Steve Jobs was 'flawed and damaged', screenwriter Aaron Sorkin says of his latest subject
Sorkin has made a career of writing smart people talking fast to each other, which made him the ideal choice for the forthcoming movie about the troubled and driven Apple guru
After a particularly virtuosic stretch of dialogue during the Telluride Film Festival premiere of Steve Jobs in September, an audience member cried out, as if at a rock concert, “Sorkin!”
That a screenwriter, traditionally the most downtrodden, anonymous player in the film business, got catcalled like a pop star at the prestigious industry event speaks volumes about the singular career of Aaron Sorkin, the writer of the new film. Sorkin, who had been nervously pacing in the lobby outside the theatre moments before, heard the voice and was moved by it – screen dialogue is how he prefers to speak to other people.
“I’ve often felt like I would be best off if I were in a room by myself and I would write some pages and slip them under the door and somebody would slip back a tray of food,” Sorkin says. “If people could know me for what I write and not this – what we’re doing now – I would be better off.”
Steve Jobs, which Sorkin adapted loosely from Walter Isaacson’s biography of the Apple co-founder, reveals a man who soars in his profession and struggles in his relationships, a paradigm not unfamiliar to Sorkin. The movie has familiar Sorkinisms – rapid, brainy dialogue, a ticking clock, behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings – but is the writer’s most structurally daring film script.
Directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and starring Michael Fassbender as Jobs, the movie uses three key product launches in Jobs’ career as a structure on which to hang his messy human connections, including those with Apple marketing chief Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), company co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) and, most crucially, Jobs’ eldest daughter, Lisa, who is played at three ages by three different actresses.
Long before its release, the movie stirred up controversy and name-calling. Jobs’ widow, Laurene Powell Jobs, tried to block the film’s production, and Apple CEO Tim Cook recently described its makers as “opportunistic”. Sorkin says he feels he has made a movie that is empathetic to the technology groundbreaker, and he relates personally to some of Jobs’ failings.
“As a writer, you can’t judge the character,” Sorkin says, of his view of Jobs. “You have to be able to find something about them that you can identify with, that’s like you. I think Steve believed deep down that he was flawed and damaged, unworthy of being loved or liked. But he was able to make these products that were not only successful and groundbreaking, but people loved them.” (Sorkin himself is an iPhone user.)
Sorkin’s signature characters are smart, often-arrogant fast talkers who are driven to excellence, like Jesse Eisenberg’s brazen Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Brad Pitt’s edgy baseball general manager Billy Beane in Moneyball, the idealised liberal White House staffers in The West Wing and the sermonising journalists in HBO’s The Newsroom.
Sorkin’s own quick tongue occasionally gets him into trouble, as when he took umbrage at Cook’s “opportunistic” comment. Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Sorkin fired back, “If you’ve got a factory full of children in China assembling phones for 17 cents an hour, you’ve got a lot of nerve calling someone else opportunistic.”
Asked about the inflammatory comment days later, Sorkin says he regretted it. “After sleeping on it, what I failed to remember at the time I said what I said is that Steve Jobs was a very close friend of Tim Cook and he died and of course he’s going to be protective,” Sorkin says.
But he adds: “I still think it was wrong to judge the movie without seeing it. I don’t think we’re opportunistic. I hope he accepts my apology.”
The 54-year-old writer, who had a well-publicised drug problem in his 30s, says he leads a quieter life today, including sacrosanct family dinners with his 14-year-old daughter and ex-wife, who live less than a mile away from him in the Hollywood Hills. His guilty pleasures today are cigarettes, cheeseburgers and the ’70s pop rock duo Loggins and Messina. Despite having won an Academy Award for writing the definitive movie about Facebook, he doesn’t use social media, feeling it encourages cruelty and the creation of phony, perfect online personae.
“First of all, I don’t think I could clear my throat in 140 characters,” Sorkin says, explaining why he’s not on Twitter. “If you have an hour once a week on television when you’re asking for the audience’s attention, or if you have a movie out every couple of years, the least you can do the other six days a week is shut up.”
Born in New York, the son of an intellectual-property lawyer and a teacher, with two siblings who grew up to be lawyers, Sorkin developed his love of clever, rapid-fire dialogue around his childhood dinner table.
“Everyone in my family is smarter than I am,” Sorkin says. “At our dinner table anyone who used one word when they could have used 10 just wasn’t trying hard enough. There were arguments that I just liked to listen to. I really like the sound of smart people talking. I’m always writing about people who are smarter than I am and kind of phonetically recreating the sound of smart people. I always assume the audience is smarter than I am too.”
Sorkin gives the audience credit for being able to pick up a story midstream in Steve Jobs, which he wrote while on hiatus from The Newsroom. He interviewed key figures in Jobs’ life, including some who hadn’t participated in Isaacson’s book, like Lisa Brennan-Jobs and John Sculley. The unusual structure was inspired by a story that Andy Hertzfeld (a member of the original Macintosh team, played in the film by Michael Stuhlbarg) told Sorkin about how at the 1984 Mac launch they couldn’t get the computer to say hello.
Sorkin says he struggles with feelings of unease in almost all situations but one – when he’s with his daughter, Roxy.
“I was brought up believing that there’s something fundamentally wrong with me, that I’m not a good guy, that I’m in trouble,” Sorkin says. “A big disappointment of adulthood is that just knowing the answer of why that happened doesn’t turn a big switch inside you and make you feel different. So as a result, I live with a lot of anxiety.
“I always feel like I’m doing something wrong, like I’m not where I’m supposed to be, except for any time I’m with my daughter, everything feels right. I feel like I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. Whether we’re doing homework together or whether she’s just asleep under the same roof, the rest of it goes away. I’m just able to make a better version of me on paper than the one that exists.”
Los Angeles Times
Steve Jobs opens on January 14