Ken Finkelman (Interview)

Working in Los Angeles in the '70 and '80s, Ken Finkleman racked up a list of dubious achievements, including writing and directing Airplane II and writing Grease II.

Finkelman, Ken (Interview)

Working in Los Angeles in the '70 and '80s, Ken Finkleman racked up a list of dubious achievements, including writing and directing Airplane II and writing Grease II. But since his return to Canada, the Winnipeg native has developed a half-dozen critically acclaimed TV series, all spiked by his rather misanthropic satirical outlook. Finkleman's best-known creation, of course, is his CBC series The Newsroom (1996), which he followed up with Escape from The Newsroom (2002). Both of them cleverly turn the lens on a group of fictional characters working on a nightly newscast. On Jan. 12, Finkleman brings The Newsroom - and his role as acid-tongued producer George Findlay - back to life. The Toronto-based TV auteur, 57, recently spoke with Maclean's Researcher-Reporter John Intini.

You vowed never to bring The Newsroom back and even made Escape from The Newsroom to effectively end the series. What changed your mind?

I never had to follow any network direction, and I like it that way. A couple of us just started kicking around some ideas but didn't commit to writing. After working out enough ideas I thought were interesting - many based on day-to-day things - I just started to write and ended up with a pile of 13 scripts.

How is this season different from the first?

There's a lot less about the news and more about the characters this time. I'm trying to figure out how people act. I don't mean how they act when they're in a sitcom, or how they act under pressure in a hospital. But just how people act everyday. It's amazing how many day-to-day things offer interesting revelations about a person's character.

Critics loved The Newsroom. Is there a lot of pressure to live up to the expectations?

There's always a risk. But if there wasn't a risk, you haven't pushed yourself. If you feel really confident and secure, you're in trouble.

How much of you comes through in George?

First of all, the women George is interested in would never be of interest to me. But George responds in ways I could see myself responding if I had no social sense. But I do. I have morals, ethics and a sense of responsibility. But I'm also the kind of person who, while doing the right thing, will ask myself, "Do I have to do this?" That little voice in my head is George.

Can you work without having complete creative control on a project?

When someone in authority tells me what to do, my first reaction is always to say absolutely not. Even if it's a great idea. It's different when I'm around people I trust creatively. I have no ego about it, but authority from above is silly. When creators are given full creative control, the product is always more interesting because it has a voice. When committees produce a show, there is no genuine voice. It's just an attempt to get to an audience. The problem is an audience is an abstract idea. It's simply a bunch of individuals with different preferences. The best thing to do is give them your personality and point of view. If they like your voice, they'll want it in their living room every week. If they don't like it, there's nothing you can do about it.

Was the lack of creative control what drove you from Hollywood?

It was. In Hollywood you get paid huge amounts of money, but you're working for them and doing whatever they say. I never argued when I worked there until near the end. In Hollywood people always use the expression "it works." Not "it's great", or "it's inspiring," but "it works." I hated that. Everything has to be approved by everyone and needs to be passed through every network executive's hands before being approved. Nothing can be intuitive. There's no risk taking. It was after a fight in a story meeting that I knew I couldn't do it anymore. I had to get out of there.

You've been described as both a tyrant and a control freak on set. Are those accusations fair?

A tyrant? No. I've never yelled on set. I never get angry. But do I need control? Of course. You have to have control. Budgets are so low, and there's so much to shoot with very little prep time, you have to get it done right, then and there.

Are more things off limits now than when you first started in this business?

I'm not sure if that's the case. But think about a movie like Animal House (1978), which, by the way, was surprisingly great. They did stuff in that, including some of the scenes of drinking and driving, that you'd never see on the screen these days. On U.S. TV especially, anything considered bad is clearly underlined. When a character is racist or does something else wrong, there are ramifications. In that sense, The Newsroom subtly stands outside what's allowed.

How would you describe your working method?

I write and shoot stuff in different moods. Sometimes I come to a scene in a script and wonder who the f-- wrote this? What does that mean? But I never let anyone know I'm thinking that. I just go right ahead. Stuff comes from different impulses and states of mind. It's not one perfect thing that works.

I'm not in the same league as people like Woody Allen or Robert Altman, but I think I have the same relationship to the work they do. Especially Altman. I'm militantly myself. And whether that self is funny, interesting or neither, it's me. If people stop being interested or curious about it, then it's over.

Do you watch a lot of TV news?

I used to watch the news but I don't anymore. That's one of the reasons there's not as much satire about the news this season. I discovered my stress level went down when I wasn't paying any attention to what was going on. When I watched CNN, I was bombarded with so many things. I found that if you turn it off, al-Qaeda disappears.

How about other satirical sitcoms?

I don't think I've watched a sitcom from beginning to end for 25 years. A show like Seinfeld is funny, but I lost interest in it when the audience automatically laughed every time the door opened and Kramer slid in. It was too predictable. I really did like George's parents, though.

I find it difficult to watch TV. I have a really short attention span. One shrink saw me two years ago and after one session diagnosed me with attention deficit disorder. I can't sit still at all.

If you're not watching any TV, that must leave you with a lot of time for reading?

I don't read much either, especially during production, and always feel guilty about it. I do try to get through The New Yorker, Harper's and the New York Times Book Review. I recently went through a period of reading poetry and was shocked by how brilliant some of it was.

What makes you laugh?

I laugh at myself all the time. I laugh at how absolutely ridiculous and stupid I can be.

See also TELEVISION DRAMA, ENGLISH-LANGUAGE.

Maclean's January 12, 2004