Aaron Sorkin: ‘The best storytellers on the planet are Irish’
The screenwriter of ‘The Social Network’ makes his directorial debut with Molly's Game
Alison Janney, an alumnus of The West Wing, recently told me that she wished she could have Aaron Sorkin in an earpiece all the time. “I’d sound so smart,” she said.
He’s certainly no slouch. In London ahead of the Bafta screening of Molly’s Game, Sorkin, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Social Network and creator of the popular political series The West Wing straightens in his chair and almost steeples his fingers.
“No question. I wish I was Irish; let me tell you why. The best storytellers on the planet are Irish. And because a few years ago the Abbey Theatre commissioned me to write a play. That play was The Farnsworth Convention, which premiered not at the Abbey, but on Broadway, because the mandate changed and they wanted Irish writers writing about the Irish experience. And I’m a Jewish guy writing about an American inventor. I wasn’t qualified anymore.”
Sorkin smiles: “But I will earn my way back to the Abbey.”
One of the things I was able to do – because of my family – was to phonetically recreate the sound of a conflict
That shouldn’t be too difficult for one of the rare “name” screenwriters in the film business. Even without the trademark Sorkin “walk and talk” tracking shots he and regular director Thomas Schlamme perfected during The West Wing, there’s a distinctive, rapid-fire, post-Mametian quality to his banter. The sound of Sorkin. He’s tickled by the idea.
“I hear a lot and read a lot that I have a distinctive writing style. And I always thought it was a fairly, standard, middle-of-the-road style of writing, as opposed to, say, David Mamet, who has a magnificent way of creating conversation between two people who are terrible at communicating. Or Sam Shepard; none of his characters can communicate, and he handles that beautifully. My characters are hyper-communicative. They have no problems in that area. I love the sound of dialogue. I love language. I also know that, growing up, at our dinner table anyone who used one word when they could have used 10 wasn’t trying hard enough. And my writing comes from that.”
Aaron Sorkin grew up in the New York suburb of Scarsdale. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father was a copyright lawyer and second World War veteran. His paternal grandfather was a founder of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. Both his siblings are lawyers.
“I’m the youngest,” he says. “And I can tell you that everyone else in the family is smarter than I am. When I was a kid my friends were all smarter than me. I think I was their mascot or something. Our dinner conversation was argument. I mean a good, civil argument. It might be a discussion of something that my dad was working on, or my brother who became a prosecutor, or my sister who starting working for the government. Where the passion lay was in founding the counter-argument. So when I became a writer, one of the things that I liked doing and one of the things I was able to do – because of my family – was to phonetically recreate the sound of a conflict."
When I have a movie coming out, I am still as excited as I was back in high school, at my drama club
Sorkin initially hoped to be an actor. He was passionate about his high school drama club, and graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in musical theatre. His between-jobs jobs included singing musical telegrams and bartending in Broadway theatres. He wrote A Few Good Men on cocktail napkins during the first acts of La Cage aux Folles at the Palace Theatre, never dreaming that it would see him walking the red carpet alongside Jack Nicholson, Tom Cruise and Demi Moore. It was a surreal experience, he says.
“I only ever wanted to be a professional writer. I loved movies and television as much as anyone else. But, for some reason, never thought about going to Los Angeles. I grew up in New York. I grew up going to see plays. I only wanted to be a professional playwright. I only ever wanted to be able to pay my bills, not pay for my country house. I just wanted enough to cover my one-bedroom apartment and my phone bill. So red carpet with Nicholson and Cruise was never part of my imagination.”
He gestures around our table. “This interview with you, in a London hotel? Not part of my imagination. I still haven’t gotten used to any of this. When I have a movie coming out or a piece of television about to come out, I am still as excited as I was back in high school, at my drama club on Friday nights.”
Sorkin’s screenplay for A Few Good Men was inspired by his sister Deborah’s legal defence of a group of Marines who came close to killing a fellow Marine in a “hazing” ordered by a superior officer. Like the rest of his family, he’s thorough with his briefs. When he signed on to adapt Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires (into The Social Network), the book was just a 14-page proposal. Sorkin researched the story himself, meeting many of the main players and studying the legal cases. There’s something of his upbringing, too, in his high-minded fictional creations: the brave, paternal president Bartlet (Martin Sheen) in The West Wing or the idealistic military lawyer Lieutenant Daniel Kaffee in A Few Good Men (Tom Cruise).
“That would mostly come from my father,” beams Sorkin proudly. “My father died a year ago, this month, at 94. He lived a fantastic life that was anchored entirely by a strong sense of right and wrong. I never talk about this stuff, but it’s always important that I write something that I think my father would approve of. Morally, all the drama comes from there. What’s the right thing to do? That’s not going to change now that he’s gone.”
Strangely, Molly Bloom – the “poker princess” at the heart of Sorkin’s newest film, Molly’s Game – may be the most ethical Sorkin character yet. Bloom (as essayed by Jessica Chastain) was a champion skier who went on to run the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker tables. Her $250,000-entry-fee games brought together Hollywood A-listers and mobsters, and ultimately attracted the interest of the FBI. Some of her players, including Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire, are known; others are not.
Many famous film-makers – notably David Fincher (The Social Network), Danny Boyle (Jobs), Bennett Miller (Moneyball), and Warren Beatty (Bulworth) – have directed Sorkin’s screenplays. Molly’s Game represents his own directorial debut. It’s not the most obvious choice for a screenwriter who has previously written the biopics of such world-devourers as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.
“Of those people that you mentioned, she’s certainly the least famous,” nods Sorkin. “And the least wealthy. She’s not running Apple like Steve Jobs. She’s not fighting the Communists like Charlie Wilson. But she is by far the most heroic. It would have been so much more easier, so much more profitable, for her to do the wrong thing instead of the right thing. It would have guaranteed her freedom. I was struck by her integrity and her simple decency, I always feel like when you come face-to-face with decency you know it. Today more than ever.”
It’s not just the subject that makes Molly’s Game an idiosyncratic choice for Sorkin’s directorial bow – it’s the presentation. Few would have expected one the pre-eminent screenwriters of our age to incorporate quite so much voiceover into his movie debut.
“Before Molly’s Game I always looked down my nose at voiceover,” confesses Sorkin. “I always regarded it as cheating, as being in the same category as pointing a camera at TV news to provide an announcement. But I thought of the film as being Molly’s TED talk. It’s her point of view but she doesn’t know how the story ends. Just like when Molly finished her own book; she didn’t know that the FBI was going to come knocking on her door two years later. That was my justification. So I’m fully onboard with voiceover now.”
Interestingly, many American commentators and critics have characterised Molly’s Game – a film in which the heroine succeeds in what is most definitely a creepy man’s world – as a post-Weinstein film. Last November, in an open letter to his 15-year-old daughter Roxy and her mother, Julia, Sorkin responded to the election of Donald Trump: “It’s hardly the first time my candidate didn’t win (in fact it’s the sixth time) but it is the first time that a thoroughly incompetent pig with dangerous ideas, a serious psychiatric disorder, no knowledge of the world and no curiosity to learn has.”
Molly’s Game, too, was inspired by his daughter.
“A poker table is an unlikely place to find your hero,” he says. “But Molly’s strength and the way that she navigated around the world’s most powerful men – many of whom were kind of lousy to her – was genuinely moving. There’s no question that her story has more resonance right now. But I would certainly happily trade the timing of the movie for a world in which Weinstein and Trump were irrelevant.”
Molly’s Game opens January 1st
Eleven rules of screenwriting from Aaron Sorkin
1. Throw your audience into the deep end
Sorkin points to the famously nippy conversation at the beginning of The Social Network.
2. What does the protagonist want?
“It all boils down to intentions and obstacles: somebody wants something and something is standing in their way of getting it,” Sorkin says.
3. Characters aren’t people, exactly
Molly, as played by Jessica Chastain in Molly’s Game, is a hugely heightened version of the real poker hostess. Steve Jobs isn’t quite Steve Jobs.
4. Show a story, not an agenda
You wouldn’t say there are any lectures in Sorkin’s films. Whether that’s true of The West Wing is another question.
5. Go outside, breathe some air, and open your ears
“Frequently, if I’m really stuck, I’ll go out into a public place – a diner, a bus stop, any place you might overhear a conversation,” he says.
6. Flukes happen
There’s no good reason why The Social Network was a smash and Steve Jobs was a box-office flop. We all rely on luck.
7. Just let the story fly
Sorkin is not the first writer to note that when the script really starts to zing, the characters seem to find a life of their own.
8. Take fresh starts, both on and off the page
Sorkin has claimed that, to reboot his brain, he sometimes takes six showers in a day. It also ensures he has clean armpits.
9. Write like yourself
Some people occasionally criticise Sorkin for always sounding like Sorkin. Whom else would he sound like?
10. Go outside of your comfort zone
Sorkin felt that, by tackling Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, he was finally engaging with a character who had trouble communicating. That was new ground for him.
11. Once again, stick with your voice
So, in other words, Sorkin is doubly insistent that you be yourself, but allows that sometimes you should be somebody else. Make of that what you will.