‘STEVE JOBS’ Q&A: Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin On How The Apple Impresario Affected His Life


IMG_1377Preston Barta // Editor

After winning the Academy Award for Best Screenplay in 2011 for THE SOCIAL NETWORK, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin directed his attention back to television with HBO’s THE NEWSROOM. The show featured some of the strongest writing for the tube and made politics interesting for neophytes.

This is the case with most of Sorkin’s penning works. Whether it’s Facebook (THE SOCIAL NETWORK), sports (MONEYBALL, SPORTS NIGHT), politics (THE WEST WING, CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR), or television (STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP), Sorkin can make almost anything stick– and this can be especially said of his latest work, STEVE JOBS.

STEVE JOBS features an unconventional three-part structure centered around Jobs’ biggest press events (the Macintosh, NeXT, and the iMac). Through this particular lens, audiences get a firm understanding of Jobs, how he failed, how he succeeded, and how he took Apple back from a state of near-bankruptcy into the industry giant of today.

Fresh Fiction had the honor of sitting down with Sorkin in Dallas, TX, to discuss his screenplay for STEVE JOBS, the path to production, and how Jobs affected his life.

Aaron Sorkin attends the London Film Critics' Circle Film Awards. Photo courtesy of Rune Hellestad.

Aaron Sorkin attends the London Film Critics’ Circle Film Awards. Photo courtesy of Rune Hellestad.

As a screenwriter when you adapt a book, you seem to take the bones of what it covers and make it your own. Compared to other sources, how vital was Walter Isaacson’s biography for you to write STEVE JOBS?

Aaron Sorkin: “It was incredibly important. It was not only authorized, it was requested. Steve and his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, felt that it was time for a biography to be done of Steve. They went to Walter Isaacson, who’s a very well credentialed journalist. He was the managing editor of Time Magazine. He ran CNN. He had already written acclaimed biographies of Henry Kissinger, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin. When Steve went to him, he first said no. He felt that it was too soon. He wanted Steve to wait ten, fifteen, twenty years until he retired and then Walter would work on the book. Walter did not understand the extent of Steve’s illness at this point, so once they made that clear, Walter then said yes.

Steve gave him complete access to everything. He called all of his friends and colleagues and said, ‘Talk to this man.’ Steve himself gave Walter dozens, if not hundreds of hours, including when Steve was on his death bed. The biography is comprehensive and written by a journalist. I read that several times because I, prior to that, knew next to nothing about Steve Jobs. I knew who he was, obviously. I knew he was the CEO of Apple. I knew a tiny bit about his history and that was it. I owned all the products. Everything I’ve ever written, I’ve written on a Mac, but I never had the same kind of emotional attachment to them that I discovered in my research. Some people do. If you go on Apple fan sites, virtual fistfights will break out over a disagreement about Steve Jobs. Or between the Samsung phone and the iPhone, that kind of thing.

I didn’t want to just dramatize Walter’s biography. I didn’t want it to be a biopic, a cradle to grave story where we land on the character’s greatest hits along the way. ‘Hey Woz (Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder), let’s start a company in my parent’s garage,’ that kind of thing. I doubled back and started talking to many of the people that Walter talked to and then some that he didn’t talk to. For instance, Lisa Jobs did not participate in Walter’s book because her father was alive at the time. John Sculley didn’t participate in Walter’s book because John Sculley really hadn’t spoken to anyone after he left Apple, it was kind of a traumatic experience for him and he went quiet, but he was willing to talk to me.

It was both the facts from Walter’s book and then my own completely subjective inferences from the time that I spent with all of the other people from Lisa to Sculley, to Woz, to Joanna Hoffman, and many, many others that I drew the material that I was going to use for this movie. Like I said, I was not going to write a biopic, I was going to narrow the lens a lot and what I ended up doing was writing a movie that was just in its entirety, three scenes. Three scenes, each of them in real time, meaning that forty minutes for you in the audience is the same as forty minutes on screen and each of those scenes taking place backstage in the moments leading up to one of his product launches.”

I’ve heard you say in other interviews, obviously instead of going after some of the gadgets, the technology and some of the bigger issues that have been talked about before, you wanted to dive into some of the larger truths behind Jobs’ life, personal conflict and things like that.

Sorkin: “Yes. For instance, After spending time with Woz, it felt to me, and again these are subjective opinions, they are inferences. Here’s my very abbreviated take on Woz. He is an extremely kind man who does not want to say a bad word about anyone. Who prides himself on being without ego. All you need to do is spend more than fifteen minutes with him and he will involuntarily begin showing you pain, hurt, anger over Steve getting credit for things that he didn’t necessarily deserve credit for. He’ll start showing you some more, revealing some more honest emotion about what happened at Apple.

What I did was turn those into actual scenes. I had Woz confront Steve on that stuff. Even though those confrontations didn’t take place, the content of those confrontations was honest. Lisa was the only person I ever showed anything to, in the script. Everyone else was going to see it on the screen. We offered them private screenings. We weren’t going to make them watch it with a group of people. Lisa, who I had become friendly with, started emailing me saying, ‘I just hope I’m not weak in the movie. I just hope I’m not weak in the movie.’ I kept assuring her, God, even the five year old version of you isn’t weak in the movie. Finally, I sent her the speech that the nineteen year old Lisa gives to her father, where she tells him off, and it ends with that thing that looks like Judy Jetson’s easy bake oven. I sent her that speech and she wrote back and said, ‘God, if only I had said that to him.’ That’s what I mean by the bigger truth. The fact that she never had that confrontation was unimportant. The fact that that conflict emotionally existed between the two of them was more important to me and something I wanted to dramatize.”

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs in STEVE JOBS. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Michael Fassbender as Steve Jobs in STEVE JOBS. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Were there times when putting the movie together and writing, did it ever occur to you, man, this is a pretty raw portrayal of Jobs? Were you ever tempted to throw in some things to make him appear nicer behind closed doors?

Sorkin: “Not like that, not like I should throw in some things to make him nicer. If we care about him, if we’re rooting for him, even just root for him to become nicer, the way for instance if you are watching MR. MAGOO’s CHRISTMAS CAROL. Ebeneezer Scrooge may be a not very nice guy but you are watching because you believe that this story is going to reward patience and that by the end the ghosts will have done their job and that come Christmas morning he’s going to be saying, ‘You there, boy. Go get the biggest goose in the whole land.’ As long as we are interested in him, that’s fine with me. I do believe in this movie he has softer moments that you don’t have to wait until the end of the movie for.

For instance, when Lisa (Makenzie Moss) makes the painting on the Mac, Steve (Michael Fassbender) is struck by something. He doesn’t know what it is, but the rest of us do. Certainly anyone who is a parent whose kid has brought home from art class something that they made with crayons, and to you this is better than a Monet and you put it up on the refrigerator and you are showing it to all of his friends. That just happened to Steve. He’s been denying this whole time, this is not my daughter and then she makes this thing, not only makes a painting, but does it on this thing that he invented. His line is, ‘You used MAC paint.’ He’s experiencing that moment of my kid did it. He’s feeling like a father. Those are moments we can all empathize with that make him likable.

I’ll give you another one. In the argument with Woz (Seth Rogen) in the third act. Woz says, ‘I don’t believe there is anyone who has done more to advance the democratization that comes with personal computing than I have. Yet, you’ve never had any respect for me. Now, why is that?’ Steve said, ‘I would at least consider the possibility that’s because you’ve never had any for me.’ All of a sudden we start to see that things about him which could have easily been written off as just, well, he’s just a nasty guy, aren’t necessarily always that. It’s because he’s experienced a certain amount of pain himself and that, you Woz, might be wrong.

Again in his last scene with Sculley (Jeff Daniels), Sculley has accused him of killing the Newton out of spite. At the end of the scene, he said, ‘John, it was the stylist. If you are holding a stylist in your hand, you can’t use the other five that are attached to your wrist.’ That moment is there for two reasons. One, it shows the difference between Steve Jobs and John Sculley in terms of vision, imagination, the way they are able to see. The other is it gives Steve a chance to say, ‘You know not everything I do, I do because I am a jerk. Maybe you only think I’m being a jerk because I’ve got 20/20 vision and you wear bifocals and you weren’t able to see that the stylist is an unnecessary detour and the next thing is touch pad technology.'”

How did your feelings for him change after learning all that you did? Did you develop feelings about him and how he interpreted things?

Sorkin: “I did. I developed a lot of feelings. It’s never really clear to me whether I am developing feelings about the real person or about the character that I’ve been writing. After a very short time, it becomes a character that I’m working on. I am not thinking about the real person that much. If you are writing a character like this, like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, it’s very important that you don’t judge them. I have to be able to defend them. I like to write the character as if they are making their case to God why they should be allowed into heaven. Like the examples that I just gave, direct examination it seems like I’m a jerk, but on cross examination maybe I’m not as much as of a jerk as it seemed. In order to do that, in order to be able to defend the character, I have to find things in that character. I have to be able to identify with the character, find the things in that character that are like me.”

L-R: Fassbender as Jobs, Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

L-R: Fassbender as Jobs, Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak. Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures.

There’s a line from the film that I was drawn to and it was “it’s not binary– you can be both gifted and decent at the same time.”

Sorkin: “Right.”

Do you believe in that? Do you think that a gifted person can be able to put down their tools of creation to focus on what matters, whether it’s family or friends? Do you think you could do that if you felt like you were writing your best work and, I don’t know, maybe your relationship with your daughter or your family, do you think you could say, I’m going to put this away?

Sorkin: “Well, that’s a great question to ask and I hope that’s a question people are asking themselves after they see the movie. In my case, I wouldn’t know, not being a genius. I can tell you this, except for my daughter I do get pretty single minded when I am writing something. It is really all I’m thinking about when I’m brushing my teeth, when I’m driving, when I’m walking around, when I’m having a conversation with someone else, I’m really only half there. I am thinking about this other thing. As I said, with the exception of my daughter, when I’m with her, it’s just a different experience. As much as I love writing, if I had a gun to my head, if I had to pick one of the two, obviously I’d pick being her father. I don’t have to make that choice, so I’m grateful for that.

I think that sometimes, especially in my field, in the arts, that what you’ve just described is used as an excuse for bad behavior. You’ll find an actor on a set behaving badly and being a little bit crazy, hoping that people are just chalking it up to, well, he’s an eccentric genius. You’d better be really talented to get away with that behavior, super talented to get away with that behavior, otherwise you are just a pain in the neck.”

This film went through some production issues when you submitted the original draft. It had David Fincher and Christian Bale on board, but then they had some scheduling conflicts among other things. Then, Danny Boyle and Michael Fassbender came on. Were you at any point nervous as to how your script might potentially change from when you submitted it to when it went to post production? Did you have a say in what changes were made?

Sorkin: “Yes, I can’t be rewritten and I can’t be fired. Any changes that are made, I am going to change them. I am also around for that. I don’t write things that are meant to be read, I write things that are meant to be performed. When I’m done writing the script, I’m not done. We now have to make the movie, make the episode of television, do the play. No, I wasn’t nervous about that. I wasn’t even nervous about oh-oh, is this whole thing going to fall apart and get made. I’ll be honest, relatively speaking, this movie had a smooth path to the screen. The only difference is that most of the time, North Korean terrorists don’t hack into the studio that is making the movie revealing all kinds of emails to the public.”

STEVE JOBS is playing now in limited release, and opens wide tomorrow.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.