Interview: Camilla Blackett, writer for ‘The Newsroom’

Occasionally, and very thankfully, you get the kind of by-chance interview that gives you an insider’s perspective on one your favorite things – a pulling back of the curtain, if you will. Recently I was given the chance to interview Camilla Blackett, writer for “The Newsroom” and previously a writer for the UK version of “Skins.” I’ve been a huge fan of Sorkin’s writing for a while and it was a great chance to gain some knowledge about his new series. Camilla is a very busy woman, and I was lucky enough to talk to her for a few minutes about the state of journalism, what it’s like to work with Aaron Sorkin, but first of all, tea.

NED HEPBURN: It’s funny that you’re British. I’m actually making tea.
CAMILLA BLACKETT: I like that you’re making tea!

I used to be British. I was born in Oxford and raised just outside of Newbury.
That’s funny. I’m a Berkshire girl too, I lived in Reading [about two towns over.]

So now we know that! So I’m going to admit that I didn’t do my homework and that I haven’t watched the British version of “Skins,” a show which you, I’ve read, have written for.
Well, you should watch it!

I was working for MTV briefly when they ported “Skins” over to MTV in the US. Was that show all you, so to speak?
“Skins” was by no means all me at all. I went to school with [show creator] Jamie Brittain and his father read a script I had done, and now, looking back on it, the script was absolutely terrible. I think the script was written in Microsoft Word, to give you an idea of just how unprofessional it was. But [for “Skins”] they wanted young voices so that the show was written by people the age of the actors in the show so that it wasn’t a show about teenagers written by a bunch of 30 year olds. So then Bryan asked me to come on and join the show. It was my first ever job – period – I think I was 18 at the time. It was fantastic for that to be, like, my first job. We had no idea the show was going to be so big. The difference between the US and the UK is that the US is much more ratings driven; in the UK you have more of an opportunity to find it’s audience over time.

And then the show blew up.
It was all a bit nuts. We started getting written about… some people thought it was a really honest depiction of the teenage experience. The idea was that our teenage characters would, say, take a hit of ecstasy and they wouldn’t overdose. The worst thing that would happen to them would be that they’d perhaps make out with their friends boyfriend. It was more about lessons and learning and morality. And then the Daily Mail started shitting all over us saying that we were corrupting the youth and… well… when the Daily Mail is writing bad things about you it generally means that you’re doing something right. It was a great experience. Absolutely phenomenal. We had a writers’ room which is quite rare in England. A lot of the time on British shows one or two people write the entire season.

Jesus. How did you go from “Skins” to working on “The Newsroom”?
Well, I love, love, love writing but I always wanted to produce, too. I did a few projects and then took a year out entirely to work for a hedge fund. Which was… really, really interesting. I’d always loved economics. It wasn’t a very lateral move but going from producing indie movies – which don’t exactly make a lot of money – I needed a regular paycheck. The day after I left was the day that they announced all the mortgage defaults. After that I ended up in New York producing commercials. After a year there I came back to the UK and started writing again and then my managers found a script I wrote, dragged me to LA, told me I should do this here, and then a couple months after that we put out a pilot I wrote, and that’s how I ended up at WME. And then two months after that I was at “The Newsroom.”

OK. Confession time. I’ve gotten in a couple of, uh, drunken conversations with people while defending the show. I really like “The Newsroom.” A friend of mine… she’s a big fan of HBO’s “Girls.” I don’t know why I feel the need to call it “HBO’s ‘Girls'”…
Y’know, we love the show. The whole staff are huge fans.

Well, I know there was an interview where Aaron said something along the lines of “Hey, Internet girl!” And I say this as a big, big fan of Sorkin’s work… I know that quotes can get taken out of context. However, having seen a lot of Sorkin’s work, I have to say that there are instances where he doesn’t write fully developed female characters. [There’s a section here that’s garbled on playback, I believe I’m talking about the character of CJ from “The West Wing”] This sentiment seems to have been blown up in the press quite a lot, especially with a heavily female-centric show such as HBO’s “Girls” on the network, too. My question to you is: does the rhetoric from outside the writers’ room for “The Newsroom” affect the tone on the inside of the writers’ room?
Um, no. And actually… I ‘m glad you brought up “The West Wing.” I’ve had a lot of people forget that “The West Wing” actually happened—y’know, I think the CJ character is one of the best I’ve ever seen on television.

Not to cut you off, but yeah, she really is.
She’s absolutely fantastic. I generally… I’ll be completely honest. I’m a straight up feminist and not once have I ever felt with the show that it does women a disservice. It doesn’t affect our room in any way; I mean, it’s murder for a writer to write as a reaction to criticism. We’re very confident in writing our characters in ways that we feel are true. It’s difficult to create this idea of… of an evenly balanced character. Human beings are complicated. They’re complex. They’re not always going to satisfy everyone’s ideas of what a man or a woman should be.

There’s a Scottish comedian named Frankie Boyle who made a particularly bad joke on air on British television, and another comedian [Dara O’Briain] came to his defense saying “It’s not for everyone. We’re all big enough and old enough to be able to handle the fact there are things said in life that we don’t enjoy.”
If a writer sat down every week and basically went to The AV Club and asked “Oh, what grade did we get for this episode” and “how are we going to satisfy this critic or this other critic” that is a terrible way to create something. We love our audience and want them to be happy, but to write and try and cut around every bad comment you get… that’s no way to create something. I work in a really happy room. For all the rhetoric of “the show is sexist” and that kind of thing… most writers’ rooms are 90% male. I work in a room that is 50/50 male and female. That’s incredibly, incredibly rare.

What I don’t understand is how HBO’s “Girls” was basically untouchable to criticism and “The Newsroom” was somehow cast in this wholly other light. I don’t really think that’s fair. One of the big points of criticism I’ve read about “The Newsroom” is that it’s painted too idealistically… I don’t think that’s true at all. If anything, “The West Wing” was painted “too idealistically” in how the executive office actually works. What I think people don’t get about “The Newsroom” is that… having gone through such a divisive last-four-years especially in news media… that people are jaded by any sort of idealism coming from it.
Absolutely. “The West Wing” was a show about the way you would love the administration to look. The main difference between “The West Wing” and “The Newsroom” is that we’re presenting a way in which we’d love for the news to actually be, but, at the same time, its a very different kind of narrative. It’s a romantic comedy for a lot of it. There’s a lot of stuff that goes with that you don’t have to tackle with, say, a drama. It gets slightly more complex because you’re dealing with people’s emotions and what not. I like to think we are entertaining people and still able to tell our stories about the larger world and the context in which we tell the news and the way the news works.

Will McAvoy reminds me a lot of MSNBC’s Chris Matthews. He [Chris] doesn’t exactly ‘rail against the network’ like McAvoy does but it certainly works. To be honest I kinda like the way you guys go back and report on things that already happened.
At the end of the day… it’s a TV show, and it’s escapism. If you want to watch the actual news you can watch the actual news. I work with a bunch of idealists, I work under a boss who is an idealist. A large part about it is that he really gives a shit. He cares about how the news is told and that fantasy of how awesome it would be if you could do the news your way. How wonderful it would be if we could have a completely well-informed public who are talking about real issues. Not, like, tragedy-porn like Nancy Grace. Of course it’s idealistic to think that. That’s what we want to give our audience.