For Aaron Sorkin, his journey with Steve Jobs started about two weeks after the beloved founder of Apple died in 2011.
“It was a coincidence that I worked on two tech types (Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” and Steve Jobs) in a row,” Sorkin said, after a packed opening weekend screening at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills.
As the closing credits rolled, Sorkin walked down the aisle of the theater to a standing ovation from his fellow scribes and onto the stage, where he was interviewed by film critic Pete Hammond.
“When Steve Jobs died, he was eulogized globally and I wondered what it was about him that was like John Lennon. I read Walter Isaacson’s book over and over again and started writing. I didn’t want to do a cradle to grave biopic,” Sorkin said about the movie, which stars Michael Fassbender as Jobs, Seth Rogen as Steve Wozniak and Kate Winslet as Jobs aide Joanna Hoffman.
Hammond asked about how the three act structure, set in 1984, 1988 and 1998, where all of the exposition takes place as Jobs is preparing for Apple product launches in San Francisco and Cupertino.
“I thought it would be an intention and an obstacle. I like claustrophobic spaces and a ticking clock. Those were beautiful palaces in San Francisco and Cupertino that introduced the obstacles in his life. I had written [producer] Scott Rudin to help me take this idea and make it more palatable to the studio. He said no, leave it like it is, and [Sony’s] Amy Pascal said yes.”
Sorkin got a lot of background information from meeting with Lisa Jobs, Jobs’ daughter, who didn’t talk to Isaacson and said that former Apple CEO John Scully (played by Jeff Daniels) was also willing to talk to him, which made him clear about the emotional center of the story.
“I spent time with Steve Wozniak, who doesn’t want to say a bad word about Jobs, but little slivers of anger came through. I found more with Joanna Hoffman and within the second hour of speaking with her, knew that there was a little girl, Lisa, out there. It was a great role for Kate Winslet. She even had her husband get her three dark wigs in different lengths and sent photos to us. We were never going for a physical resemblance. It was simply when Kate Winslet wants the role, you say sure.”
Like any film based upon the life of a real person, there are questions—and criticism-- about the factual content of the movie.
“It’s not traditional,” Sorkin said. “No one was ever in any rooms. Peter Morgan wasn’t in the room with the Queen and he wasn’t there with David Frost and Richard Nixon. The scene with Nixon drunk-dialing Frost – Morgan wasn’t there but it was the implied truth. Even if a writer was in every room, there’s a difference between journalism and art. We elevate it. People don’t speak in dialogue. An artist’s job is to be subjective.”
Sorkin said the most surprising thing he learned about Jobs was that he denied paternity of his daughter.
“It was hard for me to get past that, being a father myself to a daughter. But it was Lisa who helped me fly right into the teeth of it. I kept hearing about the adults in her life. She doesn’t seem to be damaged and that really struck me. I don’t get emotional about the products. There are tech fans who wonder why there is no iPhone or iPod here. I chose moments, in 1984, 1988 and 1998. What I get emotional about is the father and daughter relationship and the relationship with his partner, his boss and their friendship. I also understood how Steve had the ability to get people emotional about products. My hypothesis was that Steve felt damaged but had the ability to make products that people were going to like.”
During the screening at the Telluride Film Festival, a member of the audience yelled out “Sorkin!” after the end of the second act. Sorkin just happened to be in the theater although usually it is his practice to pace around outside.
“At first I thought I was under arrest,” he said about the shout-out, which was a tribute to the brilliant dialogue coming out of the character’s mouths. “Most of the people who knew Steve and who have seen the movie have been supportive. It announces itself as a painting. It’s not a photo. It’s impressionistic. I haven’t met anyone who’s been confused about that.”
Shooting on location added about $8 million to the $24 million budget. Sony wanted to shoot it somewhere with tax credits, and in short order-- and as detailed in the hacked Sony emails-- Universal picked up the film.
“It was very important for director Danny Boyle to shoot where we did. Amy Pascal argued with us about that. She gave it to us for a week, and Universal picked it up the next day. Amy regretted that and wanted it back,” Sorkin said. “I feel kind of bad about it because Sony had developed it and Amy has taken a lot of punches.”
Hammond asked about the theme, which he sees as what it’s like to be a man.
“In this case, the question is whether genius and decency are in opposition. Unless you’re curing cancer, choose decency,” said Sorkin. “It’s about vision, revenge and triumph in each of the three acts.”
He discussed the score, which ended up to be nearly wall-to-wall, and the fact that Boyle shot the three segments differently, first in 16mm, then 35mm and then digital. Sorkin credited Boyle as a visual genius who added images of Bob Dylan and Skylab when they were discussed on screen. Boyle also insisted on two weeks of rehearsal for each act before shooting it and then going back to rehearsal mode, shooting and then back to rehearsal before filming the final act, an expensive process that is not the norm in filmmaking.
An audience member asked about Isaacson’s book and Sorkin explained that Jobs requested him to write the biography. “At first he turned it down, but he didn’t know how sick Steve was until he was told. Jobs’ wife said not to pull any punches. Steve called all of his friends to participate and he spent 100 hours with Walter. He is a journalist, he wanted to give us the facts and not a central thesis. He was very helpful to me. But there’s a difference between journalism, biography and a biopic.”