Aaron Sorkin: The Oscar frontrunner
The screenwriter of the moment talks through what he did with 'The Social Network' and what he intends to do with the life of John Edwards in 'The Politician'
Formerly a struggling actor, and sometime singing telegram, Aaron Sorkin made it to Hollywood to adapt his third play ‘A Few Good Men’. Further movie projects followed, including the White House romance ‘The American President’, before Sorkin forged a prolific career in television, creating ‘The West Wing’ and writing 87 episodes across the Emmy-winning first four seasons. After drugs problems and the lukewarm response to his next TV series ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’, he bounced back with typically snappy film scripts for ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ and last year’s ‘The Social Network’, for which he just received an Oscar nomination in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.
The critical response to ‘The Social Network’ has been extraordinary, is that the combination of a timely subject matter and classic themes?
'It wasn’t the Facebook of it all that attracted me to the project. I’d heard of it, but it’s like I’ve heard of a carburettor too, and it doesn’t mean I can pop open the hood on my car, show you where it is and tell you what it does. No, the hook was that against the backdrop of this very modern invention, here was a story with themes as old as storytelling itself – friendship, loyalty, betrayal, power, class, jealousy. Things that Aeschylus, or Shakespeare or Paddy Chayevsky would have written about, but they weren’t available so I got to do it.'
Most viewers are ready to hate or envy Mark Zuckerberg because of his extreme wealth, but surely you needed to develop your own take on him?
'Just because you have money, it’s not like you no longer have emotions. He spends the first hour and 55 minutes of the movie being an anti-hero and the last five minutes being a tragic hero. I'm not judging, I want to respect and defend him and so I locate the things in him that are most like myself.'
'I’m awkward socially, and I’ve spent a lot of time with my nose pressed up against the glass feeling like an outsider. Mark invented what he needed, and I like the impression that I’m smarter and funnier than I really am because I write characters and people assume: "He must be that smart and that funny."'
Are you concerned that audiences confuse the real Mark Zuckerberg with the one you’ve created?
'That confusion is natural. I didn’t make up any of the facts, but life doesn’t conduct itself in a series of connecting scenes=. I’d counsel anyone that as soon as they see a movie which starts "based on a true story" should look at it the way you do with a painting and not a photograph.'
You had contact with the real Eduardo and ‘Winklevi’ twins during the writing and after the release, what’s the response been?
'Nobody’s been really shocked, though I haven’t asked them for a review. I just wanted to convey to them that I appreciate how hard it must be when someone makes a movie about stuff you did when you were 19. If that happened to me, I’d only want my point of view represented, but that wasn’t the case here since you had to reflect the opinions of people who were trying to sue each other, and there were three different perspectives involved.'
And from Zuckerberg?
'Well, I’m really wary of speaking for Mark, but I understand he felt the movie wasn’t as scary as it might have been. It humanised him. There are lots of people in the audience who want to give him a hug at the end, because he’s paid a price and he feels remorse.'
But we do get a sense from the start that he’s a combination of ambition and vulnerability – was there resistance at any point to that lengthy opening scene where the audience really needs to be alert to pick up on the themes of the entire movie?
'No, and I give credit to Sony and Amy Pascal the studio head, who always maintained that the people who watch movies are at least as intelligent as the people who make them. They never asked me to put in a scene where the 12-year-old Mark is stuffed into a locker in high school, they wanted the audience to watch this story and believe in an anti-hero. So, yes, it begins at a hundred miles an hour in the middle of a conversation, which causes the audience to sit forward, it creates the illusion of pace and it gets the viewer to participate.'
As someone known for heightened dialogue, was it difficult to write for characters still in their teens?
'Yes, after I’d done the research, paced the floor and climbed the walls, I produced a page and a half of the worst writing I’d ever done, trying to have them sound like they aged 19 in 2003. That’s the point where I realised I had to just write it in my own voice. I’m always the first actor to play every part. It’s a very physical thing for me, because I’m saying it out loud and jumping up and down. Just trying to work up an argument with myself, so I can get a scene going. In fact, when I was writing "The West Wing" the head of NBC sent a package to my office: it was one of those headsets you used to get for your phone while you were in the car. There was a note saying: "I stopped beside you at a traffic light today and you looked like a madman – please wear the headset, even of you don’t plug it in."’
So the car’s really a productive space for you…
'And I take maybe six or eight showers a day when I’m writing. Not because I’m a germophobe, but it just gives me a little energy shot, and putting on fresh clothes makes me feel – especially if I’m not writing well, and started the day on the wrong foot – that I’m getting a do-over. Listening to music in the car is another one for me. If I hear a song that takes me to a certain place emotionally, I try to think about writing a scene that gets me there.'
You’ve announced that your next project will be ‘The Politician’, Andrew Young’s insider account of the scandal which put paid to John Edwards’s presidential hopes. At which stage is that right now?
'Well, I need to get my arms around it and write the movie. All I know is that whatever anyone thinks about the John Edwards and Rielle Hunter story, it won’t be that. If everyone’s already made that movie in their head, what’s the point of doing it again?'
Another story about politicians, often treated as comedy material here in Britain, yet you find humour and idealism there. Why such a strong interest?
'In the US too, our politicians are generally portrayed either as Machiavellian or buffoons. I do like writing idealistically or romantically, as in "The West Wing" and "The American President", and I also like redefining patriotism, a word I believe has been co-opted in a bad way. It’s not that I have an agenda, and I’m not politically sophisticated at all, it’s just that as the great American criminal Willie Sutton once said when he was asked why he robbed banks – "That’s where the money is". I feel that there are just great stories in the political arena.'
Finally, you’re in the frame for an Oscar, is that an unfulfilled ambition?
'I don’t want to get struck by lightning or hit by a cross-town bus, so I have to say that just being nominated is enough. Whether it happens or it doesn’t, there’ve been enough great things that have happened with this movie, I’d be crazy to complain.'
Read our review of 'The Social Network'
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