The subject of Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs screenplay, at least in the most basic terms, is hard to miss. It’s at once the title of the movie, the marketing anchor, and the lead character. But this is not a documentary, it’s a string of fictional scenes that simply never happened, and thus Sorkin’s job, responsibilities and potential for dramatic impact are different to, say, Walter Isaacson’s in writing his biography of Jobs (ostensibly the source material for this film, though the overlap is minimal).
When I sat down with Sorkin a few weeks ago, we spoke a little about the nature of storytelling about real people, and what Sorkin sees as some of its value, purpose and pitfalls.
Here’s a transcript of our conversation, starting with a question that Sorkin says he had never been asked before.
Why tell stories about real people?
Uh… shouldn’t we? I’ve never been asked that question before so I’m not quite prepared for it. Shouldn’t we tell stories about real people?
If you tell stories about fictional people you can change what you want. You can bend to theme, you can bend for narrative, you can do all sorts of things.
I definitely understand the value of writing fiction. I do it all the time. But you tell stories about real people. You’re going to tell one about me, aren’t you?
The medium I am working in restricts me somewhat, while yours doesn’t.
Yes. That’s true… now, I think I know what you’re getting at. You’re talking about the difference between journalism and art, between what you do and what I do, and it’s also the difference between a photograph and a painting. We do paintings of real things. Not all paintings are abstract, they’re not all Jackson Pollock. There’s value in a photograph of a man alone on a boat at sea and there is value in painting of a man alone on a boat at sea. In the painting, the painting has more freedom to express an idea, more latitude in being able to elicit certain emotion. The same thing with this… Steve Jobs, I think, is my fourth non-fiction that I’ve done.
There are things you can get at that you can’t get at with a piece of journalism – and by the way, I don’t think that one should be a substitute for the other, they should live side-by-side. I think that I can… listen, I need to create conflict on the screen. I can’t invent that drama if I’m writing about real people, it has to have been there in the first place, but there are artistic things I can do with it.
People and characters are different. People don’t speak in dialogue, a person’s life doesn’t lay itself out in a series of scenes that form a narrative…
Let me start here. Before I knew what I wanted to write, I knew what I didn’t want to write and that was a biopic. I didn’t want to dramatise a Wikipedia page, or even dramatise Walter Isaacson’s excellent biography, I wanted to do something else. And after spending a lot of time with the real people represented by characters in the movie, as well as several dozen others, I started to identify points of friction between Steve and Woz, Steve and his eldest daughter Lisa, Steve and his one-time boss John Sculley, Andy Hertzfelt, Joanna Hoffman, Chrisann Brennan and so on, and it struck me that there were terrific scenes to be had, and a certain structure came to me, which was to do it in just three scenes, only three scenes, with no time cuts, put it all in the pressurised situation of the moments leading up to a product launch.
It’s a form of drama, sort of like historical fiction, a blood relative of that, that I like.
To what extent do you want the viewers to think they’re watching the ‘real’ Steve Jobs and to what extent that they’re seeing a drama about a fictional character who shares some elements of Steve Jobs’ personal history?
I think it’s a bit more than that.
Obviously Steve didn’t have confrontations with the same four people forty five minutes before every product launch, that’s a writer’s conceit. I think the movie announces itself pretty quickly as being impressionistic in that way. The content of the confrontations is real, they are not fictional. I would suggest that anyone who wants to know as much as possible about Steve Jobs supplement this movie with a piece of journalism of some kind; a lot is available, including the source material for this movie, Walter Isaacson’s book.
The Santa Fe Opera Company, a very well-regarded opera company in the US, has just commissioned an opera about Steve Jobs. In this iteration Steve Jobs is going to be a tenor, I’m sure, and Woz will be the baritone. Art is able to do things that journalism isn’t.
I think your concern is that it’s unfair to Steve Jobs, to the people who love Steve Jobs, to the legacy of Steve Jobs, to play with facts. Again, I am very confident that the people who watch movies are at least as smart as the people who make movies, and I am certain that the audience is not going to believe that, in reality, Steve had these confrontations before the product launches. However, the content of those conversations is true.
That’s not my personal concern. My concern is from the other direction. I’m in love with fiction, with the scope of the possibilities of fiction, and I wonder why somebody tries to put the mask of reality on something like this. I’m interested in what documentary truth you think you brought to this, and why you would even try to bring any at all.
Why didn’t I do a Citizen Kane treatment of it?
[In which Kane is a fictional character who evokes and reflects elements of the real newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst.] Okay, that’s one way of framing it.
You know what, as great a movie as Citizen Kane is, I worry that the audience can feel the gimmick and suddenly there is a guessing game of what is true and what’s not true. I stand with those who believe that Citizen Kane is one of the greatest movies, but it was made at a different time to we live in now. I wonder about the freedom and latitude of having the writer be able to make up anything. If I had done what you’re suggesting and instead of calling the lead character Steve Jobs called him John Doe, and he’s head of a company called Peaches, I could have had him, if I wanted to, tie-off and shoot himself up with heroin. That’s something I can’t do when I’m doing this.
Moreover, I think there’s something under that which will take you out of the movie, which is gimmicky. I don’t like the guessing game that would go on in the press.
At the core of my question it still remains, were you able, with the self-imposed restrictions of the structure and the characters, to say precisely what you meant?
Yes. As a matter of fact, I think I was able to do just that for the first time in my life. When I got done writing the script, I said to the small number of people I talk to at those moments in my life, “Honestly, I don’t know if this is good or bad, but I know that, for the first time, I wrote what I set out to write, what I had in my mind made it onto the paper intact.”
And beyond that paper… what do you feel about what’s on screen?
I think it’s the movie of any writer’s dreams. I think that Danny [Boyle] is a genuine genius, I think he did a brilliant job. I think Fassbender and the cast did fantastically well. We had a great time doing it. Danny was insistent with the studio that money be spent on a proper rehearsal period.
We did it all in San Francisco. We rehearsed the first act for two weeks then shot that first act, then shut down production. Then we rehearsed the second act for two weeks then shot the second act, rehearsed the third act, shot the third act. So I could not be happier with the movie. Frankly, the only way I could be happier is if a couple of things cut for time were back in the movie, but when has a writer not said that?
That’s why Blu-rays are a friend to the writer, I guess.
I’m lobbying for the writer’s cut to be on the DVD releases. But, by the way, that cut would be about seven seconds different. It’s beautiful, though.
It’s my 149th interview and nobody has asked what you asked. I think that what you’ve been asking about is both very interesting and very important, especially because I wouldn’t want somebody to write a movie about me. I do feel that pang of hypocrisy, a little bit. Now, you can choose to believe me or not, but when I’m writing non-fiction about people who are living – I understand Steve isn’t but his wife is, his children are, his friends and colleagues are, so as far as I’m concerned, he is – I am paying a lot of attention to my own moral compass, what I’m willing to do or not do.
This is not to do with bending the truth. You’re a journalist, you know how it works. You will discover things as you’re doing research and you have to make a decision. “Gee, this would be good drama and it would certainly make headlines, it’s certainly something nobody knew, but I’m not a gossip columnist, I’m not an assassin, I’m not going to do that.” What I am going to do is take existing information and try to be artistic about it, to make people think about it in a new way.
Aaron Sorkin, thank you very much.