Thomas Schlamme Takes Flight With Pan Am

At Studio 3 of Steiner Studios in the former Brooklyn Navy Yard, atop the circular table just outside the doors labeled "Prepping Pan Am Director" and "Nancy Hult Ganis, Pan Am Executive Producer," sit 2 coffee table-worthy books -- Beat Generation: Glory Days in Greenwich Village, by Fred W. McDarrah and Gloria S. McDarrah, and the 1960 Airline Stewardesses: A Picture Story, by Jack Engeman.

Mid-perusal of make-up application and fitness tips, accompanied by candid "come hither, join us" pictures in the latter, director and executive producer Thomas Schlamme strides in, fresh from his Los Angeles flight.

The Emmy winning veteran producer of West Wing, Sports Night, and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is jazzed about his latest television endeavor, Pan Am, debuting 10:00pm EST on ABC this Sunday, September 25th. "The story of these young women -- the stereotype is very different than the reality. These women were college educated, spoke multiple languages, were traveling the world... they didn't want to become secretaries, teachers, or wives at that point in their lives. They just wanted some adventure," Schlamme begins, his enthusiasm infectious.

Juan Trippe, when he built Pan American World Airways, had a vision for making air travel a luxurious adventure. "They're ocean liners in the sky and that's why they're called 'Clippers.' There's all these sort of nautical terms, because he knew people were still scared about flying, but they were okay about taking a boat. And the other part of the story that was really intriguing to me was when we started to unearth -- and Nancy (executive producer and former Pan Am stewardess) already knew this," Schlamme leans forward confidentially, "but 10 to 20 percent of these young women were spies."

Schlamme rushes forward. "They weren't spies like James Bond spies, but they were couriers. The State Department was enormously tied in to Pan Am. Pan Am was the airline used to release the hostages from the Bay of Pigs. They were in Berlin airlifts, they went to Vietnam, they were going into the Congo during the revolution. All the pilots and stewardesses were listed in the military, so they were covered by the Geneva Convention," Schlamme explains.

"It would make perfect sense that the State Department would go, 'Wait a second, these are beautiful women, speak multiple languages, are traveling the world, and we're in the middle of a cold war.' That's an asset, you know, and so the dossier was already there for most of these women.'" Schlamme sits back, musing over the story.

Taking advantage of Schlamme's perspective from working in television for several decades on award-winning shows, I inquire after our current relationship to the medium of television itself. "There's always been an ongoing struggle between commerce and art," he says, getting to the heart of the matter. "I say 'art,' not fine art, but the idea of, it's popular art and it's very expensive. There is this group of people trying to put on a television show, and a group of executives trying to finance a television show. In of itself, there's conflict."

"I don't think that executives are any more concerned about money," Schlamme continues, "they're just getting beat up more. Having success, trying to figure out a way to monetize everything, trying to have the courage to let something live and grow -- Cheers was the least rated show on television, and somebody gave it time and let it grow, and it became a successful show."

"...Network television... It is a 6 act structure. That means there are 6 commercial breaks. When I started, there was a little teaser and then 3 commercial breaks. It seems like our economic model is, if we have more commercials, then we can sustain more, but in fact, I believe it has an adverse reaction. In 7 minutes you've got to have a whole act -- a beginning, middle, and end, and you've got to have a cliffhanger at the end of that. You want to get to the last act where the curtain falls and it feels fulfilling. But somehow the curtain's already had to fall 6 times," Schlamme summarizes the inherent challenge.

Clarifying, he adds, "It's not just watching it without commercials. You could still watch a network show with TiVo and fast forward through the commercials, but the structure of telling the story... (it's) these little self-contained acts, and not 'What's the journey of this episode?' I don't want to give up on network (television) creatively. Because network television is still first of all, it's free, so to a lot of people who don't have HBO or cable... there's a real asset to doing good programming that's getting out there to the popular culture."

So what has been happening to television since the 1980s? "If I think about our television in the '80s on network -- it wasn't very provocative... television didn't really have cinema as its vocabulary. It was still very much a writer's medium. HBO led the charge, but then shows like West Wing and ER and lots of other shows since, they demand cinema, they demand a different vocabulary than just adjectives, nouns, and verbs. There's a visual vocabulary, so directors have been able to put a much greater stamp on television than 20 years ago."

When asked about the infiltration of reality television into American popular culture that was catapulted by the debut of Survivor in the late 1990s, Schlamme considers, "There's no doubt we've dumbed down our's not like television used to necessarily rise to our culture, but overall, just across the board, the way we digest material -- a reality show is much quicker to understand and to get. You can't plant a tree anymore. If people move into a new house, they'll just buy a big tree. When I was a kid," the Texas native says, "you could tell it's a new neighborhood because there were no trees. And then you would go, 'That tree is like me,' -- you'd have some relationship to it. There's nothing. Everything has this immediacy."

"Survivor was, to me, an absolute reaction that the audience was having to the sort of staid nature of narrative drama on television. You knew exactly what was going to happen. I think hour dramas were getting boring to people. So they kind of gravitated towards that (Survivor), I think, as this thing of 'It'll surprise me, it'll do something different.' Unfortunately, it just exploded and got as manipulated as anything else...We have a really hard time now separating what really feels honestly real and what is just a fabrication of reality." Schlamme says. "I mean, we are in very strange place."

Focusing on other television projects and a passion for documentaries in his future, Schlamme offers thoughts on why television has been a good fit. "When we were doing Sports Night and West Wing at the same time, I thought I was the luckiest guy in the world because my two interests were politics and sports. Mostly, I like the speed of it. Sometimes we have too much time and for me, at least, trusting my instincts and moving faster and keeping things going... the speed of it is actually the thing I like the most. I think the train is moving really fast and you've got to sort of stay on it."

And with that, Schlamme rushes to hop on the Pan Am episodic production train as it slows down just long enough for him to climb aboard.