Aaron Sorkin; Updating The Writer’s Status

Aaron300This week we look at one of the very few screenwriters whose reputation truly precedes them–so much so that Steven Spielberg personally invited him to ‘polish’ the script for Schindler’s List. Sorkin has brought to life legendry TV series The West Wing as well as films including A Few Good Men, and most recently The Social Network. This dramatisation of Mark Zuckerberg’s historic rise to billionaire-dom looks likely to swipe up several Oscars, while Sorkin himself has already secured nominations from The Writers’ Guild of America, and for a Golden Globe.

Recently interviewed by Jeff Goldsmith for Creative Screenwriters’ Magazine, Sorkin spoke candidly about his experience writing such a topical, legally fraught subject as Facebook, and how he pulled it off without getting sued.

Sorkin was less drawn to the rise of Facebook itself than to the story at its core. He didn’t own a Facebook account before writing it, but when his agent sent him the initial treatment for the book ‘The Accidental Billionaires’, Sorkin knew straight away it was a project for him. Sorkin said it was ‘one of the oldest stories ever told; of friendship, power and money, harking back to Shakespeare and beyond.’ Sorkin was fascinated by Mark’s and Eduardo’s determination, because a writer ‘has to stick – like a lifeguard – to intention and obstacle. Writing drama is about [characters] wanting something, and the obstacles that get in their way.’

Sorkin set to work on the script while – bizzarely enough – the novel version was written up simultaneously by Ben Mezrick, independently from the film script. It’s lucky that contracts were all signed in advance, or there might have been legal feuds over the story – wouldn’t that be ironic?

Jeff Goldsmith praised Sorkin for his spectacularly pacy opening, in which the narrative builds up two different time frames and three different perspectives within the first fifteen minutes. Asked how long it took him to write, Sorkin said, ‘once I knew what the scene was about, frankly it took me as long to write as it did to play. But that’s the result of weeks and months of not knowing what to do.’

This kind of labour over just one section is impressive when you consider the full script was 163 pages. But Sorkin said that while the script was long, he and director David Fincher were fortunate to have enough freedom from the studios to take the story in whatever direction they wanted. Aaron could develop his characteristically kinetic dialogue, without making dozens of redrafts based on irritating notes from producers.’

Sorkin added that he wanted the script to be as accurate to the facts as possible, making only occasional allowances where it served the story better. For example, Mark’s blog post in the opening sequence was copied almost verbatim, and dozens of confidential interviews were carried out by Sorkin to build up an accurate overview of all the lawsuits from all angles. With such broad perspective, he was able to present the story from different points of view without straying from the truth.

Naturally, there were legal issues. The names of real people were changed, because ‘you don’t screw around with the lives of real people’. As for the characters, Sorkin believes ‘It will likely be the most accurate impression of who these people are. And if your moral compass is broken, there’s the Sony legal department’. This refers to how ‘the script was vetted to within an inch of its life, with a team of lawyers who couldn’t fit into this theatre. . . I had to prove my research, and if it didn’t satisfy them they would threaten to take it out.’

Asked whether he was ever worried about being sued over his work, Sorkin laughed, saying ‘I was so much less concerned about being sued than a whole bunch of people who know how to hack into my computer putting child porn there.’

Asked about his attitude towards screenwriters, Sorkin said ‘I want writers of movies to have the same relationship to the movies that they write as playwrights have to their plays. I want us to end the festival of self-loathing. It can happen, I promise you. . . but I want The Writers Guild to be better than that.’

Sorkin’s next film project Moneyball will come from Capote director Bennett Miller will not be released until November, so it’s a little early to speculate on. In the mean time we can place bets on whether Sorkin will pick up awards for his numerous Social Network nominations.

Unforunately, you can’t add Sorkin as a friend on Facebook as he deleted his account as soon as the script was finished. It’s nothing personal.