From a The Age interview with Eli Attie:
"In 1996, Eli Attie worked as a special assistant to president Bill Clinton. From 1997 to 2000, he was communications adviser and chief speechwriter for vice-president Al Gore. For the past five years he's been putting words into the mouth of president Jed Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his fast-talking staff on The West Wing.
The 37-year-old New Yorker describes himself as an accidental screenwriter, a Washington insider with no plans for a show-biz career who found himself working in the fictional equivalent of the White House. But he quickly became aware of the differences between 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and its Burbank studio equivalent.
In real life, he says, "not everybody has the perfect comeback or rejoinder, not everybody has their views on a policy question so perfectly crystallised and formulated as they often do in a West Wing scene. If you stuck a camera in the real west wing of the White House, you'd mostly be watching people checking their emails and talking on the phone. It would not be very exciting television."
What was exciting to Attie, though, was the drama's representation of the people who were drawn to careers in politics: "I was still working at the White House for about a year into the run of the show, and for the first time there was something in popular culture that depicted the people who worked in politics as decent, honourable, hard-working people who wake up in the morning and try to do the right thing. Some people thought it was utopian but I think it's a closer to the heart of what government is like in America.
"Characters on West Wing make mistakes but they're trying to do their best. They're the kind people that you'd want running the government. They might not always get it right, but they're wrestling with the right questions."
Attie started work on the show during its third season, as a political adviser to the series creator, executive producer and chief writer, Aaron Sorkin, "giving him story ideas and helping him work through the political plots". In the kind of progression that aspiring screenwriters might dream about, his role gradually grew, initially to writing scenes, then to entire episodes and finally to a dual credit that identifies him as a writer and producer.
He's now written about a dozen episodes and contributed to many others and, although he's credited as a supervising producer, he's a little dismissive of the title.
"What happens on television shows in America is that as you stick around as a writer and wise up a bit, you end up with a producing title. I'm involved with some other aspects of the show, casting and editing, but at the margins. The title ends up being a fancy title. People always think that you're laying cable, raising millions of dollars, wearing an ascot . . . If I can get words on the page, that's usually the best thing that I can do for everybody."
Attie has worked on West Wing through its two distinct phases: the four-season Sorkin era and the post-Sorkin period, after the creator was replaced by writer and executive producer John Wells (China Beach, ER, Third Watch). Both men, he says, have their qualities: "They're different personalities but they may be the two most talented TV writers and creators working today. John Wells has an enormous gift for storytelling - he intuitively knows how to make stories rich and complex and interesting, and how to solve problems in other people's scripts.
"Aaron is like the Mozart of wonderful dialogue. He has an ear for screenwriting that's really like music. Good writing can only be a product of good thinking. To run a show that's as smart and as creative as West Wing really reflects the person."
However, he notes that the producers have steered the drama through markedly different phases. "Towards the end of Aaron's time, because of what was going on in America and in the world, the show was becoming a little darker, a little grittier. When John Wells took over, that was definitely a direction that we moved in. We got into campaign politics, which the show had mostly avoided, and sought to depict the seamier reality of how you run a campaign and the kinds of compromises that you're faced with, how hard it is sometimes to take the honourable path.
"To some degree, after the first four seasons, we were thinking, 'What can we do now that we haven't already done?' How do you maintain the standard? The idea of running a new presidential campaign, which in a lot of ways reinvigorated the show in the sixth season, was entirely John Wells' idea."
Currently in the US, West Wing is midway through its seventh and final 22-part season. Attie says episode 18 is being shot, 19 is being written, and the finale is being plotted. The final episodes will be emotional for the people who have worked on the show, a sadness accentuated by the recent death of series stalwart John Spencer, who played chief of staff Leo McGarry.
"It's a poignant time for everybody here because it's been such a wonderful run for all of us and it's hard to close the chapter." As he reflects on the series that drew him from the whirl of politics into the hurly burly of TV production, Attie says, "It's a credit to Aaron Sorkin and John Wells that West Wing is a world where speechwriting is a sexy noble job, which is never how it was in the real White House. That's what happens when writers decide on the importance of writing in their fictional world.
"One of the premises of the West Wing, which I think is a wonderful thing and a rare thing, is that intelligence is nobility. That's one of the reasons why there are these passionate debates over sentence construction. It's not a show where people are fighting over the gun; they're usually fighting over the preposition. Maybe some people don't find that to be compelling television, but ideas really matter to these people, and it's why it's such a wonderful world to live in as a writer. Because wouldn't it be nice if the real world was more like that?"