Saturday, October 2, 2010

My Favourite Interview: Ken Finkleman (March 2006)

For the last two years of my undergrad, I wrote for the Arts & Entertainment section of the student paper, the University of Western Ontario Gazette. My first year, I was a volunteer/writer, and, my second year, I was an editor. I interviewed a lot of people during those two years; mostly people in indie bands that were playing in town. But, my favourite interview of all time was with Ken Finkleman, the writer/director/star of some CBC TV series, most notably The Newsroom, a sitcom about a newsroom. It was done in the single camera style, the first season back in 1996-97 before returning in 2002 with a TV movie Escape from the Newsroom leading into two more seasons. Between the two version of The Newsroom, he did three mini-series that I have never seen, sadly (and discuss in the interview briefly) and, in 2006, he did a six-part mini-series called At the Hotel (my excuse to talk to him).

The phone interview I had with Finkleman was fantastic. Over an hour of talking -- mostly me listening to him hold court over my 23-year old self. I wasn't usually fannish or flustered, but I was a bit with Finkleman. Before the interview, CBC sent me some preview episodes of At the Hotel, but Finkleman didn't really want to talk about the show. That was cool.

At The Gazette, Q&A interviews were frowned upon even though that's the style I like reading the most. So, I had decided from day one to try and make my interviews as quote-heavy as possible. I'd ask basic questions if only so I could use what the subject said instead of having to say it myself. I would structure the interviews around what was said, not what the article 'should' be about. Going into the Finkleman interview, I had read an 'interview' with him in one of the big Canadian papers and it was roughly the size of my interview, but featured, maybe, three things Finkleman said, filling the article with information that the writer or editor thought was necessary -- the point of the article. Finkleman wasn't even needed! I always tried to avoid that style.

Also, the published article (which has the wrong author credited on the website) needed to be cut down a bit, because I wrote too much. That was rare for me; I was usually very good at hitting the desired length, but I didn't bother this time. I wanted it to be long and contain all of the cool stuff Finkleman said. I'm not entirely happy with the edited version and kept the original for that reason (the only time I've done that). Partly because I like the full version more automatically and, partly, because it was edited as part of training potential editors for the next year, so it's not as clean as it would have been had Anna (my fellow A&E editor at the time) done it.

Still, I look over the article and still see too much of myself, not enough of him. This was also the interview that prompted me to begin reading Haruki Murakami and, for that, I owe Finkleman a debt.


Ken Finkleman doesn't like my first question. I ask him about his new series At the Hotel, there's a pause of around ten seconds and he begins to ask me questions about myself. He asks about the paper and school, which leads to poetry and recommending that I read some poems by James Merrill. I can hear him looking for the book in his office because he wants to get the names right.

After a few minutes of this, Finkleman returns to my question and says, "Your first question is terrible. It's the sort of question you think you're supposed to ask and it's one I've been asked hundreds of times. The best question to ask is whatever made you inquisitive. Are you an inquisitive person? If you were sitting beside me on a plane, what would you ask me?"

An interview with Ken Finkleman is part conversation, part lecture. He seems to have so many things he wants to say that he begins one thought and before he can finish it, another one asserts itself. He references various writers and filmmakers, always asking "You know who he is?" As an interviewer, it can be challenging, but as a listener, it's captivating and highly entertaining.

At one point, Finkleman discusses getting older, saying, "As you get older, you appreciate things differently. I don't mean to say that because you're young and don't have as much experience, you can't appreciate things, but as you get older. Like sex. Sex is better. Oh, fuck – infinitely better when you're older.

"Poetry – you appreciate that differently. And, it's not because I have more experience, it's not that. It's like as you get older, your brain changes and you think about things differently."

Finkleman is the director, producer and co-writer of the six-part CBC mini-series At the Hotel and is most well-known for the popular, award-winning comedy series The Newsroom, which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in.

He is generally regarded as one of the most intelligent and creative people working in Canadian television. The third run of The Newsroom won a 2005 International Emmy Award for Best Comedy, a Gemini Award for Best Writing in a Comedy or Variety Program or Series, and two Directors Guild of Canada Awards, for Outstanding Achievement in Direction – Television Series and Outstanding Team Achievement in a Television Series – Comedy.

But, Finkleman doesn't really want to talk about any of that. Any mention of his work is made to strengthen an argument he is making.

Most of the interview is taken up answering the question I would ask him if I was sitting beside him on a plane: why television? Why not films or prose or theatre? What is it about television that appeals to Ken Finkleman so much?

His answer is much simpler than you would expect: "Well, movies are hard to get made – especially in Canada. In Hollywood, it's hard, but you can get caught up in a community and get them made that way. And, at one time, I found myself in a community. Unless you want to do a studio hack job – you want to do something interesting, so you need a name attached."

Finkleman continues, "There are anomalies. But, even then it's because they know each other. Have you seen Capote? That had Phillip Seymour Hoffman, but he was only in it because he knew them. You need a name and the only way to get that is to socialize with the names."

Finkleman explains, "In Canada, you're in the position where you don't have the names to justify a big enough budget. They want a name to put on the marquee, which brings people into the theatre, which makes money. It doesn't have to be the biggest name, but one that will make the investment worth it."

Star power isn't the only drawback, Finkleman adds, "Canadian movies are in and out of theatres in a week. You devote a year – two if you're also writing – to a film and then it's just gone."

Television shows are similar in their temporary status, but in that case, it's by design. "In TV, it comes and goes – and more people watch it. Even if they don't like it, they're more forgiving because it's free," Finkleman laughs.

Even with shows he's done, Finkleman says he's the same way. "There are some episodes I really like and others I don't." But, the serial nature and the fact that there's always a second chance glosses over that quickly.

"It's extremely rewarding," Finkleman explains. "You withstand the failures. And it's fun. Shooting is fun."

This leads Finkleman off on a new tangent: discussing the purpose of fiction. He paraphrases Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, saying, "Good fiction connects – I'm sorry, the story connects in an indefinable way with the story inside reader. It has the quality of déjà vu. Isn't that amazing?"

He explains, "It's the reader and the work. The work is nothing without the reader. And the people that don't get it, resent it and call it pretentious."

The P word is a sore spot with Finkleman as his work is usually praised by critics or panned as pretentious crap. "It's never pretentious. It's always an attempt to express something big and meaningful. It can't be pretentious, it's just what it is. Deep down, I know I'm not pretentious.

"If a critic calls something pretentious, you know he's an asshole."

"It's because I'm a Jew from Winnipeg," Finkleman explains. "It would be okay if I were a German with a cigarette and long hair and a leather jacket and tattoos. But I'm not, so I'm not supposed to attempt to discuss those things."

Three series Finkleman did between runs of The Newsroom, More Tears, Foolish Heart and Foreign Objects, remain favourites of his because there he was able to flex his artistic muscles and explore themes not often explored on TV. But, fans waiting for them to show up on DVD may have a long wait.

Although Finkleman has a core of fans of his work, he doesn't believe that would translate in sales the way The Newsroom DVDs do. "There's no hook. There's nothing that would make people in stores pick them up."

He adds, "We did a study and found that there are 300,000 fans out there, across the country. What does that mean? Because I don't know. Is that good? Is that bad? I don't know. If you put 300,000 people in a stadium and me on stage, that would be pretty impressive, don't you think?"

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