Thurman is dancing in place at the bar in a black miniskirt
and jacket, hair swept up in a golden twist, surrounded by a
group of admirers. A very pregnant Kate Hudson is perched on
a nearby chair, laughing. Alec Baldwin walks by on his way to
Back to School party, an annual bash the Creative
Artists Agency puts on for its television and movie writers
at the beginning of the fall season, is in full swing at The
Blue Whale, architect Cesar Pellis dramatic sapphire-hued
Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, and Mark Goffman 90C
is riding the escalator up to the main floor.
congratulations on The West Wing, a partygoer behind
him says, reaching out to shake his hand.
says Goffman, smiling.
been an intense week for Goffman and his fellow writers on NBCs
Wednesday night political drama, which takes viewers inside
the White House of a fictional Democratic administration. On
Sunday, the show took the Emmy for best drama series for the
fourth year running, tying Hill Street Blues for most
consecutive wins in the category. And last night, The West
Wing season premiere was broadcast, earning a thumbs-up
from reviewers at the New York Times and trouncing its
competition, the season finale of Big Brother 4 and the
premiere of The Bachelor.
funny how many e-mails and phone calls I got from people saying
they recognized the top of my head on TV, says Goffman,
who took the stage with the rest of the West Wing team
in a rare moment of recognition for the shows writers,
who operate mostly behind the scenes.
West Wing has a reputation for being one of the most smartly
written, literate shows on television; to land a writers
position on staff is the equivalent of being drafted to the
majors. The unlikely story of how the thirty-four-year-old Goffman
came to be standing on the stage of the Shrine Auditorium at
the fifty-fifth annual Emmy Awards has the makings of a screenplay
graduating from Emory with a double major in philosophy and
economics, Goffman went on to receive a masters in public
policy from Harvards Kennedy School of Government. When
a screenplay he and a fellow Kennedy School student wroteabout
a twelve-year-old who became a mayor in New Englandreceived
attention from an agent and a producer, he decided to move to
parents, back in his hometown of Houston, were understandably
a bit nervous. They didnt know anyone in show business,
he says. But his grandfather, George London, a concert violinist
in the 1930s for the Baltimore Symphony, was his biggest supporter.
He had stopped playing violin professionally and became
an accountant. He told my parents, I gave up my dream
and worked this hard so that my family could pursue theirs.
If Mark wants to go out there, he should have that opportunity.
deal for the screenplay never materialized, but Goffman persevered,
working as a political consultant while honing his craft in
Hollywood. One of Goffmans mentors was polling strategist
Frank Luntz, who hired him to write speeches for clients such
as former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
1999, Goffman entered a Warner Brothers script competition.
Out of a thousand entrants, he was one of twenty-five selected
for the WB Comedy Writers Workshop, an L.A. institution. Its
like a farm league for sitcom writers, he says.
the workshop, each of the participants wrote a fresh script.
Two were selected to be read aloud on the final evening; one
was Goffmans. Producers for the ABC series Odd Man
Out, a comedy about a teenage boy living with five women,
were in the audience, and hired Goffman on the spot.
half of all new shows, the series was cancelled the following
to be dissuaded, Goffman wrote several more movie scripts, did
a series of commercials for Gibson guitars and Baldwin pianos,
wrote and directed two short films, freelanced for CBSs
Touched by an Angel, and worked with James Cameron on
the Titanic expedition, before being hired on to The West
always thought you got one big break, says Goffman, who
now commutes to the Warner Brothers lot each day from his 1920s
Spanish-style home off Melrose Avenue. But instead, it
was a series of small breaks.
time nears for The West Wings daily writers meeting,
Goffman and the other writers start gathering outside the conference
room, noshing on snacks from a cupboard and a refrigerator stocked
with yogurt, soda, cereal, crackers, Bazooka bubble gum, and
granola bars. An assistant has made a Starbucks run and is distributing
lattés and espressos. Goffman, who doesnt drink
coffee, gets a Jamba Juice.
brainstorming sessionswhere writers fine-tune the lively
banter, divine the current political zeitgeist, and come up
with timely and compelling new plotlinesare an integral
part of creating each years twenty-two new West Wing
episodes. The meetings are attended by about a dozen people,
including executive producer John Wells (The West Wings
creator and chief writer, Aaron Sorkin, left in May).
shows main writersseven men and three womenare,
as a whole, young, bright, Ivy educated, and opinionated. Many
of them came from other top seriesFriends, E.R., China
Beach, and Sex and the City. Others have political
experience, such as Al Gores former speech writer, Eli
Attie, and MSNBCs senior political analyst, Lawrence ODonnell
Jr. The air is relaxed and informal as the writers take their
seats around a rectangular table that dominates the room.
joke around, loosen each other up, then as we settle on stories,
we do the research and develop the storylines, Goffman
general, writers have the creative control in television, as
opposed to directors and stars in films. The hierarchy ascends
from staff writer to story editor to producer. For the past
four years, however, Sorkin wrote much of The West Wing
dialogue himself, using the writers more as a research and support
staff. This year, in Sorkins absence, the process has
[Wells] took us all to Hawaii for a week in Junethe five
new writers and five returning writersto develop character
and story arcs for the season, Goffman says. Then
he assigned writers to each episode.
afternoon, Goffmans episode, Shutdown, is
on the agenda. In it, President Josiah Bartlet, played by Martin
Sheen (left), and the Speaker of the House have a classic Western-style
standoff, reminiscent of Gunfight at the OK Corral. Feedback
from Goffmans colleagues has been good so far, but hes
still a bit apprehensive about the meeting.
the scripts are discussed line for line. Youre having
your work scrutinized by the best writers in the business,
he says. It can be painful. But thats how you learn.
clearly the clans patriarch, sits at the tables
head, gently directing the conversation. Hes one of the
most prolific writers and producers in television and film todayexecutive
producer and creator of E.R. and Third Watch,
producer of White Oleander and One Hour Photo,
award-winning writer on China Beach, former president
of the Writers Guild of America. Yet, dressed casually
in khakis and a short-sleeved shirt, he looks more like a rumpled
afternoon sun throws slanted shadows against the walls, which
are covered with dry-erase boards, one per episode, containing
the evolving storylines. As each episode is shot, the writers
get to erase that board.
the meeting, details are added to several episodes in progress;
the looks and mannerisms of a new character are determined;
the continuing occupation of Iraq is discussed, as is the impact
media coverage can have on political events.
guiding creed (referenced in almost every decision) is that
the show must transcend politics and get at the heart of what
democracy means: to have a government made up of real, flawed
human beings who are called upon to make monumental decisions.
We want to appeal to the better angels of our natures,
says one writer.
listens intently as portions of his script are discussed.
the meeting nears its midpoint, Wells is called to another commitment
and leaves the writers to continue their session. A few seconds
later he re-enters the room, walks over to Goffman and, with
a smile, shakes his hand before leaving again.
of The West Wing is filmed on two enormous soundstages
in the Warner Brothers lot, next to the E.R. hospital
and The Gilmore Girls town square. Everything from
the White House Press Room to the Oval Office has been painstakingly
frequently visits the set, especially when his scripts are being
shot, so hes available to answer questions about the intent
of a scene or line, or to make timing adjustments. Its
an amazing process to watch, Goffman admits, standing aside
as cameras are rolled into the Roosevelt Room. Actor John Spencer,
who plays Leo McGarry, Bartletts chief of staff and main
confidant on the show, is eating an ice-cream sandwich between
is their domain, the actors and directors, Goffman says.
They bring emotions to the scene you didnt even
know were there, or take it in a different, better direction.
With the caliber of actors we have, that often happens.
trademark of The West Wing is that much of the pivotal
dialogue takes place in hallways while characters are walking
from office to office. That keeps the shot from being static,
Goffman explains, and underscores the rapid-fire pace of the
characters work life. The main characters also finish
each others sentences and even talk over one another.
like the lyrics of a song, says Goffman. You dont
have to hear every word, just enough to care and be interested.
times a year the cast and crew fly to Washington, D.C., to film
select scenes. These on-location shots make the show one of
the most expensive to shoot in television, but sometimes theres
no replacing the panoramic grandiosity of the nations
my episode, the story pivots around President Bartlet walking
down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. So even though that
ended up on page thirty-nine, I had to write that scene first,
Goffman says. It took a half day to shoot in D.C., and
then, more than a month later, we shot the rest of the episode
here on set at Warner Brothers.
Bartlet, a Nobel laureate in economics and unapologetic liberal,
is still the clear lead and moral authority of the series, strong
Republican characters are emerging this season as well. Wells
has said the drama will be more balanced in presenting the Democratic
and Republican perspectives.
the beginning, we had a lot of Republicans who watched the show
and weve lost some of that audience, he told reporters.
Its incumbent upon us to get it backwe dont
want to just be preaching to the choir.
New York Times gave a favorable review to the premiere, saying:
Viewers can already tell that The West Wing has
taken a sharp right turn. . . . It shatters the complacent amity
of the Bartlet White House, giving room to all the tensions
that flourish around a real Oval Office. . . . The nation may
not have a shortage of Republican face time, but The West
Wing did: its heroes needed a worthy enemy. The review
concluded that overall, the first episode of the post-Sorkin
West Wing is a treat.
Goffmans office, photos of him shaking hands with President
George W. Bush and former President Bill Clinton are displayed
on the top of his bookshelf. Before moving to Los Angeles, Goffman
was pursuing a career in public service.
love politics, says Goffman who, contrary to the perception
that West Wingers are all die-hard liberals and yellow-dog Democrats,
is a registered Republican.
though a whole fan culture has sprung up around the show, with
Re-elect Bartlet banners and Jed Bartlet is
my President bumper stickers, Goffman says the reason
The West Wing attracts an average of sixteen million
viewers a week isnt partisan politics.
show isnt so much about Republicans or Democrats,
he says, as it is smart people passionately debating policy
at the highest levels of government.
the sort of debate one hopes is happening, at this moment, in
the West Wing itself.