Monday, 31 January 2011

postheadericon Aaron Sorkin Q&A – Room at the Cool Kids' Table?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that no matter how cool the party you’re at there’s always a better one going on somewhere that you can’t get into. According to Aaron Sorkin, (who gave a Q&A at the BFI recently courtesy of The Script Factory), this common human suspicion; that we don’t quite belong, has been part of what’s driven his writing since starting out as a shy kid up in his room. Even now, when he’s well within the inner sanctum of Hollywood he admits to thinking the guys on Entourage seem to be having a much better time of it than him. This despite the fact that he’s actually been on Entourage, playing himself, more than once!

When researching and writing The Social Network, (currently nominated for 8 Oscars and 6 BAFTAS), it was this feeling that became his way in to the character of Mark Zuckerberg (Founder of Facebook), allowing Sorkin to find common human ground with his central anti-hero. To me this seems like a perfect, revealing example of how the writing process works and how a writer’s psychology interweaves with that of their characters. You can’t really bring characters to life unless you can get inside their skin and find a motivation you connect with. Then as you invest part of yourself in them, so comes a glimpse of that all important writer’s voice.

Sitting in the audience at the Q&A I wondered how many writers, and creatively driven people of all types, might recognise and share a little of Sorkin’s motivation to belong. If you do, you can now be assured you’re in good company! Here are some other things Aaron Sorkin shared during the Q&A:

The Social Network is not really an adapted Screenplay
Despite being nominated in this category at the Oscars and BAFTAs, Sorkin didn’t actually have a completed book to adapt from when writing the screenplay, only a book proposal. When the book proposal came in it was decided that the book and the film should be written and come out around the same time to capitalise best on the mutual promotion. Therefore Sorkin and the author of the book were both researching and writing their versions independently. This left the playing field wide open in terms of how to interpret the research materials when writing the screenplay – a challenge when you think about all the available research.

The research process
The research included a combination of openly available material, masses of legal documents from the two different legal challenges that Zuckerberg faced and access to a number of anonymous, first person accounts from sources very close to the key players in the narrative. Neither Zuckerberg nor Eduardo Saverin contributed to the research. Zuckerberg was asked but declined involvement, much to Sorkin’s relief, as this wouldn’t have left him as much room for interpretation as he wanted; biasing the story too much in one direction. Saverin is legally bound not to comment, (on forfeit of considerable money), so was MIA for the period the film was being written and produced; presumably to ensure there was no possible doubt that he kept schtum.

To give you a sense of how close the anonymous sources were, Sorkin said that in one of the opening scenes where Zuckerberg is creating facemash.com in his college dorm room, the screenplay has him coming in and fixing himself a glass of spirit with a mixer, as this is visually interesting. However, from the research sources they definitely knew that he was drinking Becks beer from a bottle that Thursday night, years ago, even though there were only about four other people in the room. So director David Fincher made sure they changed it to Becks.

The Writing Process
After doing his in-depth research, reading all the documents, speaking to lots of sources, Sorkin still had to come up with his own way to handle the material. Producer Scott Rudin gave Sorkin the freedom to write the movie he wanted to write. Since three very different sides to the same story came out through the legal depositions and documents, Sorkin’s decision was to write the screenplay from these three perspectives, giving us a window into how things looked from all sides. Of course he had to make his own interpretation of the motives of each of the parties involved, but this is the space in which the writer is able to invest themselves.

Sorkin shared an anecdote about writer Peter Shaffer. On arriving at a destination once, he heard of an horrific event that had just occurred where a stable boy had stabbed out the eyes of a horse. Shaffer wondered why the boy had done it, but then immediately said, ‘No don’t tell me; I’d rather come up with it myself’ (and so resulted Equus). This was exactly how Sorkin felt about representing the motives of his leading players.

Once he also found his way in to the character of Zuckerberg he then shortly came up with his opening sequences, establishing what centrally drives Zuckerberg at the same time as taking us into the actions that first made him infamous at Harvard.

The opening scene of the film is a nine page dialogue scene of two people sat talking at a bar. This is an unusual thing to get away with as an opening scene. However, the audience are launched straight in to the middle of a fast moving conversation in a noisy bar and asked to lean in and pay close attention to make sure we keep up with what’s going on. Sorkin says he likes to assume the audience are at least as intelligent as him and likes to challenge us to have to sit up, pay attention, so we know from the outset we aren’t going to be able to just lay back and let it wash over us; we’re going to have to get involved.

The Production Process
According to Sorkin the script had one of the most straightforward journeys to the screen he has ever experienced. He delivered his draft and within hours it was green lit. It went out to David Fincher, the one director on their list, and within hours he called up to say he was on board.

It might be seen to be an unusual marriage of writer and director; a writer known for doing ‘people talking in rooms’, with a highly visual director. However, Sorkin thinks this sensibility is what allows Fincher to make people sitting at computers feel like exciting action.


Fincher agreed to the project with the stipulation that they went ahead and make the film right away so that there was no chance for the script to get mucked about in a lengthy and unnecessary development process. The script that was filmed was more or less the same one Sorkin delivered; he and Fincher just worked together going over the finer detail.

The screenplay was 162 pages long and there was the danger that Sorkin would be forced to cut about 30 pages. However, Fincher got together with Sorkin and a stopwatch. He asked him to read through the script exactly at the pace he saw things going, including, of course, the speed at which any long speeches or dialogue exchanges would go. At the end of all that the total time came out at 1 hour 59 minutes. Fincher kept the stopwatch for the shoot and timed all the scenes and if they were playing too long and didn’t match up he got the actors to talk faster until they came out at the right speed. The finished film is therefore 1hr, 59mins.

What do the key players think of the film?
Mark Zuckerberg hired out a theatre and took all his Facebook staff to see the film. His response was that; ‘I liked the parts I agreed with’. Eduardo Saverin asked for an opportunity to see the film and when he came out he was apparently too emotionally stunned by seeing such a difficult time of his life re-enacted that he was unable to express much, but apparently approved. The Winklevoss brothers have apparently seen the film a number of times and are fans.

How did Sorkin overcome the potential legal minefield of the subject matter?
Sorkin’s viewpoint is that if you’re going to write about real people who are still alive then what you require is a good, ‘inner moral compass that says; first do no harm. You can’t play fast and loose with people’s lives. Of course if your inner moral compass is broken there’s always the Sony legal department to help you out.’ He added, ‘We’re talking about a group of people who aren’t opposed to suing. If I had said anything untrue or defamatory you’d know because Mark Zuckerberg would own Sony.’

The author’s voice
An audience member mentioned a line that stood out for him in the film when someone says; ‘Private behaviour is a relic of the past’. Was this Sorkin’s viewpoint? He admitted to disapproving of the age of reality TV where everyone’s lives are a potential source of entertainment and derision and knew that putting in a line like this was a bit like saying; ‘and now a note from the author’. Should he be injecting his own personal opinions or should he be faithful to these characters? However, in the end all writers inject themselves into their scripts; ‘you want to; it’s why you’re doing it’.

Which I guess brings us neatly back to about where we started.

Hot off the success of the Golden Globes it’s not much of a leap to work out why Sorkin was here in the UK at this time. Apparently his father has said that he won’t believe his son’s a proper writer until the British approve of him. So getting that BAFTA in the bag might well be high on the shopping list for a man who continues to suspect that he doesn’t quite yet belong. It may not be the ‘healthiest’ way to live, but if you share this feeling that you have your nose pressed up against the glass watching other people on the inside – like Sorkin! - having all the fun, maybe it’s part of what drives your writing too and you never know where that might take you…

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Sarah Olley
Hello. I'm a UK based script editor, development producer and writer working in film and TV. You can visit my professional website at: www.scriptsurgery.co.uk and the developers' group I co-host and organise at: indevelopmentuk.blogspot.com
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