Eli Attie: From the White House to the West Wing
Writer Eli Attie discusses writing speeches for Al Gore, writing scripts for Aaron Sorkin, and the demands of different genres.
By Lauri Donahue.
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.
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.
Eli Attie’s name was one of the first I noticed when I started paying attention to the writing credits on TV shows. When his name appeared in the opening moments of The West Wing, I knew the episode would be a good one.
Attie joined The West Wing in its third season and earned script credits on 21 episodes, with “written by” credits on 14 of them.
He went on to write for House, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and other shows — gaining seven Emmy nominations (as a writer and producer) and three Writers Guild award nominations along the way.
Attie, a graduate of Harvard College, was hired by series creator Aaron Sorkin to work on The West Wing after serving as chief speechwriter for Al Gore from 1997 until Gore conceded the 2000 Presidential election. He had previously worked for President Bill Clinton.
I interviewed Attie at the 2014 Austin Film Festival, where he was a panelist.
The Austin Film Festival
Why do you come here? What’s in it for you?
I came here last year because I was working on a TV show for a few months with Kyle Killen. He’d lived in Austin and was sort of a festival favorite. I was one of his two “lieutenants” on that show, so they invited the three of us.
It turned out that a lot of other friends from LA came, and it was just a lot of fun. The panels were great. I enjoyed the ones I was on, and I also saw some great panels.
It’s almost like a rolling gang of writers. I love that it’s writer-centric, and you get to meet people you admire.
Somewhere between a college reunion and summer camp…?
Not so much a college reunion, because part of the fun is that you’re meeting people you don’t know well. It’s almost like a college party – there are people you might not normally make a dinner plan with, but it’s great to run into them and talk to them, or sit next to them at a dinner table. It has that loose campusy feel. As for talking on panels – to the extent anyone else finds it useful, that’s fantastic.
Writing at Harvard
You attended Harvard College, where you wrote for the Crimson. You also wrote an 18-page booklet called “Improving Student Writing: a Guide for Teaching Fellows.” How did you come to write that?
When I was in college I had a part-time job as a tutor at the Harvard Writing Center. It was a place that provided free services to any student, they could bring papers they were working on, papers they were having trouble with, and these peer tutors would talk to them about their writing problems, or read their papers and give them feedback.
It was a very cool place because it had a philosophy which was completely non-directive. We didn’t tell people how to solve their problems. We tried to lead them to a solution that came from them.
So we’d ask a lot of questions. We wouldn’t read a paper and say: change this, say this, or fix this. We would ask, “What is the thesis of the essay and where is that stated here?” The students would often figure out on their own that it wasn’t stated anywhere. We would try to be helpful without being a form of ghostwriting.
You weren’t going in there with a red pencil and fixing the prepositions…
Not at all. We tried to give people things they could take away from those sessions and apply to other things they wrote.
So you were ‘teaching them to fish’…?
A little bit. It was a great place. Each of us had a little bag of tricks and we had sessions with the director, who taught expository writing at Harvard.
I can’t remember how the idea for the booklet came up. At Harvard, a lot of the classes are huge lectures with 1,000 students in a giant lecture hall. And then you might have a discussion group with a grad student, and that person would actually grade the papers.
There was so much bad writing done for those classes. We were on the receiving end of people who’d been given no guidance on how to write a clear, short essay. A lot of high schools weren’t teaching it. And we were frustrated that these grad-student teaching fellows weren’t doing it either, so the booklet was meant to nudge them, to give them a few tips.
Essay Writing versus Screenwriting
Would the advice you gave them be relevant to screenwriters?
No, I don’t think so. If you’re writing five-page essay for a college class, you want to state your point clearly and succinctly at the top, then you want to prove it — give examples, delve into the book or other materials — and then you want to tie it up in a bow at the end.
In other words, you say what you’re going to say, then you say it, and then you say what you said. In some ways, speeches are the same.
Screenwriting, on the other hand, is about suspense and intrigue and always staying ahead of your audience – never repeating, never doubling back as you would in an essay. Plus you can open a movie or TV show with a mysterious scene where the audience is disoriented and doesn’t even know what’s going on. But hopefully they’re interested – they know something went down between two characters. And then you can take 30 pages to spell it out, as long as people think, “Wow, these guys don’t like each other. I don’t know why. I don’t know what happened. But I want to know what happened between them.”
You can’t really do that in a short essay or a speech. You can’t disorient your audience. You can’t start with something mysterious and almost abstract and fill it in later. Of course, in that kind of writing you’re not dealing with emotion, with character, with internal lives, with action – things that reveal themselves slowly over time. As a screenwriter, you want your audience to never know what will happen next. And that’s the very opposite of expository writing. Which is just an argument, really.
Speechwriting in the White House
After graduation, you ended up working for Bill Clinton and then Al Gore. How did you get those jobs?
I was always interested in politics and government. I thought at one point that I’dI go to law school and be a lawyer. I think I wanted to go to law school after college because I liked school and I thought it would be fun to spend more time in school. But once I got out of school and started working, I discovered it was even better being an adult and not having homework. So I sort of lost interest in law school.
I can’t really say how I got into politics. An opportunity presented itself, through some pretty random events. I never thought it was what I’d do my whole life. I was raised by die-hard Democrats, and Clinton was the first Democratic president I could really remember. It was an exciting time and I wanted to be a part of it.
The West Wing
You helped Al Gore write his concession speech, and then you went to work for Aaron Sorkin on The West Wing. How did you get that job?
I was coming straight out of working in politics, working in the White House and on the Gore campaign, and I think they just wanted me for my political expertise at first. Even though I was hired as a staff writer, I didn’t know anything about writing scripts, so they weren’t saying “go write episode five.” They were saying, “Tell us cool stuff that happens in the White House and come up with story ideas.”
So that’s what I did – without the ability to execute a script right away.
What was the first thing you wrote?
A couple things happened. My first season at The West Wing I pitched as many story ideas as I could, and got a lot of material into other people’s scripts. Then there was an episode of the show that had been shot and edited and was short by some number of minutes. It was called “Stirred” – as in “stirred, not shaken.” The main story involved the Vice President’s alcoholism.
Anyway, one of the honchos suggested that I write another storyline that could be shot and fitted into that episode. I think Aaron Sorkin was home with a cold that week or he would have done it. From home, from his bed, he phoned me with edits and changes to the stuff I wrote and it was filmed within days and aired within weeks. Aaron, kindly and graciously going way beyond what he needed to do, gave me a shared credit on the script. He was great to me, and taught and mentored me a lot.
I was beginning to learn what makes a scene, what makes a story. I had done drafts of scenes that had been rewritten by Aaron and other people. I was trying to learn the craft. Aaron and some of the other writers were incredible tutors in terms of saying, “The scene doesn’t start there, it starts here, and it needs to escalate to this point.”
Learning to Write Scripts
How else did you learn to write? Did you read books? Did you take Robert McKee’s class?
I didn’t take Robert McKee. I did read a lot of scripts. And I did read a couple books. The books I mostly read after I had met for a job on The West Wing but before I was hired. I think I read Syd Field, and I think I read McKee, but I definitely didn’t understand a word of them and I retained none of it. It’s probably a lot like reading books about skiing. You sort of have to do it.
I remember asking John Wells, another incredible teacher and mentor of mine, “What do I do to get better at this?” He said, “Just do it a lot.” And I think that’s true of anything.
I was in a room of smart, experienced writers every day. They were pitching stories and arguing about stories scene by scene. You had Aaron Sorkin coming in and out all day and arguing with us about the storylines, telling us what he liked and what he didn’t like. We’d see the scenes as he wrote them page by page, scene by scene, act by act. That’s how I learned.
I learned by reading other people’s stuff, being around really good writers, trying to read as many scripts as I could, making friends with other writers – by osmosis.
So even though I wasn’t writing scripts in the beginning, I was coming up with ideas, plotting out stories scene by scene, often doing first drafts of scenes and storylines. It was great training.
Screenwriting versus Speechwriting
How did your speechwriting experience influence your screenwriting? Did it help you, or were there habits you needed to break?
There weren’t habits I needed to break. But the funny thing is that I would’ve thought there was more of a connection between the two forms of writing.
The trick with screenwriting is that the actual writing of sentences, the dialogue – that aspect of screenwriting is maybe the last 5%. It’s really all about the architecture and emotion and what the characters are going through – of which there is approximately 0% in a speech.
I knew how to write a sentence, and I maybe had a little bit of understanding of what made good writing as opposed to bad writing on the sentence level, but I didn’t really understand storytelling until I had to learn it on The West Wing.
One of the things that was fun for me early on at The West Wing was when someone said, “I need four sentences for Bartlet to say in this speech,” and I had to pull something out of my hat. That was a whole writing skill set that I could just return to.
Did you tend to be the one who wrote the speeches?
Yes. Aaron would sometimes tinker with them, but I did a lot of them, and there were definitely chunks of speeches on the show which came from real-life speeches I’d written.
In fact, my first season on The West Wing, Gray Davis, the Governor of California, reached out to Aaron shortly after September 11, and asked him to write something for the end of his State of the State address that year. Something moving that addressed the loss.
So Aaron asked me to write something, and then Aaron tinkered with it. We both were proud of it and thought it was nice and emotional – and they never used a word of it. And we probably were both kind of annoyed because we’d worked on it as a favor and thought it was pretty good.
So a year later something happened in the show – I think it was a pipe bombing or school shooting or something within the fictional world of the show — and we wanted Bartlet to address it, and Aaron asked, “You still have that thing we wrote for Gray Davis?” And I printed it out and gave it to Aaron and that was the speech Bartlet gave in the episode. It actually became a moment on the show that people remembered, for whatever reason. Which I guess means Gray Davis should’ve used it!
I had a very unusual introduction to Hollywood, in that I moved from Washington, DC very suddenly to work on The West Wing. I’d never aspired to this, so I never had a bunch of scripts in a drawer. When I started working in television, I’d never written a script at all. So then I wrote many episodes of The West Wing and House, but I’d never written an original piece of material.
So at one point I said to my agents, “I guess I ought to write something original.” And that’s how that came about. I outlined that screenplay before I went to work on House.
I won’t say it almost got made, but it certainly did better than I ever thought it would. It made The Black List, which was great. And when I finished it my agency, Endeavor, had just signed Spike Lee as a client, and they were sending him piles of material. He read that script and he signed on to direct it. So for about half an hour Spike Lee was attached to it.
But it was kind of a quirky character piece about a political operative and not super commercial and nobody would really finance it at the time. I think there had just been a big flop set in the world of politics – maybe State of Play had come out done poorly. So that also hurt our chances of getting it financed. We did end up optioning it to an indie studio, but Spike Lee pretty quickly walked away, as he should’ve because it wasn’t going to get made anytime soon.
When he was involved, we had lots of actors interested and it seemed like something would happen. It has a new producer and another director attached now. I don’t know if it’ll ever be made.
Based on that experience, will that be your only feature script?
I wouldn’t say that. For one thing, it was meant to be a writing sample, so it did a lot better than I’d hoped. Plus I love the form. You get to write another kind of story.
Somebody once said, and I think it’s true, that TV episodes are what you’d call a small arc story. It’s an interesting day or week in the life of your characters. Whereas movies tend to be big arc stories – the two or three weeks or months where everything changes in the character’s life forever and they’ll never be the same. And that’s an interesting thing to write.
Hugh Laurie used to say that in a movie the lead character changes and no one around them changes. And in a TV show, the lead character doesn’t change everyone around them changes. And I think there’s some truth to that. They’re very different kinds of stories.
I love movies. I love seeing movies. I’ve done some dabbling in feature rewrites, which I’ve enjoyed.
But I find TV a more satisfying lifestyle. If you write a movie script, it may sit around for years. It’s a real hassle to get it made. Some of my favorite movies were in development for as much as seven years and I’m not really interested in all that waiting around. Not to mention, most feature writers have no involvement in production. It’s an isolating career.
I like working with a team of people. I like the immediacy of television. I like how quickly it’s done. I’m used to it.
Advice for Beginning Screenwriters
What words of advice would you give to non-professional screenwriters?
One thing I try to tell people, and it amazes me that not every aspiring screenwriter does this, is don’t just watch things, read things.
Read scripts – because your relationship has to be with that page before it’s with the screen. Read scripts by great writers – and you can usually find ways to get those scripts. The top 10 scripts on The Black List are all going to be quirky and interesting and have original voices. Read the way great screenwriters write their stage directions. Read how little they can give in a line to get a point across. I honestly think that and writing itself are the two best things people can do to learn and grow at this.
So much of what I learned was from getting to sit 30 yards from Aaron Sorkin’s office and see the pages as they rolled off the printer. And also talking about a story in a writer’s room and then seeing what a great writer does with it. Seeing the economy, the lack of sentimentality, the simplicity, the wit that can be brought to it.
We all know the Beatles studied and absorbed Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Arthur Alexander and those influences shaped who they became. I think to do anything creative, you have to find people whose work you love and absorb it, study it. If you read a screenplay you think is great, read it 10 times. You don’t have to take notes any of those times. You don’t have to graph it on a chart or anything. Just absorb it. Get to know it backwards and forwards, the way you would a favorite song. Because then the little moments in it, the little emotions in it will be things you’ll use later in your own work, even without realizing it.
Study the work of great writers. I do it still. I’m always excited if someone sends me a great script, and I can’t wait to read it and absorb it.