Aaron Sorkin wasn’t interested in telling Steve Jobs’ biography. He was interested in telling his story.
The Academy Award-winning screenwriter behind The Social Network and Moneyball recently wrote Steve Jobs, starring Michael Fassbender as the Apple co-founder, chronologically following the entrepreneur through his three biggest product launches in 1984, 1988 and 1998. Having been criticized of embellishing elements of both Steve Jobs and The Social Network, Sorkin sat down with The Shorthorn to talk about his writing process and how he sought to tell the true story behind the mind of Steve Jobs.
The Shorthorn: This movie was, in part, based on the biographical novel of the same name by Walter Isaacson. How important was that novel while writing the screenplay?
Sorkin: It was incredibly important. It was not only authorized, it was requested. I read that several times because, prior to that, I knew next to nothing of Steve Jobs. I knew who he was, I knew he was the CEO of Apple, I knew a tiny bit of Apple’s history, and that was it. I owned all the products, everything I’ve ever written, I’ve written on a MAC, but I never had the same kind of emotional attachment to them that I discovered in my research.
TS: What kind of research did you conduct for the movie?
S: I doubled back and started talking to as many people that Walter talked to, and then some that he didn’t talk to. For example, Lisa Jobs did not participate in Walter’s book because her father was alive at the time. John Scully did not participate in Walter’s book because John Scully really hadn’t spoken to anyone after he left Apple. It was kind of a traumatic experience for him. He went quiet, but he was willing to talk to me.
It was both the facts from Walter’s book and then my own completely subjective inferences from the time that I spend with all the other people that I drew the material that I was going to use for this movie. I wasn’t going to write a biopic. I was going to narrow the lens a lot, and what I ended up doing was writing a movie that was just in its entirety three scenes, each filmed in real time, each of those scenes taking place backstage in the moments leading up to one of his product launches.
TS: There’s one line in the film where a character tells Steve “It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time.” How much do you believe that line?
S: In my case, I wouldn’t know, not being a genius.
TS: Some screenwriters in Hollywood get concerned as to how much their script changes from page to screen. Did you have a say in what changes were made to your script?
S: Yes, I can’t be rewritten, and I can’t be fired. Any changes that are made, I’m going to change them. I’m also around for that. I don’t write things that are meant to be read, I write things that are meant to be performed. So when I’m done writing the script, I’m not done. We now have to make the movie, make the episode in television, do the play.
TS: This film went through a lot of production issues, originally having director David Fincher and actor Christian Bale on board, but dropping out of the project after contracting issues. Were you ever concerned about how the production would go?
S: No, I wasn’t nervous about that. I wasn’t even nervous about ‘Is this whole thing going to fall apart and not get made?’ I’ll be honest, relatively speaking, this movie had a smooth path to the screen. The only difference is that most of the time, North Korean terrorists don’t hack into the studio that’s making a movie, revealing all kinds of e-mails to the public.
TS: What sort of feelings did you develop while writing Steve Jobs’ story?
S: I developed a lot of feelings, and it’s never really clear to me whether I’m developing feelings about the real person or the character that I’ve been writing. After a very short time, it becomes a character that I’m working on, I’m not thinking about the real person that much.
But if you’re writing a character like this, like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, it’s very important that you don’t judge them. I have to be able to defend them. I like to write the character as if they’re making their case to God why they should be allowed into heaven. In order to do that, in order to be able to defend the character, I have to find things in that character I feel to identify with, find the things in that character that are like me.
TS: With Steve Jobs and The Social Network, you approached these biographical stories almost like you were writing fiction. What was the approach you took into writing both of these screenplays?
S: This is a painting and not a photograph. It’s not a piece of journalism. It’s a piece of art. That doesn’t give you permission to lie, it gives you permission to do a subjective, impressionistic take on what’s going on.