What better way to start a career than to work with Aaron Sorkin, one of the best writers of all time? Director Alex Graves did just that, spending time with Sorkin on "Sports Night" and was later asked to join "The West Wing," serving as an executive, or co-executive, producer for most of the show's seven seasons while also directing 34 episodes of the critically acclaimed drama.
Shows like "West Wing" don't come around often and Graves, who has directed nearly every genre possible, is considered one of the best television directors out there. In an interview with the International Business Times, Graves discussed his time on the show, working with Sorkin, his career as a director and the new challenge of directing "Game of Thrones."
For the full discussion of "Game of Thrones" Season 4, as well as Graves' preview of "Game of Thrones" Season 4, episode 8, "The Mountain and the Viper," click here.
Working on “The West Wing” as a producer and director
Alex Graves: My experience on “The West Wing” was, I think, now rare in that I was pretty young and I walked into this environment where Aaron Sorkin was giving me a script every week and Thomas Schlamme and John Wells were keeping the studio off my back, at least as best as they could. I was running around with Aaron's scripts and the actors trying to do what we were all trying to do and loving every minute of it. It's funny because “West Wing” is similar to “Game of Thrones” in some ways as it was very hard to pull off back then. Because, essentially at its core, big for television model, for the schedule and budget, and it was that way to the end. We got it under financial control at a certain point but it didn't make it any easier. It made it harder.
It was graduate school film for me, I went to USC film school as an undergrad and I used to say to my dad, “'West Wing's my grad school,” because I was developing strongly as a director throughout “West Wing,” as I was growing into my skill set, and yet on a daily basis, Martin Sheen, or John Spencer or Allison Janney would shock me with their ability and skill in acting. As someone who really thinks of himself as a filmmaker and designer, I was just so blessed to just go to acting school and work with those actors and digest a lot more than I ever would have in what was a period of five to seven years, and that's been one of the greatest gifts, aside from directing Aaron's words and not thinking about it!
Considering the changing television landscape, a show like “West Wing,” an hour-long drama with 22 or 23 episodes a season, must be a huge storytelling task.
Graves: With Aaron, he'll always go down in history as the brilliant mind behind “West Wing,” as he should, but no one is thinking about the physical challenge that he put himself through in writing the first four years single-handedly and then all the labor that went into writing the seasons when he was gone. It was incredibly hard to write the show and pull it off. It was always funny to have guest directors come on the show and, kind of, be excited that they were just going to do a big, long take and it'll be so fun and it would always crash and burn because all of the elements were very carefully done and very hard to pull off so it looked effortless.
How do you feel about this new trend in shorter, more contained seasons? Shows like “Mad Men,” “Game of Thrones” and “Breaking Bad” all have very short seasons but manage to tell great, focused stories.
Graves: I don't look at it as a model because, really, at the end of the day, somebody gets through the system and gets something really good on the air that they are very good at making and then they handle the politics, and everything, in such a way that they either do or don't have the right amount of freedom to keep going and making something great.
So, if you said to me, “Now the model is 'Breaking Bad,'” I would never have thought that or “Now the model is 'Modern Family'” I would never have thought it but those groups found their way and it made some of the best television that's ever been made.
For someone making a pilot, assuming the talent is there and you can maneuver the system properly, it's just a matter of standing your ground and trying to make something great until you are making enough money for the studio that they let you keep making it.
You've had some great experiences working on several diverse projects, from “West Wing” to “Fringe,” “Terra Nova” and now “Game of Thrones.” What is the major difference between working on a network show versus a cable show?
Graves: I think, what you really notice now, and to your earlier point about television now, with cable they are involved in a very supportive way and they have an opinion but they're not putting it on you. With networks now, they are just very involved in the writing and the development of the projects and they really got their hands in it and it's a big difference between venues, in my experience.
As a director, how do you approach these very different projects? I mean, you've covered nearly every genre and possible situation on television, right?
Graves: I was, and am, a frustrated filmmaker and film student and my passion and love for movies was so broad that, in the earlier part of my career, I stumbled into doing “Sports Night” and was a comedy director. And everybody thought I was a comedy director and, thanks Sorkin, I almost went into sitcoms, which was a near-miss disaster. All of sudden my new agents were going, “Oh, there are all these sitcoms” and I was like, “I don't know how to do that! I know how to direct Sorkin but I can't direct sitcoms.” I don't mean that as a slam, it's just a different medium and, luckily, Aaron snuck away and was making “West Wing” and he and Tommy asked me to come do that and I got back into what, for me as a kid, was movie making or learning about it.
And the thing about “West Wing” and Aaron is that you just don't know what's going to come out of Aaron's mind and, even more so and it's another strong relationship between the writers of “Game of Thrones” and Aaron's writing, is that there is so much in the material to be mined that you really stretch your muscles and you learn to do more than you might with other material.
I couldn't have been luckier in my life than to get to direct all of those 34 episodes of “West Wing” and exec produce so many because you are constantly learning how to tackle new challenges and then when I left “West Wing” and I went to do the pilot of “Fringe” or the pilot of “Terra Nova,” and they were so complicated and difficult, there was nothing that ever compared to how tough “West Wing” was, nothing, to pull off.
That was your master class.
Graves: It was and, as you said, it was 22 episodes, it wasn't 10, it was relentless and starting with poor Aaron, but you know it was basic training.