Aaron Sorkin, the famed screenwriter behind “The Social Network” and “Moneyball,” is known best recently for bringing stories about the technology we’re immersed in to the big screen.
His latest screenplay, “Steve Jobs,” which is directed by Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “127 Hours”) is based loosely on Walter Isaacson’s authorised biography of Apple’s co-founder. In it, Sorkin uses the iconic machines that Apple created as a backdrop for the real drama: Jobs’ personal life.
The movie is split into three acts based on key product launches for Jobs — the first Macintosh, “Lisa,” in 1984, NeXT in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. What evolves is a dialogue-heavy exploration into the relationships Jobs (Michael Fassbender) had with his inner-circle: marketing chief Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), original Mac designer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Jobs’ daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs (played by three different actors).
Business Insider sat down with Sorkin and Boyle before the film’s premiere at the New York Film Festival to discuss why they cast an actor that looks nothing like Jobs, Boyle’s reason for studying “The Social Network” before making the film, and the one question Sorkin would ask Jobs if he were still alive. Here’s the lightly edited transcript.
BI: Danny, you weren’t the first director on this project, at one time David Fincher was attached. You’ve said that you went back and watched his film, “The Social Network,” which Aaron also wrote. What were you searching for in watching that film?
Just the lineage. Because I believed instinctively when I read the script that it comes straight after “The Social Network.” It’s before in terms of a timeline, but it felt like it was part of a trilogy. Specifically, I was looking for individuality. Because you don’t want to make a copy. I didn’t want to copy Fincher’s techniques, so I learned a lot from what he did.
BI: Aaron, Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs are both famous tech founders. Was it hard to not think about “The Social Network” when you were writing this?
Sorkin: You know, no, it wasn’t hard. I felt it was a different animal. As complex a person as Mark Zuckerberg was, there was no lawsuit to write about, I was doing something else with Steve. So I don’t remember it that way. Now after spending all this time with Danny, he has convinced me that the two are related and that there needs to be a third. So Elon Musk here I come. [Sorkin leans towards recorder] That’s a joke, I’m not coming for him.
BI: Why did you focus on three key product launches in the film, Aaron?
I picked 1984, that launch, because that Mac was the first one that Steve really felt was his. It wasn’t Woz’s or anyone else’s. And he really thought this was going to be his hit song. And it didn’t work out that way. There were other things around that time I liked. Steve was still denying paternity of Lisa, and I wanted to show that. Then in 1988, that’s the king in exile, and the third act as was the king’s return.
BI: You’ve become the go-to guy when it comes to creating landmarks films that showcase how technology changes everything. Is it because you love technology, or is someone really good at talking you into writing these?
There’s a bit of the second, because I am not a technophile by any means. I have and use the devices, but I generally have to ask for help with something. I’m not somebody who sleeps on the street for five nights when the iPhone 6 comes out.
BI: Do you think these stories grab people because you aren’t coming at them with a real geek knowledge?
I think so. But if you line up ten writers and asked them to each write a movie about Steve Jobs, you’ll get ten different and good movies. We’re well on our way to proving that, by the way. And I think some of those movies, if they were written by people who were really are passionate about technology, would have perhaps focused more on the genius that went into, say, developing the iPod, for example.
BI: A popular comment that comes up about this movie is that Michael Fassbender looks nothing like Steve Jobs. Danny, was that ever a concern?
Boyle: No, we were very clear right from the get-go that this wasn’t about a physical impersonation at all. It was about inhabiting, it’s almost Shakespearean. He’s historically accurate to a degree, but then he is our version of him and there will be other versions. It was kind of taking some facts, dispensing with many others — which would have blurred the path to investigating the man, really — and letting him move to a self-knowledge which he does gain by the end.
Sorkin: I think in the first 15 minutes of my first meeting with Danny we both talked about this, and I was delighted that Danny felt as I did, that there should be no attempt to make him look like Jobs. But in this movie it just isn’t important. The fact that he doesn’t, I think, is one of the things that signals to the audience that this is a painting and not a photograph. This isn’t probably what you expected to see when you came into the theatre.
BI: Because this is not a true biopic, Aaron, what was gained by meeting with people like Steve Wozniak, Lisa Nicole Brennan-Jobs, and John Sculley?
At first I didn’t know what I was looking for. I would ask them questions that I hoped would get them to tell stories. And if there was something in that story that I wanted to chase after I would.
Lisa was by far the most important person I spoke to. Lisa didn’t speak to Walter Isaacson when Walter was writing the book because her father was alive at the time. But she was willing to speak to me and I was really grateful for that. And she was able to tell stories about her father that weren’t necessarily flattering stories, but she would tell the story and then show me how you could see he really did love her. Hearing her talk like that really made me want to write about this father-daughter relationship.
Sitting with Woz, he presents himself as a very happy guy. Not a care in the world. He’s fine not having had Steve’s ambition, he’s fine not having had Steve’s rockstar persona, he likes a work bench, that’s where he wanted to be. That’s the way Woz is for about 10 minutes. Then without much prodding at all you begin to feel like you’re talking to Garfunkel who is talking about Paul Simon. And that’s when I knew there was a point of friction that I absolutely wanted to write about.
Meeting with John Scully, he hadn’t talked to anyone really since leaving Apple in ’86. But he got remarried a few years ago, to a woman named Diane, who has sort of made it her job to get John back out there in the world and set the record straight about what really happened on that rainy night [when Jobs was, as he tells it, fired from Apple]. So in John there was a man who suddenly had a story to tell. I thought it was a fantastic point of friction that would certainly be dramatized.
So looking at all of these things I thought, “Gee, if I can collect enough of them and if they all go together the right way, this three-act format that I want is so crazy it might just work.”
BI: After making this movie, how do you two see Steve Jobs the man?
My heroes are slightly different, I have to say. I mean he’s an extraordinary character to work on, but my heroes are other people — the Wikipedia guys, Tim Berners-Lee, who partly invented the World Wide Web and then put it in a trust so no other corporation could ever own it.
Because there are questions about knowledge and power that obviously Jobs would argue. This was his argument with Woz, to develop it you have to monetise it, you have to make it part of the business world. And then there are others who say it’s too powerful, it’s too important for everyone. In one of Jobs’ past speeches he said, “Imagine if this power was in everyone’s hands.” It’s how you get it in everyone’s hands that we all ague about. He’s still a mystery to me. And he should stay one, you don’t solve it.
I agree with everything Danny said, but you ask that question and I think about what I would ask Steve if he were still alive. If he would give me an honest answer I would ask, “Why did you pretend you didn’t name the computer after Lisa?” I can’t fathom. Any other father, if they hadn’t named it after their daughter would lie and say they did. I just can’t fathom it.
“Steve Jobs” opens in theatres on Friday.
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