Lessons from the West Wing by Joe Flood

I once wrote a screenplay. It was about Washington, DC, the city beyond the monuments. My script followed two young men, one black and one white, across a tableau of urban discord. I dreamed of turning my dark vision into a movie.

The DC Film Office sponsored a city-wide screenplay competition. I won it. They called me one day, while I was in a bookstore, looking at novels.

A trip to the set of The West Wing was the prize for winning the contest. This was the final season of this iconic DC drama. Aaron Sorkin had left a few years earlier and the series was wrapping things up with a Presidential race. Would it be Jimmy Smits or Alan Alda?

Ironically, I was not a huge fan of the Emmy award-winning show. I admired it, particularly the quality of the writing, but I couldn’t get past the fact that the real people in Washington were nothing like Josh, Toby or C.J.

I had friends who worked on Capitol Hill, who had been political appointees, or labored for good causes. They did not have impassioned debates over policy (corn subsidies, invading other countries). Instead, surrounded by people who agreed with them, it was about the rightness of their cause, the evil of their opponents, the ignorance of the masses, and how to put one over on the other side.

One thing the show got right—they had no lives outside of work.

I flew to LA and visited the set in Burbank. They were filming an outdoor scene, a faux campaign rally. Extras were dressed up in overcoats and tweed jackets. It was supposed to be New England, under blue California skies. The extras shuffled back and forth in the hot sun, doing the same thing again and again. I felt bad for them, the lowest level of the Hollywood food chain. Their role was to be nothing but a faceless blur, to provide the illusion of a busy crowd as Jimmy Smits campaigned for President.

I then visited Warner Brothers. The backside of the lot, away from the glamorous studio tour. This was where the real work of the series took place, in a two-story building that could be part of a community college.

This was where the writers and John Wells, the “show runner” met. There were a dozen of them, around a table, like a staff meeting in Anywhere, USA. The script for the final show had been written. The other writers had offered their notes and suggestions, part of a collaborative creative process. Facts about presidential transitions had been checked on the Internet. Wells had made other changes, as well. A key location was no longer available. An actor had returned to New York, despite her contract. The script would have to be modified.

Story had to adapt to circumstance.

Later, I talked to one of the writers. This was his first job in Hollywood. While in law school, he had written a spec script that had garnered the attention of a producer. He had joined the series, in what turned out to be its final season. I asked him what he was going to do next. He would be out of a job at the end of the week. He didn’t know.

There was no “breaking in” to Hollywood. You were never in. You never truly arrived. The industry was constantly forming and reforming, project by project, requiring an anxious struggle for work. Wells had talked about this, philosophically, in the final meeting with the West Wing writers. Despite running several hit shows, he still had to sell his ideas to TV executives, just like everyone else. You had to fight to get your story told.

The West Wing was a show that millions enjoyed for its idealistic view of Washington. But it was also a business, with its own rules and hierarchies, grounded by the reality of ratings and money. All the glamor was on the screen. Behind the scenes, extras toiled, hoping for their big break while even the most accomplished performers still had prove themselves.

I returned to Washington, the city I knew so well. It was cold, rainy and filled with cynics like myself, people who would never discuss immigration policy while walking down a columned hall.

I just wanted to write. I could do that anywhere. Even here.

Joe Flood is a writer and photographer from Washington, DC. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Hill Rag, Adirondack Review, Thirty First Bird Review and elsewhere. He recently published his first novel, Murder in Ocean Hall. Check out his website at joeflood.com.