Ice Time With Aaron Cohen
Q&A with the writer of HBO’s 24/7 Hockey Series
It’s rare to find a show that can instantly create a connection with a broad audience, especially if it’s a show about hockey. But that has been the defining strength of HBO sports and its privileged access with their 24/7 Hockey series. It finishes its second season tonight, this year profiling the New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers. The critically acclaimed program takes a unique look into the lives of NHL players and coaches for four weeks leading up to the Winter Classic, culminating at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Its unprecedented coverage and ability to humanize athletes on the ice has captivated even the slightest of hockey fans and has rejuvenated the sport as it approaches midseason.
The writer responsible for this show, as well as other HBO specials and networks, is Aaron Cohen. His body of work consists of HBO titles like Derek Jeter 3K, The Curious Case of Curt Flood, Magic and Bird: A Courtship of Rivals and many more. Even more outstanding is his well-earned hardware, which consists of 14 Emmys, a Peabody Award, and two Dick Schaap Awards for Outstanding Writing.
I got the chance to talk to Cohen about the inner workings of the show, his career, and the struggles and joys of writing for television.
Q: How did you get started with HBO and how did your career progress there?
A: When I was in school, I was on the school newspaper and was also a broadcaster in the sports department of our radio station. In the summer, I had a bunch of internships that eventually took me to sports and I think at that time I realized for the first time that you could actually make a living working in sports and television. For the most part, I consider myself incredibly fortunate that I don’t work for a living. I think most people in the morning will go to espn.com or open the sports section of their local paper – I can do that and say it’s part of my job. I started as sort of a researcher and a production assistant and very early on I got a great piece of advice that said “I don’t care what you do in life. You can be a lawyer, you can be a doctor- if you can write…that is going to set you apart and that’s going to help you get places.” I’ve found a niche in sports television where I’m sort of the guy who is a writing specialist. So if you think of a TV show like a car, where there’s obviously writing, but there’s also interviewing characters, producing, music, visuals, the writing is the wheel, and I’m the guy that specializes as the wheel.
Q: Was writing your first ambition as a kid?
A: I think I always wanted to write for Sports Illustrated but I wasn’t sure. I went to college and I thought I was more interested in the public sphere and government. But in college I ended up making good friends involved with the newspaper at school. We were all interested in media, and looking at the world a different way, telling stories and being the people who report on things. But in a certain sense I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up. I’m freelance, I don’t work for HBO full time. I have in the past, but I also work on shows on other networks. So for me, I like the idea that I’m working on a show now, but I don’t know what the next project will bring and there’s a certain freedom in that that I like a lot.
Q: With 24/7 hockey series in its second year now, how did you first approach writing for hockey when they pitched you the show?
A: I had written every boxing 24/7, and that began when a producer had mentioned that narration was going to be a big part of the program. He said I want you to be the writer and that turned into this really cool show. So when hockey came around, I said, “Yeah, I like hockey.” In a certain way, I’m pretty flexible about finding interesting things about a lot of different topics in sports. I had worked on the Winter Classic a little bit for NBC- I was really a casual hockey fan but I knew hockey players were really cool for lack of a better description, so I was pretty psyched to do this.
Q: I’m interested in understanding the behind the scenes of this show. It’s broadcasted on Wednesday, so what’s your process throughout the week?
A: If you think about the division of labor, I have never been to a practice or game. I never meet any of the players or any of the coaches. Generally, the show is split up into two parts: one crew for the Rangers, and one crew for the Flyers. Then back in the home base of operations, which is where you find me now, is a post-production facility in downtown New York. We have a couple of edit rooms going, one for the Rangers and one for the Flyers. A producer who is in charge of each team is editing all the segments that come in. I’m one of the people who is going back and forth between segments for the two teams working on all of them. The first part of the show is put together over the weekend and then Monday is a big day, just working with the producers to put together the segments. Tuesday is kind of a wrap up day but we’re still under the gun. We’re making changes, and then, Tuesday night, we voice the show, Then Wednesday is largely audio mixing and it goes to air.
Q: Liev Schreiber is the narrator. Did you have to develop a relationship with him before the show started to understand how to write for him?
A: He’s the voice of the HBO Boxing series so we’ve been working together since 2007. He’s terrific. He really is not just a great voice but he is also a great narrator. There is an art to narrating in terms of annunciating and how much to give of yourself and he just has a terrific tone. I’ve made an effort to match that tone and I think over the years I think I’ve hopefully gotten a little better at it. He is definitely a fan of the show and he definitely gets into it and knows us and so it’s pretty cool for a guy who has been in all kinds of movies to be so cool and such a great part of the show. I’ve worked with a lot of broadcasters before and you just kind of hear their voices in your head. You know what kinds of words they would say, you know what kind of tone they would have and what would sound good coming out of their mouth and you just sort of develop it. But you absolutely write differently for Liev Schreiber than you would for a different narrator or broadcaster.
Q: How did you make the switch from writing columns, to writing for television?
A: I was actually interested in writing for magazines but my internships I ended up getting were in TV and I sort of found my way to TV. Then I met some mentors who did some amazing things with TV. I was turned on to the possibilities of how powerful writing could be when it’s read by someone with an amazing voice and its put to music and put to picture. People will connect with it and that can be a very satisfying thing.
Q: What’s your relationship like with your copy editors? Is there ever a lot of butting heads or creative differences?
A: It’s funny. In TV you don’t really have a copy editor as much. I think every writer is different. I’ve worked with some pretty famous writers and I know if you wanted to change the littlest thing like a comma, they would strenuously object. Like anything, it’s about being open to criticism but also being wise about what critical thoughts to take to heart and other ones to say “I got this one.” I pride myself as being someone easy to work with but at the same time I think a big part of being a writer is being confident with your writing. That confidence is fragile but you have to own what you write, and naturally, you’re going to fight for it.
Q: Do you find yourself having to research a lot of hockey in order to write narration for it more appropriately?
A: I can’t pretend to catapult into hockey for four weeks a year and know everything. The notion of showing up in the locker room once isn’t going to do that. I’d rather get secondary research from someone whose primary research is much more legitimate. But it’s sports, it’s not rocket science. When you have been around it, you know the general themes and you know what’s interesting. I think coming in the way our show does to look at the Flyers or Rangers in a broader context, there’s a certain sense that this isn’t like the beat writer of a newspaper suddenly doing our show. It’s more like reading an article about a Knick player or a Jet in New York Magazine with someone who knows sports, but is coming at it with a fresh perspective. I think that’s valuable.
Q: With the Penguins/Capitals series last year, the themes of what the players were going through during the season (Being on the road, caring for their families, struggling with injuries) are still the same themes that resonate with the Flyers and Rangers. Do you make a conscious effort to mix up the writing for this year to differentiate it from the last one?
A: I definitely make a conscious effort to mix it up, though that obviously has its limits. There are only so many ways (and words) to present a fierce rivalry, and the ideas of players being in the middle of a long season, as you mention. It's funny, a lot of people talk about how last year's plot lines, with the Penguins playing so well, and the Caps playing so poorly, were so perfect for the show. Agreed. But I've been happy that the Flyers and Rangers have been doing different things, which opens it up to different stories to be told. I think everyone on the show is conscious about not being too repetitive with last year. Personally, I know that if I find myself recycling, I am being lazy ... so I really work to always add new ideas and thoughts to our storytelling.
Q: You have a nice trophy case of Emmys and other prestigious awards. Do you approach writing the same way you did before you got your first award?
A: I think writing is really hard. I could have a hundred thousand awards, but I’m only as good as what’s on the screen. If there’s one thing I learned, and this comes after proving you can do it, it’s to trust your process, to trust your perspective. On one hand, I’m more confident in myself and my abilities to eventually write what needs to be written, and on the other hand, every time I’ve got a new assignment, there’s a bit of terror, it’s like “what if I just can’t get it done?”
Q: How does it feel to be an integral part of this acclaimed series?
A: I’m really, really fortunate. Luck is a big part of it. These docu-reality series, with a lot of access, provide a new thing for sports. You wouldn’t consider this ten to fifteen years ago and so it’s great to be part of a team that’s doing it well. Any writer wants to be read, or in my case wants to be watched, and so the fact that smart people are watching it and enjoying it, it’s a neat thing to be able to do. To tell stories for a living and provide a really nice template or model that reflects what we are as human beings is pretty cool.