An underdog story of a woman becoming successful in an industry that is filled with men.
Molly’s Game, based on the true story of a young, charismatic Olympic-hopeful skier and ‘Poker Princess’ who was arrested in the middle of the night by 17 FBI agents wielding automatic weapons, marks the directorial debut of renowned playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.
Although Bloom’s 2014 memoir ends with her FBI arrest, the story of how Molly’s Game got to the big screen begins before Bloom even realized her reign was ending. When Bloom was still running a game at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, she met Executive Producer Leopoldo Gout at a party.
Gout was working on his first novel, and Bloom’s story piqued his interest.“ She was an extraordinarily smart woman in a man’s world, and that’s what really hooked me,” Gout says.
Gout introduced her to his publisher, and Bloom got a book deal, but her arrest put the deal on hold.
When the trial was over, Gout and Bloom shopped the book around Hollywood and though there was a lot of interest, nothing seemed right until Producer Mark Gordon got a call from Ken Hertz, Molly’s lawyer, and Pete Micelli, her agent at CAA. “I heard that Aaron was reading the book as well, so I reached out to Aaron and proposed working on the project together,” Gordon says.
Initially, however, Sorkin had reservations about turning Bloom’s book into a film, mostly because of the players who had come to her table. She keeps most of the names confidential to protect their private lives, yet Sorkin still worried about the implications. “I know some of the people you’ve written about. I’ve worked with some. Others, I’d like to work with,” Sorkin says. “A couple of them are friends of mine. And there’s no way I’m going to write a movie that gossips about them or about anybody.”
Today Sorkin is glad Bloom wasn’t taken aback by his attitude in that first meeting and that she continued to explain more of her story. “Fifteen minutes later, I desperately wanted to write this movie because I discovered that she paid a high price for taking the same position that was costing me nothing.”
Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain), a young, charismatic Olympic-hopeful skier who was forced to abandon athletics after a devastating injury. With law school on hold, Molly takes a summer job that introduces her to a new endeavor requiring similar discipline and drive: running the world’s most exclusive high-stakes underground poker game. The deep pockets of Hollywood royalty, sports stars and business titans give her a decade of glitzy, glamourous success, but Molly attracts the wrong kind of attention when she inadvertently engages members of the Russian mob at her table. Her streak comes to a grinding halt when she’s arrested in the middle of the night by 17 FBI agents wielding automatic weapons. Facing criminal charges, her only ally is her reluctant defense lawyer (Idris Elba), who discovers that there’s much more to Molly Bloom than the salacious tabloid stories reveal.
Getting The Story Right
Sorkin’s certainty about the material helped speed up the writing process. “Usually when I sign on to do a movie, it’s a bit of a blind date. There will be something that interests me, but I have no idea what I’m going to do, so there are months of climbing the walls until I crack it. With Molly’s Game, in the five minutes it took me to drive home, I had the whole movie.”
Sorkin found the story he wanted to tell within the details Bloom neglected to include in her book, a process of discovery reflected in Idris Elba’s character, criminal defense lawyer Charlie Jaffey: “You finished the book before you got to the good part.”
Charlie reads the book and notices some glaring omissions, such as poker games lasting for days without any mention of drug use, and no discussion of the Russian mobsters whose involvement led to Bloom’s arrest. Bloom also rarely talks about her family, particularly her complicated relationship with her father, who was instrumental in pushing her and her two brothers in athletics and academics.
Sorkin’s understanding of Molly unfolds in much the same way as Charlie’s. She’s been dubbed the Poker Princess by the tabloids, and Charlie thinks she’s been actively seeking the publicity for her own gain. “I saw an opportunity to create a character who was asking a lot of the same questions of her that that I was asking,” Sorkin explains. “For example, why was she arrested in the middle of the night by FBI agents wielding automatic weapons as if she were a dangerous person?” Although Charlie is a fictional version of her lawyer, Sorkin notes that “Molly did have a criminal defense lawyer, and when she talks about him, it’s with great respect, reverence and affection. Molly even said he was really the first man she’d met who was honorable.”
Although poker drives the plot, the resonance of the story comes from Bloom’s strength, inner character and ability to beat whatever system she challenges by remaining true to herself. “I saw this as an emotional story and the kind of story I like to tell, with a quixotic sense of right and wrong.” Her personal journey, her crucial relationship with her lawyer, and her refusal to give up her former clients are the heart of the story.
“She was holding the winning lottery ticket,” Sorkin says. “She could have been rich and famous simply by telling the truth, but she wouldn’t do it. I really admire that, and the movie admires that.”
Pascal says Sorkin’s ability to bring depth to characters elevates Molly’s Game.
“Aaron loves heroes and he finds the beauty in people not everyone sees at first glance,” says Pascal. “It’s a character study,
and no one does it better than Aaron.”
Bloom’s fantastic sense of humor and sky-high IQ also impressed Sorkin, but mostly, he says, “I found Molly Bloom to be a truly unique movie heroine.” He laughs at the thought that he wanted his daughter to meet “someone who has pled guilty to a federal crime.”
But as Sorkin listened to Bloom, he thought she represented an extraordinary role model for young women.
Over the next two years, Sorkin heard more of the stories that Bloom had excluded from the book, and then he spent roughly a year writing the screenplay. He wove in the narrative background, broke away from a linear chronological structure, and refocused Molly’s story in his script. The movie includes material from the book, which is incorporated as a character of sorts, but stands as its own story.
And while Molly’s Game is biographical, Sorkin was careful to fictionalize the secondary characters.
“It’s always been important to me that nobody be inclined to play a detective game with the movie and try to figure out which character is supposed to be which real-life personality. So everyone is a compilation.”
Academy-Award® winning writer and renowned playwright Aaron Sorkin graduated from Syracuse University with a B.F.A. in Theatre. He made his Broadway playwriting debut at the age of 28 with the military courtroom drama A Few Good Men, for which he received the John Gassner Award as “Outstanding New American Playwright.” The following year saw the debut of his off-Broadway play Making Movies, and in 2007 he returned to Broadway with The Farnsworth Invention, directed by Des McAnuff.
In 1993, Mr. Sorkin’s film adaptation of A Few Good Men was nominated for four Academy Awards. He followed this success with the screenplays for Malice, The American President, and Charlie Wilson’s War.
In 2011, Mr. Sorkin won the Academy Award, Golden Globe, Critics Choice, and British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award (BAFTA) for “Best Adapted Screenplay” for The Social Network. In addition, he also won the Writers Guild Award and the USC Scripter Award.
In 2012, Mr. Sorkin adapted Moneyball along with Steve Zaillian and story by Stan Chervin, and wrote the feature film Steve Jobs, based on the Walter Isaacson biography of the late Apple co-founder.
For television, Mr. Sorkin created and produced the NBC series “The West Wing,” which earned nine Emmy® nominations in its first season and the series went on to win a total of 26 Emmy® Awards, including the prize for “Outstanding Drama Series” four consecutive times. He also produced and wrote the television series “Sports Night” for ABC, which won the Humanitas Prize, the Television Critics Association Award, and garnered eight Emmy® nominations.
Additionally, Mr. Sorkin created the series “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” In 2012, Sorkin made his return to television with the HBO drama “The Newsroom,” bringing in an average of 7 million viewers per episode.
In addition to Molly’s Game, Sorkin is currently in various stages of production on two exciting and notable projects, To Kill a Mockingbird for Broadway and the NBC live presentation of “A Few Good Men.”
In February 2016, it was announced that he will be writing a stage adaptation of Harper Lee’s iconic American novel To Kill a Mockingbird, set to show during the 2017-2018 season, with Scott Rudin producing. The production will be staged by Tony-nominated director Bartlett Sher.
Sorkin’s Directorial Debut
As a playwright and screenwriter, Sorkin has always enjoyed being close to what he writes throughout the process, including as showrunner on “The West Wing,” So, “When I sat down to write Molly’s Game, directing it was the last thing on my mind,” Sorkin
reflects, adding, “It is the most visual thing that I’ve written, and that’s not my comfort zone.” But he says he started leaning toward taking on the challenge of directing because he “was having a lot of difficulty describing what was in my head to the studio, to the
producers, to friends, even to Bloom. I was starting every conversation by saying ‘This isn’t the movie you think it’s going to be.’ But then I couldn’t describe what it was going to be, even though I was seeing it so clearly in my head.”
The producers knew immediately that Sorkin was the perfect person to direct Molly’s Game. Gordon recalls, “He was so engaged with the project, like in everything he does, and it really felt like he was ready to direct.”
Adds producer Matt Jackson, “It was so personal to Aaron. The idea that it’s a story about a woman competing in an all-male world was something that spoke to him.”
As much as Sorkin as a director and writer wanted to focus on the underlying emotion in Bloom’s story, he knew that above all else, the poker scenes had to feel as real as possible. “I did a lot of research on poker to make sure that the details are right,” he says.
“We have terrific professional players as consultants at every step. Our dealers are professional dealers. Even the extras playing in the games are professional poker players. You do not have to be a poker fan to enjoy the movie, but poker fans will appreciate its authenticity.” Through tactile poker scenes, we see Molly as a character learning—but not playing—the game and honing her ability to manage people.
In addition to surrounding himself with talent behind the camera, Sorkin was able to attract an all-star cast that includes Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom, Idris Elba as Charlie Jaffey, and Kevin Costner as Molly’s father.
Says Chastain, “It’s wonderful working with a director who’s both a writer and director because it really is their vision of the story. Aaron’s been friends with Molly for a long time, he knows her very well and he’s very protective of her story. And I’m not sure that he actually would have ever felt comfortable handing the screenplay over to another director. I can’t imagine anyone else directing the story.”
Chastain says seeing Aaron Sorkin’s name on the screenplay was a big draw for her. “He’s one of our greatest writers, if not the greatest writer in the American film industry,” she says, adding, “I loved Molly’s humor, I loved her intelligence, I loved the underdog story—a woman becoming successful in an industry that is filled with men. And I liked the real Molly Bloom.”
Says Elba of working with Sorkin, “I’ve always been a huge fan of Aaron’s writing, both his TV work on shows like The West Wing and then of course the incredible films he’s written from A Few Good Men to The Social Network to Moneyball, Jobs—he is truly one of the most prolific and distinguished, if not the most distinguished, writer of our time. So I really leapt at the chance to work with him, and then to have this be his directorial debut and be a part of that process was a remarkable opportunity. It was such a fascinating experience to work with Aaron—he has such a distinct voice and evolved point of view, and really gives you the space as an actor to find your voice in inhabiting the characters that he writes.”
Because he was a first-time feature film director, Sorkin knew that putting together the right crew would be key to his success. “Movies are made by a couple of hundred people,” he says, “and if you’re a first time director, nothing is more important than those people being the best couple of hundred people that you can get your hands on.”
Sorkin credits his collaborators on Molly’s Game as “nothing less than co-authors of the film.”
As a writer, Sorkin admits his work “has been wall-to-wall language,” so he relished the opportunity to explore the visual challenge of Molly’s Game. “What do you look at when Molly in voice over is telling us exactly what she’s thinking and feeling? What do you point the camera at when she’s already describing what we’re looking at?”
The one with the answers to those questions was cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (Fences, Girl on the Train). When Sorkin met with her, Christensen had read the script and talked insightfully about how things should work. “It was like she was reading my mind, but putting it into literal film terms that could be articulated to a camera operator,” Sorkin explains. “I loved everything she was saying, and I don’t see how I could have made the movie without Charlotte. We made it together.”
Christensen understood Sorkin’s vision for the film from the beginning. “Poker is the setting, but we want a portrait of Molly Bloom,” Christensen says. “It’s about her capacity and her intellect and her ambition. It’s a big job to make a character real and alive, and I feel that passion in Jessica’s work.”