Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin talks about writing Steve Jobs

A provocative journey into Steve Jobs

In the provocative and stimulating Steve Jobs, Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin takes us backstage to paint a painfully human portrait of the late Apple icon.

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Director Danny Boyle, actor Michael Fassbinder and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin

In the past five years alone Sorkin has won an Oscar for writing David Fincher’s The Social Network, earned a second nomination (alongside Steven Zaillian and Stan Chervin) for Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, and churned out three seasons of the social-media-fueled The Newsroom.

Now, with Steve Jobs, the 54-year-old is daring to go where several writers have gone before—it’s the latest in at least a dozen films about the late Apple cofounder (and the third to be released this year).

Staged as three distinct acts—each taking place backstage at a major product launch (the Macintosh in 1984, NeXT in 1988, and the iMac in 1998)—the film is an adaptation of Walter Isaacson’s comprehensive (and Jobs-authorized) biography.

But don’t call it a biopic. “Walter’s biography had to be about what happened,” Sorkin says. “It had to be a piece of journalism. When I write something, there is actually a requirement to be subjective; it’s really the difference between a photograph and a painting.”

At a press conference, Sorkin spoke about finding the balance between real life and entertainment in taking on a 21st-century icon.

How did your involvement in writing Steve Jobs begin?

i had just done The Social Network and Moneyball for Sony, with Scott Rudin producing. Amy Pascal, who at the time was the co-chairperson at Sony, called and said, “We want you to adapt Walter Isaacson’s book.” I sort of immediately began shaking. Scott is very good at talking me into things when I’m nervous about doing them, and I said yes.

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Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin

What made you so worried?

I’m nervous before I do anything. It’s just standing at the bottom of a mountain and looking up with no clear path of how you’re going to get to the top. But in this case, it was particularly daunting for me as I didn’t know that much about Steve Jobs, and the idea of doing a biopic was daunting.

How did you get past that?

I work very slowly, and the first couple of months are spent just pacing around, climbing the walls, and saying, “I have no idea what I’m going to do. I don’t know how to do this.” It was in that period that I decided not to write a biopic.

Why not?

When you’re doing a biopic, it’s very hard to shake the cradle-to-grave structure that audiences are so familiar with. People are going to come into the theater knowing that first we’re going to see a little boy with his father, and he’s looking into the window of the electronics store, and then we’re going to hit these famous signposts along the way in Steve Jobs’ life. Also, I’m not really a screenwriter; I’m a playwright who pretends to be a screenwriter. I’m most comfortable writing in claustrophobic pieces of geography and periods of time.

In reading about the trouble they were having getting the Mac to say “Hello” at the 1984 launch, I got this idea, and I wrote an email to Scott saying, “If I had no one to answer to, I would write this entire movie in three real-time scenes, and each one would take place backstage before a particular product launch. I would identify five or six conflicts in Steve’s life and have those conflicts play themselves out in these scenes backstage—in places where they didn’t take place.”

Walter Isaacson’s biography is extremely comprehensive. How much did you rely on the text and the interviews in the book in crafting your script?

Obviously Walter’s book was invaluable. Also invaluable though was the time I spent with the actual people—with Steve Wozniak and Joanna Hoffman and several dozen others, but in particular with John Sculley and Steve’s daughter Lisa.

What surprised you most in reading the book and getting to know more about Jobs—the things that stuck out to you that you wanted to include?

There were two things that I wanted to try to get my arms around. One had to do with Lisa. I’m the father of a daughter too, and it was hard for me at first to get past Steve’s treatment of his daughter—the denial of paternity and so forth. But what started out as this huge obstacle became a great engine for writing the movie, because Steve would find his way to being a father, which was great.

The book Steve Jobs is a masterful piece of journalism. A movie can’t be that. Charlie Wilson’s War, with Mike Nichols, was the first nonfiction that I wrote, and there was this thing that Mike would repeat to me: “Art isn’t about what happened.” That sunk in.

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For as much as the movie is about one of the great tech icons, technology is really just a supporting character. You describe yourself as technologically illiterate, yet with this movie and The Social Network and Moneyball, you seem to …

This isn’t an origin story or an invention story. It’s not about how the Mac was invented. And The Social Network wasn’t about the technology that went into creating Facebook. Nonetheless, I knew that there was going to be no way I could write this movie without a lot of tutors. There are lines that I wrote in the movie that I don’t understand.

There have been a number of other movies made about Steve Jobs, from Pirates of Silicon Valley to Alex Gibney’s new documentary. Did you look at those movies at all to see what has already been done?

I haven’t seen Pirates of Silicon Valley. By design, I did not see Jobs, the Ashton Kutcher movie, because I wanted to be able to say I haven’t seen it. But I rely on people who have seen those films to tell me if I just wrote a scene that was in another movie.

How curious are you about the audience response? The film doesn’t necessarily paint Steve Jobs in the most flattering light, and not everyone is going to expect—or want—that.

There are going to be people who say we were rough on him, and there are going to be people who say we weren’t rough enough on him. But I think we made a good movie, and I think that if you asked 10 writers to write 10 movies about Steve Jobs, you’d get 10 different movies that wouldn’t resemble one another.

What do you consider a biopic?

A biopic would be a cradle-to-grave story. It would be something much closer to a Wikipedia page dramatized. Do you remember the movie from a few years ago, The Queen, with Helen Mirren? That wasn’t the biopic about Queen Elizabeth. She was at the center of the movie, but it’s about six days in Queen Elizabeth’s life. Similarly, by the same writer coincidentally, Peter Morgan, the movie Frost/Nixon is not a biography of Richard Nixon. We get a window into a part of Richard Nixon, but it’s specifically about those interviews with him.

So when approaching this, even though the source material was a comprehensive biography, a piece of journalism from a very well-credentialed journalist, I didn’t think the best movie I could write would simply take, in chronological order, the greatest hits of Steve Jobs’ life, from when he was a boy, to when he and Woz said, “Hey, let’s start a company in my parents’ garage!” through to his diagnosis. So before I knew what I wanted to do, I knew what I didn’t want to do and that was write a biopic.

Was the choice you did make — a three-act structure built around three product launches — done mainly in service of telling a story for the movie, or did you feel it was the best way to get at Steve Jobs?

Both, really. I wanted to do a new take on Steve Jobs, since a biography is available in a number of forms, whether it was Walter’s book, Alex Gibney’s documentary. . . any number of articles written by you and any number of other journalists. I didn’t want to do something strictly journalistic because that’s not what I’m good at and that’s not why you would come to me.

Steve Jobs 11So while I was trying to think of what I did want to do, I spent a lot of time talking to people who had been very close to Steve: all of the people who are represented by characters in the movie, except of course Steve, and several dozen others. And points of friction began to reveal themselves that I thought were interesting. Points of friction between Steve and Woz, between Steve and Chrisann Brennan, between Steve and John Sculley. And to me, most interestingly, most emotionally, between Steve and his eldest daughter, Lisa. So I started thinking about how can I dramatize these points of friction.

And I am most comfortable as a playwright really, which is what I know. I’m sort of faking my way through movies and television. As a playwright I like claustrophobic spaces, I like condensed periods of time, especially if there is a ticking clock. And I like being behind the scenes, in this case literally behind the scenes.

Steve Jobs8So after stumbling across a fairly benign piece of information — which was that during rehearsals for the launch for the Mac in ’84, they couldn’t get it to say hello and scrambled around trying to fix that — that’s when I got the idea. I need to look for an intention and an obstacle. What if I make that the intention and obstacle of the first act? And begin hanging the stuff that really interests me, these points of friction in Steve’s life? I start hanging them, like on a clothesline, throughout the first act, and I would have to do the same thing in the second and the third. Obviously Steve did not have confrontations with the same five people 40 minutes before every product launch that he did. That’s plainly a writer’s conflict. But the content of those confrontations is real.

This isn’t The Steve Jobs Story. And it was never intended to give you all the facts about Steve’s life. And your first clue to that — because I want to make sure that the audience wasn’t mistaking it for anything else — is that we made no attempt to have the actor in any way do a physical impersonation of Steve Jobs. He doesn’t look like Steve Jobs, we didn’t ask him to speak like Steve Jobs. There is a joke about “insanely great” but I didn’t write in any of the Jobs-isms. It’s just not that movie.

I disagree. I mostly in this movie ask questions that aren’t answered. Is it binary — can you be a genius and decent at the same time? What did Steve do? Those questions go unanswered. It’s interesting because in the final scene with Lisa on the rooftop when Steve tells her that Lisa, the computer, was named after her, she says, “Why did you say it wasn’t all these years?” And Steve’s line is, “I honestly don’t know.” I told Michael Fassbender, the actor, in rehearsal that that line, “I honestly don’t know,” is the most honest thing Steve says in this entire movie. So I would say to you that I did not come up with answers, I just thought interesting questions.

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