa Paula for Vinick effort is also hosting an event accompanying the live debate. More information here. (Thanks Wally B. !)

Commentary from National Public Radio.

From Zap2It:
"Zap2it: Is the episode shaping up the way you've hoped?

Jimmy Smits: When I first talked to John [Wells, the show's executive producer] about it, I said, "Oh, so we'll go back and forth between the control room and backstage and show people watching the debate." He went, "No. We're going to have a debate for real, just like it would be."
Zap2it: How are you preparing?

Alda: Those people [in real debates] know what they're going to say about every issue. It's written in advance, and all they have to do is turn the question into the answer they want to give. We have a little advantage in knowing what the question is, although we may not recognize it. The moderator may phrase it differently.

Smits: We've gotten a lot of DVDs on the last two cycles of [actual presidential] debates, and we had somebody come in to talk about how media-savvy the candidates have become ... where you look in terms of the camera, how you use your hands, etc. Even when you're not talking, you have to be "on" all the time. A picture's worth a thousand words.

Zap2it: Does the prospect of doing the episode live make you nervous?

Alda: There's a tremendous difference between just learning your lines at home and doing them in front of the camera a few times, and getting to rehearse for two weeks and letting it all sink into deeper parts of your brain. It requires a different use of your acting skills, and of your mind.

Smits: I just have to do it like a play. That's where I come from, and that's where I live and breathe. Just get the script to me in advance, let's rehearse, and I'll be fine.

Zap2it: Any worries about handling all that political terminology live?

Smits: We're gonna do it, but it's a lot of words! Not that I'm not politically savvy, but when it comes to doing ad-libs ... this is one of those instances where the character is a lot smarter than the real-life person is. I don't know how much I can vamp.

Alda: They may actually surprise us at the last minute. There may be a question or two that we don't expect. I hope there will be.

Smits(upon hearing Alda's response): Ohhhhh ... ooooh. If that's the case, I'll just have to have little cards that say, "Stay on message."

Interview transcript from AOL.

From the Detroit Free Press:
""I hope we arrive at something that's not a version of business as usual in terms of debates," says Alda, "but something that's more stimulating, something that says, 'It would be fun if a debate could be like this.' Where there's a real exchange of ideas."
Yes, there's a script. It's not improv. And there have been extensive rehearsals and briefings on the issues for the debate, which will be moderated by MSNBC anchor Forrest Sawyer.
We're going to try to go out with a little bit of a net and riff a little bit too. Keep it topical and make sure ... that both points of view are strong," says Smits, who joined Alda and Wells in a recent conference call with reporters.
"Jimmy and I are going head-to-head," says Alda. "There's something that can catch fire when two actors are connecting. This, I hope, will give us a chance to connect so that fire will happen. So then it won't just be fun for us."

From AP:
"Laurence O’Donnell, who balances work as a political analyst and a “West Wing” executive producer, said the hourlong episode (8 p.m. ET on NBC) represents “my wish-fulfillment debate.”

“We are using the accepted liturgy of presidential debates. It will look the same, it will be moderated by Forrest Sawyer, a real news person, it will have all that real feel to it,” O’Donnell said.

“But I think it will be more satisfying in that the candidates end up really going into the issues in a way that they normally would not,” he said. “They end up each forcing the other to get more honest as the debate wears on.”
The fictional encounter starts with the usual rules, the kind that “are set up by the candidates and are there to protect the candidates and not promote an informed debate,” said executive producer Alex Graves, who is directing O’Donnell’s script.

But one of the politicians — Graves won’t say who — quickly proposes tossing the book aside.

“And that’s the starting point and everybody, including the moderator, underestimates what that’s going to mean,” Graves said. “It ends up ... with the candidates doing and saying things you would never expect to see in a debate, never.”

The actors may also do something rarely seen. Although they have a script, Alda and Smits also received a crash course in debate strategy and issues that will allow them to veer off the page.

“It’s loose enough that it will be exciting to the audience,” Smits told The Associated Press.

Asked if that approach puts unusual pressure on the actors, he replied: “Pressure? I’m totally sweating this.”
The episode, with separate live versions for Eastern and Western time zones and with just two commercial breaks, could be the highlight of a resurgent year for “The West Wing,” which is drawing lavish critical praise after being dinged in recent seasons for a creative slump.
“We’re letting two great actors really go at each other and try to defeat each other for basically an hour, nonstop,” O’Donnell said, with the chance to go “deeper and deeper and slug each other harder and harder.”

Issues include taxes, health care and U.S. border security. (The topic of abortion was explored in the previous week’s episode.)

The challenges are “more exciting than daunting,” said Alda, who, like Smits, has worked on the stage. The “M*A*S*H” star also can claim live on-air experience: In the early days of TV and his career, Alda appeared on shows including “The U.S. Steel Hour.”

He likes his character — Vinick “seems unusual in that the positions he takes have some connection to the values he holds,” Alda notes dryly — and is rooting for him.

“It makes it fun. When an actor plays a character, you want what that character wants. Otherwise it doesn’t look authentic. So I really want to defeat Jimmy — I mean Jimmy as the character,” Alda said.

“No, he wants to win,” is the retort from Smits when told of Alda’s remark.

The actors and producers agree there’s significant room for error on a live episode, especially given how infrequently it’s done (an “ER” episode and the recent “Will & Grace” episode among the few examples).

Ever the strategist, O’Donnell suggests that missteps could prove as rewarding for viewers as a flawless hour.

“We could get it completely wrong. You might be able to only hear Alan Alda and not hear Jimmy because the mikes don’t work (or) the camera goes out; some crazy thing happens with the equipment. Certainly, the actors can lose their way.”

“There’s just nothing more fun to watch than that kind of train wreck. If I wasn’t involved with the show I’d be turning it on just to see: OK, how do they screw up,” he said."

From the National Ledger:
"As for the debates -- one for the Eastern/Central time audience, a second for the West Coast -- Alda says, "It's scripted, but it's live -- so are the presidential debates scripted. You just don't know when the other guy is going to say what you know he's going to say. There's an element of danger because it's live. It will be improvised in minor ways -- I think. But I don't know.""

From the New York Daily News:
"Sunday's "West Wing" (9 p.m. on WNBC/Ch. 4) will present a live debate between its presidential candidates, Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda). The intention, said executive producer John Wells, is to hark back to the era when political candidates were less slickly packaged.

"We're dealing with fictional characters, and so it's difficult to convey to the audience the sense of urgency," Wells said. "This is the right thing to do for the cast and the audience and the material."

For the actors, live television is an alternately terrifying and invigorating proposition.

"I love the idea of being out there with little or no net," said Alda
Going live evokes the immediacy of theater. "When you tell actors who have theater backgrounds that we're doing a live [TV] show," said Smits, "it's like total elation."
"All television at one point was live, and there was a reason why people moved toward film," Wells continued. "It's much more difficult to get that highly polished quality that you expect from television dramas now."

With Sunday's "West Wing," the point is to skip style in favor of substance. "There are certain circumstances where you don't want it to have that gloss," said Wells.

Raw and precarious realism conveys a sense of uncertainty, which in itself may be enough to get viewers to tune in.

"Everybody is saying ... 'What's going to happen? What's it going to be like?'" said Alda. "And there seems to be an incredible interest in it. It may be that the primary reason for doing [this] is that it piques people's curiosity."

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